Dr. David Helfand on how Education has lost its roots

I attended the 2013 ISABC Pro-D Day recently and was extremely impressed by the keynote address from Dr. David Helfand. Helfand is an astronomer and (slightly) unconvential university professor, formerly the chair of the Department of Astronomy at Columbia University, and currently the president of the progressive and experimental Quest University in Squamish, British Columbia founded in 2007. The school offers just one degree: a Bachelor of Arts and Sciences (emphasis mine). Quest University represents the unique example of an institution of higher learning being designed from scratch in the 21st century. A new school provides an opportunity for people to think about what the purpose of education actually is, what its essential building blocks are, and what the foundation of a new school should be based upon.

Helfand was introduced to the hundreds of teachers attending the event at St. George’s in Vancouver, as well as (via a live connection – go 21st century technology!) to those attending a similar event at Brentwood College on Vancouver Island. Perhaps it’s just my own background in astronomy that caused me to have some predisposed agreement for whatever it was that Dr. Helfand was about to say. But then he started talking, and it wasn’t just his many degrees, his newly established university, or his appreciation for and knowledge of the Milky Way (and all of its living, dying, and newly forming stars) that made me respect him. It was what he had to say about education that was by far the most powerful.

Were we meant to learn in small groups, learning from each other about how to get by?

Were we meant to learn in small groups, learning from each other about how to get by?

Dr. Helfand gave a concise and impassioned keynote speech, stating emphatically that education was lost, and was now far removed from its roots. We have come to value the rewarding of degrees, not the cultivation of educations, and in the process we’ve stripped the curiosity out of school. Learning was now about following and regurgitating, spouting memorized lines and facts back to teachers, exam booklets, and scantrons. He argued that this is not natural. In a grandly-designed comparison, he likened the history of the learning process to the evolution of our brains, the billions of years of evolution of life itself, and eventually zeroed in on our neolithic ancestors, pointing to their social groups as an idealistic learning situation. Our ancestors learned face-to-face, forming circles around fires, teaching each other how to hunt, cook, and use various tools; learning in small groups, with no teacher, no blackboard, no one-way communication. Like the way in which our brain evolves, learning has always been about two-way communication, about the back-and-forth, the constant feedback and adaptation. Echoing the work of Sir Ken Robinson, Helfand suggests that in recent centuries, we’ve gotten away from this type of two-way communication, and made education something unnatural, something forced, something that is intensely competitive, rather than collaborative. Helfand wonders why it is we do this, and suggested that it was not up to politicians, nor parents, but to teachers – to make changes in the way we teach, in the way we assess, and in the way we design activities for students.

Within this grand narrative that was his 15(ish?) minute speech, Helfand weaved in some stories of his own students, mostly university freshmen in a compulsory introductory science seminar class, but also about a group of much younger students: a library full of fourth-graders.

Interacting galaxies, as seen by the Hubble Telescope. 4th graders have questions about these pictures; university students, not so much.

He told of the time he gave a presentation to nine and ten year-olds about outer space, stars, the Milky Way, and black holes, with some pretty pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope, and when the question period opened, the 90 fourth-graders had 180 questions, one on each raised hand. They were so curious to know more, so unafraid to ask questions. Upon returning to his regular students in his Columbia University seminar class, he was struck by the contrast the seventeen and eighteen year-olds presented to him. They never asked questions, because, as one student said, “Seminars are for making statements, not asking questions.” These teenagers had lost any sense of curiosity they once had, their brains dulled by mindless tasks and facts through years of regurgitative education. The stakes in education are so high, the environment so intense and competitive, that asking questions has become a sign of weakness. They didn’t actually want to learn new things, put their brains into moments of disequilbrium and expand their horizons, they wanted accreditation so they could get high-paying jobs.  As one student put it, they were “paying for university to get a degree, not an education.” They don’t want to think, don’t want to use their brains; they want to jump through hoops and earn a slip of paper and some letters behind their names.

It seems as though Helfand has been through the trenches of higher education, and he understands what’s wrong. Helfand is an advocate of lifelong learning, and practices what he preaches. In the early 1980’s he rejected tenure from Columbia University because he believed it would strip him of his motivation to continue to perform research. He’s seen the new generation of 21st-century students, the ones born with videogames, cellphones, computers, and the internet at their disposal. He’s seen firsthand how these students think and act; how they perceive education, what the Google search bar is to them, and what they think learning and university entail. Helfand sees the big picture, and recognizes that  we’ve completely gotten away from what the original meaning of the word education is supposed to mean, at least in its root forms, found in some latin textbooks (and on Wikipedia) as: to bring up, to set forth, to raise up.

Hearing Helfand speak made me think about what our schools currently look like, and where they’re heading. His stories about his students ring true to my own experience in both high school classrooms and university lectures and seminars. The waning curiosities, warped perspectives of learning, and the Google-ization of everything are seen every day. Is it an inevitable conclusions due to the curious workings of the teenage mind that even the most exciting topics become boring over time, or is it something we can fix through better practice? Helfand emphatically believes the latter, urging the teachers in attendance to be the ones to make changes. I wonder if more schools will be adopting Quest University’s approach, and if K-12 schools could benefit from taking a page out of Quest’s refreshingly new book.


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