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Don’t stop them now! Students can learn more than you think

Computers are fast and stupid, people are slow and clever. This is an axiom that anybody who works with computers must accept in order that computers and people may cooperate effectively. Yet, schools seem to ask students to do tasks to which computers are much better suited, and then let them graduate without ever having gone beyond and explored their own potential as a human.

This is easiest to see in math classes. Students can graduate only having taken Algebra 1. And I can almost guarantee that WolframAlpha, a computational intelligence capable of solving many problems in subjects from arithmetic to calculus (among its many other abilities), would pass the Algebra 1 regents more easily than any student. Students should be expected to do what computers can’t. We don’t teach students to browse the internet and make their own directory of where all the information on the internet is, just in case they end up needing it. That’s Google’s job. We teach students internet research skills so that they can do something useful with Google. 

Likewise, there are many challenging math problems that students could try their hands at solving, where the ability to do algebra or calculus becomes a useful tool, rather than a skill itself, to be tested in isolation. Obviously, we should teach students to use math as the tool it is, rather than a skill unto itself.

There’s nothing wrong with teaching students Algebra 1. They definitely should study it, and be tested on their skill level, just as I think students should have some understanding of how Google works. But don’t stop there. One day, when I suggested to my Dad, who is a math teacher, that he should let his students have access to the internet when taking tests, he responded, “Well, then, I’d make my tests a lot harder.” Would it not be better for individual students and society as a whole, if we expected students to do more and more difficult things with computers, rather than simply do what computers do, but slower?

Of course, this goes far beyond math. I’ve taken many history tests that simply tested my memory of facts. I could have just consulted Google and gotten a correct and comprehensive answer very easily. This approach treats history like it’s simply one’s ability to remember and categorize facts. We’re doing a disservice to our students if we let them believe that. We study history to use it and understand it, not to recall it. Nobody would read a child Aesop’s fables, test them on the content of one of the stories, and proclaim “This student understands!” Because fables are more than the content of the story. They are useful for the lesson they teach, and so is history.

English is one of the only subjects that regularly gets close to revealing its usefulness to students, but this causes shortcomings in other aspects. As, at least in my classes, we have to read and write frequently. Yet, we aren’t taught the basic mechanics and meanings of words. I’ve peer-edited many essays where the writer clearly had not been taught any grammar or vocabulary, nor did they use something like Grammarly, which could have managed their grammar for them.

One assignment I had that illustrates well the potential of going beyond simple knowledge of facts and towards usefulness and creativity, was an assignment that I had last year in my AP environmental science class. We were split up into small groups. Each group had to prepare a food that met the nutritional needs of one person for a single day and had the smallest greenhouse gas emissions possible. That is not something that any computer I know of can do. I did extensive research. It was very challenging but fun, as it forced us to use our knowledge of environmental science beyond what we would be tested on. This was just one of many things that made that class the best class I’ve yet taken at Stuyvesant, and one of very few classes from which I actually remembered anything after finals.

The subject is not the class. The class is using the subject for something more. If you cannot teach the students to use the subject effectively enough to allow them to go beyond, that is a different problem for another time, and you need to rethink your teaching methods. If you stop your students from using their subject knowledge, they will not understand it. It will become more difficult for them to learn more in the future. They will not recall anything from the class once the semester finishes, and they will enjoy the class less. They can and should do more. Don’t stop them now!

What do you think?

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