Continuing Thoughts on Education


I began writing this a few months ago but put it on the shelf for a number of reasons. Now, because of certain events related to education, I think it is time to bring it back and put it out there.

I once proposed the following as a grading scale for my classes in science education:

A – Applying the ideas presented in class to new situations

B – Applying the ideas presented in class to current situations

C – Simply repeating what the book and/or the instructor says in class

D – Inability to repeat what the book and/or instructor says in class

F – Failure to even come close

It didn’t, as one might suspect, go over too well. But the reasons had nothing to do with the process; they had to do with the assumption about learning and measuring success in learning.

What is success in learning? Is it merely the ability to get a good score on an exam? Or is success something else? Let me list some situations:

  1. A chemistry department requires students seeking post-graduate degrees in chemistry to take a series of monthly exams on a variety of topics in their specialty (analytical, biochemistry, inorganic, organic, and physical). The city fire department has agreed to remove from storage several (actually quite a few) 55-gallon drums of liquid wastes provided each drum is labeled with its contents. Each graduate student is “given” one of the drums and told to determine its contents. This constitutes their monthly exam.
  2. A law student happens to own and operate a restaurant in the town where he goes to school. His wife, mother and father operate the restaurant while he goes to school. His plans after graduation are to become an immigration-rights lawyer and leave the operation of the restaurant to his parents and his brother who will emigrate from China. As it happens, the restaurant is located in a building situated on property owned by the university. Six months before graduation, the school notifies the student of their intent to immediately tear down the building and turn the property into a parking lot in order to increase the number of parking spaces on campus. (Apparently the school felt that parking spaces were more important than destroying the only restaurant in town. We will ignore the fact that the school was also a church-affiliated university.) Student takes the school to court and wins a stay so that he can find a new location for his business and also graduate. The court grants the stay. I still don’t know why the school didn’t give him his degree right then and there.

While both of these situations are graduate-level education problems, I think you can understand that they are situations that one is likely to encounter in the real world. Success has to be more than knowing the right answer to a question on a test; it also involved applying knowledge from a number of different settings.

In the chemistry example, knowing what is in the drum is more a result of knowing what tests to run and how to best understand the results. Success is not determined solely by saying that this drum contains the following items but outlining the degree of certainty behind each answer. The difficulty for some students in a problem such as this would be the fact that no one knows what is the “right” answer, only that there is a right answer.

One of the projects that I was going to do for my doctorate but never did was the preparation of C8H8(Pt(CH3)2)2. I didn’t do this project because I ran into the ban of graduate education – funding. But in the event that I get back to a college teaching position and can do some research I want to try and make this. One of the reasons for trying this is because it involves a reaction called a Grignard reaction.

Now, what you learn in organic chemistry is that you prepare your Grignard reagent (an organo-magnesium halide such as CH3MgI) in advance and under very dry conditions You then add whatever your other reactant might be (in my situation, a platinum compound that was also made in advance) to the Grignard reagent to get the desired product. That’s what the book tells you to do.

But if you were to do that in this case (i.e., add the Pt compound to the Grignard) you would generate so much heat that you would destroy your product and the starting materials. Now, I had the benefit of knowing this and not having to find out for myself. So I had some equipment already prepared that would allow me to add the Grignard reagent slowly to the reaction mixture containing my Pt compound and form the desired product. I could then go on and do the experimental research that I was interesting. For those that are interested, C8H8 is called 1, 3, 5, 7-cyclooctatetrene and we presumed that in the final product, the cyclooctatetraene was in a “boat” configuration with the two dimethyl-platinum groups at right angles to each other across the four double bonds. My experiment was to prove that was in fact the structure. It would have been fun.

But, for the purposes of this dialogue, the point is that had I followed the book, I would never have made the final compound. I presume that those who first made the compound found out the hard way that they had to do something different and left behind the written record for me to follow. But what happens if there is no written record; what if you are doing something entirely new?

Now, let us suppose that you don’t even know if there is a right answer. Suppose, for example, you want to determine the density of nitrogen. (WARNING – Do not go to the back of the book just because you know the answer to this problem!). You begin by taking a sample of air. You assume that the only constituents of air are oxygen (O2), nitrogen (N2), and carbon dioxide (CO2). You first remove CO2 by a reaction with potassium oxide or potassium hydroxide (or a combination of both:


Then, you react the sample of air with copper. Reaction with copper should result in copper (II) oxide.


The resulting N2 is then dried and its density determined. To confirm your calculations, you repeat the measurements, only this time you use ammonia (NH3) as the source of the nitrogen. Since there is no oxygen or carbon dioxide in the ammonia, the likelihood of error is reduced.

But you discover that the density of nitrogen from the air is slightly higher than the density of nitrogen from ammonia. Does this mean that your experimental process is in error or even possibly that there are different forms of nitrogen?

It is possible to obtain nitrogen from the atmosphere by an alternative method but you find that the results are consistent with the original experiment. Similarly, there are alternative compounds one can use beside ammonia and the results are consistent with the results from ammonia.

So what can you conclude? Since the sources of nitrogen give consistent results and the results for atmospheric nitrogen give consistently higher results than the results for other nitrogen-containing compounds and you know that air is a mixture, you must conclude that there is a previously unknown component in air.

