Blog Post

Think Like Einstein

I often lecture or blog about  grading, arguing that the way we now assign grades is an antiquated system that may have worked well for the Industrial Age but that undercuts what is valuable, exciting, or potentially useful for interactive thinking in the Digital Age.  I'm often critical of No Child Left Behind, with its reduction of evaluation to standardized testing (and even penalties to school districts that do not produce high scores).  NCLB seems to me the apotheosis of an early 20th century way of thinking that undermines digital potentials.  But I'm actually criticizing here a much broader way of thinking that reduces the process of thinking to "a result," even to "the best result chosen from among a select number of choices" (i.e. multiple choice exams).  That concept of grading seems the exact opposite of critical and daring thinking, and inconducive to the kind of integrative, creative, innovative thinking our era demands, in all fields from the arts to the theoretical sciences and engineering.


Whenever I talk about new ways of evaluating, including peer and self- assessment of process and not simply a standardized outcome on a multiple-choice test,  someone in the audience  inevitably retorts, "Well, that's subjective. It may be fine for humanists--but it would never work for science.  We need rigorous, standardized testing to produce the highly specialized scientists necessary for our world."   Maybe.  But within a minute, I can get this same person pontificating in a different direction simply by switching the topic a little, lamenting, "And isn't it terrible that America today undervalues science and produces so few scientists?"   No argument there!


But now let's put those two arguments together.   What if it turned out that our "rigorous" standardized, multiple choice form of testing--in all fields, including science and math--selected out those who do well on standardized tests but who lack precisely the forms of inquisitive, inductive, hypothetical reasoning and willingness to tirelessly test out a hypothesis that is the basis of the experimental method and exactly what science demands?   In other words, what if the supposedly scientific or objective testing methods branded as excellent selects for those who do not possess intuitive, subjective, relentlessly inquisitive thinking abilities?  What if standardized testing penalizes the child who has the inquisitive, doubting mind necessary to be a good and, sometimes, a great scientist?   It is not only shocking how few scientists this country produces but how many kids who think they want to go into science end up going into business when they graduate, or even give up their pre-med or other pre-scientific majors to go into social sciences (which, most typically, means into business careers).  Maybe all those eager high school kids with high test scores in science aren't the kids with real scientific potential of the kind favored at universities?  Maybe those potential scientists were left behind  . . .   frustrated by the rote thinking required to ace the SAT's.


Most work in science does not yield a Nobel Prize.   It is incremental.  It is about a process of discovery that slowly, often tediously, yields a result that then needs to be replicated and build upon again.  Even outside of the wet lab, even in sciences like math or theoretical physics, the process and the insight are as basic to the discipline as "knowing things."  But "knowing things" in the way one knows them on standardized, multiple tests is a very superficial form of knowledge.   It's not even very reflective of how much we will know things in the future.


Our entire practice of testing is based on a theory of knowledge that is out of date.   It used to be thought that brains and neural connectors grew in the same way feet do, tiny at birth, growing until maturity.  We now know that infants have an overabundance of neurons and that, if neural development proceeds on course, they will shear off about 40% of their neurons on their way to an adult understanding of the world, working on streamlinging neural pathways by repetition and experience, using the scaffolding of one experience (and that of their culture) on which to build ever-more reflexive ways of reacting on which to then build more nuanced, interactive, reflective ways of thinking later.   But the brain is not something you fill up.  A brain develops by trial-and-error and by selection, selecting that which is most useful (however "useful" is defined in a given situation).  


Much of our standardized testing is still based on an outmoded filling-station view of neural development and of knowledge: the cartoonish model of  the prof emptying sand into the empty head of the student.   Heads don't fill up with knowledge.  New kinds of knowledge build upon older knowledge and often replace that knowledge.  Everything works in that process of selection, adaptation, revision, selection.  Memorizing correct answers to questions has some function, but it is not at all clea to anyone what that function is or how useful it is in an era of search and browse.  Process, on the other hand, is more important than ever.  And here actual application, experience, inference, testing, and repetition are crucial.  Those elements, it turns out, are as important in perfecting a golf swing as they are in learning how to think in ever more sophisticated ways.  


