On Education: Take 2

I am currently reading the latest biography of Albert Einstein by Walter Isaacson. I then decided to download the original 1905 paper of Einstein on the special theory of relativity. I was very impressed to see how beautifully Einstein exposed his theory but at the same time, very shocked to realize how poor the teaching I received about this was.

During my study, the teacher just exposed briefly the postulate of relativity and went on spending most of the time in class deducing the equations. We then had to go home solving problems for hours. I was thinking I understood it, but in fact, I was like a technician capable of solving problems and passing an exam. I must admit I didn’t grasp the full philosophical meaning of those equations. The teacher skipped the fundamental philosophical questions on the relativity theory. Only years later, after reading other books on relativity did I fully grasp the concepts.

Contrary to the teaching I received, Einstein starts in his magnificent paper by first defining time. He showed that what is simultaneous for one moving body compared to another might not be for the other. With those notions and the principle of invariance of physics law that includes the invariance of speed of light, it is easy to understand that the classical notion of absolute time must be abandoned. After stating the fundamental principles, Einstein went on deducing consequences of those philosophical principles, the mathematical equation and the consequence on the notion of space and energy.

Einstein provided the fundamental philosophical concepts first and deduced the equation while the current teaching is just based on applying equation to solve problems.

In education today, little time is spent on the philosophical questions underlying the history of discoveries and the fundamental principle behind those notions. In science and engineering, most of the teaching time is spent developing equation and students manage to pass the exams.

The teaching is like junk food, it is ”junk education”. Students get cramped with a lot of technical stuff without really spending time on underlying philosophical questions. I suspect that’s why, the bridges designed by Quebec engineers (from the OIQ) since 1970 are crumbling. Engineers are trained not to question norm and standard; they are just applying formula without questioning as long they are protected.

Einstein used to say that ”Imagination is more important than knowledge”. During a trip in the United States, a reporter asked Einstein a question from the Edison questionnaire (a list of 150 factual questions): ”what is the speed of sound?” He admitted ”I do not carry such information in my mind since it is readily available in books”. So Einstein would have failed that question in an exam.

I attended the IDSA conference in October 2007 where Sir Ken Robinson gave a talk on education. It was very much in line with Einstein. He stressed that imagination is the most important intellectual skill. He explained vividly that our education system destroys imagination. I invite you to watch his talk keeping Albert Einstein in mind.

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