The Challenge of Education

Last week, an interesting thing happened in England. The consequences of this action will, I believe, reach far beyond the shores of that country and encompass the world. The Royal Society asked their Director of Education, Professor Michael Reiss, to step down from his position because of comments that he made regarding the teaching of evolution in the classroom.

To quote from Dr. Keith S. Taber’s letter to the Times Educational Supplement (see for the entire letter and the responses),

The gist of Prof. Reiss’ argument was that the appropriate response to students who raise their beliefs in class when they are taught the scientific theory of natural selection should not be to ignore, dismiss or ridicule the students’ views, but rather to respect their ideas as a starting point for discussion, and to challenge them through the scientific arguments that have led to evolution by natural selection becoming some a strongly supported and widely accepted model for how life on earth has developed.

Professor Reiss is not supporting creationism or intelligent design, nor is he arguing for the inclusion of these topics in the science curriculum. But he is arguing that teachers should respect the views of their students and use those views as a starting point for discussion.

Too often, teachers dismiss the ideas of students as irrelevant or meaningless to the discussion. And this doesn’t just apply to those who teach evolution with an all-or-nothing approach; any time we present our ideas as the only choice or the only option, we risk alienating students and those who are seeking answers to critical and crucial questions in their lives.

Education should be the number one priority in our lives but it doesn’t seem to be that. We argue for accountability from our teachers but all we ask them to do is teach an ever-increasing number of facts with no connection to the real world and without the means to analyze the facts or even develop the ability to discern what constitutes a good idea and what constitutes a bad idea. As I noted earlier, “Are We Ready For The Future?”, we quite easily deal with short-term problems because we have short-term visions. But what will happen if we encounter a complex problem that cannot be solved quickly and simply? What will happen if we encounter a problem that has never been described?

When Dmitri Mendeleev first proposed his first periodic table, the major problem that he had to overcome was that of the “missing” elements. Others before him had attempted to push the elements together, leaving no holes in their predicted tables. But this solution failed to provide suitable explanations for the observed properties of the known elements and the relationship between elements that showed similar properties. What Mendeleev did was to use the observed physical and chemical properties of the known elements and reason that there were other un-discovered elements. To make his periodic table work, he left holes where he felt that elements should go; he then provided information about what the properties of these elements would be. The most commonly cited examples are Mendeleev’s “eka-aluminum” and “eka-silicon”. “Eka-aluminum” would have properties similar to that of aluminum and indium; “eka-silicon” would have properties similar to that of silicon and tin. We know these two elements today as gallium and germanium.

But Mendeleev’s periodic table does not have holes in it to account for the Noble Gases nor did he predict their existence. He did not predict their existence because he had no evidence to suggest their presence in our environment. Helium would not be discovered until two years after Mendeleev’s periodic table was published and only through an examination of the spectrum of the sun

With our knowledge of electrons and electron structure, we could easily see how to place the Nobel Gases in the periodic table but Mendeleev did not have that information. How will we handle such problems in our future?

The only way that Mendeleev was able to even predict the existence of some elements was through his ability to see relationships between the elements and how elements could be grouped together because of similar properties. If all we do is teach basic facts and do little to go beyond those facts, such “break-through” thoughts will be few and far between in the future.

Now, some will tell me that once helium was discovered, it would have been intuitively obvious that there were other similar gases necessary to fill the holes that the discovery of helium would have automatically created. And that is true, but you have to have that sense of discovery and that is not present in an environment in which only facts are taught and questioning is not allowed.

To teach students to question things is a very risky thing to do; because it will cause many students to question the fundamental things that they have been taught. But if the fundamental things are sound, the questioning will cause no disturbance. If there are problems with those fundamentals, perhaps they should be questioned.

Teachers need to respect the belief systems of their students; it is how the students operate. But they also need to move beyond the teaching of facts and begin including questioning and analysis in their presentation of the facts. This will be a challenge but the benefit will be that future problems will be solved, not unknown.


9 thoughts on “The Challenge of Education

  1. Pingback: Threads from Henry’s Web » Thoughts on Michael Reiss

  2. Of course, sometimes students’ beliefs ARE irrelevant to the discussion. We’re studying Julius Caesar and one of my lovelies blurts out, “that’s because Shakespeare is just GAY.”


  3. It was when we were discussing persuasive strategies – appeal to logic/thinking (Brutus) vs. appeal to emotion/feeling (Antony). Which one has the more powerful effect on the crowd? Antony’s. And apparently, this is because Shakespeare is gay.

  4. Okay, I agree. Sometimes what the students think or believe is irrelevant to the discussion. But you have to get them to say something if you want them to think.

    Keep pushing them.

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