The World Might Be Better Off if We Rethink Education

I want to discuss an article my friend Robert tweeted about yesterday.

This paragraph in particular:

First and foremost: From kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market. Why do English classes focus on literature and poetry instead of business and technical writing? Why do advanced-math classes bother with proofs almost no student can follow? When will the typical student use history? Trigonometry? Art? Music? Physics? Latin? The class clown who snarks “What does this have to do with real life?” is onto something.

One of the best compliments I ever received from a student (thank you, Tali!) was that my class was “relevant.” And she said it because we studied literature (poetry is, by the way, literature, so I’m unclear why the two were separated). We read The Bluest Eye, and Tali wrote an essay about how the novel reflected modern unrealistic notions about beauty standards. She researched the lengths people go to alter their appearance and the mental health effects of being unable to accept and love ourselves as we are. Don’t try to tell me literature isn’t relevant. It shows us who we are, and it shows us others who are not like us. It gives us an opportunity to understand our world. It is one thing for school to prepare us to make a living. It also needs to prepare us to make a life, which is a point Professor Caplan seems to have missed in his argument that the humanities, in particular, are irrelevant. I would challenge anyone in Professor Robin Bates’s English class to tell me what he teaches isn’t relevant.

I can’t understand anyone who would argue we don’t need to study history. A lack of understanding of history is precisely how we wound up in our current political situation. I suppose I want to know who the typical student is, also, because I would argue we should all be well-rounded. The content is not as important as wrestling with the ideas, developing critical thinking and communication skills, and having a greater understanding of our world and all the ways in which it works. It doesn’t make studying the content “useless.”

Caplan argues that “Every college student who does the least work required to get good grades silently endorses the theory [of educational signaling],” meaning that it doesn’t really matter what you study in college—you will exhibit certain traits employers are looking for just because you have done college work at a certain level. The first thing that’s wrong with the argument is doing work to get grades. People who are intrinsically interested in a topic will do the work regardless, but people who are doing the work for a grade are not intrinsically motivated. The work is a means to a different end. And that’s exactly what is wrong with school. Grades. We need to get rid of grading because it gets in the way of learning.

Caplan also mentions learning loss:

The conventional view—that education pays because students learn—assumes that the typical student acquires, and retains, a lot of knowledge. She doesn’t. Teachers often lament summer learning loss: Students know less at the end of summer than they did at the beginning.

What kind of learning are we talking about? Memorizing facts? Students will not forget what they apply and what they teach to others. Caplan adds that “Human beings have trouble retaining knowledge they rarely use.” True. What kind of knowledge are we talking about, though? If I can look it up or store it somewhere, I’m not going to stuff it in my brain somewhere because I have a lot going on, and I am not wasting space remembering what I can look up. That’s why, for example, if something I need to remember to do isn’t on my calendar, it doesn’t exist. We do need to make a compelling case for the relevance of what we teach students, or rather, what we ask students to learn. That does not mean college isn’t for everyone who wants to go.

Caplan truly reveals his hand when he remarks, “I’m cynical about students. The vast majority are philistines.”

Frankly, if this is your attitude, you should not be teaching because you do not love your students. It’s classist garbage.

Caplan maintains, “Those who believe that college is about learning how to learn should expect students who study science to absorb the scientific method, then habitually use it to analyze the world. This scarcely occurs.” Then the problem is the way college professors teach the scientific method (or whatever else you care to use as an example), right? It stands to reason we should at least examine that it is possible that college professors are not helping students apply what they are learning. After all, Caplan says, “Students who excel on exams frequently fail to apply their knowledge to the real world.” That’s because EXAMS ARE NOT APPLICATION. They are not good assessments if we want students to learn what we hope they will learn. They are easy to grade, but as I said before, grades don’t have a connection to learning. I haven’t given an exam in years, and I don’t anticipate ever giving an exam for the rest of my career. Why? Precisely because it teaches students to cram a lot of information into their heads, dump it out on the test, and then forget it. Just as Howard Gardner argues in a quote Caplan uses in the article:

Students who receive honor grades in college-level physics courses are frequently unable to solve basic problems and questions encountered in a form slightly different from that on which they have been formally instructed and tested.

Being “formally instructed and tested” on a topic doesn’t mean you’ve learned it. Are instructors asking students what they have learned? They might be surprised. So what is Caplan doing to change things? Not much. As he says, “I try to teach my students to connect lectures to the real world and daily life. My exams are designed to measure comprehension, not memorization.”

