you ought to be thinking like me

So as part of my ongoing campaign to read everything except for what I’m actually supposed to be reading, I subscribe to a variety of CS teacher blogs. This blog post wandered across my radar by talking about what useful stuff all students can learn from science education. Not that this is a topic I am unfamiliar with. I have read many an persuasive, impassioned essay about how subject X teaches you important skills that will revolutionize your life. Or how it would, frequently, if people only taught it properly.

I have decided this argument is a bit off. Even though, by and large, it is presented to me by a variety of important smart and passionate people who no doubt have more teaching in their left pinkie toe than I have in my whole body. I like these important smart passionate people, and by-and-large I am down with their various educational goals methods and crusades.

But I challenge everyone to give me a subject, that if studied deeply, will not give people revolutionary habits of thought. If you ask the clerk in your local indie record store, I feel confident he will swear to you that his music had helped him think in different better ways that anyone could benefit from. If you were to watch all 11,430+ episodes of that profoundly philosophical TV series General Hospital, I feel confident that you could write a book entitled “Everything I really need to know I learned from General Hospital”. I think it’s just a natural characteristic of learning that learning something new changes the way you approach the world.

Now I’m not certain what General Hospital has to teach us. And maybe science does make a more “informative, resourceful, and creative human being”. But is there a subject we’re currently teaching in schools that could not be supposed to teach something similar? Certainly science will teach you something different than reading the great classics of western literature. But if you were to ask which one was more useful, I think you’re assuredly going to get yourself into a fight which each side claiming how much subject X changed their life.

What annoys me most here is that this argument is happening almost completely over the heads of students. When we talk about turning these lofty goals into teaching methods they become insidiously implicit: a learner might think he’s playing a simple video game, but in fact this game might be designed to teach him to think or talk or act in a specific way. There’s nothing more subversive than that. And yet rarely do you see a teacher try to “sell” this idea to students: knowledge is almost always presented as if it were just picking up generic “facts” and “skills” that will help you up the road.

Not that I think we should ought be teaching generic facts and skills with no hidden agenda. Education is about changing people and I think people want to be changed – we should be upfront about our goals though. And when we’re talking about curriculum change, we should realize that just saying subject X teaches some blandly good thing like “problem solving” or “creativity” is really saying nothing in particular. What kind of creativity and what cool things is that gonna do?

One Comment

  1. Matt says:

    There’s no field of study that’s completely separable from everything else — electrical engineering, for example, has a social and historical context, as well as implications for everyday life.

    These implications can cause a dizzying change in perspective. It’s not just that transistor theory explains why your computer computes, but that glass is transparent because it has a real-valued relative permittivity!

    All of which is to say that I agree with your point. Whenever you look deeply enough into a subject, you gain a better understanding of the rest of the world. The most abstruse field of study, even perhaps of General Hospital, can make you smarter about everything else. (Though in the case of General Hospital, you might learn only that soap operas have a total of 9 plot elements that they reuse across thousands of episodes.)

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