Several years ago, a teacher from my school was tutoring Kevin, then a freshman in high school. One day, Kevin came to their session asking for help in preparing for a test on protein synthesis. The tutor went over the information Kevin had been presented, helping him to memorize the following: “Messenger RNA is synthesized by complementary base pairing with deoxyribonucleotides to match a portion of one strand of DNA called a gene. Subsequently, ribosomal subunits attach to the messenger RNA and amino acids are joined to form a polypeptide or a protein through a process called translation . . .” and so on. After Kevin had successfully memorized this highly complex process by which a protein is produced, the tutor asked him an insightful question: “Kevin, what is a protein?”
Kevin had no idea.
This type of “learning” is typical of nearly every science class and every textbook in every school I have ever seen or heard about, whether a public school, a Catholic school, or a Montessori school. A student is expected to learn about a highly technical, highly abstract scientific topic, such as the production of a protein, without any of the preceding context that would make it intelligible.
Kevin had not first learned the observations that led Darwin to believe that traits could be inherited, or the simple experiments of Mendel and the theory of genes, or the process by which DNA was discovered. Since the understanding of the production of a protein depends on this (and much, much more) knowledge, Kevin’s memorization feat was not real understanding–he was not gaining real knowledge. Instead, he was performing a fleeting recitation of what in his mind amounted to a fairy tale with a lot of technical scientific jargon.
Tragically, much of mankind’s brilliant accumulation of scientific knowledge has this standing in the minds of today’s students.
Consider the way you were taught Newton’s Laws of Motion. If your education was typical, the teacher came into class one morning, stood at the board, and declared that Newton identified three laws of motion–which you dutifully wrote down and later committed to memory. No context had been established for these discoveries. No information had been given as to what earlier observations and theories were made by other great scientists, what further discoveries were made by Newton, and how Newton’s incomparable genius enabled him to integrate all this information into three fundamental, universal laws governing the behavior of every object in the universe.
Pick up any grade school science textbook and you will see the same problem. Page one usually displays in vivid color a diagram of the structure of an atom. The chapter tells the students that an atom is a tiny unit of matter, that it has a nucleus made up of protons and neutrons, that the nucleus is surrounded by electrons, and so on. The question that such books make no attempt to answer is: Why should a child believe this drawing any more than he believes the Saturday morning cartoons? He has never seen an atom, or a nucleus, or an electron; he has not been told how scientists discovered the existence and properties of this thing that cannot be seen; nor can he possibly understand the implications of the existence or nature of atoms. Thus, all of the material stands as meaningless gibberish he has been asked to accept on faith.
The vast majority of today’s science teachers simply do not understand what it means to learn. They do not understand that there is a necessary order to learning, and that adhering strictly to this order is the only way to ensure that the student has a clear, independent grasp of the material. Today’s teachers seem more concerned with enabling their students to parrot impressive-sounding words than they are with fostering their ability to think. That is why a high school chemistry teacher of Kira, one of my former students, said the following when he began a section on quantum theory: “This material is far too complex for any of you to really understand–but don’t worry, we’ll only spend a few days on it.”
Such “teaching” is a betrayal of the purpose of education, which is to give children the essential knowledge and cognitive powers necessary to be independent, productive, happy adults. In terms of content, to the extent that the hierarchy of knowledge is violated in students’ education, they learn nothing of the material they are being taught; they learn only to repeat what they are told. In terms of method, to the extent that the principle is violated, students fail to learn what it really means to come to know something; this is replaced with the deadly lesson that knowledge of complex, abstract scientific issues is gained by parroting the words of an authority.
Students who have no true concept of scientific knowledge are ripe for pseudo-scientific propaganda. In today’s schools, the leading propagator of such propaganda is the environmentalist movement. For example, it is routine for seven-year-olds to be taught that catastrophic global warming is imminent, that it is caused by man, and that industry and Republicans are “selfishly” leading us toward an apocalypse for their own short-term gain. In talking to these children and seeing them interviewed, what is most disturbing is the certainty they project in taking a position on as complex an issue as long-term climate change–when they have no knowledge of the principles of chemistry, physics, or meteorology. Many parents understandably object to such indoctrination because of its anti-capitalist, pseudo-scientific content; the more fundamental objection to make, however, regards the anti-hierarchical method that it exhibits–a method that makes all learning, even of the truth, a form of indoctrination.
- How To Teach Your Child: A Necessary Order To Knowledge (Part 1 of 4) (November 5, 2006)
- How To Teach Your Child: What It Means To Learn (Part 2 of 4) (November 12, 2006)
- How To Teach Your Child: Motivating Students To Learn (Part 3 of 4) (November 19, 2006)
David Harriman, philosopher and historian of physics, is the originator of VanDamme Academy’s revolutionary science curriculum. An expert both in physics and in proper pedagogy, Mr Harriman developed and taught a two-year course on the history of physics for VanDamme Academy. VanDamme Academy is now making this revolutionary physics course, “Introduction to Physical Science,” available to the public.