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April 5, 2011 | by  | in Online Only | [ssba]

Failure to Communicate – Education

UPDATE – Curse yoou Peter Gluuckmaaaaaan! Always a step ahead of me :\ (

I’d like to take a slight aside today, and talk about education and growing up as a scientist, and about the differences between the present and the past. And I guess gripe about education in general!

I’ve been reading about the life of Richard Feynman, who is one of the most famous scientists of the 20th century. There are a lot of quite interesting things about the way he lived his life, and how he grew up and went through the education system, and I’d like to pick out a few of them. I think that learning about how an extremely successful person grew up can be of use to everybody, and particularly that it can help guide our approaches to the education of our children.

Feynman started playing around with electronic circuits when he was around eleven or twelve. He had a little ‘laboratory’ in his bedroom with a bunch of little lamps and a little heater. He later started to play around with radios, and learned to be pretty good at fixing them. Electronics has always been a little bit of a weak spot for me. I managed to avoid doing any classes in it at university, and didn’t even do any in high school either. So I found it fascinating that at the age of twelve he was learning and actually experimenting with electronic circuits! When I was twelve, the closest thing I was learning was wood shop.

At first I thought that twelve was a very young age to be playing with electronics, but when I thought about it I realised – well why not? It’s not as if children become smarter as they grow up, and the earlier you start working with something the more experienced you’ll get at it. So I started thinking more seriously about the idea of introducing school children to electronics much earlier in their education (let’s say in third form science) and I became really fond of the idea.

I think maybe that electronics was seen in education as mostly a trade skill, that it’s something that an electrician should learn, but that for most people it wouldn’t help them in life. And so with electrician training not being part of the general school system, it just stopped being taught. But I think that there is another group of students who would benefit greatly from learning electronics, and that group is science students! And I don’t think this because I think that most of them will be using electronics in later life, or even that the lessons learned are more valuable than those in other fields. I think that electronics is an important thing for science students to learn because it is such a playground.

Students learn best by far when they are interested in the material they’re studying, and one of the best ways to engage students is by getting them to do things in real life. Electronic circuits are easy to set up, have great measurable results (I made the bulb light up!) and have endless combinations of things you can do with them. And so, like Lego, it becomes very easy to play with electronics. Often in general, experiments have to be very carefully set up, and are a little limited in scope. But in electronics, you can give a student a breadboard and a boxful of components and they can easily take control, change things about and see the effects for themselves.

The syllabus for physics education in New Zealand is very heavy on theory. This is partly because of how crowded things have become under NCEA, and it means that there is less time for student led learning. You have to learn all of the things that will be in the test or you don’t pass, and there are tests all the time. So play turns to chore, delight turns to fatigue and experience and enthusiasm with experiments is lost.

Somewhere along the way, it seems that we have forgotten that the whole reason we have theory is to explain and predict experiments – not the other way around! In schools you perform the experiments only to verify the theory.

In actual fact, I would be an advocate for a complete overhaul of the science education system, from high school all the way through undergraduate degrees, but in the absence of large-scale changes I think that it would be very constructive for year 9 (third form) students to start learning – and even more importantly playing – with electronic circuits. It’s those two years before assessments begin that you still have time to play like this, and just maybe in doing this we could show students why they ought to give a damn about the theory we will proceed to cram into them for the next six years.

Apologies if the thoughts in today’s column are a little scattered. I feel pretty strongly about education, and I really ought to sit down some time when I have a lot of free time and put all of my thoughts together sensibly. But that may be a long time from now, and in the mean time I thought I would share a little.


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  1. Your Name says:

    I t becomes more clear to me that this is a student magazine, filled with the ramblings of 20 somethings… so be it… there is nothing wrong with that, what does bug me a little is the over inflated sense of gravitas I see in these pages, some little moron was getting on the band wagon and making great proclamations about Phill Goff and the labour government, sounding like a right little right wing toady, and claiming that National will win the next election and Labour needs a new leader, the only people saying that are the press for fricks sake.. The problem is, although the ignorance and arrogance displayed in salient is transparent to those with half a clue, a lot of your peers don’t have a clue, and may be swayed by the opinions expressed here and on campus. I wouldn’t care, except you silly little pricks get a vote and that scares me. However, the state of affairs is no better out here in general grown up land. I see little hope of progress while this trend continues.

