The Professor Mill: Sir Ken Robinson is Funny (and Right)

0.6% of the US population actually develops to fruition the ridiculous abstractions and notations that we spend so much time teaching procedurally obscuring during Algebra II.

In today’s installment of Let’s-Change-Something-Right-Now! I present to you Sir Ken Robinson. Oh, you’ve already seen his TED talk a thousand times? Good, just click play, I’ve fast-forwarded for you to the quote I want to parse:

Sir Ken Robinson.

So, if our system is dedicated to producing professors, how well are we doing?

Weeeeeeell, I made a pie chart:

education attainment.001
Click to embiggen. Chart by Cornally. Data from US Dept of Education 2010.

In a system that seems hell-bent on using a pedagogy1 that is tacitly aimed at producing professors, how can these results be viewed as any kind of success?

If we’re going to continue to teach math and science to everyone but only directed towards those who are already inclined to get advanced degrees, how do we ever plan to inspire students who do not come preloaded with these desires or — God forbid we admit it — those that don’t need advanced degrees to serve their families and society at-large?

If you think about the numbers even more, the problem digs itself an even deeper grave: Let’s assume that one-fifth of all the Phd’s and professional degrees in the world are in math and science (which is a liberal assumption), we get that: 0.6% of the US population actually develops to fruition the ridiculous abstractions and notations that we spend so much time teaching procedurally obscuring during Algebra II.

We can do better:

Structure your course’s narrative arc so that students follow an accelerated historical track through knowledge. Ditch the lab manuals, and make your pre-lab about designing the activity. Ditch your canned analysis questions: analyze the data on whiteboards as a class and derive the relationships in vivo. Lab before lecture. Context before content.

Load up your lessons with a killer first act. This is Dan Meyer’s M/O and the reason he’s now touring the nation. A great first act is recognizable within any great work; the problem is simple even when the plot isn’t:

  • Destroy the Ring.
  • How long will Wayne be a loser?
  • Where’s my car, dude? (Kidding, sort of)

We all know how “Destroy the Ring” turns out.2 This is what I want for my classroom. Here are some examples.

What this creates is a classroom that helps engender each student with efficacy for science and math. Honestly, the plague of “math is hard” or “that’s over my head” is not ok, and it’s our fault.

The 0.6% that do go on to actually finish the track we start them on would also benefit wildly from a classroom that spends time on simple questions with difficult answers. All too often these “advanced” students are the worst off when it comes to misconceptions and inability to learn. Many of them have a walk-in-the-woods moment when they get to college and realize that no one will be wiping their butts for them by padding their grades.

Which, of course, leads me to the final component that will help shut down the Professor Mill: Assessment.

If you want students to buy into learning for learning’s sake, then you’re going to have to change the psychology of your classroom. No more points, no more graded homework, no more extra credit, no more notebook checks. Nada.

Good night! Don’t let the Nazgûl bite!


1. Any kind of teaching style that assumes students are interested in an arbitrary curriculum without any narrative work. This often looks like lecture-quiz-lecture-test. This style also supposes that students do not come preloaded with content knowledge, that all students learn at the same rate, and that learning content is a linear process. All of which are firmly refuted by modern education and psychology research.

2. Just kidding here. The eagles were more or less neutral in the whole endeavor, as they considered men, elves, dwarves, orcs, and other humanoids to be lesser life forms; kind of like when we don’t intervene when a cat snags a baby rabbit in the spring time. The eagles only show up when Gandalf gets on his knees and begs. Also, Sauron maintained a no-fly zone over Mordor quite well before the destruction of Barad-dûr.