Unite or Die

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

For at least two centuries, education has been divided up into separate compartments. In most recent educational history, the so-called core compartments or “subjects” have been social studies, English (now known as English language arts or ELA), mathematics, and science. Along side these have been physical education and a number of other artistic or artisan activities such as music, drama, art, and woodworking.

A great number of educators have noticed that this separation has made less and less sense as time has passed. Similar issues exist within these disciplines. For example, my own area of science was divided up long ago into physics (the original natural philosophy encompassing motion, light, and other physical phenomena such as electricity and magnetism), chemistry (changes in matter), and biology (study of living things that was mostly limited to classification in its earliest days). Biology has changed enormously and now no longer depends on classification. Understanding chemistry requires plenty of physics and often heavy-duty mathematics. And so it goes.

If we are to educate our youth, we must break down the artificial barriers between the compartments formed so long ago. They make little sense these days.

For example, mathematics and science are kept separate in our schools, and their teachers are trained separately. Yet, mathematics, as taught in grades K-12, is mostly applied mathematics at its heart. It was created for commerce, engineering, and surveying. Calculus was created for science. These connections are lost in most mathematics courses. Once you’ve learned to count, that is, learned the names of the numbers, the rest follows logically as you begin to figure out the world around you. Were science and math merged into a double-period class, it could make much more sense to students — especially if engineering is included in science, and commerce is included in math. 

The current mode of presenting course materials strips courses of much of their meat and makes them rather dry and unappealing. The same argument applies to the remaining core courses. The problems with this separation, sometimes referred to as “silos,” do not end here. The primary objects of education should be learning to think and learning how to learn — for life. The rapid pace of technological development and of “globalization” requires that every person be ready to expand their horizons continually throughout life or risk being marginalized. Education must prepare people for that reality.

I argue that artificial barriers between subjects thwart this necessary educational approach.

Breaking down these barriers will not be easy. Teachers’ colleges have built up their structure over a very long period. Today’s teachers were trained to be “silo” teachers. Reforming teachers’ colleges will take considerable time. Most will resist strenuously.

If we do not make this change, we all will suffer. The obstacles seem insurmountable. Among the current ferment lies an answer. Just as has been true in other areas, technology holds the potential for solution.

Educational technology remains in its infancy. The future can expand far beyond what we see today. New styles of learning and of peer collaboration will appear and make possible the destruction of the artificial barriers between subjects. For the purposes of this article, details need not be presented. It suffices to explain that technology can boost the ability of one educator to support students learning a wide variety of materials. That educator must understand very well the philosophy of learning, the science of learning, and the nature of people who are learning. Our future educators must know something about everything but need not know everything about anything except the learning process. In short, they must become the ideal mentors, coaches, and trainers. Technology can do the rest.

Educational technology of the future will itself learn as people interact with it. It will inform the educators in charge of students of any issues and will seek out experts to help with any difficulties in explaining materials. It will notice different student backgrounds and help the educators fill in missing understanding. It will be highly interactive and available anytime and anywhere. It will be inexpensive and require only inexpensive devices to use.

In the future, people will learn to communicate, to explore, to create, and to learn for life. The student must only bring the will to learn. Because careers with the greatest prestige, greatest financial rewards, and with the most self-fulfillment (rarely all three at once) require learning, that will should not be difficult to have. An educated person (virtually everyone in my utopian view) will be able to create excellent communication in a variety of media and will be able to comprehend clearly communication from others, especially when it’s been designed to deceive. This person will be unafraid to create and will have the mental tools to do so in at least a few area. The future educated citizen will be constantly exploring our environment in a variety of ways. The most advanced of these explorers will be our scientists, but all will be constantly expanding their horizons. Learning will never cease to be a joyous activity for the future citizen.

Although I’ve concentrated on the core subjects, the truly educated person will appreciate music, art, drama, and creative writing as well as being well rounded physically and may contribute to some of these areas in a variety of ways — and will do so at least as an amateur.

Today, educational technology is building the future ever so slowly, as it seems to me, and in fits and starts with many false starts. We are progressing generally in the direction outlined above toward a wonderful and very brave new world.

One Response

  1. One example of this trend is the often-mistaken substitution of STEAM for STEM. STEM itself is an attempt to break down barriers. Time for change. It’s about time.

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