Beyond standardized tests: Intuitive knowledge comes from experience

There are those who think that ignorance is a finite quantity and as we relentlessly pursue knowledge of the material world the amount of ignorance will dwindle to nothing. We sometimes hear talk of a great unifying theory of physics, the secret of the universe or the secret of life. As soon as we have discovered these, all of our sorrows and troubles will be over.

I agree that there are kinds of ignorance that can be corrected. Beginning with compulsory public education, literacy has flourished in the United States and in some other parts of the world. While not exactly a numerically sophisticated people, Americans are at least pretty functional in math. It is hard to know if Americans know more about science than they did a hundred years ago. International testing does not show us in a good light. But the kinds of science tested in those exercises are mostly school science and often have little to do with the real world.

Every person has a school side of the brain that thinks that school is the only way to learn. But we all also have another side of the brain that knows perfectly well that it isn’t. Standardized tests are excellent at determining the mastery of facts, but not extremely useful in determining judgment, creativity or even the ability to build things. These things often take the intuitive knowledge that comes from experience.

After the Second World War, government policies encouraged the mechanization and enlargement of farms, displacing millions of people off the land and into cities. Today’s urban problems might be considered failed agriculture problems. The large mechanized farms of the 21st century are probably unsustainable, and the generation of people who know how to farm is now disappearing. A minuscule number of people live in truly rural environments today.

The significance of urbanization to science education is that modern children have very limited experience with the physical world. Children grow up in suburbs or on small city lots or in apartments, with restrictive covenants against animals, a reduced sampling of vegetation, and little or no opportunity to catch frogs, crayfish or snakes; or eat cattails, dandelions or skunk cabbage. Today’s children experience a poverty of machinery, tools and equipment. Such experiences develop an intuitive knowledge that is difficult to develop in any other way.

Instead of daily experiences with nature, physics and machines, they must wait until an electronics unit in school for a brief, isolated exposure to circuits. The machinery itself is no longer intuitive. If they were to take apart their cell phone they would find nothing but an indecipherable mother board. Plumbing and electronics are mysteries to many.

Many people learn to speak, hear, read and write to some degree. Most people learn to think rather clearly, when they take the trouble to think. But it should be obvious that not every child can score above-average on standardized tests, but many people still insist this is the goal of education. Today’s children have an amazing sophistication about many things, but most have never caught a frog, butchered an animal, or operated or repaired complex machinery. Interestingly, even though many are high-tech users, very few can write a computer program.

This lack of intuitive knowledge places a grave burden on the public schools. It may not bode well for the future of science and technology innovation in our country. However, it also may not be as grave as it sounds. Because almost every thinking person recognizes that the assumption that science can eventually reduce ignorance to nothing is simply wrong. There are problems that are unsolvable and questions that are unanswerable. We are not going to be free of mortality. It is the human condition to be fallible, partial and to make mistakes.

Science has been a big help in doing all of that well.

Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College.


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