You’ve heard the debates everywhere over education policies. “More funding for schools,” cries one politician. Another calls for “teacher accountability.” Yet another praises the Common Core, which intends to standardize the educational content of classes on a national level.
The truth is, though, that some of the current rules and programs that regulate schools are harmful to the critical development of our nation’s youth.
In this month’s issue of Scientific American, Dennis M. Bartels argues that our education system is “increasingly failing to require students to ask the kind of questions that lead to informed decisions.” He points to a cognitive science study of fifth-graders and college students in which the students needed to develop a plan to prevent the extinction of bald eagles. While both groups came up with recovery plans of similar quality, differences arose between the questions both groups came up with related to these plans. Fifth-graders, on the one hand, focused on each animal; on the other hand, college students asked about interdependency issues that might help the plan’s implementation. The college students were asking far more critical questions, demonstrating a higher level of thinking that is almost entirely removed from the classroom experience.
Bartels goes on to point out that children and young adults can still learn these critical thinking skills in informal learning environments, such as museums and interactive exhibits. But how many public school students have access to these institutions? In theory, they all do: many museums are free to the public (or ask for a suggested donation), and may offer workshops for schoolchildren.
In practice, the issue of access becomes much more complex, influenced by educational background, economic class, and location. For example, parents of low socioeconomic status are typically less aware of free or low-cost resources and programs in which they can enroll their children. These parents, under financial strain, devote many hours to working in low-paying jobs, which means that they have less time to devote to engaging their children in meaningful experiences, or taking them to institutions where this learning can occur.
Worst of all, while upper-class (typically white) students are being increasing enrolled in private and charter schools, lower-class (“minority”) students are forced to stay in the shambles that are our public schools (at least in NYC, as recent trends indicate). The result? Students of low socioeconomic status will be further denied their right to a stimulating education, which will probably be an extreme disadvantage to them during the college application or job search process.
It is of the utmost importance that educational professions make immediate changes in educational policies to make sure that students are learning how to learn, by asking critical questions that take into account multiple viewpoints, interrelationships, and deep reflections. Only these problem solving skills, which can most effectively take place in science classrooms, can prepare young adults for the challenges they will face as the leaders of tomorrow.
“What is Your Question?” by D. M. Bartels in Scientific American (Volume 308, No. 3)