27 September 2013

Stuart Firestein is a neuroscience professor at Columbia University. For the past seven years, he has been teaching a course called Ignorance, where he invites scientists to talk to his students for a couple of hours about the state of their ignorance: what they didn’t know a few years ago and know now, what they would still like to know, why it is important to know it, and how they plan to find out. He’s funny and clever. His TED talk just came out:

Insightful ignorance drives science

Knowing lots of facts doesn’t make you a scientist, you also need to ask good questions. Scientists use facts to ask better questions, insightful questions, questions that probe at the ignorance and expand the frontier of what’s known. Strangely, science is not taught as this exciting, endless pursuit of questions. Rather, it is delivered as lecture-sized bundles of facts that must be memorized to pass the test and have little relevance afterwards. Facts should not be simply accumulated, they should be used to build the next round of questions.

You can look up what we know, but finding out what we don’t know requires having original thoughts. The current educational system doesn’t know how to deal with this requirement. I love the proposal that Stuart shows at the end of his talk about getting rid of tests that ask for the right answer (which Google knows), and replacing them with tests that give the answer, and ask what is the next question (which Google doesn’t know).

Instead of drowning students in pointless facts, teachers should spend most of their time lighting their curiosity. Get them interested enough, and they’ll find out the answer to their questions by themselves.

If you liked his talk, be sure to listen to his interview on the podcast This Week in Virology. He also has a book.