Thoughts on Education Reform
Russell Degnan

Rob urged me recently to write down what I wanted to reform with education. I have decided to embark on another not-quite-abortive multi-part posting because there is an underlying method in some of the madness, and because its my blog.

At the outset, let me summarise some positions I believe in. I can't prove them necessarily, but they inform my opinions on the subject.

Firstly, I believe that (almost) anyone is capable of understanding any subject given sufficient time and background resources, and with sufficient devotion to the task. I believe it because there has been no significant evolution towards particular tasks the brain performs. Each aspect remains part and parcel of basic neurological connections between abstract concepts (poorly understood). Some people make those connections more easily than others, but there is no such thing as being "unable to do math" to quote the most common complaint.

I also believe it because I have seen ostensibly stupid people be amazingly intelligent in fields they devote themselves to. Regularly in fact on sports fields, when the 'natural' intelligence of a player means they are quicker to the ball, well-positioned, and making better decisions.

Secondly, I believe education is both a means and an end. That it is a means is self-explanatory and uncontroversial. The latter is the subject of the first part. Namely, why breadth matters, and how undervalued it is.

Part 1 - The Way We Learn

First and foremost, it should always be remembered that the brain is not a computer. It can do a reasonable impression, but it is built fundamentally differently. Everything in a computer is precisely defined -- even abstract concepts, they are precisely defined abstractly to their detriment. As near as we can tell, everything in the brain is defined abstractly, in reference to other things.

The primary problem with a lot of teaching is it tries to impart knowledge as if to a computer. It makes sense. A teacher has knowledge they wish to impart, they define that knowledge and disperse it. But knowledge is useless without reference to what it means. Both to use, and to learn.

You could define (imprecisely) three tiers of knowledge.

At bottom, facts (or beliefs) with no supporting theory. 2 + 2 = 4. Tchaikovsky wrote the 1812 Overture. The only Australian poet in Poet's corner is Adam Lindsay Gordon. The brain can be adept at remembering facts, though it can also be vague and unreliable. Facts are useful because they inform more abstract ideas. In some ways we have gone too far in repudiating ROTE learning of basic facts. Because, unless you are being willfully stupid (and everyone is on occasion) it is impossible to simultaneously answer questions of how or why that contradict your position.

But they are also useless, because they are just facts. They don't explain causes or effects, nor inform decisions. They just are. Nor are they a sign of intelligence, some idiot savants can recycle loads of facts; some of the thickest kids at my school could recite the number of every player in the AFL.

What informs decisions are in the middle: the relationships. This is what is taught in schools an universities. That freeways induce more traffic, that for a right angled triangle: c2 = a2 + b2, or even the technique for bowling a cricket ball.

These are useful things to know, and a sufficiently large collection of relationships allows you to claim that you have an education. The problem is, such a large collection of the things we learn pass us by, because a relationship, like a fact, is contained within a much larger set of knowledge. And without that broader knowledge, you are no better than a machine.

This is why there is another tier of knowledge, the intuitive, metaphorical tier. This is what allows you to draw analogies between one relationship and another, to recognise illogical statements or contradictions in your own knowledge and things read. It is this third tier that education should develop, and the third tier that is so poorly serviced by existing methods.

But let me draw some examples. Playing cricket. I was, as a youth, the worst batsman you would ever see. And no coach made the slightest impression, because they explained things in short sayings that implied I had the faintest idea: "keep your elbow up", get behind the ball", "come forward". All good, all useless to me. Unlike my bowling, I lacked any instinctive batsmanship, until I actually sat down and worked out what I was trying to achieve.

If you want to cover-drive a ball you need to have so many things under control: both feet, both arms, hands, elbows, hips, head. If any of them aren't you'll either miss it, edge it, or spoon it, and yet, in the half second you have to play it, you can't think your way through it. It needs to be an instinctive process. Hence, in order to make it instinctual, I had to systematically understand what each and every body part was doing and practice until the process was instinctive. In other words, physics and geometry informed my cricket.

When you have time though, you can muddle through with an inadequate understanding. When I learnt to C program pointers were a mystery. I could use them -- sort of -- but I didn't understand them, because they are taught using mathematical symbols: p = &n; n = *p. Symbols aren't my strong point. When I eventually understood them, it was through a library analogy, seeing the memory as books each with their own 'address'. The two concepts sit in my brain in parallel, each informing the other.

Similarly, when I approach issues in planning, it is from my understanding of systems, or economics, or physics, or politics, or ...

The problem with most education is that it focuses on the relationships instead of ways of thinking. And it is ways of thinking that allow you to add to your knowledge, to analyse problems, and to draw new conclusions. Understanding how to approach a problem, any problem, is an end in itself. Unfortunately the way students are taught and assessed often works against this goal. In part two I will look at why.

Passing Fancy 15th June, 2005 02:21:49   [#] 


they don't know squat
I remember when your views on education, and the hopelessness of teaching (computer science students at least), was easily summarised in a single sentence ... "they don't know squat" :)
Chris McCarthy  16th June, 2005 11:15:02  

This is the extended remix...
... of the "you don't know squat" rap.

Nothing much has changed, and it applies pretty generally across courses from what I can tell. Though (as I'll get to soon) there is a tendency to teach less now (CS being the classic case), so, as Donald Rumsfeld would put it, there are more unknown unknowns.
Russ  16th June, 2005 13:05:24