Is Less More?
From Richard Larson
Last month I argued that we should move away from standardized tests, that they were not magic bullets. They may in fact be harmful bullets. I suggested that we needed multiple ways to evaluate each student, perhaps with a portfolio of accomplishments. Top universities do this already. In evaluating a candidate for next year’s freshman class, it is not unusual to use the SAT or other standardized test as a first filter, requiring that the scores be above some acceptable (high) threshold, and if this threshold is satisfied, to toss out the scores and then consider everything else in the application—personal statement, letters of recommendation, demonstrated leadership, and non-academic accomplishments and recognition. This is one version of a portfolio approach. And yes, this approach can lead (and has led) to applicants with perfect SAT scores being rejected by top universities due to uncompetitive portfolios. Students should not be raised as ‘test taking machines.’ They should be encouraged to follow their academic passions even if this means a non-uniform attention to all things presented in class, to allow time to Go Deep in areas of passionate interest.
Perhaps we should consider another change in our collective approach: Less is More. Take the S in STEM, representing Science. In high schools this usually means courses in biology, chemistry and physics, and sometimes other sciences such as earth science. How many of you could today pass your final examination in any of these courses? What about biology? Could you even get 50% right on an exam that typically rewards extensive memorization? How about 25%? I have asked my MIT colleagues, faculty and students. I have asked high school teachers. Except for courses they currently teach, most admit that their performance would be a dismal failure. So, why do we spend so much time on ‘teaching’ things that we will all forget, sometimes very quickly?
Isn’t this what we get when we confuse education with content delivery? In biology, do we need to have students memorize for a test the shapes and patterns of 50 different leaf species, or might it be better to encourage students to select one tree or plant and do a major research report on it? Perhaps a science fair project? Decades later, what will be remembered? The 50 leaf patterns or the science fair project? Which activity is most likely to encourage the student to pursue a career in the sciences: Memorization of countless facts with the concomitant stress and anxiety associated with the resulting in-class test, or feeling a sense of personal accomplishment from undertaking research perhaps leading to a science fair project?
I suggest this is a researchable topic: What is the optimal tradeoff between broadly based, memorization-intensive content delivery and more narrowly focused deep study and accomplishment? Surely we must have some content delivery else the student would know nothing to get started. But should the balance be what it often is today in our schools, that is, 90% or more on content, leaving little time for exploration, self-discovery of one’s own interests and developing critical thinking skills in this domain of knowledge?
And finally, is dutiful attention to memorization of facts what we wish to cultivate in our future scientists, engineers and mathematicians? Isn’t being a scientist asking imaginative questions outside of standard accepted knowledge? Thinking outside the box? Don’t we need to encourage a bit of rebelliousness in our young STEM people, as they are the next generation of discovers?
We’d like to hear from you on this topic. Can less in fact be more? Can removing a significant chunk of content to be memorized, say 50%, result in more motivated students who ‘own’ the material they explore and find interesting? Please let us know your thoughts.
Richard Larson is the Mitsui Professor of Engineering Systems at MIT. He is also the Director of MIT LINC and the Principal Investigator of MIT BLOSSOMS.
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