Socrates had it right.  If you want to model higher level thinking, you don't lecture about your insights achieved as the result ("the answers") of such thinking.  You certainly don't have students take a multiple choice test to ensure that they remember your conclusions.   If you want to encourage the love of thinking and the skill of critical thinking, you question them, you hear their ideas, you debate them, you give them feedback, you lead and mislead them, you intellectually thrust and parry, you joust, and you have them reach conclusions by learning which intellectual moves are fruitful and which lead to dead ends.  


That Socratic method is used in law schools today, but I'm suggesting should be true for all fields--including the sciences.   It is a profoundly humanistic method and, to make great scientists, it is that profoundly humanistic method that is required, the ability to think through an idea, to revise an idea in light of other ideas, to test and question, to think critically, to analyze data, to respond to the arguments or hypotheses of others, and on and on.   It may not yield the highest test scores on SAT's, but it may well be what sorts out the kind of process-oriented mental habits of those who are most likely, someday, to think like Einstein.  


Einstein, of course, grew up loving to make little mechanical devices.  And he had, as a very young man, two favorite books:  Euclid's Elements and Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.   He was one of the world's most famous dyslexics ("dyslexic" being a term we also need to question), but he was also someone who, throughout his life, understood the contuities between mechanism, geometry, number theory, a priori concepts, and experience.   How do you answer a multiple choice test for pure reason?   I fear that No Child Left Behind may well be constructed to leave behind exactly those non-linear, inductive, intuitive, critical, curiious, humanistic, and scientific thinkers who, if nurtured, might well grow up wanting to Be Like Einstein.





Kevin Drum convinced me a long time ago that the real purpose of NCLB is to slowly declare every public school in the country failing, thereby providing "school choice" advocates with "empirical proof" of their claim that vouchers are necessary. He writes:

"As I mentioned last year, NCLB mandates that each state has to set standards for student achievement, and by 2014 every single student must meet those standards. Any school with less than 100% success is deemed to be failing. What's more, even in the period between now and 2014, while pass rates are "only" 80 or 90 percent and we're still working our way toward the El Dorado of 100%, there's an absurd concoction of thinly sliced categories mandated by the act, and failure in any one category marks the offending school as a failure. It's pretty obvious that there are a suspiciously large number of ways to fail, and as the years go by the number of "failing" schools will slowly increase to 100%.

I suspect that a lot of people who supported the worthier goals of NCLB simply didn't realize they were getting snookered: the fact is that the Bush administration wants to see lots of public schools labeled as failures. It's basically a long-term plan to erode the public's faith in public schools and thereby increase support for private schools and vouchers."


Cathy has rightly stated that a mound of sand is quite unlike almost everything we need to measure in education, which is instead much closer to a need to understand dynamic evolving systems through modeling with many continuous data points, etc.

I thought I would add one other puzzle of NCLB (and I hope its days are numbered! let's get back to simply supporting elementary and secondary education act-ively). The statistics of sandpiles guarantees that there will be found a middle and some outliers at both the top and bottom of the curve, yet schools are supposed to make continuous improvement and get out of whatever section of the curve they were in last year. Since the new pile will guarantee some new outliers, somebody from the top has to "go down" and even - Isuppose, a few from thr bottom HAVE to go up (regression to the mean in both cases?). There is not a case where everybody can "go up."


Causality and intention are not possible to prove . . . but it certainly is the case that a failed system goes into a different category and is susceptible to privatizing.   One reason I'm pleased with the Educate to Innovate initiative we're part of us that, rather than engage in NCLB debate (people I've talked with say the votes just aren't there in Congress to turn down its renewal) is that it allows any community to "compete" with a plan for reforming their local, public school.  Not privatized, not "faith based," but a good, smart community-based plan that does not have to be part of NCLB.   And it is a lot of money, and there will be structures to help communities and schools do this.  Will this solve the larger problems?  No.  But it is one possible solution in many situations at a time when there might not other be possible solutions.


I personally think the problem is even greater than NCLB and extends to a whole cynical system of public education.  Heartbreaking.  We can do lots, lots better, whatever the causalities and intentions that we might personally believe to be motivating something that, by any measure, is not working.   Thanks for this smart comment and passing this on, Gerry. 


