School sucks. That's the message that Dr. Yung Tae Kim, physicist, educator, and skateboarder, has for his students and for all of us. You really want to learn something? Stay far, far away from a lecture hall and start thinking about chemistry more like skaters think about learning a new trick.
Growing up, Tae was a bit of an anomaly, and had trouble finding his place. He was quite talented at math, and did well in school. But his skateboard and offbeat attitude didn’t sit well with the brainiacs. And the skate crew didn’t really know what to do with a guy who got straight A’s. Fortunately, Tae found a mentor in an extraordinary high school calculus teacher of this—Dean Goldgar. Goldgar took Tae under his wing, and even worked with him outside of class to allow him to study more advanced math subjects. And in college, at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Tae took a physics class with another outstanding educator—Dr. Kurt Wiesenfeld—that led Tae to major in physics and pursue a career in teaching. But after a few years, Tae had grown disillusioned. The more time he spent at the university, the more he began to realize that, for so many students, our colleges and universities are just not the halls of learning that they claim to be.
Walk into most lecture halls today, and what do you see? The specific details may change, but it really stays the same. Teacher at the front of the room, usually with some PowerPoint slides on the board. Students, lined up in rows, most of them with laptops open to pretty much anything but the lecture material. One tab of Facebook, one ESPN, one shopping, one news. One hand flies over the trackpad, while the other answers some Whatsapps. The teacher drones on, more or less oblivious to the input, or lack thereof, of the class in front of them. Grades, that all-knowing, all-powerful number, are usually decided by tallying up the results of 2 or 3 exams, and tacking on a bit of a curve if that PowerPoint/Facebook interplay didn't quite get the material across in the optimal way. If you're real lucky, a chunk of the grade will be a class presentation, lab work, or some other easy A. If you're real real lucky, you have a friend's lab reports and old tests from the year before. The lion's share, however, is dedicated to that god of modern learning--the final. Cram the week before, stay up all night the night before, and spit back your knowledge to me on this one day, in these two hours, and then forget everything you learned. This then, is learning. This is what we pay tens of thousands of dollars a year for, and what we insist is at the forefront of a successful society. It's no wonder that Dr. Tae, after several years of teaching at Northwestern University, finally had had enough. The traditional lecture and test format, he felt, was the worst thing that had ever happened to science and learning: “The professor at the podium [makes] no attempt to engage the students who are right in front of him. The most disturbing thing [however] is what the students are doing. They're falling asleep, checking Facebook or email, or, paradoxically, registering for next term's classes, right in the middle of the class they're completely tuning out.” Is this learning? Is this what we think about when we think about college? About the humanizing, dignifying effect that education should have on us and on society?
This was not a structure that Tae thought that he, or anybody, could thrive in. And he did what he could to change it: Tae insisted that he would not run his classes in that way, and he would not allow his classroom to be a place where an all-knowing professor doled out nuggets of information to hungry, helpless students. He set up his classroom like a workshop—he would break his students up into small groups, and give them difficult physics problems to piece through on their own. While they did this, Tae would circulate around the room, providing subtle guidance and assistance. This allowed him to do an incredible thing; a thing that somehow, so many “teachers” are unable to do—it allowed him to provide real-time feedback, and actually know where his students were in terms of their thinking about and grasp of the material. He wasn’t interested in tests or grades. He was interested in teaching, and in making sure that his students were actually going through a process of learning. The regulations of the university, of course, required him to give tests and grades, but he was not doing so in a vacuum. He did not hand out exam papers to a roomful of anxious students, having no idea which ones were going to pass and which ones were not. What struck Tae the most about traditional education was how educators decided beforehand exactly how long it would take students to learn their subject. Test in two weeks, they say, and you will know it by then. In skating, and in acquiring almost any other skill or piece of knowledge, the only person that can dictate your pace of learning is you. Imagine if, when I was learning to snowboard, I knew I only had one week to learn how to turn. It sounds ridiculous, but that’s exactly what our school expects us to do. Tae wanted to change this model, but he was fighting a steep uphill battle against long-entrenched norms and regulations, and he finally realized that he couldn’t stay in academia. For his last lecture, he left his students at Northwestern with an impassioned plea to not forget what it means to truly learn, and to never forget that math, science, and learning in general is supposed to make you feel alive and excited--not falling asleep over your laptop, fretting away with worry that you missed some minute detail of lecture that would be worth 30 points on the exam. Learning, he told them, should be like skateboarding: If you want it, and if you want it to mean something to you, then you’re going to have to break your teeth on it, and you’re going to have to put in the work. Today, Tae lives in Seattle, and serves on the advisory board of the Puget Sound Community School. The school does not follow a traditional grading system. Instead, their mission is, as Tae puts it: “to help students discover what they're passionate about, and then help them do something with that passion.”
