Sunday, December 17, 2006

Richard Feynman on Schooling

Via, physicist Richard Feynman talked about the state of schooling in 1985. What has changed, I wonder?

From U.S. News & World Report:

"I sometimes feel that it would be much better not to educate our children in such subjects as mathematics and science. If we left youngsters alone, there would be a better chance that, by accident, the kids would find a good book - or an old textbook - or a television program that would excite them. But when youngsters go to school, they learn that these subjects are dull, horrible and impossible to understand. When I went to school, I didn't learn that math and science were dull because I knew before I got there that they were interesting. All I saw was that they were dull in school. But I knew better".

I once sat in a committee in California that chose new schoolbooks for the state. The books said things that were useless, mixed up, ambiguous, confusing and partially incorrect. How anybody could learn science from these books, I don't know.

What happens often is that state bodies decide what ought to be in the curriculum on the basis of what so-called experts think. This has a tremendous influence on publishers, who want their books to cover every single item on the suggested list. Publishers try very hard to follow what states want, and in the end, the books are poor. They don't try to make subjects easier to understand. They try to make it easier to know what to do to pass the test and please the
teacher. They are involved in making sure that certain items are understood by children so that they can go on to the next course, which is designed in exactly the same way.

Someday people will look back at our age and they will think: "My goodness, how they tortured their children! Year after year they went to these schools every day for hours. yet look how easy it is to teach. But they didn't know how to do it back then."

I certainly witnessed the truth of his first paragraph yesterday. I noticed a friend of mine (who had left school with no scientific qualifications at all and absolutely no previous mention of any interest in science) had slipped away from the general conversation. I went looking for her and discovered her in the next room buried in the heavy article in the New Scientist - the one that I often start out reading and then think..."OK...yada, yada" and then skip to the conclusion, but she was taking it in word for word. When she sensed I was there, she looked up as if still completely absorbed by the article and then shook her head as if to bring herself round, but then only came up with a look of complete bewilderment..."That's amazing" she announced. "This is fascinating, and I am fascinated! How strange is that!"

Looks as if Dr Feynman was right in this regard but on another point he made, my guess is that many textbooks have, over the last decade or so, got a bit better at presenting their subjects clearly and that most do make an effort to be easy as possible to understand. I'd bet that this has much more to do with competition in the publishing market than anything to do with the National Curriculum which, because of it's one size fits all mentality, merely means that many of these books still risk being boring.

What seems to me to be a pretty intractable, though less publicized, problem for the school system is that text books are, of course, still prone to error which actually would not matter a jot if teachers were able to acknowledge this fact. It would matter even less if teachers were able to acknowledge their own potential for fallibility but it seems that this is sadly largely impossible since schools run the risk of anarchy and confusion if pupils were to be fully genned up on the fact that there teachers could be wrong. Yet an awareness of the potential for fallibility in apparently established structures is a fundamental precept of scientific and philosophical thinking. School children risk missing out on this completely. They do not see the principle of fallibility being modelled by those in positions of power. They risk learning that the truth has nothing to do with what really is out there, and everything to do with having the power to dictate what others should believe to be the truth.

This for me, is one huge area of benefit of home educating. A home educating parent can admit to being wrong or not knowing since she/he doesn't have a classroom of kids to control.

Of course the other problem with schooling that unquestionably persists since well before 1985 is the sheer cumbersome nature of it - having to teach 30 children of differing learning needs all at the same time. Even if they every pupil had identical needs, a teacher still has the problem of managing the class. This fact was brought home to us yesterday when we received a handwriting pack through the door. It contained some lesson plans for Key Stage 2. (ie: Ds's age). These lessons were meant to last 45 mins or so. Ds and I actually covered the information contained in the lesson in three minutes flat. Most of plan involved managing the class in complex and lengthy manoevers which only resulted in the demonstration of a very small point. You couldn't help but conclude that this was an enormous waste of everyone's time and it certainly added weight in my mind to the old home educating truism about the efficency of personalized learning and that home educators can do in ten minutes the equivalent of a whole days work at school.

HT: Eliot


Anonymous said...

The 45 minute lesson you had *would* have only contained 3 minutes of information. Most of a lesson is devoted to reinforcement of the facts in a variety of ways so that they stick for a test later in the term and ultimately in an exam. You have to admit that we don't necessarily remember something we've read through in 3 this has some logic somewhere - even if it a poor way to learn.

I think that what I find most objectionable in the current text books for children is how ALL information is packaged into bitesize, simplified chunks with the intention of being a yardstick to measure the child's success in reproducing material he needs to know just to pass an exam and make the school look good. There is simply no room in a lesson any more for passion for the subject or lateral thinking or even to get lost in that tantalising mist of confusion (that I remember) that creates mystery and the sense of adventure when one ultimately achieves clarity.


Anonymous said...

i LOVE feynmann ! he has other fans on AEUK as well


Becky said...

I plan on leaving lots of Feynman strewn around the house for the youngsters to stumble across and claim as their own discoveres once they're old enough to appreciate him : )