Thursday, October 8, 2009

Connecting facts... a dying out skill? The valuation of curiosity...

A few times we have asked university students in a few classes, but particularly in theory of knowledge classes for would be educators in science, to think of and give five names of people in all humankind who have influenced the world _most_ over time.

Not little was our surprise to hear names like Oprah Winfrey or even Paris Hilton listed. It has taken pulling teeth to get to a name like James Watt. Ultimately, based in part on reminding students about the unit for measuring energy listed on everybody's electric bill, (kilo-)Watt-Hours, the class was little by little learning the story of who James Watt was and why was he important. Indeed, maybe not as important as others worth mentioning on the top-five list... But, who knows?

The other day we were with a few friends and all of our children at Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts. Among the all too many interesting things to see, learn about, and experience there, from the pilgrims' landing to the birth days of the US Coast Guard as a rescue organization for those stranded at sea in bad weather, there are also the remains (rather ruins) of the Guglielmo Marconi antenna system at the Marconi Cape Cod radio station. The station allowed the first ever trans-Atlantic wireless radio transmission between US President Theodore Roosevelt and His Majesty King Edward VII of the British Empire on January 18, 1903. More details are here:

The story of the evolution of radio transmission to reach its current ubiquity is however not our point here. We were watching our children and ourselves, their parents, as we were all watching the short National Park Service documentary movie about the first trans-Atlantic wireless transmission. It dawned on us that the adults were more interested in the documentary than the children were.

Indeed, they are children after all and they play and they have a shorter attention span, wanting to enjoy each others' company as much as they can, even through little tricks they play on each other or by chatting about who knows what while the movie was on. Our ability to discipline them or their own ability to self-control in a public setting where others were also watching the documentary is again not the point here.

Rather, our point is about the difference in interest expressed by the adults and the children. Our children are around ten years old. Our students in the classes mentioned above are university going (legally) adults, around twenty years old or older. The same difference, a relative lack of curiosity in children or younger adults compared to the older adults, can be traced in middle school students as in university students.

New generations of university students evolve year after year. Or do they really evolve? They want things always clearer, easier to do, their hands held to the library or other resources, with half to three quarters of the homework or learning to be done by the instructor. They often resent creative exercises or assignments as too complicated or not sufficiently well defined. Faced with the challenge of an understanding of an ever changing world, in which instructors today do not have ready made solutions for problems the learners of today will face soon which we do not know about today, they often simply shut-off, like I do all too often when faced with cooking;)

Can we wonder why? Is connecting facts independently a dying out skill set? Are we teaching it? If we do, are we doing it against the wind of complacency affecting even our children, or students seeking advanced degrees? What is happening? And if anything is happening, how do we fix it?

No comments:

Post a Comment