K-12: In Praise of Wow!

A scientist inadvertently found a cure for colorblindness.  The result is what appear to be ordinary sunglasses, but they sell for about $400.

There is now on YouTube a plethora of videos recording the big moment when victims of colorblindness put on these glasses for the first time.  Many people weep.  Some stare off at the sky as if having a religious vision.  Some say, "No way" or "Oh, my God." 

A young man told his wife: "I've got a whole new woman here!"

One common reaction is a single stunned syllable: "Wow!"

This word suggests so much feeling.  People see something they've never seen before, and clearly, life won't be the same again.

Think back to your own educational moments that were emotional and memorable: a planetarium's starry sky, a whale sounding, the New York City subway, a famous waterfall, a flower blooming in fast motion, an amoeba "walking," the Hoover Dam, a birth, a great piece of art...

Presumably, everyone's ideal education would consist of many a wow!  One has to wonder if this goal is even considered.

There are now two paradigms in education.  Neither one is much concerned with pleasure. 

The first is the traditional, pedantic route.  You learn everything needed to be a doctor, lawyer, professor, engineer, etc.  This route is often difficult and tedious.  But you have the satisfaction of mastering a subject and finally earning a degree that will let you make more money.  This paradigm emphasizes the systematic acquisition of facts and knowledge.  Memorization is central.  Progressive educators have always said this paradigm is boring and that children hate it, and therefore they learn little.  This paradigm, we are told, must be discarded.

The second paradigm, now dominant throughout our K-12 system, is called Constructivism.  Building on snippets from a biologist named Piaget, professors insist that this approach yields true, authentic learning.  Constructivism requires that teachers don't teach.  Children must explore on their own; they will make personal discoveries and create new knowledge.  That's the goal.  Now and then, they may have a Eureka moment: I get it!  But this is rarely the same as wow!  Piaget's concern is not with enjoyment, but in describing how new experiences are organized in the brain.

At first glance, it can seem that Constructivism might yield more joy than the traditional, pedantic way.  But there are problems.  Constructivist students are asked to reinvent basic knowledge.  This is complex and cerebral, and it lacks the intensity of wow!  The teacher, who probably knows a great deal, is not permitted to reveal anything.  Students realize they are being asked to start at the beginning and work their way up.  That's a depressing thought.

So here is the scorecard.  The old-fashioned, pedantic way might be boring, but at the end, you know a lot.  This will give you pleasure throughout your life and a better living.  The Constructivist way, despite the glittering claims, almost guarantees that you will not know a lot of stuff.  So you won't have much intellectual satisfaction or financial reward.

In both cases, where's the wow?  It's interesting that traditional education and new-fangled progressive education rarely seem aware that school could be an exciting experience that makes students gasp: Wow!

If you watch videos of people responding to the glasses for colorblindness, you probably experience more of an educational roller coaster than you had in all your years in school.  Several compilations are called "Try Not To Cry Challenge."  You probably will.  Most people putting on the glasses have to wipe away tears.  They have lived in a degree of darkness; now they can see.  That's what education should be like.

Couldn't we engineer more of that visceral response into our educational experiences?  The people in charge need to try harder.  Parents should demand it.

If you want to design a curriculum, you could do a lot worse than making a list of the 50 most exciting things in the subject.  And go from one wow! moment to the next.  This is much easier to do now than in the past because you've got billions of videos and photos, Hollywood movies, lots of great art, and digital reconstructions.  Anything you can imagine, you can find it somewhere.

Everyone has always known that a picture is worth 1,000 words, so the video is probably worth at least 2,000. 

Anything that makes students exclaim, Wow! is educational gold.

I suspect that for typical students, pleasure should be the number-one requirement.  Entertain them.  Charm them.  Grab them by the brain or the heart and make them exclaim: "Wow!"

Prof. Irving Biederman of USC concluded: "The 'click' of comprehension triggers a biochemical cascade that rewards the brain with a shot of natural opium-like substances."  In short, he says learning feels good.

Our Education Establishment sneers at traditional education.  But they don't substitute anything that's more fun, more productive.  When you look closely at Common Core, you don't see any concern with making school fun.  Quite the opposite.  The most pronounced tendency is toward making education annoying and confusing.  Children cry over their homework and hate to go to school.

Think of a subject you would like to learn and then imagine the first thing you'd like to have presented to you.  Then the second thing, then the third, and the fourth.  You can practically design the course by yourself.  Now compare this imaginary course to most of what goes on in your local school.  You will probably feel that you have walked into an empty backyard.

The Joy of Cooking was the title of a famous book.  We need to hear far more often about the joy of learning.

Typically, our educators at the top love to talk about Finland, but they never mention the aspect that can teach us something.  Their theory emphasizes pleasure and play.  An old Finish saying asserts: "Those things you learn without joy you will forget easily."  (In fairness, Maria Montessori sang the same song.)

Look at the history of education.  The pedants, who ran things for thousands of years, tended to make everything dull.  And then our devious ideologues took over and made everything worse.  We can easily do better.

Bruce Deitrick Price's new book is Saving K-12.  He deconstructs educational theories and methods on Improve-Education.org.  Support his work on Patreon.