Dr. Tae, among his many projects, has been working for years on a series of lessons on the physics of skateboarding. It's exactly like it sounds--he takes abstract physics concepts and calculations, and teaches students how they apply to the very real art of skateboarding. But for Tae, this project is more than just a fun diversion. For him, this represents what education is truly all about, and it represents what we need to do, as he puts it, to "build a new culture of teaching and learning." The way that we teach math and science, and really the way that we teach most subjects in colleges and universities, is just not the way that we were meant to learn, and we are stifling a young generation of potential students of science. Biology and chemistry and calculus are not meant to remain on the pages of a textbook. They are the means by which we understand our world, and they only reach their true potential and fullness when we see them at work in the real world. But more than just corrupting the essence of science, this form of education corrupts the purity of what the process of learning should be. The intricate give and take between teacher and student, the thrill of discovery that comes from truly engaging with a new subject—that is lost in the doldrums of the lecture hall.
Paulo Freire, the groundbreaking, radical Brazilian educator and innovator, and recipient of the 1986 UNESCO Education for Peace Prize, discusses two vastly different types of education in his landmark book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. One, he dubs the "banking" model. In this way of teaching, the teacher—the all-knowing, all-powerful teacher—hands over knowledge to his or her students, like one putting checks in a bank. And just like the teller at the bank, the students are not expected to play a role in this transaction other than receiving the check: "Education thus becomes an act of depositing," Freire writes, "in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat.” I don’t know if Tae ever read Freire, but he might as well have: “Sadly, what most students do in most science classes is nothing like science, but is instead focused on absorbing knowledge handed down by authority…” And this, says Freire, is a form of oppression. The professor, standing at the front of the room and lecturing to a roomful of students who are expected to hang on his or her every word, is in some ways acting as an oppressor. This process is not malicious, and is usually not deliberate. But this is not how we achieve what Freire calls “education as the practice of freedom.” This is not how the liberating, empowering, humanizing effects of education are realized. It sounds clichéd to say that not all students fit a particular mold, and not all students learn and assimilate information in the same way and at the same rate. But while it is foolish to take every cliché as axiomatic, it is equally as foolish to not recognize the grains of truth inherent in every cliché. “Now, I know you all have a different learning curve,” I’ve heard some professors say. However, this appears to be mere lip service, because all students are still taught in the same way, and required to learn the information in the exact same amount of time, and penalized in the form of bad grades if they fail to do well on a test given in a specific format. This is the kind of learning that Freire spent his life fighting against, and this is the kind of learning that made Tae run in the opposite direction from academia. Freire cautions that: “The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves.” This kind of education is a weighty responsibility for an educator, and it is infinitely easier to abdicate this responsibility. But for our sake, and the sake of future generations of scientists, engineers, academics, we must fight to keep this vision of learning alive.
I realize that this is not an easy process. I know that we’re not going to abolish grades and tests overnight, and I’m not even saying that we necessarily should. In many ways, college is the way that it is for very valid reasons, and I don’t think we need to be looking to tear that down. At the same time, however, we don’t need to settle for the status quo. We don’t have to let our education be taken out of our hands. Too many bright young minds are leaving math and science because they get discouraged and dissuaded, and because they have trouble making it in the existing frameworks that our universities are providing. Freire once remarked that “reading is not walking on the words; it's grasping the soul of them.” Let’s not settle for mediocrity, and let’s not settle for an education that leaves students powerless and disengaged. Let’s take our education back, and reclaim the excitement and passion that small child knows accompanies learning new things.