Monday, August 23, 2004

The Three R’s


I wrote this on the Edwards campaign blog on December 23, 2003, and later re-posted it on www.jregrassroots.org:

Why does one so often hear that education can be improved by concentration on three R’s: reading, writing and arithmetic? The way this is usually implemented is by giving students exercises in these three areas, then giving them simple tests to evaluate if they learned them. This makes the mechanics of teaching and testing easy, that’s for sure, and the test results can be used to punish under-performing students, teachers and schools.

But these exercises are boring and meaningless examples of rote learning. Is that the way we are schooling in the 21st century? What kind of ‘product’ is the result of such schooling? People who can read, write and add up numbers, people who are devoid of skills of critical thinking and discriminating between sense and nonsense.

What would happen if, instead, we taught our children the three S’s: sense, science and statistics? With the word ‘sense’ I mean logic, formal symbolic logic, and its application in reading, writing and debating. I would like all kids to learn how to recognize all the logical fallacies (ad hominem, straw man, red herring, slippery slope, begging the question, argument from authority, etc.) and to use that skill throughout their schooling, no matter what the subject matter is. Such skills are rarely taught, even in college, unless one takes a course in logic. Look up college textbooks in logic (e.g., Hurley’s A Concise Introduction to Logic, chapter 3) and advanced writing courses (e.g., Heffernan and Lincoln’s Writing: A College Handbook, chapter 7), or popular science literature (e.g., Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, chapter 12). Just as I’d love to see the logical fallacies exposed in posts by trolls, as well as fallacies avoided in posts of our bloggers, I would love to see all our kids grow up with skills for independent thought, critical thought and a healthy dose of skepticism.

By ‘statistics’, I mean math in general, but statistics especially. The general and widespread ignorance of statistics leads many smart people to believe stupid things. I love popular books by John Allen Paulos, e.g., Innumeracy, Beyond Innumeracy, or Mathematician Reads The Newspaper, as they are full of funny examples of bad decisions people make because of lack of grasp of statistics. Such real-life examples should be the starting points of all math lectures.

By ‘science’, I mean both social and natural sciences. For instance, history is usually taught as political and military history only. That way, it becomes and endless list of dates and names. Who wouldn’t be repelled by history after such a treatment? Yes, Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812. So what? Who cares? But if you paint the picture of the world in 1812, the current state of philosophy, religion, science, agriculture, medicine, art, music and private life, it becomes much more interesting as well as more meaningful. You understand why Napoleon invaded Russia, why in 1812, and why we should care now. What did people believe at that time, what did they know, what did they not know yet, what did they eat and wear, how did they shave, what music they listened to, what did they read, how did they treat diseases, how did they entertain themselves, how did they transport stuff, what common objects were not invented yet? Making such connections makes history interesting and relevant and will, almost as an aside, motivate children to read and write. If history is taught that way, it immediately connects with other subjects in the curriculum: philosophy, comparative religion, science, literature, art etc., thus the whole year’s curriculum can be designed around particular topics or periods.

Natural science also does not have to follow the 19th century German model of memorizing facts. Do kids really have to know Krebs cycle, classification of worms and Latin names for body-parts? How boring?! Why don’t we, instead, take topics from the popular media (e.g., cloning, endangered species) or science-fiction novels (make them read “Brave New World”, not “Star Wars”), and topics inherently interesting to kids (space flight, dinosaurs) and use them as starting points for teaching the underlying scientific principles. If that information is presented not dogmatically – “this is true because it says so in the textbook”- but as a cumulative result of a process of observation and experimentation performed by many people through history, then the students will grasp that science is not a collection of facts but a method of getting true information about the world. They will also understand that all scientific ideas are tentative, that these ideas are in constant flux, and we are far from the point that we know practically everything – quite contrary, we have just scratched the surface and there are many exciting discoveries yet to be made. Perhaps, seeing that science is far from exhausted, kids will more readily choose science as a career. Not to mention the benefit of honing their baloney-detection skills even further, reading and writing about topics that interest them, and applying mathematics to relevant problems. By teaching the three S’s, the three R’s would come in effortlessly, as a fringe benefit of learning about the world and the logical way the world functions.

In the world in which the pace of progress is so fast, we cannot afford to teach ‘job skills’ that will be out-dated by the time they graduate. The real ‘job skills’, as well as ‘life skills’, are ability to locate information, evaluate quality of information, make connections between seemingly disparate pieces of information, using and applying information, producing or discovering new information, and disseminating information to others effectively. That is what we need to teach, not the three R’s.

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