Does School Suck?

The beginning of the semester has me thinking about this 30 minute video I saw about a year ago on teaching and schools by Dr. Tae. It’s provocative and if you care about teaching, especially at the university level, I encourage you to watch it. I agree with most of what he’s saying and try to incorporate a lot of his ideas in my own classes. But he’s just wrong about a few things.

Dr. Tae is unhappy with the state of schools in America–he says they “suck” for a variety of reasons, but the main one is that they are full of big impersonal lecture classes where the teacher/professor stands at the front and pontificates while the students sit there and take notes (best case) or update their Facebook status (worst case).

I don’t think lecture classes have to be all that bad–I had some very good ones when I was an undergrad science major at Rensselaer in the mid 1980’s. At the time (and maybe still) the institution took a lot of pride in it’s teaching. Big physics and chemistry lectures were full of very entertaining and illuminating experiments and I definitely learned in that environment. The main problem with this set up is that it isn’t optimal–there are much better ways to teach when the professor and students are in close proximity. I actually think the days of the big lecture are numbered as there are several places people can go to get free high quality impersonal video lectures on the internet. You may have heard of Khan Academy, iTunes U, and MIT’s Open Courseware. I was very happy to see one of Yale’s very best economics professors on the front page of Academic Earth earlier this week. Ben Polak’s game theory class is legendary here, and now anyone on earth can experience it (as a non-interactive lecture) for free. The point is that if you’re paying gobs of money for an in-person university education, you deserve better than that.

Dr. Tae goes on to say that university teaching is bad because schools don’t hire great teachers–they hire and promote based on research. He’s exactly right about this. Not only is teaching ability ignored during hiring, all the incentives for tenure track faculty are to spend as little time as possible on teaching. You just have to keep your enrollments and student evaluations above pretty low thresholds. I don’t see how universities can improve without changing these hiring practices and incentives.

As an aside, he’s pretty critical of the certification process that’s required for getting most secondary school jobs. In order to teach science at the high school level, I think you should not only know a lot about science, you should also know how to teach. The certification process (flawed as it is) is supposed to make sure you do. I bet Dr. Tae would be an amazing high school science teacher, but I’m not so sure about all of his Northwestern physics faculty colleagues.

Dr. Tae hates grades; he calls them “coercive”–he feels that teachers make students think the way they want them to think by holding grades over their head. I’ll concede that there are better ways to motivate students to work hard than grades, but at the end of the day, the grade is how someone who wasn’t in the classroom (like a prospective employer or admissions committee) can judge what you learned in that classroom. It provides information that’s just not readily apparent in an interview. So I’m not ready to just throw out grades all together.

Dr. Tae loves for kids (even adult kids) to ask questions and do experiments to answer them. I agree this is a great way to learn and stay excited about science. It’s also true that having a strong base of knowledge (be that facts or methods) is important and that means students have to read and listen to stuff they might think is boring in the moment.

Dr. Tae is exactly right when he says the secret to learning is to “Work your ass off until you figure it out”. Failure is far more common than success in science and learning. So often I have students who come to me and say “I read the article for today and didn’t understand it. Something is terribly wrong!” No it’s not. Learning is hard. Reading science, doing math, writing well, making an argument, they all take serious effort. None of it is supposed to be like reading a newspaper article or watching tv. It’s totally normal to have to read something several times to get it.

Dr. Tae talks a bunch about how fundamentally broken our schools are with their bad teachers and semester-long courses and grades. But then he says there are a lot of ways we can “polish the turd”. He’s right about this too. My students ask their own questions, work in small groups, and spend big chunks of time one-on-one with me. I reward curiosity, creativity, and hard work in my grading. Many of them continue research they started in my classes after the semester is over. My bet is that all this is true of Dr. Tae’s classes when he teaches physics.

Before you throw out schools as currently conceived, you have to be ready to replace them with something better. Here’s where I think Dr. Tae’s train goes off the rails. His ideas about “distributed teaching” are totally crazy. He seems to think that we should all teach what we know part-time and all together, this will give people a better educational experience than they would get in college. He gives Wikipedia as an example. I love Wikipedia, but reading about a topic there is a far cry from taking a course on it with someone who has spent their life studying it.

Like so many things, it all comes down to incentives. Knowledge is a public good, but someone has to produce it and communicate it. That’s not free. A system that depends on people volunteering their time is a system that produces an extremely sub-optimal amount of knowledge. There’s probably a role for government in subsidizing this production, and I think this a great argument for not dismantling our public universities. But I do think there’s vast room for improvement to the education system. In the meantime I’ll continue to polish turds in my own classes.