Why are We Teaching Science that's been Outdated for 100 Years?

If a group of scientists were transported through time from 1890 to 2020, they would be flabbergasted by almost every feature of our modern world. The steel planes that allow us to circumnavigate the globe in a few hours, as well as the phones that allow us to communicate with anyone on the planet in real-time, would surely seem like inexplicable magic. Strangely, however, there is one place where our time travelers would not feel at all out of place: a high school physics classroom. That’s because we are still teaching our children the very same material that our time travelers learned — when the world was still powered by horses and lit by whale oil lamps.

In the math department, the situation is even worse — high school math classes today are largely identical to those taught in 1750. In most high schools, in fact, every student is still required to spend an entire year learning the geometry theorems formulated by Euclid, a Greek mathematician who lived over 23 centuries ago! On one level, it seems obvious — especially to students — that a detailed knowledge of Euclidean geometry is entirely irrelevant to life in the 21st century. (As an example, think about how often adult life has required you to prove that a particular quadrilateral is a parallelogram.) Given how much the world has changed since 300 BCE, why are we still forcing our children to memorize and regurgitate two thousand-year-old math theorems?

I encourage my students to ask their math teachers this question, and when they do, they generally get one of three answers. The worst answer (but in some ways the most honest) is: “Because it’s on the statewide tests you’ll have to take at the end of the year.” Although students may not be able to articulate it, most can clearly feel the maddening absurdity of this answer: we cover geometry in math class because it’s on the state-wide test, and we put it on the state-wide test because it’s what we cover in math class. Nothing in this self-justifying loop explains WHY learning geometry is important.

If students are blessed with a more thoughtful math teacher, that person will likely admit that, in itself, this proof is irrelevant. “What matters,” they will add, “is the thought process that goes into the proof — the ability to reason logically and sequentially from accepted premises to a desired conclusion.” I wholeheartedly agree that this ability to construct a valid argument using a logical train of thought is enormously useful. However, it seems obvious that we could — and should — teach this thought process with content that is actually relevant to young people’s lives. As one example, computer programming is a fantastic way to demonstrate this linear thought process, and it has applications that are extremely relevant to many children. Instead of forcing kids to do geometry proofs, then, we could be teaching them to build their own interactive websites or their own phone apps. And for children not interested in coding, we could teach them this same linear thought process by having them create convincing legal arguments for mock trials, or by having them develop a business plan for their own entrepreneurial business.

As we all know, the real world offers limitless lessons in sequential, logical reasoning. Given that fact, it seems strange — and highly unfortunate — that we would choose to teach this thought-process with material that has no relevance to that world. Young people know, intuitively, that much of what they are being taught in school has very little relevance to their lives, and their response — quite understandably — is to lose interest in learning. Tragically, this robs children of a fantastically important life skill (vibrant curiosity), and it also robs our society of young adults who are well-prepared to meet its unprecedented challenges.

The third response offered to students who ask about the point of learning geometry is that this centuries-old knowledge is important because it’s the building blocks of our cutting-edge science. The idea here is that our knowledge is additive, and that Euclidean geometry and Newtonian science are the foundations on top of which more advanced concepts will later be added. There is clearly some truth to this argument — very often, college science classes build on ideas and techniques introduced in high school classes. This progression also makes sense because it generally follows the actual history of science. Students learn about early 20th-century models of the atom in high school chemistry, and then in college, they learn how quantum mechanics evolved our understanding of those atoms.

In my view, however, this vision of knowledge as an additive process omits one crucial fact about the development of science. Instead of representing a gradual accumulation of facts, science actually evolves through dramatic revolutions, where one vision of reality is supplanted by an entirely different one. When we teach children centuries-old science, we are therefore giving them a picture of the universe that we know is outdated and inadequate.

As a concrete example, consider what high school students learn about the structure of an atom. In chemistry class, young people are taught that an atomic nucleus is made of little balls called protons and neutrons, and that around this nucleus orbit other little balls called electrons. When those students get to college, however, their professors will admit that this vision of electrons as little balls is entirely wrong. According to the most widely accepted interpretation of quantum theory, electrons exist as clouds of possibility which only manifest as particles when they are actively being measured.

In this respect, the quantum mechanical understanding of atoms is NOT just a refinement of what we previously believed — it’s a radically different view of reality. As Cambridge physicist David Tong explains this shift away from a particle-based understanding of nature, “The best theories of physics don’t rely on particles at all. The best theories we have tell us that the fundamental building blocks of nature are fields — fluid-like substances which are spread throughout the entire universe.” Although thinking of electrons as little balls is useful for getting the correct answers to simple chemistry problems, teaching this model comes at an ENORMOUS cost: it leads students to the mistaken idea that reality is made of discrete particles knocking into each other like billiard balls.

Instead of filling students’ heads with scientific theories that were proven wrong over a hundred years ago, wouldn’t it make much more sense to give them a glimpse into the fascinating perspective on reality now offered by quantum theory? In that wonderfully mysterious vision, the entire universe is pervaded with nonmaterial quantum fields, and all the particles that make up our bodies are little waves in those fields — waves which emerged from a unified cosmic ocean and which will eventually dissolve back into it.

This represents one of the core intentions of all our courses. Instead of filling children’s minds with science that’s outdated by over a century, we believe it’s essential to expose young people to the cutting edges of science, including quantum mechanics, relativity, big bang cosmology, and systems theory. Having taught these courses for over five years, we can state with confidence that there’s no truth to the claim that these theories are too complex for teenagers to comprehend. In fact, we consistently find that students are profoundly inspired by these big ideas, and enormously empowered when they realize that they can understand them.

In this next post, we’ll dig deeper into why our educational system has had such difficulty incorporating the stupendous revelations breaking into human awareness from the last century of science.