Do-It-Ourselves Education

When I lived for a year in Germany in high school as a foreign exchange student, I picked up, among many other things, a great quote from my host father: “Die Vorbereitung ist alles.” When said in my first language, it sounds fairly banal: “(The) preparation is everything.”

In both languages, though, the understood meaning of the phrase has a teleological ring: preparation is all-important for the goal you want to accomplish or some particular end you have in mind to achieve or realize. But I prefer a more extreme interpretation of the quote, in particular for education: that there is no achievement track, only a preparation track (multiple tracks in reality).

preparation

How do we get to that achievement above from, say, the middle of the preparation track? We don’t (in general). We move along the preparation track until we are in close enough proximity to the achievement to grab it. We don’t, in fact, keep our eyes on the prize. We keep our eyes on the preparation needed to move us within striking distance of the prize. Indeed, from way back in the middle of the track, the prize may look more tempting than it will appear close up (and it may be a mirage). And we may not be able to grasp it until we’re a little past it in our preparation.

Stay on the Right Track

The goal or achievement can be anything, really. So, for example, just cruise Twitter for a bit to find some quotable goal for education. The Feynman quote on the right is a good example. It is part of a quotation from a letter to a student in 1976, in which Feynman refers to himself in the third person, from The Quotable Feynman:

Just because Feynman says he is pro-nuclear power, isn’t any argument at all worth paying attention to because I can tell you (for I know) that Feynman doesn’t know what he is talking about when he speaks of such things. He knows about other things (maybe). Don’t pay attention to “authorities,” think for yourself.

Okay, great. Sincerely, that’s a great goal. I definitely would like to help students be appropriately mistrustful of authority—to the extent that it stimulates constructive thinking, not just having temper tantrums about authority. Who wouldn’t? So, let’s talk about distrusting authority as a goal for education.

The usefulness of the above interpretation about preparation is that now we must find the image of that goal somewhere along the preparation track and work out how we will connect the beginning and middle of the track to the point where that goal can be attained. Almost instantly we will see that we need to define what we (society) want for students. (For example, students have a lot of authority figures in their lives. Will they interpret the pro-skepticism message in a way that makes them start ignoring what their parents tell them? Does skepticism just mean that they have an ability to say, “I don’t think that’s right” and then never follow up?) But more importantly, we need to think about the steps along the path: What do students need to know first to understand skepticism and how to wield it appropriately? How does that ability progress over time? What knowledge is involved?

I don’t know about you, but when I deliberate on that simple Feynman quote for a while, I think of dozens of different sub-steps I would want to put in place along the preparation track from the goal back to the starting point. And these would probably break down into hundreds of smaller steps. Balancing appropriate skepticism—actionable skepticism, not armchair, consequence-free questioning—with the absolute necessity in modern life of trusting experts and authorities is lifelong work for adults who take on that challenge. If we want it to be an explicit goal for students—and not just a slogan we pass around on social media—then it will require a lot of work and technical planning.

My wish for 2018 and beyond is that, in addition to wanting these kinds of big things for students, we realize the hard, technical, scientific work involved in doing those things ourselves. Let’s leave behind the childish idea that, in order for students to achieve X, they just have to do X. That works for small things, not for anything worth having.

It is not science to know how to change centigrade to Fahrenheit. It’s necessary, but it is not exactly science. In the same sense, if you were discussing what art is, you wouldn’t say art is the knowledge of the fact that a 3-B pencil is softer than a 2-H pencil. It’s a distinct difference. That doesn’t mean an art teacher shouldn’t teach that, or that an artist gets along very well if he doesn’t know that.

–Richard Feynman