New Perspectives on Students – Part 4

by gwilson on May.27, 2009, under Uncategorized

yodaIf this were TV, I’d post a “cliff-hanger” and then not say another word on the subject until “next season”.  This isn’t TV. 

In my last post, I promised that I would resolve the issues covered so far:  the need to graduate more citizens with knowledge and interest in science and math, the crisis we see in STEM education, the changing student and stagnant faculty, and how technology has contributed to the problems observed.  I tried to convince you that there must be a better way to teach if we are ever going to reconnect with the students who are so quickly and unfairly dismissed as “not cut out for science”.  My promise was that this “finale” would chart out a new approach that we know works!  You’ll have to be the final judge on how I did.  And I must admit that, just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, this solution will take two posts to fully explain in a convincing manner.

I have to preface the following by saying one major concession has to be made by faculty and programs to make this work.  It is to recognize that it is far better to know a few things well than everything poorly.  I’m afraid the curriculum for many a science course and major has turned out to be a mile wide (and growing rapidly) and an inch deep, totally unacceptable for providing a deep and abiding knowledge that works for a student in the world they will enter.  What is taught and how we teach represent the two prongs to building a successful science program.

So, how do we start?  Yoda would pop up right now and say:  “All is unknowable; unknowable is all!” 

“All is unknowable.”   We cannot know everything because scientific information is already too vast to master and increasing at a logarithmic rate.  So why does it make sense to perform intellectual hazing by starting today’s students off to do what we cannot do ourselves?  Why give students a taste of everything and call it a meal?  Today’s productive scientists limit themselves to deep knowledge in one area.  Generalists in any science discipline are not particularly useful individuals.  Their idea of “smarts” is Jeopardy knowledge that does not serve an employer, a profession, or an industry well.  A company could always save a paycheck by using technology to retrieve facts and figures 24/7.  Put your money instead into those who can use their brains to put their knowledge and skills to work.  General knowledge is helpful in critical thought, but it can never replace critical thought.  Never confuse the abilities of a general handyman with those of a skilled air conditioning expert.  Unless we limit the intended scope for our students and take them deep into the discipline, we are training them for obsolescence.

“Unknowable is all.”  Okay, for the Yoda-thing I had to say “unknowable” – but the better word choice would be “unknown”.  If we fix our educational eyes on what is not known instead of on what is already known, we will accomplish much more in engaging students and keeping the flow of bright minds into the STEM workforce.  Allow what is known to inform the search for what is not known – just as it is done in science – instead of letting what is known represent science.  Students thrive in such an environment.  Curiosity drives discovery, and discovery drives excitement.  Excitement drives motivation, and motivation drives success.  We must work on setting our bait well in order to reel in our prey.

Current science curricula and pedagogy at most schools miss the boat in this regard.  Typical programs fill their cafeteria trays with all sorts of delicious facts and figures and theories and such, and then take great offense when a student can’t eat it all.  “There’s no room in life science (or your discipline) for someone without an appetite for ___ (fill in the blank with anything – math, chemistry, genetics, physics, etc.)!”  Quite honestly, there IS room for folks with special skills and talents, even if they lack interest or success in ancillary areas.  We even approach our introductory survey courses as if the future of the world hung in the balance.  Too many faculty think EVERYTHING in a freshman course is foundational to a discipline… if so, why not just award the degree after the freshman year? 

In comparison to a completed house, a foundation is made of relatively few ingredients.  But they are put together carefully to build a strong base upon which to build.  You build on a foundation, but too many faculty believe the foundation and walls and roof and plumbing are inseparable and must be taught in Year 1.  Why not distill down to the fundamental principles the basics of our disciplines to provide the foundation, and then with these mastered by students go forward to use our knowledge to build our graduates intentionally by helping them explore where no man has gone before?  The foundations of a discipline move from being the end of education to becoming the means for education.  That doesn’t happen unless we acknowledge that the “unknowable/unknown is all”. 

What do I mean by “unknown” in all this?  I mean just that – the science yet to be discovered.  When we approach teaching our subject by engaging students in the pursuit of answers to new questions, we show them that science is a verb and not a noun.  We start them down the road to building useable knowledge by building curiosity, leading to motivation and success.  When we limit our focus to what’s important (rather than all that is known), and use pedagogy that engages the students in the act of discovery, we lay a foundation upon which subsequent courses will build highly-sought graduates who are effective problem solvers and productive scientists.  

So, let’s look at a new approach to education that is based on a better curriculum AND a better pedagogy.  I will outline this in the FINAL (I promise) installment.

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