Science is the future. In case you haven't noticed. Just this last week we've seen people set up an interplanetary internet, merge nanotech with brain tissue and release plans for a space elevator. The only thing we really know about the future is that we don't know what the hell it's going to be like, outside of "incredible." So why are we preparing our kids for the past?
For a new generation of graduate students the internet is an invaluable resource, a telephone, newsreel and the biggest reference in the world all in one. But in many schools, where the internet is acknowledged at all it is painted as an evil source of cheating and laziness. The problem is that kids are smart: for all its problems the internet is the greatest informational archive ever created, and if you tell a kid that using it is wrong then that kid is going to file you under "lying or stupid" and ignore everything you say.
The internet presents a problem because much "education" is based around rote learning and the scoring thereof. We all know it. Grades, entrance exams, SATs IQs and bell curves - the fundamental assumption that there's a right, a wrong, and anything outside of the syllabus is useless to you. How can you be tested if you can just pull up the "right" answer with a keyboard?
The problem is doubly false because most of the stuff you learn in the syllabus is going to be useless anyway. We asked a 100% representative cross-section of "people we met" how often they used the half-angle formula last week, and the results weren't great. (And those who did admitted to googling it.)
We're not dismissing the basic physics, maths and other essentials instilled in the young in schools around the country. Those things are necessary for anyone wanting to proceed in the sciences, but the method in which they're taught leaves students hideously unprepared for what comes after. High scoring students are often high scoring because they've excelled in the rote learning, cramming and the application of set formula which the school system encourages. They then find themselves in a research lab being presented with a bunch of equipment and notes with the instructions "Do something with that." and sink or swim. Many make it, but we submit that they survive and develop independent ability despite their high school training, not because of it.
You could argue that the battery of education and tests forces the children to learn to think and work. Which is true as far as it goes, but you have to remember that the young are wonderfully adaptive and will indeed work to surmount the challenges you've placed before them - not necessarily the challenge you meant to set. We all remember discussing which subjects would come up on the exam, which problem sheets were worth marks and which exercises could be skipped. And which were those? Anything creative, anything without a set answer or anything termed "extra reading" had a bonus mark or two at most - while 100% marks could be obtained by applying theformulae from page seventy-six.
For all its repression of individuality, this isn't an evil Big Brother system designed to thwart creativity. Far from it. Some science teachers do whatever they can to foster the sparks of soul inside the institution, but the fact remains its a massive task which is woefully underfunded. Students are graded because that's the only way one teacher can deal with hundreds of students. Exams are enforced because we need to scale the education some way, and essay-type creative questions take longer to mark than the teaching assistants are paid for. Bell curves are enforced to prevent people complaining - so to avoid accusations of unfairness, we enforce an unfair weighting.
Some people call for a radical redesign of the educational institution, which is nice, and while we're at it we'd like to call for a cure to cancer and if everyone could stop fighting too that'd be just super. Such work is vital, incredibly so, and a proper education overhaul could lead to a renaissance of an entire culture - but those in power simply won't be here in fifty years to feel the benefits, which is why education is often the first to fall when the budget cut axe comes crashing down. San Diego calculus teacher Tom Farber has been forced to place ads on exams to cover their printing costs - how can anyone educate without a budget?
What can we do? That's what we'd like to ask you, the Galaxy readers. How can creativity be fostered in the next generation, while still providing a useful education? What is a useful education, anyway - is it the ability to recite formulae, or the ability to understand a new one? How can one learn enough science to proceed to Professor status while maintaining enough creativity to be useful once you do?
Posted by Luke McKinney
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