I had a student recently complain that his teacher was forcing him to learn the periodic table, an exercise in rote memorization that increasingly seems archaic and antiquated in an age when Elon Musk is researching how to connect the wires of a computer to the human brain. Twenty years from now, you’ll be able to pull up a google search in your head without even pushing a button. Is a student really going to need to have the periodic table memorized?
In a time of rapid change and chaos, educational systems are struggling to keep up, with teachers predictably falling back on systems that have worked for them in the past but are now hopelessly outdated in serving the needs of the near future. Even as learning has shifted to online forums such as Zoom, an insistence on old pedagogy is the antithesis of progress.
But some truths of learning still exist. Namely that learning in the human brain is driven by curiosity: by asking questions, testing hypotheses and collecting data. While it sounds specific to the sciences, it actually applies to all disciplines: In an English class, students must ask questions about characters or themes in a text, gather evidence to support or refute those theories and make sense of it all in the end; history applies that method to the past; math to numbers and so on.
Curiosity is critical to student engagement: it’s critical to human engagement. Our curiosity is the mechanism that has allowed us to reach into the realms of virtual reality, space exploration, artificial intelligence, and ironically the technology that seems to have brought traditional education to its knees: online learning.
But curiosity can still be fostered in an online environment. I showed my son the launch of spaceship online: it was about a one minute long video showing the launch of the spaceship Columbia. We discussed what the parts of the rocket were that broke off in the launch, where it was going, the different layers of the atmosphere. That was about a month ago. He has not stopped playing ‘astronaut’ since then; it helps that he has a spacesuit costume, of course. But the couch has been a spaceship basically every day since then, his plasma bike has become the control panel, and it seems like we’re perpetually on a trip to Neptune to which we never arrive. That is the power of technology to the imagination.
But what crushes curiosity? Rote memorization. Worksheets that ask redundant questions. Forms that ask for regurgitated information that can be looked up elsewhere if the student only finds the ambition to do it (which frequently they don’t because it’s just a grind). Lecturing. Monolithic pedantry, instructing students what to think. Feeding them morals like bedtime medicine. Leaving no space for disagreement with the instructor. Ending all sentences with a period.
These were all the tedious practices that I witnessed in full effect in some of the finest educational institutions in the world, and despite the shift to online education, which makes these pedagogical tar pits all the more tedious, they still perpetuate.
But not with all teachers, not with all classes, and not in all forums. Some do recognize the beauty of the simple truth of inquiry. Many instructors have shifted their pedagogy to more experiential learning: project-based experimentation. Being presented with a unique challenge based on a basic of knowledge elevates the mind, stimulates the imagination, engages the soul. It inspires the student to know more, to push further, to work harder, and ultimately to actualize the self. The irony of true education is that the student should become the instructor. Experiences that fall short of this are failures in disguise.
Finding these teachers can be hit or miss, especially now, complicated by the element of rapid change. Technology has blossomed the technologically proficient and wilted the intransigent old-schoolers. Some are catching up and emerging, some probably never will. But if we shift our lens of quality instruction to focus on the ability to bring curiosity out in a student in an online format, it may make it a little easier to discover that talent. To find the teachers that value their own invisibility.
Disappearing acts are hard to find, but we must find them and elevate them if we truly wish to better serve the next generation of Neurolinkers and Neptunians.