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The Wrong Stuff

Here’s a fact that I find both immensely instructive and troubling: almost every parent would fail almost every test that his/her child takes in high school. What this suggests to me is that the things we are teaching children are utterly irrelevant to being successful as an adult in our society. If you want an example, think about how often you’ve found yourself needing to prove that a quadrilateral is a parallelogram.

As a starting point, I think that it would be useful to give our young people tests on which their parents would do very well. In fact, I think that we could judge how important some particular subject is by how much better parents know it compared to their kids. Interestingly, my guess is that, especially in our new digital world, most of us would agree that what matters for success is no longer information per se, but the ability to analyze and synthesize it. Information is now instantaneously available, and so asking kids to memorize things like the date of the Emancipation Proclamation is now largely a meaningless exercise. What is the point of requiring our young people to take tests which could be aced simply by opening Wikipedia on their phones? We should be giving students tests that allow them full use of the internet and require them to synthesize that vast world of information into creative and meaningful ideas. It’s sad to me that, by and large, our educational system has not caught up to the radical shifts that our society is undergoing with respect to information. Isn’t it absurd that high school math classes today are still identical to those taught in 1750, and European history tests are largely identical to those given in 1945?

When I urge my students to ask their math teachers why they need to learn how to prove that a square is a rhombus, the teachers are forced to say something like “well, yes, this proof in itself is irrelevant; what matters, thought, is the thought-process that goes into the proof. What matters is the ability to reason logically and sequentially from premises to a desired conclusion.” I whole-heartedly agree that this ability to construct a valid argument or a logical train of thought is enormously useful. However, it seems obvious that we could (and should) teach this though process with content that is actually relevant to young people’s lives. As just one example, computer programming is a fantastic way to demonstrate this linear thought process, and it has applications that are extremely relevant to many children. Instead of teaching kids how to do geometry proofs, we could be teaching them to code their own interactive websites. For those children not interested in web design, we could teach them this same linear thought process by having them design and build a large-scale metal sculpture, put on a mock trial, or develop a business plan for their own entrepreneurial business.

The real world, as we all know, offers limitless lessons in sequential, logical reasoning (and in the perils of neglecting it). Given that fact, it seems strange, and unfortunate, that we would choose to teach this thought-process with material that has no relevance to that world.

February 4, 2015
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