Analysis and rationality in a nonrational world

February 10, 2011

What’s really wrong with education?

Filed under: Government, Media, News reporting — analysis @ 3:28 pm

I agree with George W. Bush in his general belief that we need a way to measure the effectiveness of our nation’s schools. I disagree with the state-by-state approach, which defeats much of the purpose and allows for the use of poor and biased measures, but I agree with the general idea of universal testing — which, incidentally, is the how nearly every other nation does it.

But let’s say No Child Left Behind worked perfectly, which it doesn’t (as a great big unfunded mandate with all sorts of odd provisions.) It would still only mean that we were teaching our children the wrong things, but doing it well.

Let’s look at our schools’ curriculum. We are generally very good on science trivia — what’s the temperature on Mars? Which planet is biggest? What are the rings made of? — but almost no American understand how science actually works. The scientific method is not something politicians usually like, because it replaces ideology with pragmatics. In short, the scientific method is a way of figuring out whether your belief system works or not.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a psychology or a physicist, the basic methods are the same — test your idea in a manner designed to eliminate your personal bias from the equation (this is most important in social science), and publish your methods along with your findings, in detail, so others can find flaws in your research. It’s that type of science that has brought us to the point where medicine helps more people than it hurts, but that type of science is hated by ideologues. After all, how can you say that vaccines are dangerous and irresponsible if you’ve read the research? How can you justify trickle-down economics — which no conservative should ever have endorsed — when there are so many studies showing it to be, as George H.W. Bush said, “voodoo economics”?

All sorts of policy decisions from both Democrats and Republicans would disappear if the scientific method was commonly used. But it’s rarely used, because very few people understand it. You practically need to apply for a doctorate to get starter courses — you can graduate college without understanding the first thing about research and testing.

So we teach science trivia well, but we don’t teach science at all in most schools.

Likewise, we teach pointless math. I’m not just referring to the University of Chicago’s insane method of teaching six ways to do addition and five ways to multiply — when everyone does it one way. That confuses students and causes needless studying and pain and probably hurts learning overall, versus the tried-and-true methods (including, by the way, learning the multiplication tables by rote.)

No, I’m referring to teaching trigonometry and calculus in high school, and ignoring probability and statistics. I believe that every student should be able to learn how probability and statistics work, to the point where they know when to apply a mean versus a median, a t-test (and what kind of t-test), when you have enough cases in the sample (or in each cell), how correlations work and don’t work, and all the other useful aspects of statistics. I would not care if they could calculate standard deviation by hand, but I’d want them to know how to use PSPP or another free statistics program, and I’d want them to be able to use it well and responsibly to test real data. Only then can ordinary people really understand how research is done, and then evaluate studies reprinted by the mass media (usually by people who don’t understand them) — and conduct their own research to test their own theories.

We’ll get on to language and culture later…

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