How Much Education Can Our Heads Hold?

As far back as I can remember, the United States has been in a state of educational crisis.  You’d figure by now educators would know exactly how much stuff we can squeeze into a student’s head, and the best methods for cramming all that knowledge in quickly and efficiently.  Since we hear so much about dropout factories and the failure to produce enough qualified students to meet the needs of our technologically evolving society, I have to assume pedagogy is a colossal failure, but the truth is we’re smarter than ever.  I’d even say the dumb kids are smarter than the dummies of the past.

The problem is we want to put more data in brains that haven’t gotten any bigger in the last million years.  Urban legends claim we only use five percent of our brains, but scientists know that’s not true.  It doesn’t take much living in our modern rat races to fill those suckers up.

Scientific American has produced a special report, Learning in the Digital Age for its August issue, but you can read it all by following the link.  It appears large corporations and wealthy philanthropists want to develop computers that instruct students and monitor their progress so computer programs can automatically adapt teaching methods on the fly, and thus constantly improve the spoon feeding of young minds.  Sounds painful to me, and makes me glad I’m not a kid in school.

Remember the movie The Matrix, where Keanu Reeves, who plays Neo, is taught new skills via a jack in the back of his head?  Well, these teaching machines are essentially trying to do the same thing via the eyes and ears.  Want to know Calculus?  Sit down at this machine and watch and respond.

Here’s my question:  How much can we learn?  The storage space in our brains is finite.  Comprehension is more than recording facts.  But let’s imagine we have a machine that is the perfect teacher, one that completely understands the student, and can feed a kid, byte by byte, the data they need.  Let’s also imagine that we want to teach kids Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Algebra II, Calculus, Linear Algebra, Statistics and Number Theory. In The Matrix that might have taken a couple of hours, but that was a fantasy.  How long should it take to cram in all the math skills we think the average 21st century kid should know?

I had through Calculus I in college, but I never really used any math after my last test, other than ordinary dollar processing and to take the GRE.  As far as I know all my Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Calculus, Statistical knowledge is gone.  Should we waste time packing information into brains that won’t be used later?

What is the basic dataset that every citizen of planet Earth should possess?  I believe we should be striving to define the essential basic knowledge, rather than develop techniques for squeezing massive amounts of education into little minds quickly and cheaply.  And to be honest, much of the furor over education is about cost.  I think a lot of new theories about education are inspired by reducing the costs of K-12 schooling, or by companies that want to get a piece of ever expanding educational expenditures.

Then there is the battle over science versus religion.  The faithful know a good liberal education equals the eroding of faith.  If we perfect teaching machines to mentor K-12 kids from ignorance to scientific enlightenment would we mandate their use?

Everyday I live with the regrets of what I haven’t learned.  Each night as I drift off to sleep I wish for more time for reading and contemplation, thinking I’m getting close to achieving the general unified theory of everything.  If I could only find time to read another thousand books, things would make sense, but hell I know that’s not true.

I think we should be teaching something different, something less head filling.  I think we should teach how to learn, how to research,  how to concentrate, how to write, how to stick to a task until it’s done, and then let kids go to work at age 12.  Start giving them real world jobs and problems to work on.  If they need trigonometry, chemistry, carpentry, mechanics, electronics, they can pick it up quickly as needed.

It’s not until you go to work that you learn what you really want to know.  Why waste all those years learning everything you might need?  I think we’ll develop the technology for individualized education very soon.  What we need to do now is teach people how to absorb knowledge quickly and apply it right away.  Sort of just in time learning.  Education has always been lifelong.  Why assume it’s K-12 + 4 years of college?

JWH – 7/23/13

3 thoughts on “How Much Education Can Our Heads Hold?”

  1. Great post Jim. We need to focus on teaching kids how to think logically and equally important, how to communicate in a coherent fashion. Things like Calculus…they’re really only applicable for someone that wants to become an engineer or similar. However Calculus is able to also help in other areas (if not on a practical level) such as analysis and critical thinking development. Facts? They’re a waste of time for the most part. Like you, I can’t remember a large majority of what I learned in my early school years but I know that information is in my deep memory area somewhere. The problem isn’t storage, it’s retrieval where the brain is concerned.

    Adaptive learning, if done correctly, can be effective…I think far more research is needed in this area however before we get it right. I personally believe more in self-directed learning (of which adaptive learning can play a large role) but until we teach young people critical thinking skills and give them a foundation (3Rs), it would never work on a mass-scale. I tend to agree with you regarding skills for real-world application…I think we’ll see a re-emergence of trade-school attendance and the like in the near-future. Education is without a doubt broken. We’ve dumbed down our curriculum and we’re teaching to tests…this is not a viable solution.

    All of these are just ideas/personal opinions…there are no easy solutions (unfortunately).

    1. I wish there was some way we could teach math to kids as a tool to seeing reality more clearly. Right now it’s so abstract, even with the word problems.

      Mathematics is both philosophical and practical. Mathematics can act like a telescope or microscope. Mathematics is a tool which we use to build everything, but because it’s invisible, it’s hard for kids to see that.

      Mathematics should be everyone’s second language.

      I’m hoping self-directed learning with adaptive learning and computers can help teach math different from how it’s taught now. It’s a shame that we can’t give every kid a copy of Mathematica to use during their K-12 imprisonment.

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