“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” -Saint Exuprey
This is a quote about…. science education. I am certain that the author of “The Little Prince” was using shipbuilding as a metaphor for adventure and travel; after all, Exuprey was a pioneer of early flight. An adventurer and risk-taker, he used airplanes with little instrumentation and in fact survived several crashes (alas, except his last). He was dismissive of pilots who flew more technologically advanced airplanes and said they were “more like accountants that pilots”.
What does it have to do with education? There has been a flurry of discussion and an opening of the national discourse on public education with movies like “Waiting for Superman“. The message we are getting from the media is clear, the education system in the United States is broken. There is however, good news. For the first time in American history more women have graduated with advanced degrees than men and since 1980 the average drop out rate has decreased by about half. Even so, we have a long way to go. We still have an average drop out rate of 8 percent. By all accounts we are falling behind the rest of the world in math and science. Two recent international surveys, Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) rank HS students in the United States 21st and 9th respectively in science literacy. The US is behind countries like Finland, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Canada, Estonia and Australia. Even though we have made improvements in educational outcomes over the last 30 years, our education system is lagging behind other industrialized countries like China. The concern is understandable; the pool of the next generation of technological innovators educators and entrepreneurs will be smaller. In short, the United States is setting itself up to be out-competed in the world arena of high-tech.
What is the solution? Should we make testing a priority? Should we increase class time? Start more charter schools? With limited financial resources, should we reward teachers with a successful track record financially? How can we make sure that we fully engage young students with science and technology education? These are questions with many answers depending on who you ask.
Exuprey’s quote is instructive. In addition to the myriad of policy approaches and funding solutions (the approach the ‘pilot accountants’ Exuprey vilified would propose), we have to change the way we think about teaching the sciences to young people. Learning, and yes, teaching is an adventure. Teaching students to “yearn for the vast and open sea” is the one thing that will guarantee that they continue learning long after they leave the classroom.