A scientist inadvertently found a cure for colorblindness.  The result is what appear to be ordinary sunglasses, but they sell for about $400.

There is now on YouTube a plethora of videos recording the big moment when victims of colorblindness put on these glasses for the first time.  Many people weep.  Some stare off at the sky as if having a religious vision.  Some say, "No way" or "Oh, my God." 

A young man told his wife: "I've got a whole new woman here!"

One common reaction is a single stunned syllable: "Wow!"

This word suggests so much feeling.  People see something they've never seen before, and clearly, life won't be the same again.

Think back to your own educational moments that were emotional and memorable: a planetarium's starry sky, a whale sounding, the New York City subway, a famous waterfall, a flower blooming in fast motion, an amoeba "walking," the Hoover Dam, a birth, a great piece of art...

Presumably, everyone's ideal education would consist of many a wow!  One has to wonder if this goal is even considered.

There are now two paradigms in education.  Neither one is much concerned with pleasure. 

The first is the traditional, pedantic route.  You learn everything needed to be a doctor, lawyer, professor, engineer, etc.  This route is often difficult and tedious.  But you have the satisfaction of mastering a subject and finally earning a degree that will let you make more money.  This paradigm emphasizes the systematic acquisition of facts and knowledge.  Memorization is central.  Progressive educators have always said this paradigm is boring and that children hate it, and therefore they learn little.  This paradigm, we are told, must be discarded.

The second paradigm, now dominant throughout our K-12 system, is called Constructivism.  Building on snippets from a biologist named Piaget, professors insist that this approach yields true, authentic learning.  Constructivism requires that teachers don't teach.  Children must explore on their own; they will make personal discoveries and create new knowledge.  That's the goal.  Now and then, they may have a Eureka moment: I get it!  But this is rarely the same as wow!  Piaget's concern is not with enjoyment, but in describing how new experiences are organized in the brain.

At first glance, it can seem that Constructivism might yield more joy than the traditional, pedantic way.  But there are problems.  Constructivist students are asked to reinvent basic knowledge.  This is complex and cerebral, and it lacks the intensity of wow!  The teacher, who probably knows a great deal, is not permitted to reveal anything.  Students realize they are being asked to start at the beginning and work their way up.  That's a depressing thought.

So here is the scorecard.  The old-fashioned, pedantic way might be boring, but at the end, you know a lot.  This will give you pleasure throughout your life and a better living.  The Constructivist way, despite the glittering claims, almost guarantees that you will not know a lot of stuff.  So you won't have much intellectual satisfaction or financial reward.

In both cases, where's the wow?  It's interesting that traditional education and new-fangled progressive education rarely seem aware that school could be an exciting experience that makes students gasp: Wow!

If you watch videos of people responding to the glasses for colorblindness, you probably experience more of an educational roller coaster than you had in all your years in school.  Several compilations are called "Try Not To Cry Challenge."  You probably will.  Most people putting on the glasses have to wipe away tears.  They have lived in a degree of darkness; now they can see.  That's what education should be like.

Couldn't we engineer more of that visceral response into our educational experiences?  The people in charge need to try harder.  Parents should demand it.

If you want to design a curriculum, you could do a lot worse than making a list of the 50 most exciting things in the subject.  And go from one wow! moment to the next.  This is much easier to do now than in the past because you've got billions of videos and photos, Hollywood movies, lots of great art, and digital reconstructions.  Anything you can imagine, you can find it somewhere.

Everyone has always known that a picture is worth 1,000 words, so the video is probably worth at least 2,000. 

Anything that makes students exclaim, Wow! is educational gold.

I suspect that for typical students, pleasure should be the number-one requirement.  Entertain them.  Charm them.  Grab them by the brain or the heart and make them exclaim: "Wow!"

Prof. Irving Biederman of USC concluded: "The 'click' of comprehension triggers a biochemical cascade that rewards the brain with a shot of natural opium-like substances."  In short, he says learning feels good.

Our Education Establishment sneers at traditional education.  But they don't substitute anything that's more fun, more productive.  When you look closely at Common Core, you don't see any concern with making school fun.  Quite the opposite.  The most pronounced tendency is toward making education annoying and confusing.  Children cry over their homework and hate to go to school.

Think of a subject you would like to learn and then imagine the first thing you'd like to have presented to you.  Then the second thing, then the third, and the fourth.  You can practically design the course by yourself.  Now compare this imaginary course to most of what goes on in your local school.  You will probably feel that you have walked into an empty backyard.

The Joy of Cooking was the title of a famous book.  We need to hear far more often about the joy of learning.

Typically, our educators at the top love to talk about Finland, but they never mention the aspect that can teach us something.  Their theory emphasizes pleasure and play.  An old Finish saying asserts: "Those things you learn without joy you will forget easily."  (In fairness, Maria Montessori sang the same song.)

Look at the history of education.  The pedants, who ran things for thousands of years, tended to make everything dull.  And then our devious ideologues took over and made everything worse.  We can easily do better.

Bruce Deitrick Price's new book is Saving K-12.  He deconstructs educational theories and methods on Improve-Education.org.  Support his work on Patreon.