Yesterday, my daughter won the first-place award for her school’s science competition. I should be happy but I felt conflicted. Her research was about generating electricity from a variety of vegetables, but she has never shown any interest in electricity; so why is she suddenly researching about it? It turns out that her science teachers set parameters for what they can research. As a result, all the winners conducted research on topics that, I’m pretty sure, are not personally interesting to them. They sounded all quite sciencey, like how different liquids affect the growth rate of plants, how quickly food materials decompose, etc.. They are clichés of what kids’ science projects should look like. I wondered if any of the kids were passionately curious to find the answers to their own questions.
Last weekend, I also attended an event at The American Museum of Natural History where I was able to see what the kids chose as their research topic at other schools. One kid chose to investigate how much longer people can tolerate pain if they were playing video games. Another kid wanted to know if listening to music he likes while studying would improve his performance. Another kid wanted to know which brand of popcorn had the least amount of unpopped kernels. These don’t sound so sciencey, but I’m pretty sure they were genuinely curious about the questions they were asking. And, to me, that’s the most important part of science: Asking meaningful and interesting questions. How to conduct the research from there is just rote learning. If we want to teach our kids the value of science, we have to encourage them to ask questions that mean something to them. That’s what a “scientific mind” is; a mind curious of why things are the way they are.
Because I love science, I felt conflicted about the fact that my daughter won the award for something she has no interest in. If her research was about why certain Barbie dolls are perceived to be more beautiful than others, I couldn’t be happier (since I know she loves playing with them). What exactly did she win in this competition? It’s obvious: teachers’ praise. She has become quite good at getting the approval of her teachers, which is something I wanted to avoid. I want her to be passionate about everything she does regardless of recognition or praise, even if nobody else in the world recognizes the value of what she is doing. That’s how great scientific discoveries are often made.
It then occurred to me that there is a conflict of interest in school which is analogous to the conflict of interest in software engineering. In developing a computer application, you need both user experience (UX) advocates and engineers. If everything was left up to the engineers, they will naturally do whatever is easier for them, which rarely coincides with what is easier for the users. This leads to poor user experience, particularly because engineers tend to blame everything on “stupid” users.
Teachers too are only human; even if they mean to advocate for students, there is only so much they can do before their own well-being is at risk. We can’t ask the same person to advocate for both sides if she herself is on one side. I believe this naturally leads to students getting rewarded for what makes their teachers’ life easier or better. Such a reward system would stifle creativity, critical thinking, and even scientific curiosity. Pleasing or displeasing teachers should not be the criteria by which we measure educational success. That would be like evaluating software applications based on how pleased the engineers are for their own products. In many cases, the students would learn better if they did what their teachers did not want them to do. Just as the conflicts between the users and engineers make the application better, I believe the conflicts between teachers and students would make education better.