Teaching students stuff vs. teaching them to think

February 14, 2009 at 6:42 am 3 comments

In his excellent column in this month’s The Scientist Steven Wiley touches upon an extremely important subject. Against his intuition and in accordance with his scritical_thinkerstudents’ suggestions, he and his colleagues decided to design a cell biology course aimed at teaching the attendees to critically analyze available information rather than teaching them bare facts. Information overload is typically a major source of whining and ranting among the student population, so the author reasoned that the students would be delighted to finally do away with rota memorization and all-nighters before the exam. And the students… well, the students totally hated it! Steven goes on to describe the reasons why the students were dissatisfied with such a seemingly perfect solution, so check out his full article, but I want to talk about something else: the utter absurdity of trying to teach people to think.

I keep wondering what the hell is wrong with all the wackaloons in charge of today’s education. Starting from elementary school, they force curricula which treat the human brain like some kind of a delicate instrument which, God forbid should ever be overloaded with information. They put emphasis on understanding rather than knowing, on the assumption that in the age of the Internet, information is so readily available that there is no need to actually study and memorize it. That’s complete and utter nonsense!!! How much time do you need to invoke some thoroughly learned fact from your memory? Milliseconds? Maybe a couple of seconds? How much time do you need to look this fact up on the Internet? Minutes, maybe even dozens of minutes, or possibly hours if you don’t have your computer with you or the nearest hotspot is a few miles away. Humans need information to think – the organic microprocessor inside of their skulls cannot function without any data. And asking it to look stuff up on the Internet all the time is like running a computer off of a hard drive with minimal or no RAM (excuse my digital analogy) – it just ain’t gonna work.

The flipside of this is the ludicrous idea that people can actually be taught to think. I mean, we are called Homo sapiens for goodness’ sake! Thinking is in our f..ing job description! The IQ is supposed to be immutable, right? True, there is a rise in IQ accross generations, the so called Flynn effect (see interesting discussion here), but AFAIK nobody questions the fact that after the age of 10 or so the IQ stays more or less on the same level. Meaning, some people will just stay dumb no matter how much we try to make them smarter, and some will be brilliant, no matter how many bare facts we throw at them. Granted, some notion of the scientific method and data analysis should be a part of the college curriculum, but that should be separate courses, not substitutes for fact memorization.

I will end on a personal note. I have TAed a college pharmacology course for a couple of years, and what I learned from that experience is the following: (1) What students appreciate most in their teachers is not their laxness, but their competence and their efforts to make the course interesting and informative. (2) There is almost no limits to what a willing student can learn if pushed hard enough. So next time you teach a course, make their brains steam with effort, but do it in a fun way, and they will love you for it.


Entry filed under: Philosophy of science. Tags: , , , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ruth Hewitt  |  August 18, 2009 at 8:56 am

    Would it be possible for me to use your cartoon in a handbook for postgraduate students (trainee teachers)?
    Many schools in England are now providing timetabled lessons in ‘thinking skills’.

  • 2. niewiap  |  August 18, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    Actually I think it is a New Yorker cartoon, so I don’t think you can use it legally for any commercial purpose. I am not even sure it is legal for me to put it up on my blog, but it was so relevant to my post I simply couldn’t resist it.

  • 3. Marci Segal  |  November 7, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    Your personal learnings are poignant. Wonder if the principles could be applied to workers, as in

    (1) What emplyees appreciate most in their leaders, bosses, etc. is not their laxness, but their competence and their efforts to make the work interesting and informative. (2) There is almost no limit to what a willing employee can learn if pushed hard enough. So next time you assign a task, lead a team, make their brains steam with effort, and do it in a fun way. They will love you for it and be engaged in accomplishing miracles.

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