game on, mr. brooks

Posted on October 19th, 2015 in purpose of school

On Friday morning, David Brooks of the New York Times published his column on our film Most Likely To Succeed. I loved his opening sentence, “Friends of mine have been raving about the documentary “Most Likely to Succeed,” and it’s easy to see what the excitement is about.” But Brooks expressed real reservations about what he saw in the film, and does a great job of framing the debate about the purpose of school.

His column’s headline was “Schools for Wisdom,” and Brooks articulates his view about what we should be doing in our schools. “First, there is basic factual acquisition. You have to know what a neutron or a gene is, that the Civil War came before the Progressive Era. Research shows that students with a concrete level of core knowledge are better at remembering advanced facts and concepts as they go along.” I only wish Brooks had read my book, which has lots of pointers to studies that show these facts aren’t retained. They are covered, crammed before exams, and then forgotten. For instance, every adult in the U.S. has studied, often multiple times, the U.S. Constitution, yet a recent poll by the National Constitution Center found that just 5% of adults can answer ten rudimentary questions about the Constitution. And if you want an anecdotal shock, watch this short video of students at Texas Tech. Or this video of graduates of Harvard. Or this article.

Complicating the issue is the amount of time our students spend building this base of instantly-forgotten “factual acquisition.” For most of our youth, this “factual acquisition” process covers the entirety of grades 7-16. I can’t tell you how many time aspiring engineers tell me that they never, ever build something as undergraduates — which is why most MIT students can’t use four components to make a light bulb work. Aspiring historians never get challenged to come up with their own thesis for what caused an important event, and how it shapes their world today. No, they memorize names and dates of events and figures, or theories from their text book or teacher’s lecture. How many people spend years memorizing science definitions or forumulas, follow cook-book lab procedures, and never experience what it’s like to be a scientist. And on and on. Our entire education system revolves around Brooks’ “factual acquisition” stage, based on the flawed premise that content covered is content retained.

So, following Brooks, after laying down this foundation of facts, students progress through three subsequent phases. Spurred forward by an inspiring lecturer or text, class discussion, or unconscious processing, they link facts together in a meaningful way, developing powerful pattern recognition skills. But if the facts vanish, are we to assume that the pattern recognition remains? And while I’m a big believer in the importance of in-person discussion (often short-changed in grades 7-16), what I find is that most lectures and texts deliver to students a particular pattern to be memorized, instead of encouraging students to find one or more plausible patterns.

Brooks goes on to lay out a path — a bit cryptic, IMHO — where pattern recognition is followed by knowledge and wisdom. His knowledge phase revolves around “mental reformation,” where “the student realizes she has learned a new language and way of seeing — how to think like a mathematician or a poet or a physicist.” Finally, “wisdom dawns. Wisdom is a hard-earned intuitive awareness of how things will flow.”

I agree with Brooks that some, perhaps even many, gain knowledge and wisdom over time. We just don’t gain it in school. It comes when we’re fully immersed in our careers, when we do things, face setbacks, apply our learning, and evolve and progress. But that almost always comes after our formal education is over. I interview a LOT of recent college graduates and I’m not finding lots of knowledge and wisdom. Instead, I find lots of student debt, fear of failure, and formulaic thinking. And what do I rarely see? Passion, purpose, creativity, and audacity.

So, game on, David Brooks and others defending the 19th Century model of education.

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