The world has shifted. Information recall is a trivial task thanks to Google, Bing, or Duck Duck Go (if you’re particularly privacy inclined). We have all heard calls for changing our primary education system to move away from recall-based standardized tests and towards problem-solving because that is what humans do in the real world.
For a while, I found this notion of shifting education to focus on problem-solving dissatisfying, but I could not quite put my finger on why. Then I was reminded that we used to have ashtrays in operating rooms. Let me explain.
We used live in a world where we did not know that smoking was bad for us. In fact, there were cigarettes branded as the preferred choice for pregnant women. It turns out, our knowledge of smoking at the time was fallible (like most knowledge). As such, we did things that now seem insane – like building ashtrays in operating rooms.
However, as our collective understanding of smoking advanced we removed those ashtrays. Although sensible, we have removed a memorial to the fallibility of knowledge. Future generations, will no longer walk into an operating room and see that we built our world on collective delusions.
So how does this relate to school? I worry that we cannot teach problem-solving until we help students see the world as filled with problems to solve. In a paradigm where information recall is prioritized, we are implying that if you the student understand something, you understand the truth. We have removed the fallibility of knowledge by teaching what is.
I believe we can redesign primary school so that students can see the world as potentially problematic. In doing so, we equip them with the desire to be problem solvers.
For example, in physics in the 1600s we believed in phlogiston theory – an early attempt to explain combustion and rusting via the release of a material called phlogiston. What if we did the experiments that led the brightest minds of those days to believe that substances contained phlogiston? What if we really convinced our students that phlogiston was real? Only when we have convinced the students that phlogiston do reveal the truth. We do the experiments showing that some materials gain mass during oxidation disproving the release of phlogiston. We build it up only to tear it down.
History is a story of progress, of the few that saw the world as problematic. My worry is that you cannot just teach someone to be a problem solver – you need to experience the discomfort of believing something to be true only to realize it was built on a house of cards.
I think that education should be less focused on teaching what we know and more focused on giving us the experience of building these houses of cards only to tear them down again.
If primary schools focused on conditioning us to believe the knowledge we accept today is a house of cards, how could we help but not equip ourselves to be problem solvers in a world whose fallibility might come crashing down on us any day?