“If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly-talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized. Creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” – Ken Robinson, British author, speaker, and international education advisor
If I look back on the most influential classes I took growing up in high school, there’s one that stands alone: AP Calculus. If you know anything about me, you’d probably be a little surprised by that answer because 1) I didn’t major in math in college 2) coaches aren’t typically known for their understanding of calculus, and 3) It was the last calculus class I took in my life (and I have no interest in taking another, either). I couldn’t really tell you a thing about derivatives, the chain rule, or whatever else we learned about in that class – probably because I didn’t really understand it that well when I was actually in the class. However, there was one thing I learned from that class that I use every single day – and it has nothing to do with equations, graphs, or formulas. AP Calculus was the best class I ever took in high school because it equipped me with the ability to not just memorize information – but to think. Here’s the problem: It took my until my junior year of high school to figure that one out; and many don’t even figure it out by then. It’s also not their fault – it’s the fault of the education system we’re brought up in.
If we think about the average math class up until calculus, success pretty much depends on your ability to memorize a series of formulas, recognize which problems to use these formulas for, and hang on to this information until you can throw it out the window after the last day. Instead of learning how to problem solve, we learn how to memorize and regurgitate. This may have worked in Algebra 1, but it didn’t work for me in calculus. Instead of just searching for the magic formula that I needed, I had to understand context of the problem, what information I have, what information I needed, and how create a plan to find what I needed. There wasn’t one route I could consistently rely on to solve problems. Because of this, I started to figure out exactly what I needed to do to solve problems. I didn’t worry about a specific process I was told to execute or the steps that I needed to follow – I just used what I had and collected what I needed using strategies that best suited my strengths. In other words, my biggest breakthrough in AP Calculus happened when I stopped focusing on memorizing and started focusing on problem solving. It took an ass kicking early on to really figure that one out – and by the grace of God I was able to make it out of the class with a B. However, the grade I got in that class didn’t reflect the value I got out of it. Great grades don’t mean you learned a great deal.
Here’s the problem: Kids today think of math – and pretty much all other subjects that have sapped us of creativity – as a checklist of procedures instead of a robust system for problem solving. There is no thought, focus, or concentration when we’re blazing through a checklist and plugging in formulas based on our short term recall. The magic is in building systems – but seldom are kids taught to think and build their own. Memorizing your times tables is great when you’re working through a series of multiplication problems, but it’s not so great when we switch it up and throw division in the mix. When we’re faced with new situations, we don’t rise to our level of current procedures; we fall to the level of our systems. Systems aren’t built through memorization and regurgitation – they’re built through problem solving and slow, deep learning. Most classrooms today are teaching kids how to follow procedure; very few are teaching kids how to grapple with problems and build robust problem solving skills.
If we want to flip this equation and start building problem solvers that are better prepared to take on the dynamics of life, we have to be careful we don’t get caught up in the result. The journey should be the reward; not the destination. Memorizing procedures might help you get really good grades, but they don’t make you a really good problem solver. If anything, they probably hurt your ability to solve problems because you’re not solving anything new; you’re just regurgitating what you already know. Part of the solution to this, in my opinion, is all about tapping into our inborn childlike curiosity. We are all inherently fascinated with the world and making sense of things that are unfamiliar; no one is born with a closed mind. However – when our education system drills us with procedures and forces us to succeed through memorization and regurgitation of meaningless information, we’re stripped of our curiosity and creativity. When these two areas suffer, our ability to solve problems is crippled.
If we want to build an education system that will prepare our youth for the unpredictability of the world, we cannot praise those who excel at memorizing and regurgitating. We have to encourage kids to tap into their childlike curiosity, think problems through, experiment with different solutions, find different applications, and help them discover their own optimal way to problem solve. Throw out the formula sheets and instead hand out “how to think” sheets. They’ll forget the formulas – they won’t forget how to think (hopefully, at least).