Radical Education Reform? Think Bigger.

April 2, 2012
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(This article was first published on Gage Theory, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

“My job is to teach you how to think.” –Hugh Young

A few days ago John Naughton published an article summarizing his manifesto on how to reform computer science education. I agree computer science education is in need of drastic changes and appreciate his approach. What’s the problem then? The scope is all wrong. The state of computer science education is a symptom of the problem. The issue is our entire approach to education. For radical education reform, we need to think bigger.

What the hell does it mean to be educated anyway? The myth of IQ has been thoroughly debunked by multiple people and anyone who cares about education should know that by now. That’s not to say educational testing, done properly, is without merit. Of course it has merit! How else can we tell what someone has learned? The point is the idea that a student undertakes a linear march to being a “more intelligent” person is nonsense.

Ken Robinson has famously discussed the failings of an “assembly line” education at length and John Naughton follows a similar line of reasoning. Where I take issue with both of them is they stop too soon. Ken is clearly most concerned about the impact of this approach on creativity and art while John sees the issues it causes in computer science. Ken goes deeper with his pleas on the importance of divergent thinking/lateral thinking, but from the very small amount of Ken Robinson’s work I’ve experienced these concepts wind up feeling a little toothless. There’s a lot of discussion on the ideology of how to promote creativity, but not much time on what is practical or how one gets in between “creativity” and something useful. I’m sure he would say I’m missing the point, but it feels like a South Park underpants gnomes moment “Creativity -> ? -> Profit!” (I hope Sir Ken Robinson never reads this.)

I’m all for creativity and I’m all for practicality. Creativity and pragmatism are not competing educational philosophies. The greatest education is to teach someone how to think. This is important to me, so I’ll say it again. We cannot get wrapped up in the window dressing of subjects, fields, divergent thinking, and creativity – they’re all connected. The greatest education is to teach someone how to think.

Physicists have been teaching people how to think for hundreds of years. It is a skill that can be learned. After my Father, I credit Hugh Young for being the person most responsible for my ability to think. The most dramatic moment of my entire education was the first morning of Physical Analysis when he proclaimed, “Welcome to Physical Analysis. My job is to teach you how to think.”

Then he began. That was it. As you’d guess the course was heavy on the critical thinking end of the spectrum, but to assume because it was a physics course that it did not require creativity and divergent thinking is absolutely wrong. Although my examples tend to come from the science-y side of things, you don’t have to spend long reading a book like Nathan Yau’s “Visualize This”, the correspondence between MC Escher and Polya, or “Godel, Escher, and Bach” itself to get a deep feeling of how related science, music, and art are. It’s our own confusion that separates the fields, not the nature of the work itself.

To show how deeply entrenched the confusion about thinking and education is, let me go back to Hugh Young. I cherish my copy of “University Physics”. It is the de facto standard introduction to physics that Hugh Young took over from Sears and Zemansky. It is a book I love. With my devotion to the book established, I have to tell you – it is a terrible introduction to physics. It contains none of the sweeping joy and creative challenges Dr. Young posed in his lectures and problem sets in Physical Analysis. It is a cookbook of physics (to echo Ken Robinson) that teaches 1 way to solve a problem. With the exception of maybe a handful of challenge problems in the book, everything you need to know to solve a problem is there in the book along with a method for the answer. Real problem solving never works like that. It’s a fantastic reference for engineering a solution to a problem and a great way to re-learn something you once knew, but it’s weak on exploration and discovery*. Lots of high school and college students are exposed to “University Physics”. In comparison, almost none had the pleasure of Physical Analysis with Hugh Young.

Anyone who’s spent some time in math or science has probably heard of George Polya’s book “How to Solve It.” It’s routinely praised as being a fantastic treatise on problem solving. Specifically it goes over the process of problem solving and general techniques that can be applied. If you have a PhD in math or physics you’ve probably read it. The book is clear and helpful. But who actually teaches it? As far as I know, there are very few Universities who make it a mandatory part of any curriculum. At best it’s a book given a sincere and ringing endorsement by a professor, “You have to read this book. It’s amazing.” It reminds me of Herbert Simon’s “Sciences of the Artificial” in that way. It is a book worshipped by those who “know” that concentrates on how to think about thinking – but has never made large inroads to the general public.

Now for my applause. Hugh Young figured out how to teach it. George Polya figured out how to teach it. John Naughton “gets it”. Ken Robinson gets it. We are born with the ability to think. We have the ability to teach how to think. The idea that you must know how to create a perspective drawing to be an artist is as silly as the idea that you have to know trigonometry to be a scientist. We don’t need a 26 year assembly line of education and be crowned a “doctor” to have a useful original thought. Art, music, history, English, science, and math are all methods of experience and expression. We don’t need humans to be machines, duplicating work that’s already been done. We need people to do what machines can’t – think.

*Mea culpa: Of course, I’m biased by my personal experience. I was a sh*t physics student. I loved being in the lab and I hated class.

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