Thanks for this post. It is a refreshing reminder of how important the thesis of Stephen Jay Gould's Mismeasure of Man is; and also of how poorly his theses have been applied to actual pedagogical practice.

As an undergraduate, I took a History of Mathematics course after taking most of the core mathematics courses towards my B.S.. I had always felt that my college courses were so different from my primary education in mathematics -- higher-level math required (or at least rewarded) a kind of creative criticality that I didn't learn from rote memorization or from plugging variables into the equations. But this class blew me away. I had never known that ancient Greeks thought of algebraic concepts geometrically (x squared means a square with sides of length x), and encountering these problems from new perspectives made them more challenging and more fun. Suddenly, I wanted to re-derive the Pythagorean theorem geometrically, rather than algebraically. It was, in a word, fun! This class made me rethink assumptions I had about how to start solving math problems. More importantly, it made me question whether those assumptions were valuable or not. It was a lesson I brought to my pedagogy when I taught Geometry, but also when I teach American literature and writing.

Since I am a so-called humanist now, working on my PhD in an English department, one might write off the excitement of this experience with a Two-Cultures dismissiveness: since I enjoy humanities classes (especially lit and history), my brain must work in this way, which is why I enjoyed thinking of history in my mathematical practice. For me, that rings untrue, because I also enjoy abstract algebra as-such, and I continue to enjoy computer programming even as I write a literature and history of technology dissertation. But I think this also points to a larger issue.

Although vibrant conversations within and across universities challenge the Two Cultures premise (that science and the humanities are disjunct ranges of inquiry), your discussion of grading signals how extensively this division has been integrated into our popular culture and pedagogical practice, and how it comes with an inherent value system: science=objective=the appropriate metric for all courses, in any discipline. This seems absurd to most any teacher, who recognizes the importance of flexibility. This especially rings true in my personal experience: I can't tell you how often people asked me, amazed, how I could possibly major in math and English, having completely internalized the idea that this disciplinary divide is actually some kind of physiological fact, hard-wired into our neurons-- "my brain just can't do math" or "I'm a science person, I don't 'get' literature."

We certainly have more tools to make course objectives dynamic, to move beyond the coveted quantified scantron-exam "A". Emerging digital technologies and communities can make course evaluation engaging to wider groups of students-- I love the exciting and creative ideas you bring up in other posts this year. But I also think that there's something fundamentally important and so often ellided about how different types of disciplinary practices always intersect that is at stake here, too. I can't help but wonder, if science and math was taught in terms of historical context as well as scientific methods, if it might attract a wider range of students, who might then in turn ask different questions and breathe new life into those fields. Personally, I never could memorize the quadratic equation, until I knew how to derive it. So, I only did OK in Algebra II, but I did amazingly well in algebraic number theory. This is something that I think the humanities-- and especially the digital humanities-- might be able to bring to other disciplines: energy and perspective, ways to think of productive connections, and ways to reward that kind of synthetic thinking.



Hi, Jenni---Great comments.  Yes, it pervades popular culture, the great Two Cultures divide . .  . and that allows us all to evade some of the most important issues in science as well as in the humanities.   I was a math geek my whole life, planned to go into AI, and made a u-turn for purely practical reasons.  I figured if my Rhodes Scholar adviser who'd studied with Quine and McCarthy and all the greats across science and quantificational philosophy couldn't get a job as a female that my little podunk philosophy/math pedigree was not going to doing.  I swerved into the humanities almost by accident, and have always been shocked when others are shocked.  The ridiculous "right brain/left brain" conversations (thank goodness they are almost gone) didn't help and the way our universities are constructed reifies divisions almost as firmly as does bogus brain science.   In every level, from how we test to how we measure progress, to who sits where on a campus and how much we value outside external funding and under-count the cost of making the buildings to house those programs, we are constantly assigning value in one direction and not another.  But my largest point is that by "over-valuing" the sciences and walling them off, we ensure their doom, the dwindling numbers, the anti-scientism that is as pervasive in our society as the love of science.   If the category were "curiosity" and "experimentation" instead of "science," we might reward kids with the right kind of exploratory mind to be great scientists and great humanists.  The battles between qualitative and quantitative social scientists ("soft" and "hard" social scientists) simply replay the two cultures' self-defeating ideology.  


