Ignorance and Education

FiresteinThis Christmas, not unlike others, I struggled for gift ideas to give my parents. I tried exceptionally hard to not put clothing or gift cards on my list. Instead, I found thought-provoking books to challenge my ideas on education, how individuals learn, or how individuals cultivate one’s creativity. As a teacher, I know I need to change how I teach so students have more control over their learning.

I turned to my PLN on Twitter for help. Maria Popova (@brainpicker) put together her year-end list of books. In particular I found the Best Science Books of 2012 very interesting. I vetted the list through Google and Amazon reviews, and I settled on Stuart Firestein’s Ignorance: How it Drives Science.

Firestein wrote a very brief book about why the questions in science, research, and education are more important than the answers. In his book, he explains his work as a neurobiologist and college professor has taught him that scientists and students need NOT to spend their time memorizing and studying large amounts of data. Volumes of new studies are published every day. The Internet has become a sufficient database of knowledge. Rather than focus on facts and what is known, scientists and students must focus on the unknown, the questions.

Firestein takes the reader through what types of questions are appropriate to ask; not all unanswered questions are appropriate for scientists or students. Using examples from his class and from his science, he supports what types of questions are useful to uncovering new knowledge, not simply testing what already exists.

The last few pages of the book are devoted directly to ignorance and education, from which the excerpt is taken.

“Perhaps the most important application of ignorance is in the sphere of education, particularly of scientists. Indeed I first saw the essential value of ignorance through teaching a course that failed to acknowledge it. The glazed-over eyes of students dutifully taking notes and highlighting line after line in a text of nearly 1,500 pages, the desperation to memorize facts for a test, the hand raised in the middle of a lecture to ask only, ‘Will that be on the exam?” These are all the symptoms of a failing educational strategy.

We must ask ourselves how we should educate scientists in the age of Google and whatever will supersede it. When all the facts are available with a few clicks, and probably in the not very distant future by simply asking the wall, or the television, or the cloud—wherever it is the computer is hidden—then teaching these facts will not be of much use…

Instead of a system where the collection of facts is an end, where knowledge is equated with accumulation, where ignorance is rarely discussed, we will have to provide the Wiki-raised student with a taste of and for the boundaries, the edge of the widening circle of ignorance, how the data, which are not unimportant, frames the unknown. We must teach students how to think in questions, how to manage ignorance.”

With unbelievable access to knowledge, students should not be learning facts. Students should learn to read and interpret facts and ask questions on the cusp of what is known and unknown. Firestein’s book explains why inquiry in education is so important and how science, among other fields, will suffer if education continues to emphasize memorization over inquiry.


3 thoughts on “Ignorance and Education

  1. mhrussel December 31, 2012 / 8:31 pm

    Thank you for bringing this book to my attention. As a person just coming out of higher education, I can attest to the overwhelming need to change the system.

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