Proposed: Stop Emphasizing Math and Science Scores

24Jul08

There is a perennial concern that the U.S. will fall behind because young people don’t study math, science, and engineering often enough or well enough.  A partial solution to this problem is to stop making such fields even more forbidding than they are.

Math is a language.  It is a way of thinking.  It is a world unto itself.  A kid can get lost in it.  It is just like a good novel, or a bug crawling around on the ground.

If participants in an educational system view math as scary, difficult, or intrinsically less fun than literature or social causes, kids will pick up on that message.  Those who do study math will do so for extrinsic rewards — money, for example, or secure employment — and not for its own intrinsic merit.  This means that, when they have enough money or security, they will want to turn to something else.

If, on the other hand, math teachers and literature teachers have mutual respect and appreciation for one another’s participation in the grand pursuit of learning for its own sake, there will tend to be a message that this is all an opportunity.  It is possible for a child to discover that this — learning — is a more rewarding way of spending one’s time than watching some stupid TV show.

In short, to improve math and science scores dramatically, stop emphasizing math and science scores, and start emphasizing the love of learning.  It became convenient to dismiss such a thing, as though it were a medieval holdover that we can ill afford in a fast-changing modern world.  The love of learning has become almost synonymous with the study of philosophy or other fields perceived as useless.

But the exciting new stuff tends to come from people who can slow down and look at things carefully.  It is essential to be able to become absorbed.  That’s the skill to teach.

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