This is exactly what Lord Rayleigh did in the early 1890s and for which he was credited with the discovery of argon. (Now, you can go to the back of the book – http://www.nature.com/physics/looking-back/rayleigh/index.html).

If you stop to think about it, the problem with science education today is that we focus on the answers in the back of the book and students have come to expect that if the answer is not known, it is an unsolvable problem. All questions have answers and all the students have to know is what the answers are or where to find them.

But there a myriad of questions for which the answer is still unknown. Soy beans are one of the major agricultural crops of this country, not so much for what can be done with them (which is a lot) but for what it does when it is in the field. The soy bean plant is one of the few plants that take nitrogen from the air and “turn” it into fertilizer. Right now, the production of ammonia-based fertilizers is very expensive. The process (the Haber process after its inventor) requires high temperatures and high pressures. The cost of production is directly related to the price of fuel; as the cost of fuel rises, the cost of fertilizer also rises. It stands to reason that alternatives to man-made fertilizers need to be developed. (Yes, yes, I have heard about organic farming processes but we will save that discussion for later.)

I tell my students (or I used to tell them when I was teaching) that if they can find a way to duplicate what the soy bean does in the field, they are certain to win the Nobel Prize for chemistry or a life-time contract from Monsanto (and the cynics say the contract is to keep quiet). The solution is out there to be determined and the prize is well-worth the effort. But it requires more than simply testing students every so often and making sure that they have the right answers. It is making sure that they have the ability to determine the answer on their own and not simply by turning to the back of the book or “googling” the question on the Internet.

There is one other type of problem; the one we don’t know about yet. And since we know nothing about this problem, unless we change the methods by which we solve problems, it will be very difficult to develop a solution. If nothing else, the issue with the Japanese nuclear reactors illustrates that; they anticipated practically every possible situation except the one that actually hit the reactor. Our educational process is more attuned to solving the problems that are already solved than it is for solving the problems that we know nothing about.

I once proposed that teaching should be a self-eliminating process. By this, I meant and mean that we should be more interested in teaching individuals how to do things on their own. Granted there are very few 1st and 2nd graders who could survive on their own after completing that particular grade; but, as each year passes, the skills taught would enable each student to become more and more independent. This is not what is happening right now nor is it what most people seemed to want from the educational process. We see each year as a preparation for the next year (or, for some, several years down the road – there was the issue of the mom suing her child’s pre-school for the failure to prepare the child for an Ivy League education). The testing that is so much a part of today’s educational process simply reinforces that notion — you need to do well on the test because you will need the information next year. We may say that we are teaching students skills but the only skill they are learning is how to take a test, not think through the problem and solve it.

And we are beginning to see the repercussions of this approach. More and more schools are faced with cheating on the tests that decide so much in the way of the school’s success and future. And the cheating is not by the students but by the teachers and administrators who are changing the answers or falsifying the scores on the tests. We have told the teachers and the administrators that it isn’t what the students know that counts; it is the score that they make on the test. And if the test scores are too low, then it will be your job that is removed. In a world where only present moment counts, we have surrendered the future.

Can we fix this? Can we change the trend? Can we create a culture in which students are challenged to see beyond the present moment and envision the future? The answer to all three questions is “yes, a most definite yes!” And it can be done right now if we are willing to make the appropriate changes.

First, we need to reschedule the tests. I am not completely against testing students but I think that these “winner-take-all” should be scheduled for six months after the material has been covered. That way, if learning really took place, it will show up. If the students didn’t learn the material, we will know that we have to go back and redo the learning process. It says a lot about the process when you spend so much time on a subject and then, six months later, you don’t remember anything about it. And if you don’t believe me, how is that we spent all most a year of our life in high school studying the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States and we don’t know what these documents are all about. We had to have known something because we graduated from high school and graduation is an implication that we know something, right?

Second, let us remember that we are no longer an agricultural-based society. We no longer need two to three months off during the summer since we (or most of us) don’t have to work on the farm anymore. We should make school year round and allow individuals to be a little more flexible in scheduling the school time. Right now, we tell high school students that graduation can be accomplished in 8 four-month terms but you must take four years to accomplish this. If we scheduled school was year round and gave the student and faculty a little flexibility, we might obtain some interesting results.

Changes in the school year and the nature of the classroom will cost money. I realize that. We have to face the fact that overall this nation’s educational system is one of the most stratified in the world. There are districts where any student can pretty much whatever they want because their school districts have the resources, funds and wherewithal for achievement. But there are far more districts where there are very little funds available and the resources are limited. We must work to make educational equitable, where the individual matters more than the location. This means some changes in who teaches where and the salaries for all teachers. It requires a change of priorities. As long as we spend more money on a plane that we do on educating the people who build the plane, our priorities are out of order.

Finally, we need to look at what have done in the past when faced with a crisis of thought and process, such as we are now. We do not need, as some have argued, a “Sputnik moment.” We do not need a major crisis to create a panic that will drive the change to reform the educational process. We had such a panic in the le 50s and early 60s and out of that we developed programs that encouraged creativity and independent thought. But we let the processes stop because we thought it cost too much money and we were more worried about the threats of other nations and what they might do to this country. Had we continued supporting the changes proposed in the 60s, we would be better prepared to meet the problems of today and we would have a better understanding of the world around us and the people with whom we share this planet.

The challenge is in front of us. The question that must be answered is “are we prepared t meet this challenge right now, in this time and in this place?”

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