Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Our Education Is Like Photorespiration

The only reason I didn't die of boredom in fifth period today is because as I was plotting 124 tiny dots on graph paper and drawing lines between them (with a ruler, of course) I was mentally reforming the American education system.

Implementing, or at least coming up with strategies for implementing, educational reform has become something of a dream goal for me. I want to do it the same way some people want to be professional baseball players. The U.S. has been slipping slowly down the list of countries with the best education systems. That is not a list we want to be slipping down. In my opinion, the biggest problem is apathy -- a simple problem with a very elusive solution. But there're smaller problems, scores of them. And as I sit there in public school myself, I can see them. Things we could probably fix and change.

For example, today in fifth period, we made graphs. We mapped the tide at some random location in New York for 31 days, with 4 points for each day. And we were required to do it by hand. According to the teacher, it was just to see if we could do it. Apparently, scientists used to do this all the time back before there were computers.

That, in my opinion, is the worst justification ever. If any scientist did all his graphs by hand in the present day, he'd be fired for being so horribly inefficient. What's the point of practicing something that scientists used to do in years gone by rather than what they do now? I don't think any of us are planning to be scientists in the 1940s. The 2020s, maybe, and by that time the job will even more certainly entail creating computer-generated graphs.

Granted, being able to make a graph by hand is still probably a useful skill in some situations. That's why we learn how to do it in 6th grade.

In short, the graph was the busywork. We practiced an outdated skill, useless (or at least much less useful than other skills we could be practicing) in the modern world. And it was incredibly tedious, which is even worse. If you're going to make students bore themselves to tears, there had better be a good reason. Tedium for tedium's sake breeds apathy -- which, from what I've observed so far, is learning's enemy #1.

From all this, let's create a rule. (Note that this rule is flexible. Even if I solidified it as part of a "theory," it would somewhat fluid, amorphous if you will, because that's how I roll.) Something like this:

"Classwork (especially tedious classwork) needs to have a purpose relevant to both the aims of the class and the modern world for which school is supposed to prepare students."

Work for work's sake is as inefficient as photorespiration. We put in the effort (ATP) and time (NADPH) that we could've used for more effective schoolwork (the Calvin Cycle) and get nothing out of it. And in fact, we eliminate the things we do want (student interest, i.e. carbon dioxide) and produce crap we don't (resentment and boredom, i.e. oxygen.)

Please don't take this as an attack. I'm not trying to complain, especially since I could've switched out of the class in question at the semester. I'm just trying to think of new ways to do things, and trying to identify the problems with the old ways. If anybody reading this has opinions of their own, by all means please share them. If I'm ever going to reform anything, I need to figure out what works, and I'm one person with one subjective opinion that can easily overlook things. In fact, someday I'd need to talk to people about this, hundreds of people, and do research on schools all over the country and probably worldwide. Now wouldn't that be an awesome project?

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