James D. Stein: Putting Excitement Back in High-School Education

High school has been failing its students, according to James D. Stein, mostly by presenting to disinterested students an overwhelming mass of information that they aren’t likely to find interesting or useful. As the author of L. A. Math: Romance, Crime, and Mathematics in the City of Angels, Stein is an expert at keeping subjects interesting for the most reluctant math students.

by James D. Stein

Let me start by repeating something I said in the last post. Where we’ve shortchanged students is at the secondary level. This is where I think we’ve lost sight of the purpose of education, which is to give students a broad general background in subjects deemed necessary but which they probably won’t use, and to prepare them for life as a productive citizen. So here’s what I’d recommend: revamp high school education to give students an enjoyable way to absorb a basic general background in subjects that they probably won’t use later on, and find out what they find interesting and give them a full dose of that.

In 1961, Richard Feynman delivered an introductory lecture at Caltech in which he made the following oft-quoted statement. “If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.”

Let’s tweak what Feynman said a little.

If, in some cataclysm, all of the knowledge of humanity were to be destroyed, and only one book passed on to the next generation of creatures, what book would contain the most information about humanity in the fewest words? It would be a book summarizing the Top Ten most important achievements in the most important areas of natural science, social science, the humanities and history, ranked in order of importance by a panel of experts who have devoted their lives to the study of these subjects.

All of a sudden, acquiring a broad general background becomes both achievable and enjoyable – and in a reasonably short period of time. A basic education should tell you what’s important in the important subjects —AND NOBODY KNOWS WHAT THEY ARE!!! Oh, sure, in the sciences you could probably come up with a fairly good list (although the ORDER of the items would not be known, and that’s a key part of this idea) —but other than World Wars I and II, what are the important events in world history? How can we teach the important material in the important subjects, when we don’t even have a consensus as to what they are?

And let’s do it using the Top Ten format, because not only can we find out what are the most important achievements—which should form the basis for a broad general background—but because the Top Ten format is almost universally engaging. Publish a Top Ten list backed by experts, and you’ll know you’ve got a reasonable approximation of the biggies. Moreover, Top Ten lists invite further study and critical thinking.

Just think of the following assignment in a high-school history course: using the Top Ten list in American history as a guide, construct your own Top Ten list of the ten most important events in American history, and justify your choices. I’m guessing that you’d see raging debates in the classroom, with teachers serving as enlightened moderators rather than just ‘sages on the stage’. Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but instead of arguing about Top Ten football teams or Top Ten TV shows, you just might find students suddenly arguing about the relative importance of the Civil War and the American Revolution in American history. You might find students actually doing research to support their points of view. You’d find students thinking about important ideas, rather than memorizing stuff to regurgitate on standardized exams.

Two decades ago, Carl Sagan wrote The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark, in which he decried the deplorable lack of scientific knowledge in the general public. I’ll bet if you simply had a list of the Top Ten achievements in physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics, and if you taught that in a one-semester course, you’d have taken a giant step toward rectifying the problem that so concerned Sagan.

Almost every teacher in every subject feels the same way: students just don’t know what’s important. Let’s find out what is the important stuff in the important subjects, and give every high school student an opportunity to acquire that knowledge—relatively quickly and enjoyably. And then let’s get on with the business of enabling students to become productive members of society by enabling them to take courses at the high school level in what really interests them. It hurts me—a little—to say this, but if a student wants to become a video-game designer, I’d rather have them become a really good video-game designer than a barely passing algebra student. School should be a place where you go to help you fulfill your dreams. And I’m willing to bet you’d find a lot more students getting interested in science and history once they know what experts think is important—and once they’ve had an opportunity to think critically about it for themselves.

LA MathJames D. Stein is emeritus professor in the Department of Mathematics at California State University, Long Beach. His books include Cosmic Numbers (Basic) and How Math Explains the World (Smithsonian). His most recent work is L. A. Math: Romance, Crime, and Mathematics in the City of Angels.