I could go on and on about this.  In fact, I am!   A lot of this is the subject of the book I'm writing (for a trade audience, by the way) on the science of attention and how it structures our classrooms, our workplace, and everywhere else.


I'm curious how those in Science of Technology Studies might think about these sorts of pedagogical questions. If the role of objects sets the sciences apart — can we imagine testing how well students learn to use objects as a way of questioning discursive knowledge? For example, could you imagine a class where students are taught about Phlogiston and asked to test out the theory using the objects of Lavoisier's laboratory...? Or teach them about the Aristotelian elements and let them play with Boyle's vacuums. Part of being a good scientist seems tied to skepticism, but not all manner of skepticism, instead it's a particular mix of openness and iterative intuition that leads to good experimental models — tickling nature just so, until objects "speak" in a way that cannot be discounted by other regimes of knowledge.

This process seems to be part of what's missing from the industrial model of education. But interestingly, the first industrial revolution was roughly contemporaneous with the emergence of this style of experimental inquiry (a la Boyle). So we have this ironic dual legacy: (1) the emergence of a new kind reasoning and argumentation where experimental models could coax objects to "speak" in place of human subjects, and (2) the development of the modern educational model where students are disciplined as standardized knowledge receptacles.


Josh, it's great having this dual conversation with you, over here and then over on Facebook.   We've basically extended the Grading 2.0 Forum into a philosophical/theoretical plane and I find it very rich.   You folks are getting very, very close to my argument in my science of attention book.  I am saying that virtually all of our metrics, including our diagnostics and even our words to describe disabilities, are machine age metrics for machine age conditions, and they do not serve us at all in a digital age.  If you describe a disability to explain failure in terms of a metric constituted to support a certain techno-social condition, what happens when the techno-social condition changes?  The circle is broken. So then you have two choices.  One (where we are now) is you diagnose about 25% of the entering college class with some kind of disability, you push performance enhancing drugs on students the same way you push them on professional athletes, and you ensure a drop out rate of 35% for hs population at large.  Or two (what we could be) you start all over again and rebuild learning institutions for the new social world they should serve.  Testing, grading, IQ, disability, all of it are part and parcel of the machine age.   What would all of these look like for the twenty-first century?   That's my book!  (I hope my editor isn't reading this . . .   I'm not supposed to be spilling the beans . . .)  


HASTAC was invented for THESE reasons.   That is why digital humanities is a key part of HASTAC but our aims are, as David and I so modestly call our book (this is not the same one I mention above but the MIT Press book coming out next month) "the future of thinking."   That is a collaborative, collective future.   I'm blown away by the intelligence and thoughtfulness of the HASTAC Scholars who, individually and collectively, keep reminding me of how possible that future of thinking really is and that it is already here.  


Cathy, I am really intrigued by the notion that digital paradigms might prove to be more useful for defining ability. I know you just said you're not allowed to 'spill the beans;' but it's refreshing to hear that someone is proposing new testing methods, rather than just disparaging the clearly-insufficient methods in practice. If you have any published or available articles/excerpts that propose some of these new testing methods or could point to some case studies on the subject, I would love to read more about it. Of course, I may have to wait for the book (anxiously)!

Like Josh above, I tend to be very object-oriented in the STS fashion. Although there is not an STS program at the U of I as such, when I teach about the history of electricity, I like to make my students build circuits. When I teach about the history of the book, I have them create their own anthologies. HASTAC has introduced me to some of the provocative ways that I can go beyond the object to include the simulation, the digital mock-up, the blog. It's fun to be able to 'tap into' so many brilliant teacher's minds! Especially because I see my own object of inquiry -- the light and power network from the 1880s-1920s -- as the incubator for a lot of the metaphors and ideas that shape the "digital age," I am especially interested in seeing how you overturn the machine-age metaphors for measuring intelligence with some new ideas! So exciting!