Are the Exact Sciences being Taught Poorly?

I was relieved when I heard that I passed my final examination for mathematics on high school. Finally…no more need to memorize those nonsensical rules. No more need to study this weird language that, just like French and German, just seemed to make no sense at all. No more frustration. What a relief. That was how I have felt about mathematics, and about the exact sciences in  general, for my entire high school period. But in the last couple of years, I slowly became aware of the beauty of each of these “nonsensical” disciplines. I have read about Einstein’s theory of general relativity and other world-changing ideas that have catapulted our society into the 21st century. And this made me think: are the exact sciences being taught in the wrong manner? Is that maybe why I – and possible many others – couldn’t appreciate their beauty?

The (Dutch) labor market is short of beta-educated people. Why is that? Well, maybe it is because of the manner in which mathematics and physics are being taught at high school. Maybe children are being scared to death in the few years they are at attending high school, so that they promise themselves never ever to study mathematics or physics later on in their lives. That could be an explanation for the fact that the majority of children finishing their high school education start studying law or business, two subjects that aren’t being taught at high school and – therefore – could not have scared away any child (yet).

But there might be many opportunities for making the exact sciences more attractive to children. There are websites like BetterExplained, Khan Academy, Ted-Ed and MinutePhysics that are capable of teaching seemingly dry and formal concepts in a playful and interesting manner. These people have taught me the ideas behind mathematical formulas and the laws of physics governing our everyday reality. I believe that it is a lack of idea-oriented teaching, as being applied by the aforementioned websites, and an overdose of rule-based teaching, as currently being applied at high school, that is what is discouraging many youngsters from choosing to continue their education in the exact sciences.

Another reason why teaching according to the idea-oriented approach might better suit the needs of children, and thus of society, is that the parts of children’s brains required for being able to process abstract information are frequently not fully developed yet in the period they are attending high school. Therefore, even if they wanted to, they might simply be unable to understand what is being taught to them. Concepts like atoms or differentiation are not similar to any everyday experience a child knows of. These abstract concepts might ask a little too much of children’s underdeveloped little brains. And it is this “asking a little too much” that might result in children not understanding the topics and, what seems to be an even bigger problem, not enjoying to learn about them.

But it is not only at high school that rule-based teaching seems to dominate idea-oriented teaching; many university courses also seem to stick to the procedure of “just follow the steps” in teaching students about – for example – mathematics. But what if you go wrong by following these steps? What if you ask your teacher for advice and he says, “Of course you went wrong, you skipped step 6”. How would that contribute to your understanding of mathematics? Not much, right? Is that truly how we want to teach mathematics to students? Given that there seems to be no creativity required for performing these types of calculations, can’t we just let computers do it for us? Then we will at least be sure that no steps will be forgotten, right?

My question to you is: do you also think that the manner in which the exact sciences are being taught today might prevent children from studying them later on in their lives? And do you believe that the manner in which the exact sciences are being taught, whether it is in high school or at university, is wrong from a didactic point of view? I am curious to know what you believe.

Written by Rob Graumans

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