An edited version of the following essay was featured on the International Literacy's Association's literacy blog in January, 2016. What follows is the unedited version, which provides food for thought on links between Einstein, quantum mechanics, and our educational endeavors.
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As a science nerd and lover of nonfiction, I’ve recently turned my reading attention to Albert Einstein. This year marks the 100th and 110th year anniversaries of his theories of general and special relativity. Occasionally, while mulling over the oddities of space-time and quarks, my mind has drifted to teaching, and I have found that physics sheds some light on my educational endeavors. Leptons linked to literacy, you say? Allow me to explain.
A century ago, when Einstein theorized that light exists as a particle (or quanta), he laid the foundation for the fields of quantum mechanics and cosmology. Since then, scientists studying bosons, the Big Bang, and black holes have come to understand that certain aspects of our universe can be precisely measured, while others are forever beyond exact calculation. On the one hand, the circumference of a circle strictly determines its area. On the other, there is absolutely no way to know when the nucleus of a radium atom will decay. What can always be predicted and what will forever remain random co-exist in a universe that is both determinate and indeterminate.
In education, researchers have made great strides towards making the field more deterministic. Methods of assessment have been advanced and data has been disaggregated. Theories have been put to the test and refined through replicated experiments to the point where we can now say with confidence, “A young child’s ability to master phoneme-grapheme association determines her early reading acquisition” and “The quality and expertise of a child’s teacher determines the degree to which she will learn.”
Yet there are limits to the degree of determinacy education can reach. As the field travels the path of reductionism, striving to identify what is strictly quantifiable in reading development or determine which instructional methods lead to perfect learning every time, it may be helpful to reflect on these limits. After all, associating sounds with symbols is not the only skill a young child brings to bear on reading, and although we may know that a student’s learning is determined by the quality of her teacher, we may never know what qualities are present in all highly effective teachers.
This is not to say I am an advocate of randomness in education. I am not. Determining through research which type of instruction works best, which materials lead to greater learning, and how to best formulate an effective program of teacher training, are worthwhile and even necessary endeavors. Education needs rigor, data, and quantitative analysis.
But we should be wary. Educational systems love the cutting edge and the paradigm shift, but neither necessarily involve rigor. And our love affair with everything new and different often leads to uncertainty and heartbreak. A multi-tiered system of support supplants response to intervention, heterogeneous grouping is swept away by mass customized learning, and the latest version of a core-reading program flies in with more subroutines and monitoring systems than a space capsule, but are we really sure that any one of these complex systems definitely determines learning?
Here’s a closing thought, and it’s one that I find comforting. Physicists postulate that the universe simultaneously operates on levels of determinacy and indeterminacy. Think of our universe as a cake made of layers. Each layer exists and operates on differing physical laws. On the bottom is the layer of quantum physics, where particles and waveforms arise, decay, and collapse at random. Upon this foundation of unpredictably are built atoms, rocks, and planets, which behave in totally predictable ways. Living on these very predictable rocks and planets are microbes and people, which evolve and behave in indeterminate, chaotic ways.
We can acknowledge that certain aspects of education – how to motivate a child, how to inspire a colleague, finding the exact and perfect way to teach reading – lie beyond the purview of strict determinism, even as we strive to scientifically define what works and what doesn’t. And we can work towards rigor even when we know that science can never totally quantify which specific practices and materials determine complete learning. Our field is an indeterminate one, focused on millions of freethinking beings acting in unpredictable ways. First graders give a hug without warning, third graders unexpectedly fall out of their seats, sixth graders frequently come to school with more than “close reading” on their minds. The beauty of teaching, which is both a science and an art, is that through the skillful practice of what we know, through our quest to gain greater knowledge, and through a lot of inspired and hard work, we can create order from chaos and help determine outcomes for all our indeterminate and oh-so-interesting students.
I am a teacher, literacy consultant, author, musician, nature lover, and life long learner.