Killing “Why?”

For generations, students have moaned and complained about the “pop quiz”, the quick and little tool wielded by the lazy teacher used to assure that their students are doing as they are told by recalling data from yesterday’s lecture or last night’s reading assignment. It is a symptom of a multi-faceted endemic in the US educational system that includes an outdated model, poor teachers protected by their unions and parents who are part of a culture that expects the rest of the world to do their job (or they simply don’t care if anyone does their job at all).

Then, if we are lucky, we have a few students who somehow make it through a flawed system with what is believed the requisite knowledge for collegiate success: the “straight-A” student. This student is special, for they can memorize and understand information on multiple subjects (not just the materials that interest them, but the topics that bore them as well). The discipline to forge ahead through such boredom at such a young age is worthy of applause after their speech as valedictorian.

Then they are off to college, to learn more facts; ill prepared for what might be next…

We now live in an age where facts are indeed (in a way) cheaper than ever just because they are so easy to get. The university can’t make money any more just selling facts, because they’re available with the click of your mouse…So we can’t just sell the facts. We have to teach people to think beyond the facts, to think what the questions are. And that is the hardest thing to do.

There is a great story about Gertrude Stein and what was then considered life-threatening surgery and she was asked by her life long companion, Alice Toklas, “So, Gertrude, What’s the answer?” and Stein (in her particular way, of course) looked at her and said, “Well, Alice, what’s the question?” And that, of course, is the key issue.

Learning how to figure out what that question is…[that is] really what we need to teach a scientist. That is what science education should, of course, be about: learning to come to these questions. – Stuart Firestein

I was one of the lucky one’s, a straight-A student designed to become the textbook therapist (pun-intended). I was taught all of the mandatory questions to ask my patients upon examination and I learned what protocol to follow based on the findings of that exam. In the end, I graduated from University knowing all the facts I needed about physical therapy to pass my licensing exam.

I realize now that I never had to ask the right questions of myself or my patients, and that was the hardest thing to do, not memorizing a seemingly infinite amount of data in a remarkably finite period of time faster than my peers. And therein lies the problem: education has become a race to memorize “becauses” in lieu of exploring “whys”.

Granted, the “becauses” allow the student to pass an exam, the teacher to get their annual raise and the parent to gleam with pride, but it is the “whys” that push us to innovation, progress and understanding. It is the “whys” that define not who we are, but who we aim to be. After all, who wouldn’t rather write history, instead of reading about it in a dusty old book?

I just wish more educational professionals shared the same perspective.

Originals: Pt.1, Pt.2