Education (Part 1: The current paradigm of education and how I think it should work)

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Pre-post stuff: Been quite some time since I updated, but I’m still around. Comics should resume at some point in the near future. Lot of things going on lately: work as usual, I had an interview at the University of Colorado School of Medicine a couple weeks ago, so on and so forth.


I’ve found myself thinking and talking a lot lately about education and the way that we’re doing it in the United States. I sometimes get berated for doing well on tests and such without appearing to have had to try or study very hard. And maybe the latter is partly true, but the former seems to stem from a misconception of how one is ‘supposed’ to learn, which in turn partly stems from a misconception about who I am as a student and learner. A lot of this discussion is going to be from the perspective of science education since science is what I’m experienced with, but I think it applies pretty well across most fields and disciplines.

When people think “Asian premed student” there’s a very particular image that pops into their head. Determined to become a doctor since (before???) birth, military discipline academically, pinpoint focus on getting good grades to get into a good college to get good grades to get into a good medical school to get good grades to bla bla bla. Et cetera. And, to be honest, it’s not an inaccurate stereotype most of the time (In fact, the stereotype seems to arise from the belief that that particular approach is the best or the right one, which is the belief that I’m going to try to dispel here). It just doesn’t fit me. Grades, to me, are a byproduct rather than the primary focus of education. I learn because stuff is really cool and worth learning, not so I can pass a test and get a good score. So by that token I would argue that I put in a similar amount of work to other students, but I do so at a different time: Right at the initial point of learning. When I’m exposed to a new concept or idea, some little voice in my head goes “Well hey, this is neat! I wonder how we can connect it to all this other stuff we’ve been thinking about lately!” I tend to become very engaged with new concepts very quickly, and that’s when I do my best learning. And that means that when it comes time to study for a test, it’s all very much review to me – and why would I want to review lists of facts that I already understand when there’s all sorts of other neat stuff to learn and think about?

Unfortunately (At least in my opinion) the other philosophy of education seems to be the predominant one. Students obsess over their tests and grades, coming up with (often somewhat insane) mnemonics and other memorization tools. I distinctly remember sitting in a lecture hall right before an exam listening to other students ‘quizzing’ each other: “I remember X is Y because X starts with A and ‘apple’ also starts with A and apples are round and [absolutely nonsensical series of steps and “connections” that eventually leads to Y].” I also remember being asked to contribute a question and asking my peers to predict the effects of making a change in some pathway or another, and receiving the following response: “Well, that wasn’t in the book, so it won’t be on the test,” whereupon they returned to their self-satisfied mnemonic circlejerk (I’m gonna be honest here, I didn’t think very much of many of my college peers. Or mnemonics.).

While memorization of certain key and central facts/numbers (pi, basic multiplication tables, things like that) is important, it should not be the cornerstone of our educational system. The prevalence of memorization is quite evident in science education, which often takes the form of “Here’s a bunch of facts that are going to be presented as unrelated, memorize them so that you can regurgitate them on the exam.” Something in that picture seems wrong to me. If science worked off of that same philosophy then we would all still believe that the Earth was flat and at the center of the universe. And carried on the back of a giant turtle. I just started reading the Discworld series. Science is about making observations and adjusting – or rewriting – our existing models to accommodate the new data. It’s about taking what everyone accepts as truth and trying to break it down by approaching it from a completely different perspective. Science is not an endless cycle of memorizing and reciting the same data over and over.

A slight tangent on that note – I’m always bewildered when people frame the easy availability of information through technology and the Internet as a bad thing. The argument is common: “Information is too easy to access! Students aren’t learning because they can just pull out their phones and search Google!” It’s also a bit nonsensical. Again, learning isn’t about memorizing a bunch of facts. It’s about developing the ability to do things with those facts. A scientist who can recite a bunch of facts and numbers is worthless compared to one who has to look those facts and numbers up but knows how to integrate them into a brand new theory. The massive amount of information we have access to is not a replacement for education – it’s just a bigger data set for us to play with.

So what’s the alternative? I think science should be taught in a way that makes students think like scientists and not like tape recorders. As I already said, of course certain frameworks and central concepts are worth memorizing. But beyond that, students should be expected to take those frameworks and apply or approach them in novel ways. Instead of forcing students to memorize and subsequently regurgitate a bunch of words and numbers (I once had a biochemistry exam that consisted solely of reciting the number of electrons involved in various steps of photosynthesis), science exams should force them to approach and apply the ideas and theories that they’ve learned in ways that they have never seen. They should say “Here’s a mechanism which is part of system 1, what are the consequences for systems 1, 2, and 3 if we screw with this step?”, or “We’re trying to learn X about system 4 but standard approach A doesn’t work because such-and-such – what other approaches might work?” A ‘science exam for scientists’ could (and should) be open-book, open-friend, open-whatever – simply because the facts in the books would not be sufficient to pass it. Students should leave science exams feeling like they’ve accomplished something: Applied a concept in a new way, suggested a solution to a theoretical experimental obstacle, predicted the consequences of breaking a step in a pathway.

I want to clarify something before I wrap this post up: I’m not saying that grades are unimportant or irrelevant. I’m not saying “We should get rid of grades entirely,” or “Getting bad grades is fine as long as you’re learning and enjoying yourself!” In fact, the second statement is self-contradictory from my point of view. Assuming that the tests are a reasonably good metric for the subject – which I’ve touched on already and will expand upon in the next part of this discussion – good grades should be a natural consequence of successful learning. If you’ve really learned something then a well-designed test should feel like a natural next step in learning. It should say “Now that you understand the fundamental concepts and systems of this subject, let’s see what you can do with them.” As to the necessity of grades? That’s something I’ll discuss more next post, but suffice it to say for now that I do think they are a legitimate and necessary tool.


Part two: Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation