Caracotsios: Why teaching physics should be more like teaching football

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Julian Caracotsios, Columnist

Public education reform in the United States often seems like an insurmountable political and economic mountain, one that America has barely begun to climb. We’ve been hearing the same things for years: Our public schools are failing, our culture of entitlement discourages hard work and Korea, Japan and everyone’s favorite wunderkind – Finland – have been wiping the international academic floor with our faces. If the Cassandras are right, it’s only a matter of time before America falls hopelessly behind.

Although much of the debate is centered on underfunding,, poverty and wealth disparities, critics far and wide have also cut deep into our cultural self-confidence. I am by no means qualified to refute these criticisms from a technical standpoint – after all, yours truly is but a humble columnist – but it’s my nature to offer optimistic and crazy ideas.

Teaching physics needs to be more like football practice.

I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard the complaint that sports crowd out academics, much to the detriment of those classes necessary for success later in life. While that certainly is a valid concern, perhaps it tells us something. To put it simply, school is boring, and in a society averse to hours of rote test-taking and academic drills, it’s not likely that the average kid is going to put in the time. No wonder people think Americans are lazy and stupid.

But is that really true? Compare the stereotypical American “laziness” in school to the stereotypical American “obsession” with sports. After sitting for seven hours bored out of their minds, countless American students eagerly go to after-school practice, where they engage in — wait for it — a few hours of drills and repetitive practice. It’s easy to think of football players as stupid, unmotivated jocks, but you try running laps, lifting weights and enduring hours of grueling workouts every single day. Surviving that sounds as impossible to me as passing physics does to the least academically inclined jock.

Some might brush it off as a quaint cultural obsession, but I think it’s much more than that. The difference between surviving football practice and passing physics is that the former is driven by a sense of camaraderie, community and directly visible goals that the latter is not. The common solution to this problem is parents should wake up and force their kids to hit the books. Foresight doesn’t come easily, and it has to be beaten into our heads when we’re young. True, the lack of emphasis on the future payoff of studying hard is problematic, but that’s the cultural card we’ve been dealt, and instead of lamenting it, we should learn to work with it.

Studying to get into college to get a job to make money to be successful to — what? Scaring kids into working toward some abstract ideal which, by the way, says pitifully little about the more important things in life, is a rather disappointing form of motivation. It’s like running laps without ever actually getting to play the game. As Texas high school sophomore Jeff Bliss implies, while lamenting to his teacher in a video that went viral last week, school lacks excitement, inspiration, teamwork and, above all else, a sense of mission that is important right here and right now. Teachers need to justify studying the way a football coach justifies running laps.

How to do this is a difficult question that I couldn’t even begin to answer right now, so I’ll just end with some food for thought. Back in high school, a friend of mine was in charge of a team that competed every year in the FIRST Robotics Competition. FIRST’s stated mission is “to transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders.” In short, people build robots that compete to perform various tasks in front of a big crowd with lots of flashing lights and loud music. It’s a nerdy version of the football team.

I remember many of them spending long hours after school programming computers, wiring electronics and welding things together with a passion that trumped anything getting A’s could provide. Of course, it’s difficult to test what things like the so-called “Robotics Team” provide for us, but perhaps that’s a good thing. When thinking through this education mess, it would do us well to remember the wise old adage: Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.

Julian Caracotsios is a Weinberg junior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].