Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What would Einstein do? (part 2)

Despite the myth, Einstein was a good student, consistently getting high grades, especially in math. His troubles in school were the result of his conflicts with his teachers. He rebelled against the authoritarian approach to education that prevailed in the German schools he attended. Einstein had, in the words of a biographer, “a deep suspicion of authority in general and of educational authority in particular.” (1) “This contempt for authority did not endear him to the German ‘lieutenants’ who taught him at his school. As a result, one of his teachers proclaimed that his insolence made him unwelcome in class. When Einstein insisted that he had committed no offense, the teacher replied, ‘Yes, that is true, but you sit there in the back row and smile, and your mere presence here spoils the respect of the class for me.’” (2)

Eventually, Einstein left (or was expelled from) that school and eventually attended a preparatory school in Aarau, Switzerland. “It was a perfect school for Einstein. The teaching was based on the philosophy of a Swiss educational reformer, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who believed in encouraging students to visualize images. He also thought it important to nurture the ‘inner dignity’ and individuality of each child. Students should be allowed to reach their own conclusions, Pestalozzi preached, by using a series of steps that began with hands-on observations and then proceeded to intuitions, conceptual thinking, and visual imagery. It was even possible to learn -- and truly understand -- the laws of math and physics that way. Rote drills, memorization, and force-fed facts were avoided.

“Einstein loved Aarau. ‘Pupils were treated individually,’ his sister recalled, ‘more emphasis was placed on independent thought than on punditry, and young people saw the teacher not as a figure of authority, but, alongside the student, a man of distinct personality.’ It was the opposite of the German education that Einstein had hated. ‘When compared to six years’ schooling at a German authoritarian gymnasium,’ Einstein later said, ‘it made me clearly realize how much superior an education based on free action and personal responsibility is to one relying on outward authority.’” (2)

Einstein’s “‘early suspicion of authority, which never wholly left him, was to prove of decisive importance,’ said Banesh Hoffmann, who was a collaborator of Einstein’s in his later years. ‘Without it he would not have been able to develop the powerful independence of mind that would give him the courage to challenge established scientific beliefs and thereby revolutionize physics.’” (2)

What would Einstein have made of our schools’ increasing emphasis on behavior management, obedience, and standardized test scores? Of this, or this? More importantly, what would those practices, if they worked as intended, have made of him?

Part 1 here; part 3 here.

(Sources: (1) Ronald W. Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times (1971); (2) Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007).)

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