Mego: Educators should take note of Einstein’s method

<p>Albert Einstein talks with Professor Harold C. Urey(left), professor of chemistry, Institute of Nuclear Studies, University of Chicago.  |  Sun-Times Print Collection </p>

Albert Einstein talks with Professor Harold C. Urey(left), professor of chemistry, Institute of Nuclear Studies, University of Chicago.  |  Sun-Times Print Collection 

I’ve often wondered how Albert Einstein would have done on the ACT college readiness test, which is currently undergoing changes. I suspect he would have flunked it, just as he flunked the entrance exam “readiness test” for a polytechnic school in Zurich.

He might have passed the ACT mathematics section, although he probably would have been one of those students who required more time. I think they’re presently called “learning disabled.” But he certainly would not have passed the other three sections.

Einstein dropped out of school at 15, primarily because he couldn’t tolerate rote learning. Although he eventually did get into the polytechnic school, he struggled there and just barely graduated, which is why he ended up working in a patent office. He never claimed to be smart, saying: “it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

What I can’t figure out is why his story doesn’t bother educators more. Here is the guy who essentially founded quantum mechanics and whose work on gravity constitutes perhaps the greatest intellectual achievement in the history of mankind. Why doesn’t it drive school board members crazy that our system isn’t any better at identifying, much less helping, creative, imaginative kids like Einstein than his school system was.

Understandably, Einstein had little regard for the kinds of things that schools taught and the behaviors they rewarded. “The true sign of intelligence,” he said, “is not knowledge but imagination.” And I suspect he wouldn’t think much of the complicated way things are explained in most classrooms today. “If you can’t explain it simply,” he said, “you don’t understand it well enough.” On that, I think he was absolutely right.

Had Einstein not been so persistent he would never have “amounted to anything.” Doesn’t it bother anybody that there may very well be children in our schools who are just as creative and imaginative as he was, but who are simply not as tenacious? What does amounting to something mean, anyway?

My school district, 203, reported that their composite ACT score dropped to 24.8, which they, probably correctly, attribute to the inclusion of those students who required more time to complete the test. They proudly point out, however, that their graduates scored a 53 percent college and career readiness rate, double the national average of 26 percent. I’m not sure how you calculate those percentages, but why is it such a good thing that, year after year, only half our students are ready for college? If that’s true, whose fault is it?

Allow me to suggest that educators today are confusing school with team sports. Education is not a competition to identify the next generation of elites. There’s no place for either fear or stopwatches in problem solving. Einstein worked joyfully on general relativity for decades. And tests don’t identify winners, they create them by the choice and design of the questions.

So how should our school districts deal with the upcoming changes in the ACT or other standardized tests? The same way they deal with head lice and bedbugs. You achieve quality through construction, not inspection.

The purpose of school is not to create interchangeable parts for some vast corporate machine. Everybody doesn’t have to learn, or be good at, the same things. And in a rapidly changing world the flush toilet model of education, in which you learn everything you’ll ever need while you’re young, doesn’t work. We must learn as long as we live.

If I can paraphrase two of Einstein’s sentiments, what’s terrible isn’t that there are things that are wrong, but that for whatever reason people refuse to do anything about them. And you can’t get out of a mess using the same kind of thinking that got you into it.