On the whole, I was never, at any point in my education, a particularly diligent student. Homework was done on the fly and studying was for suckers, and the crazy thing was that I not only got away with this attitude, but I got into Caltech with it. (At that point, my lack of discipline caught up with me.) What’s interesting, though, is that in spite of my disinterest in getting straight A’s, most of my classmates would not have hesitated in labeling me one of the biggest nerds in the entire school. Although I wasn’t committed to the curriculum, I read voraciously, biking to the nearby library twice a week and leaving with a backpack stuffed to the gills with books. (In fourth grade I learned that the library even had a limit – no more than fifty books out at once.) I was an extremely self-directed learner, absorbing whatever I could get my hands on, and between engaging conversations at home, constant reading, and occasionally tuning into class I always had a firm enough grasp of the material to at least swing a B on my report card.
The point of this isn’t to proclaim my own intelligence, but simply to frame some articles I read today about learning, cognition, and educational systems. Ta-Nehisi Coates kicked things off with a look back at his participation in the science fair, a program that I, too, found compelling amidst my apathy; science fair projects are hands-on and independent, two elements lacking in so much of contemporary pedagogy. A related piece from The New Republic looks at Finland’s vaunted educational system, which has recently emerged as a world leader – after the Finnish overhauled their system to involve more play, hands-on engagement, and student-directed learning. They pay their teachers better, too, but their system is structured much more like a Montessori or Waldorf program than anything in the American public system. (Both Montessori and Waldorf schools tend to produce strong results, although it’s often attributed more to the socioeconomic privilege of their student bodies than anything endogenous to the curriculum; the effect would be difficult to separate out but is worth investigating further.)
Now to the explanatory part. I remember reading a few years back, I believe in “Freakonomics”, that the strongest predictor of a child’s academic success was not how much their parents read to them, but how many books were present in the home. This is, of course, partly a function of socioeconomic status – those who struggle to put food on the table have limited disposable income for books – but it also represents something else: immediate access to a wide range of intellectual content. Books broaden the world, and they teach facts (as does the Internet, although one has to wade through a lot less porn in a book). This might seem trivial – textbooks teach facts too – but, as this cognitive psychologist explains nicely, what we measure in standardized testing, and what we seek from graduates, is not factual knowledge but skilled competence. The problem? Skills and information are not separable; skills-based learning can only occur within the secure scaffolding of acquiring factual knowledge. The issue is well-represented by the ill-defined concept of “reading comprehension,” which doesn’t happen in a vacuum but is entirely dependent upon the information and knowledge the reader can bring to bear on a piece.
If this sounds like an endorsement of relativism or fuzzy standards, it’s not. Science is, after all, a rigorous pursuit, but what happens in the project-based approach of science fair programs is that students acquire problem-solving skills only in the application of facts and information to an actual problem (much as one solves “real-world” problems). In the current educational environment, where standardized testing reigns supreme, science fair programs – the closest widespread public educational tool we have to the Finnish – are imperiled; schools are committing resources to testing above all else. The problem, though, is that such efforts to “teach to the test” in fact teach no skills other than how to take a multiple-choice test (a rather narrow, and perilously boring, competence). A focus on learning a range of engaging and student-driven material, conversely, might not only improve test scores – particularly in the later grades – but also help students to enjoy their educations a little bit more, which in turn fuels greater achievement. It sounds utopian, sure, but it just might also be real.