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Monday, April 20, 2015

Stop teaching "science"; Teach rigorous thinking

Yesterday I visited my grandson, Max (age 7), who was holding a small stuffed penguin in his hand most the time that I was in his house. I asked him why he was carrying this thing and he told me he was learning science. I asked him how exactly he was learning science and he named various penguins whose names he knew and then proceeded to give me a speech about penguins. I pointed out that he had learned what he knew about penguins already and that carrying the stuffed animal around was teaching him nothing. He responded by saying that he was experimenting. He had placed the stuffed penguin in the freezer to see how it responded and now he was dousing it with a hose for the same reason.

I was taken aback by this conversation because it could never have taken place at any time until recently. Suddenly “I am learning science” justifies all behavior. Of course, Max was not wrong about the link between experimentation and science, but he was not, of course, learning science. Who cares? He was playing, which is just fine. What is not fine is that playing now has to be “science” too.

The fallacy here is the same one that I wrote about two weeks ago when I chastised Fareed Zakaria for defending the liberal arts because (he claimed) the liberal arts teaches you to think.

I have news for Max and Fareed. Nothing teaches you to think. You are born knowing how to think. Dogs and cats can think. The defenders of the school system, both those who promote science and those who promote liberal arts haven’t a clue what they are talking about. (Maybe they do need to be taught to think.)

Does studying philosophy teach you to think?

It would depend on what the course was like naturally. Philosophy, is, in my point of view, an exercise in thinking rigorously about everyday issues. But philosophy courses are unlikely to teach you to think because, unless you are studying with someone who will fight the system, the system has questions like these that you must answer in order to pass the course:
A branch of study in philosophy concerning how people ought to act toward one another is



____ involve goodness or badness of human behavior or character.




Enduring beliefs of what is worthwhile that reflect the value holder's worldview, culture, or understanding of the world is





Which of the following statements is true with regard to values?
Values are abstract and difficult to define and communicate

Values are powerful and drive our choices about what we wish to do and what we would like to have

Values focus our energies and choices

All of these
A counselor working in a southern state is very religious. He has been routinely including information about his church and its teachings relative to abortion, sexual identity issues, and discipline of children within each counseling session regardless of client goals or concerns. Which of the following statements is true regarding this situation?
Counselors should advise their clients of what would be best for them from a religious perspective

It is highly unethical for a counselor to impose his or her values upon a client.

It is appropriate only if the counselor is working within a religious facility.

It is important for the counselor to be viewed as a source of guidance and strength for the client.

This type of information sharing could build trust with the client.

Philosophy could teach you to think rigorously, which is the only kind of thinking we could teach to people who already can think, but rest assured most liberal arts courses will have multiple choice tests like these and will teach you nothing but inert facts.

How about science? I don’t know what Max has been learning about penguins but it was easy enough to find a first grade “science” test that was about penguins:


Grade 1 :: Zoology  

1 They go and hunt for food.
2 They get their food from inside their mother's throat.
3 Their dad feeds them.

Grade 1 :: Zoology  

1 True
2 False

Grade 1 :: Zoology  

1 The fat in their bodies keeps them warm.
2 They know how to build homes for themselves.
3 They leave to a warmer place in the winter.

Grade 1 :: Zoology  

1 Yellow-eyed penguin
2 King penguin
3 Emperor penguin
4 Fairy penguin

Grade 1 :: Zoology  

1 Emperor penguin
2 Fairy penguin
3 Rockhopper penguin
4 King penguin

So, let us assume that Max has been learning to answer questions like these in school. Has he been learning science? Has the student who has been learning philosophy in a college course with test questions like those above, been learning philosophy? Have either been learning to think?

We need to stop talking about teaching students to think and being to talk about teaching them to think rigorously. Clearly there is no rigorous thinking going on in these courses as they are being taught.

Can the liberal arts teach you to think rigorously? Of course.

Can science teach you to think rigorously? Of course.

But what we have created: lectures, and tests, and courses to pass, teaches no one to think at all. We are teaching students to mouth words, memorize vocabulary, and say how they are learning “science” to anyone who will listen to this noise.

Max can be excused because he is 7. Steven Pinker, on the other hand who recently published his very clever Harvard psychology multiple choice test should know better. 

Multiple choice tests are the culmination of an exercise in pretending to learn. Learning to think rigorously means being able to create an argument for a point of view based upon evidence that supports that argument. We could teach that in first grade science or in high school science, but we don’t. We could teach that in college philosophy, but we don’t. 

On the other hand, I am sure that in a graduate course in any of these fields they do teach students to think rigorously.  In PhD programs we expect students to really think. But we are talking first grade here, and high school and college, where multiple choice tests rule the day and no rigorous thinking goes on.

There is a big difference between recognition and recall memory. Multiple choice tests are about recognition not recall. We ask students to memorize right answers. The schools have abdicated their responsibility for teaching rigorous thinking every time they teach facts and test them on a recognition test.

Max knows no science. He does know some facts about penguins however, which he will soon forget.

Let’s stop pushing science, or the liberal arts, and start pushing rigorous thinking.


Hina Khan said...

Max knows no science. He does know some facts about penguins however, which he will soon forget.

9th Class Result 2015

nick shackleton-jones said...

I rather like this story of 'the boy and the penguin', Roger. In particular the idea that his rite of passage should be to reliquish whatever affections he held for this stuffed toy and subject it to conditions likely to result in its degradation. All in the name of science. I am reminded of Descartes who when his neighbours complained of the screams from the primates on which he was experimenting merely observed that 'they have no souls' (hence could not truly be screaming). The irony of course is that it turned out to be Descartes, not the poor monkeys, that were lacking in soul. My point is that worse than the failure to teach us to think, is the education system's success in teaching us to think in a certain way.