  2. Hmmm... says:

    You fail to mention very important things in your article.. firstly, what is the point in teaching kids electronic skills at school? if they WERE/ARE interested, they would do what Feynman did, and play around with electronics at home or elsewhere.. Secondly, the reason why it probably doesn’t exist in schools is not because they see it as a trade skill. “it wouldn’t help them in life” this is very important to examine about the education system, don’t you think? What is it exactly that school helps us with in life? If you truly do have an interest in education, you ought to ask yourself, what is the goal, the purpose of our school education? Control, suffering, discontent, man’s cruelty towards man. these are few of many GREAT things school accomplishes. The main problem with how our education is conducted, is that ‘trained skills’, ‘academic skills’ etc. are of the highest importance in our development. training for academic skills,is, in fact, NOT education, it IS training. because the school, AND parents, hold academic achievement above the MOST important of our education, Suffering, discontent, man’s cruelty towards man and utter chaos will continue to spread throughout the world while everyone is left in their own ignorance about how the world got so bad. the MOST important, is to understand ourselves, the love’s, the pain, why we feel this, and that, how did my thinking take me there, here etc. these are the MOST important to understand throughout our entire education, which continues our entire life. As long as this is NOT valued, the world will forever continue in it’s cruelty and confusion. How the school does this? another time.

  3. Hmmm... says:

    more to add, teachers will not, and cannot teach this, as they themselves are confused and ignorant…. The scientist with no understanding of himself, will forever continue in his own ignorance and confusion and such a man contributes to the chaos in this world. The scientist who is constantly seeking to understand himself and his surroundings, such a man will find happiness, and bring about true change in this world.

  4. Rex Hydro says:

    I’m not quite sure whether Hmmm’s comments were intended as satire. What I do know is that I have a pretty big boner after reading them. Does that make me wierd?

  5. Ben says:

    @Your Name – Welcome to Salient! (official motto: “somewhat self important.”)

    Oh me, oh my. And I didn’t even mention politics!

    I’m mostly talking about my own personal experiences here. As someone who has recently been through the science education system and who has gone on to study science, I think I would have really benefited from a much greater emphasis on practical experimentation in the science curriculum. Electronics would be one pretty cheap and easy way to do this in schools.

    If it is any consolation to you hmmm, I also would like to see a much greater emphasis on arts in schools.

  6. Hmmm... says:

    What do you mean by ‘greater emphasis’ on arts in schools? More painting classes? Greater appreciation of such? What do you mean when you say ‘art’? Surely, art is not just a drawing, a painting, music, this is what is meant by art in schools? is it not? Is their not an art in the sound of the wave’s crashing against the rocks? Is their not an art in the way the comedian makes his audience laugh? I think it is important for us to understand what we mean when we say ‘art’, life is an art. How exactly is art ‘taught’ in schools? Firstly, there will not be a “higher emphasis” on art as long as people continue to fear it will not get their children a job, secondly, can you teach art? besides certain skills, how to hold a paint brush etc. can you teach someone to hear the art in the crashing waves? can you ‘make’ someone appreciate a painting? No art teacher can do this, wouldn’t you agree? these discoveries only come about when one is seeking to understand themselves. These discoveries cannot occur when one fears his art assignment is not ‘good enough’, Or the time to do the piece is too short. How can you put a grade on art? Who are you to say ‘his art is better than his’, when we grade, we compete, since when was art itself a competition? Only the ignorant, the selfish, put a competition on art. These are the people who do not seek to understand themselves and their surroundings? Would you like these people to ‘teach you art’? Can we not just enjoy a piece of art for it’s own sake and not compare it to another’s? This is important, who are these people who teach art? do they truly have a love for art? if they did, do you think they would be employed at a school to teach it? If one does truly love to paint, wouldn’t he paint all day long, till his hands were stript of grip? isn’t this the artist you would like to ‘learn a thing or two’ from? Such an artist you will not find in a school, WHO will put “more emphasis on the arts in schools”? who ever it is, them teaching my child to paint (if i had one!).

  7. Hmmm... says:

    **I don’t want them teaching my child to paint.

  8. My Name says:

    Good thing you don’t have one then.

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