What is education for, anyway?

There was a bit of fuss here in the UK at the end of last week when the independent Cambridge Primary Review, under director Professor Robin Alexander, released a report on the curriculum for 5-11 year-olds which argued that the cost of focussing so hard on numeracy and literacy standards was a loss of breadth, with the humanities and even science losing out. This was perhaps the most telling quote from their briefing document (my emphasis):

The most conspicuous casualties are…those kinds of learning in all subjects which require time for talking, problem-solving and the extended exploration of ideas; memorisation and recall have come to be valued over understanding and enquiry, and transmission of information over the pursuit of knowledge in its fuller sense.

This quote sums up a problem that, in my experience, extends far beyond primary education: the reduction of learning to a utilitarian checklist of targets and facts. You learn things because you need to, to pass the test; somehow, the idea that these things are useful beyond the test has been lost. Indeed, I think that this problem even stretches to the ‘core’ subjects, for what does it mean to say that someone is ‘literate’, when they never pick up a book of their own violition, or for their own enjoyment? That they are ‘numerate’, but will continue to be subject to statistical bamboozlery outside of the exam hall?
But it gets worse in subjects where either the fundamentals are virtually impossible to break down into little bite-sized, testable chunks – like art or music – or where the arrangement of facts is often more important than the facts themselves. Perhaps the most important thing to learn about science is the process of taking facts – observations of how things behave in nature – working out how they relate to each other, and checking that these relations make sense. A good science education can’t just teach what we know, it needs to teach how we know it. Then, just like learning to read doesn’t restrict you to the books that you learnt with, your scientific literacy isn’t restricted to a few vaguely remembered facts about blocks on slopes and mutated fruit flies – it equips you to keep increasing your understanding of the world around you, and as a bonus also helps you to see through quacks, and creationists, and silly equations about the perfect pancake. But that sort of knowledge is hard to measure, or test; it only comes with time for thought and reflection, which are in short supply in our exam-obsessed educational world. It’s therefore no surprise that university students are increasingly failing to get to grips with courses where being able to sift and organise and extrapolate beyond the facts in the course material, as well as regurgitate them, is the whole point. And, more tellingly, not grasping why.
It would be nice if the government would give this one some thought, but their hitting of the “knee-jerk defence” button, as quoted in the BBC article linked to above, suggests that I’m going to be disappointed.

Categories: general science, public science, ranting

Comments (2)

  1. Old Bogus says:

    I don’t disagree about learning logic, creativity, and analysis. But too often curricula based on these things become meaningless exercises in tangent chasing.
    If anyone can come up with a way to measure problem solving skills and the exercise of the scientific method, it could be added to our testing of other skills like readin’ and writin’. And making change, a common problem for new hires in the dynamic field of fast food.

  2. Ian says:

    On one hand, teachers need the freedom to educate students rather than drill them with facts. On the other hand, if children are to be educated properly, they need teachers that are capable of understanding the basic principals themselves. League tables and low salaries appear to be preventing schools and school children from obtaining either goal.
    Having recently taught at both Southampton and Cambridge Universities, I can reliably say that the inability of undergraduates to think for themselves is not confined to students that are the product of state schools. The culprit may be the curriculum itself. The most worrying fact is that today’s current crop of university goers will be the teachers of tomorrow. In other words, the situation will only get worse unless radical changes are made now.