Have we taught our students not to think?

Alan Slavin, letter to Toronto Star, February 22, 2007

Has Ontario's educational system taught a decade of students not to think? There is growing evidence that the combination of a too advanced, content-intensive curriculum and standardized testing, both introduced by the Conservative government in 1997-1999, has done exactly that. The test performance of incoming university students at Trent has plummeted about 15% in physics and mathematics in the last 5 years, with a similar pattern appearing at other Ontario universities. Brock has a significant increase in the percentage of students failing first-year physics and mathematics, and Guelph has a similar drop in performance in a first-year physics course. Yet there is no rapid decline in the four other physics departments I contacted in the Maritimes and British Columbia.

The ability of incoming students for analysis and synthesis seems to have been replaced by rote memorization/regurgitation in both the sciences and the humanities. However, in analytical fields such as physics, English or the visual arts, the emphasis is on constructing one's own knowledge and approaches, not just memorizing facts. It is the ability to see facts in a new light, to bring quite disparate ideas together to solve problems, that makes good scientists, writers, artists and entrepreneurs. The dependence on memorization also affects work habits, with a third of students in some classes not handing in assignments or failing to pick up graded work to find out where they ve gone wrong. Why should they, if they believe the way to better grades is to memorize more material rather than understand? The resulting high failure/drop-out rate in the first two years of university has enormous cost to society, although the students who do persevere and graduate clearly have or develop the requisite skills.

The problem is not with our teachers who are well trained and dedicated. ... Students first exposed to the science curriculum in grade 5 are now in first year of university, suggesting that the roots of the problem extend to elementary school. Moreover, the curriculum is so content-heavy that it has limited the amount of time available for developing analytical skills and conceptual understanding, even though development of these skills was a stated goal. ... Review panels of university physics professors for the sciences recently agreed that "a) The existing curriculum is too ambitious and focuses on breadth instead of depth; b) Some topics are clearly too advanced and should be dropped; c) There is a yawning gap between the ambition of the curriculum and the reality of students entering University.

We must move quickly to change the situation. A new curriculum was introduced for K-8 in Mathematics and English in 2005 and 2006, respectively, and a new high-school science curriculum is under review. Let's hope that local teachers and school boards are involved in the development of this curriculum, and in its monitoring and evaluation. We have ten years of students who have been taught not to think, and reversing that training will be neither quick nor easy.

Alan Slavin is professor and Chair in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Trent University.