What Should Students Learn?

Curriculum should consist of only two subject areas and one technique.  History and Language are the subjects.  Research is the technique.

What about math, music, art, physics, geography and biology you cry.  (I can hear you!)

To get along we need to know what humanity has already learned (history), a method to communicate that knowledge both as sender and as receiver (language) and a way to find what we identify as missing.  (Research)

Physics and biology, psychology and political science are all history.  What have we observed so far?  What lesson did we draw from that?  How can we expand or improve that?  How can we apply it to make our lives better?

Knowing about and knowing how you know about lasers is not fundamentally different than knowing about what caused the war of 1812 and what did we learn from that.  The action needed, as we move forward, is in the same general form too.  Build on it, improve it, and apply it.

Math, music, accounting and art fit into the general category of language.  Each communicates a particular idea in a stylized and efficient way.  You cannot say E=mc2 in words that convey the depth of its meaning even if you use more than five characters.

To be successful at math, you need to learn the vocabulary, grammar and syntax of the language.  Pity they do not “teach” it that way.  Maybe art and music tend in that direction.  Accounting does too.

Our spoken language tells us the idea of art as language, but we ignore it as cliché.  A picture is worth a thousand words.  Some are worth more.  A smiling picture of a grandchild conveys many more than 1,000 words.  The Mona Lisa has intrigued people for more than 500 years.  Even the nuance of a cellphone snapshot would be hard to describe using only a thousand words.

A symphony is impossible to convey in words.  Even a simple piece of music is indescribable.  Taps for instance!  Taps for bugle is composed of only the notes in the C Major triad.  Just three notes.

Thank You Wikipedia

You could not use words, however many, to represent the emotion.

Conventional languages, like English, talk about current events when it is conversation, about history when it is prose and about emotions when it is poetry.  A versatile tool, would you not agree?

The other languages are less versatile.  Math communicates ideas about our physical world.  Music and art communicate information about emotions.  Accounting describes business performance and its accumulated history.  P/E=20 will tell you quite a bit if you know the language.

Lastly, we need to learn ways of filling the blanks.  Research.  The internet is a wonderful tool.  Dramatically better than an encyclopedia on the dining room table.  The advantage of the internet is that the information you acquire often provides hints about what is still to be found.  Books do not do that as well and certainly not with hyper-links.

On a practical level, in addition to discovering, Wikipedia, the Kahn Academy, TED.com and YouTube, you could develop a network and ask questions.  Or apply to experts for their knowledge.

Back in the middle ages, I was helping a skilled trial lawyer with a commercial case.  In the second day of trial, an arcane point of law appeared and so he asked for a recess to attend the law library at Queens University.  He found the dean and asked for a bright commercial law student.  One happened to be in the library at the time.  The lawyer’s research consisted of, “Here is $50.  I need to know everything about the priority of a bank’s security under section ___.  We are going for dinner and will be back in a couple of hours.  If you need more money then let me know.”

Direct the research.  I need a fact and do not care much about its history (your address for instance) leads to research like what was done at Queens.  I need a fact to fill in a body of knowledge needs more.  Filling in requires that you know something about how the fact came to be, what are its limitations and how is it changing.  The search for the Higgs boson fits that model.

For students and their advisers, recast the problem of learning along the lines above and the process may develop in better ways.  Work at connecting the dots, not just acquiring the dots.

As the physicists point out, “A well-defined problem is half solved.”

That’s all I know today.

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario. don.s@protectorsgroup.com

One Comment on “What Should Students Learn?

  1. Pingback: What The Heck Do We Mean By Education | moneyFYI

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