It is commonly understood that science topics are considered challenging and interesting, but for many the introduction to these subjects brings a mixed feelings remembrance.
Scientific subjects presented as a narrative is always endearing and exciting, but frequently this first encounter occurs with great formality, which implies the inclusion of the associated mathematical theoretical framework, this excitement sometimes turns into fear; yet most of us have experienced this situation and can agree that, in essence, the fear isn’t related to the subject we’re studying, is a fear on the process used to explain it and make us assimilate it; is a faulty process related to the traditional education method. The education method that has been in use with no major changes for centuries, a method based on knowledge delivery by an expert, to a group of apprentices, and where the expert has the power to measure and assess each one of the apprentices. Exams and the resulting score from these is the method used to try to determine the student’s knowledge retention and subject domain, used as the main indicator to assess knowledge. This is an anachronistic method.
I still remember when in college, I had an exam on one of the semester’s subject, Electronics I, which was actually about the Physics of electronics, this was my first encounter with the fascinating world of quantum mechanics; an extremely interesting subject, even from the point of view of engineering. Yet, the method to assess this knowledge was still based on traditional exam scoring. In one of these tests, which was constituted of three exercises, I made a silly mistake in one of them; that was enough to have a grading score of 6.6 (out of 10), that hurt, a lot! I knew the subject, I had it, yet these mistakes really haunt you for a long time, maybe it will forever.
And I understand, yes; that you should be able to perform under pressure, and accurate performance in such exams is a way to witness this ability and thus deliver consistently good results. But still the feeling was of a sensation of frustration, the opportunity was gone, however, the subject is still clear in my mind, perhaps because this mistake made me remember it so deeply that it will surely stay clear forever.
I also recall the opposite, when in the equivalent of High school, I was introduced to physics, with kinetics and motion; as my classmates and I were preparing for class, a prerequisite for this class was to answer some text book problems in advance, one of these exercises caused problems for the whole class, one particular problem was relatively complex, and we couldn’t get it right. At the end of the day, before bed, I gave it a shot, as a last resort; and while preparing the calculations, something just clicked, and I resolved the problem, it was really an exhilarating sensation, “I GOT IT”, I really knew how this thing works. And throughout the semester I felt that every new topic was another version of this challenge; the semester became a series of little victories, and I had a great time working on the subject.
One third example was how our actual high school Physics professor helped us with a math problem. An exercise related to trigonometry also caused difficulties for the whole class. It was weird, no one got the expected result, so we asked for his help during our physics class (Professor Bazaldua was that good); he was kind enough to take some time from his class to help us. So, we described him the problem, while he was registering the data and the problem synthesis of the board, and with that information, he started to work; he made a rationale on the problem, applied some trigonometric aids, created a small equation to get to the result that was needed, added the values and with a bit of algebra. Bam! the right result was there. Suddenly the class was in silence, we all look at each other and finally someone raised a hand, and explained, “professor, but… we have some formulae to solve these problems”. Our professor simply solved the problem by analyzing the information and generating a rationalized method to solve it and got the right result. His reply to our classmate’s comment? “Oh, then it is much easier…”, and proceed to solve it with a combination of the available formulae, again with identical and pristine results. This was another eureka moment, which inspired me to really appreciate the subject, and to recognize how it is more important to understand the principles than just learn formulas or mechanical methods, as some of them were presented to us. Since it is not always the best option, it is just one of the routes.
Learning is a totally different parameter than scoring. Learning is comprehension and is totally different from scoring. And is the scoring process what undermines the joy for learning, especially in cases such as exact sciences, where you should be precise with the results. I believe that’s the reason why is common to hear that “math or physics are difficult” or a complex and somewhat intimidating subject. And due this fact, we see that topics such as mathematics, logic, physics, astronomy, etc. it is considered that they have no relation to creativity or even art. I guess, if we could somehow remove the scoring variable, this image would be changed shortly.
Unfortunately, schools love “averages”, average scorings average students, common (or average), behaviors; to deliver a standardized (basically an average) result, a system where what is considered lower than average is left behind, and slightly above average are pulled down to the mean if they don’t comply with the considered standards (particularly in behavior). But let’s face it, this image of a common or standardized result has been just an ideal; and I get it, is easier to deal with similar sets; outliers are always complicated and considered “noise”, But we must not rule out that sometimes the main discoveries are in the “noise”. Of course this is not widespread, there are many schools that are applying cutting-edge methods and are changing this paradigm, but there is still a lot to be done.
For example, forcing a single method to solve some problem helps to, again, standardize how the resolution of a problem is described, but this restricts the student’s freedom to experiment and learn in different ways; and this has a direct negative impact on the student’s inventiveness. If school systems keep demanding for students to use one single method to come to a result, even if is not the best, but is the standard (or average), then the student’s creativity will be suppressed, in exchange of a false efficiency to pull sets of students through the denominated “learning process” to have young adults with similar abilities, average abilities, but without curiosity and with biased mentality. Single minded thinking is a detriment to creativity, advancement and discovery.
Curiosity is qualitative, it’s not a study subject. Is not something you just teach and score, is something you ignite. And learning is not just filling and imprint facts in a person’s mind. Analysis and rational thinking should be the goals we must be looking for from our apprentices (or students).
Knowledge is discovery, and science is no less beautiful than art; I find that a mathematical equation has the same artistic qualities and elegance as a symphony, a paint or a sculpture; perhaps the only difference is that what it represents is concrete and exact; I believe we as humans are adjusted to appreciate this, we just lost our compass to identify the intrinsic beauty we get from exact sciences.
Regards, Alex; ScienceKindle.