More of the same, Dept.

More of the same regarding math being taught wrong, but this time the words come from Elon Musk, the new patron saint of innovation and disruption.

Musk suggested learning be focused around solving a specific problem, such as building a satellite or taking apart an engine. Then students will encounter and master subjects such as math and physics on the path to solving their problem. Understanding how to use a wrench or screwdriver will have a clear purpose. “If you had a class on wrenches, ugh, why?” Musk said. “Trying to solve a problem is very powerful for establishing relevance, and getting kids excited about what they’re working on and having the knowledge stick.”

Translation: Project/Problem Based Learning is the way to do it. Students learning on a just-in-time basis will have the motivation to learn what’s needed in order to solve the problem. Or so the theory goes.

The rest of the article was about Elon Musk and how great he is.


10 thoughts on “More of the same, Dept.

  1. My high school physics class — in the early seventies — comprised project after project. Teacher called it “Harvard Physics.” Each class period was filled with setting up equipment and building contraptions, in small groups. Essentially, it was a “lab only” course. I learned less in that course than in any other over 4 years of high school, and I’m including gym in the comparison. Typically, an entire class period was devoted to delivering just one fact or concept — “authentically” — that could have been simply told to us in less than a minute or, with some discussion, in just a few minutes — un-authentically. Moreover, so much of our attention was focused on building the contraptions and getting them to work that, in most cases, the one factoid we were supposed to learn was lost in the morass of mostly irrelevant information.


    • Exactly right; I’ve seen this in some of the activities described in the current slew of math textbooks. The activities are sometimes so involved that students are left wondering “What was it I was supposed to discover?” Or at least I’m wondering that.


  2. “Then students will encounter and master subjects such as math and physics on the path to solving their problem.”

    Another big name bites the engagement hands-on dust. Traditional learning often includes year-end projects, but PBL’s approach is to use only that to hack their way to a vocational education. PBL is the definition of a non-liberal arts education. How does hacking create deep understanding and critical thinking?

    I remember all of the projects my son had to do in K-6. One had him build a diorama of a national site with no preparation in art or graphic design. I distinctly remember taking the time to teach him how to plan (and limit) the project, perspective, graphic arts, and even how to label the project so that the text was centered. If the result was not crappy enough, then they knew the parents helped.

    Why have teachers if all they’re going to be are potted plants on the side? We can save a lot of money that can be used to hire individual subject expert tutors starting in Kindergarten. Then again, why not do it right and teach the skills in class and leave it to after school clubs for opt-in PBL.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. ” then they knew the parents helped.”

    So, if the parents helped, the kid got a bad grade? And what if the parents didn’t help, and the diarama was a mess? Still a bad grade? Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.


    • They can’t tell the difference between a parent teaching the child so that they do the work themselves and a parent who does the work. I very much remember thinking about that for my son’s diorama project. I heard from a few parents who said they do all of their kids projects (with no real effort or skill) as long as their kids spend that time doing other real learning.

      He also had a popsicle stick bridge building project that everyone tested in a fun student-parent night where we added weight until the bridges broke. We parents were asked to build our own bridges. This was supposed to somehow get the kids to learn about trusses or something. The goal was fun engagement, not verifiable learning results for the amount of time and effort. It’s all about process and not results. Sure, they love the balance of skills and understanding, but they don’t check to see if anything other than low CCSS proficiency is met. They wouldn’t even do that unless required. They don’t like testing.


  4. “Trying to solve a problem is very powerful for establishing relevance, and getting kids excited about what they’re working on and having the knowledge stick.”

    I wonder if Musk thinks most girls will find engines relevant. Thinking satellites are interesting will put him in the “nerd” category fairly firmly, so perhaps it’s too much to expect him to worry about girls.

    He should be made to sit down with a 14 year-old girl and forced to try and explain to her how an engine works for 5 one hour sessions. Then he can get back to us on how well that went.


    • Oh but he won’t explain to anyone how it works. He’ll have a project that’s very engaging so that students will be motivated to find out why on their own in a just-in-time basis. But yes, I’d like to know how well that’s been working out as well.


  5. Why do these innovators, dreamers, thinkers and visionaries all come up with the same method? Rhetorical question!
    How about something outlandish?
    Sit down. Be quiet.Do your work.


  6. There’s nothing new under the sun. Or, at least, not enough to satisfy the many wanna-be revolutionaries in US ed schools. Where innovation is glorified as an unambiguous good, it become necessary to keep reinventing the wheel (though, perhaps, with new names each time), and pretending that whatever exists now in the schools was put in place by someone else–the …yuck!… traditionalists–wherever they are.


  7. I can’t tell you how many creative ideas I get, but as Edison said: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

    It takes the grit that comes from doing nightly homework, not engagement from group work. You could be an idea person who gets everyone to finish complex tasks, but don’t take credit for the actual technical work. It’s rather easy to turn an engineer into an idea person, but the other way is impossible. I’m obviously not a Jobs or Gates or Musk fan.


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