Sunday, November 11, 2012

Physics Education

Twenty years ago, I taught science to children as part of a Hansen Planetarium outreach education program.  I really enjoyed teaching science to thousands of eager children, and have always advocated science education for ALL children.  I don't do that anymore, but I miss it.

As a parent, I've tried to help my children understand the world around them, and advance their understanding of science.  I also tried to help them understand the importance of language and reading.  After all, you can't learn anything without understanding language.  In my experience, I've found the US education system to be WOEFULLY inadequate to teach any of the fundamentals to the children in that system.  It isn't just science, and math that are affected.  English (writing, and reading), as well as art and music are all suffering, and in some cases eliminated.

Most of what is being taught is test taking, NOT education.  Since the advent of the deplorably bad idea that was No Child Left Behind, the emphasis for school systems has been to teach children how to pass standardized tests.  Children are taught ONLY what they need to pass these tests, and the emphasis is not just on the information, but how the tests are structured.  These standardized tests are all multiple-guess tests.  I know you just screamed multiple-choice, but that isn't the case.  These tests are popular because computer scanners can grade them quickly, but they don't tell if a student actually understands the material.

Either you guess the answer correctly, or one of the other incorrect answers given.  Multiple-guess tests are written in such a way that there are hints within the wording of the test that can indicate what the correct answer is, and if you know how to read the test, you can have a reasonable chance of getting the answer correct, even if you don't know the answer.  This brings out the most important point I'm trying to make: You don't know if the person actually KNOWS the answer, if they are GUESSING correctly, or if they understand the psychology of test questions well enough to GUESS the correct answer (hence the term multiple-guess).

If we just teach children how to take tests, and don't actually teach them correct principals, facts, and reasoning we are effectively hamstringing our children.  How can we expect to regain our edge if children aren't expected to learn anything significant until college?  Answer: we can't.  Learning for the sake of test taking is CHEATING, and cheating only hampers our ability to succeed.

When I was in high school, I had a very difficult time with math.  This subject has proved to be extremely difficult to me.  I didn't understand it, so I consistently underperformed.  When we got to linear equations in Algebra II, I wrote a computer program that would spit out the correct answer, so I could get the answer right.  This made it easy to do my homework, but not so much on the tests.  I didn’t learn how to do the problems correctly, and so I cheated myself.  I learned that I wasn’t hurting anyone but myself, and I suffered in other subjects because I couldn’t do the work. 
We are doing that to our children.  Math, Science, and English are the foundation for the rest of the curriculum, and we aren’t teaching the children what they need to survive in the current global economy.  Our current philosophy is that we reserve the actual education for colleges and universities, and that is INDUSTRIAL STRENGTH STUPID.  With the current cost of education completely out of reach for most middle class students, they have to turn to financial aid.  Currently the outstanding student loan debt owed by US citizens is over $1,000,000,000,000 (that’s TRILLION with a T).  Most students owe more than $25,000.  Most of the students can’t repay their debt, due to the bad economy.  Student Loan debt is unshakable, and can be disastrous if you default.  This is setting up a bubble that could destroy our fragile economy, but I digress.  

If we aren’t teaching to educate our children, and we educate to pass a test, we are CHEATING.  We are depriving them of the ability to contribute to the lineage of innovators that has made our country great.  This is particularly true when talking about Math and Science.  We NEED the best teachers, scientists, engineers, and mathematicians to make our country work.  Our children aren’t getting that.  They are getting the most expensive test-taking curriculum our country can buy.  

My stepdaughter wants to be an astronomer, and I’m giving her all the extra help I can, but I can’t do it if the school system squashes that attempt to improve her understanding.  Parents can help teach, and encourage, but if the teachers at school are hampering that ability, we can’t survive.  The major problem is that I’m hampered by my own strange work hours, and can’t be as effective as a teacher can.  This has to be a partnership, but it has to involve parents, students, teachers, administrators, and elected officials working together.  It’s time we dumped that worthless, ill-conceived, failure system of NCLB and got back to educating our kids.  This means an emphasis on Math, Science, English, and Art and Music.  Some might wonder why I included Art and Music.  I’ll explain that in another post, but short answer, they help children with core principals in Math and Science.

Until the US system, changes we will continue to fall behind other countries, and eventually the major innovations will happen outside the US.  Can America afford to fail?  No, we can’t.