Monday, 4 June 2012

Education. It's all about Understanding Things

A few years ago I had the privelege of visiting several hunderd schools in a local authority. I don't think the local authority was any different from any other local authority, but I was struck by the 'sameness' of what they were teaching.

I had the opportunity to look at what people were doing in class projects and themes - - and it was appalling.

I'm not a historical expert on WW2, but I know a lot about it, enough to know that what was being taught in Secondary and Junior schools was absolute garbage.

Every school you went into had the same script, the same projects, the same  totally distorted view. It wasn't the fault of the kids. It was the fault of the teachers who had clearly never read a single serious book on WW2.

It was all about 'class projects' and teaching largely irrelevant facts without actually understanding what it was all about.

This was in EVERY school - not the slighest expression of orginality or thought  from the teachers. They just rigidly followed the script.

There was an originality in how they taught. The projects were presented in different ways, classes were doing different things like role-playing, visting places, talking to old people etc, but the content of what they were teaching was all the same.

The teachers themselves never questioned the material they were given or worked with. If they weren't questioning or attempting to understand what they were doing what hope was there for the children they were teaching?

This isn't a criticism of the teaching profession it's really a statement about society. Most people have no wish or desire to understand what they are doing or why they're doing it.

As a young man I  made the assumption that people were always  trying to understand things. It came as a shock when I went to university and discovered that most people were focused on learning everything by rote. They didn't want to understand.

I was a bit of a weirdo, and used to browse the library looking for interesting books. I would read anything. Books on psychology, the Second World War, the arts and crafts movement and occasionally books on subject area I was studying. I was interested in learning.

That's not the way the majority of people did things  then or now. They're interested in passing the exams and the idea of learning outside of that is seen as redundant.  People go all the way through university and never browse the library for a book outside their subject field. What an absolute waste. What a total defeat of the university system.

It gets worse, in my generation there were books to read. They are still there, but if you go around a modern university library you'll discover that no one is actually reading the books. The students have forgotten how to read them.  They are doing most if not all of there coursework on the Internet. The Internet is a great source of facts but  it's no good at showing the evolution or development of an idea or the linkage or connections between ideas.

The Internet isolates facts from context.

JE Gordon's book, "the New Science of Strong Materials" was a brilliant book, not because it had anything new to say about engineering but because it drew so many different threads - science, engineering, art, and history ltogether. Students are losing that ability, and it's the fault of our education system, which focuses on narrow knowledge not broad. Pass the examination, study for the examination and don't look further than the piece of paper at the end.

This is what children learn in school and it is what teachers teach children and students when they graduate.

Previous generations were different. Francis Crick of Watson and Crick and the DNA double Helix started his career in science as designer of naval munitions.

How many modern  research biochemistry students have a background in say guided weapons or radar techology?

Nowadays if you ask an engineering student what the differences between art deco and art nouveau is you just a blank face. Similarly if you ask an arts student about beam the theory or how concrete is made they will think you have lost your mind. They might begin to understand if you explain to them that Roman classical architecture is  made of concrete. It was the limitations of material that was strong in compression and week in tension that defined the form.

Art is not something seperate from chemistry and engineering. Van Gogh had to know about pigment chemistry in order to mix his paints.

We develop and grow as individuals and as a society when we can string ideas and experiences from many different threads and weave together to form strong rope.

This ability to weave things together is rare and our education system does not encourage it.

If you are  university lecturer or teacher you might is try this - set your students a 'random' or unexpected essay. Biochemistry lectures set and essay with the title 'The Battle of Midway - Why did the Americans Win? History lecturers might try 'C4 Plant Metabolish and How it Effects Society' And the Art History teachers might try 'Roman Engineering - The Structural Properties of Concrete'.

Your talented students - the ones who are not learning by rote - will shine. 

No comments:

Post a Comment