Caplan is expecting that because he lectures, students are learning. What is he asking his students to do to apply their understandings of economics? What research projects are they taking on?  What sorts of research-based writing are they doing? What sorts of questions are they wrestling with in Socratic discussion?

Caplan adds, right after his remark about being cynical about students, that he’s “cynical about teachers. The vast majority are uninspiring.” I don’t disagree with Caplan here. I’m not sure if I think the vast majority are uninspiring, but I do think teachers who lecture and expect students will retain everything they say and then measure understanding with exams are probably uninspiring. And a large number of teachers do assess in this way.

Educators—at all levels, including and maybe especially college—need to take a hard look at themselves and understand how they teach affects the results they are hoping to achieve. They need to know who they are teaching. They need to stop shaming their students and blaming them for not learning, especially when the way they are teaching students results in the lack of learning and understanding that they decry in their students.

16 thoughts on “The World Might Be Better Off if We Rethink Education”

  1. I am interested in your discussion of education because my AP Lang class is presently having a very interesting discussion in response to Emerson’s “Education” essay.

    I may have to add your post to our discussion so that I can get feedback from my students. They had many insights to share about their own educational experiences in particular and the education system in general. Fun stuff!

  2. I teach grad finance and believe Mtlr Caplan is indictive of all that is wrong in education.

    1. I do worry that many educators seem to feel they don’t need to meet students where they are and instead expect students to meet the teachers where the teachers are.

  3. Beware those who decry the poor state of their students. Ask the students. Most have a good sense of learning vs. doing school and feel powerless so acquiesce to the system to get the supposedly required certification. For me, it boils down to how we engage with content. Literature matters, but not if I ask my students to answer lists of questions for each chapter of a book. History matters, but not if it’s just “facts” that will be on a test.

    1. I agree Barry. What you say about how we engage with content is so important. Just about anything we teach can be pointless and irrelevant if we don’t approach it in a meaningful and engaging way.

  4. This might be the most passionate post of yours I’ve read, Dana. I’ve thought about the claim that kids are forced to learn stuff not relevant to their lives in the context of my own education, and I can’t think of any learning that has been useless. Even if we have kids learn only what matters in this specific moment in time, HoD long before someone else says it’s irrelevant? The ability to think, to question, to evaluate and critique—-these matter, especially now.

    1. I do feel strongly about this issue. Trying to determine exactly what everyone should learn is a moving target. We can’t know. We are preparing students for a future that’s difficult to envision. We can, however, prepare students to think, evaluate, communicate, reason, and question.

  5. I shared your post with my AP Lang class; we had a spirited discussion about grades, time constraints, learning and teaching styles, and curriculum relevance . The class believes that you presented a sound argument , and we also concluded that Emerson would concur. Thanks for giving us all food for thought.

  6. How would you suggest making history relevant? I am noticing that students do not find the past relevant, partly because they don’t see how it has any bearing on the questions in their daily life.

    1. I suppose my quick answer is I don’t understand how it’s NOT relevant. Connect it to events today so students can see why things are the way they are right now. For example, my colleagues taught a history strand in American History last year that moved the struggle for equality from Reconstruction to Black Lives Matter. I think what students struggle with is the chronological march. If they can see how events going on around them are happening because of the past, they will have a deeper understanding of the world around them. A good example of this is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s watershed article, “The Case for Reparations.” That entire article is an argument for the relevance of history to our present moment.

  7. Great writing. Here, I think, is the critical segment: “What is he asking his students to do to apply their understandings of economics? What research projects are they taking on? What sorts of research-based writing are they doing? What sorts of questions are they wrestling with in Socratic discussion?” This nicely sums up the importance of inquiry-driven learning, central questions, and research. Many of the “uninspiring” teachers mentioned by Caplan likely use lecture formats, overheads, and worksheets that are fragmented, i.e., unconnected to the larger questions of the unit or class. Students should be delving into great questions, solving larger problems, and complete projects in lieu of more stale lecture-based classes.

  8. Dana,

    I enjoyed reading this. I am an Instructional coach and I recently encountered a teacher who was lamenting that he did not know how to break free of the lecture and exam cycle. I suggested a blended learning model of station rotation in order to ween him off of the lectures 🙂 Any other suggestions for teachers who are attempting to break the cycle?



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