Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Educating Albert and STEM

Speaking of STEM schools -- and isn't everybody -- I was talking STEM recently with my old UIC prof and colleague, Bill Schubert, who turned me on to Walter Isaacson's biography of Albert Einstein.

It seems Einstein, who was brilliant in math and science, could not pass his exams in French, literature, politics and several other subjects. His troubles seemed to stem (no pun intended) from his conflicts with his teachers. Albert had an "allergic reaction" to any and all forms of dogma and authority.

 He especially rebelled against the authoritarian approach to education that prevailed in the German schools he attended. How many kids do you know like that?
Einstein had, in the words of  Isaacson, “a deep suspicion of authority in general and of educational authority in particular...This contempt for authority did not endear him to the German ‘lieutenants’ who taught him at his school. As a result, one of his teachers proclaimed that his insolence made him unwelcome in class. When Einstein insisted that he had committed no offense, the teacher replied, ‘Yes, that is true, but you sit there in the back row and smile, and your mere presence here spoils the respect of the class for me.’” 
Eventually, Einstein left (or was expelled from) that school and eventually attended a preparatory school in Aarau, Switzerland.
“It was a perfect school for Einstein. The teaching was based on the philosophy of a Swiss educational reformer, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who believed in encouraging students to visualize images. He also thought it important to nurture the ‘inner dignity’ and individuality of each child. Students should be allowed to reach their own conclusions, Pestalozzi preached, by using a series of steps that began with hands-on observations and then proceeded to intuitions, conceptual thinking, and visual imagery. It was even possible to learn -- and truly understand -- the laws of math and physics that way. Rote drills, memorization, and force-fed facts were avoided.
 ‘Pupils were treated individually,’ his sister recalled, ‘more emphasis was placed on independent thought than on punditry, and young people saw the teacher not as a figure of authority, but, alongside the student, a man of distinct personality.’ It was the opposite of the German education that Einstein had hated. ‘When compared to six years’ schooling at a German authoritarian gymnasium,’ Einstein later said, ‘it made me clearly realize how much superior an education based on free action and personal responsibility is to one relying on outward authority.’”
Questions worth exploring

 Ah, what a great approach that would be if applied to today's STEM education. It was the approach we encouraged during the small-schools movement of the 1990's. But where are our Pestalozzis today? And how many potential Einsteins are we losing (especially among black and Latino students) because they aren't into test-prep math and science and are bored silly by traditional approaches?

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