Unexpected? Yup. This topic wasn’t even remotely on my mind today, but I just read an interesting article on Dr. Steven Novella’s blog, Neurologica about science education and literacy, as well as the comments it inspired. I was going to comment there, but I realized that what I want to say may not be directly applicable and is certainly longer-winded than a good blog comment should be. So here I go!
As many of you know, I used to teach college-level computer science courses, and I regularly had students asking me why they needed to understand a topic called linked lists (I was teaching Systems Analysis, not programming, but the students valued my opinion). At first, I told them that this was because linked lists, and in particular, doubly linked lists are a rudimentary form of a relational database, and once you understand the concept at a finer point, databases become easier. But I started to realize that this was the same as the classic high school mathematics question, “When am I ever going to use trigonometry?”
So one day I brought that up. I was stunned to see most of the class make that “Yeah, that trig stuff is soooooo dumb” face. I said, “You want the answer? You’ll probably never use trigonometry.” Pause for effect, and I continue. “You’ll probably never use trigonometry, but learning complicated math concepts uses parts of your brain that you need for creative problem solving. With music, nobody honestly believes someone could pick up a violin and instinctively know how to play it like a champ; you have to practice. This is how you practice learning how to solve complicated problems. And that skill, my darlings, you will use every day for the rest of your life. Better to get your practice in now.”
I think by and large we forget that teaching kids topics is very often not about the topic itself, but about the exercise of learning. Most of our public education system is aimed at teaching to the test, and I would venture that a great deal of our post-secondary does the same thing. This is a true let-down to the students, especially the current generation who see no value in knowing anything when Google can already tell you the answer.
And yeah, I couldn’t resist the picture.