Steven Pinker has this to say in the New York Times about “How to Get Inside a Student’s Head!“
The sciences of the mind can also provide a sounder conception of what the mind of a child is inherently good and bad at. Our minds are impressively competent at problems that were challenges to our evolutionary ancestors: speaking and listening, reading emotions and intentions, making friends and influencing people. They are not so good at problems that are far simpler (as gauged by what a computer can do) but which are posed by modern life: reading and writing, calculation, understanding how complex societies work. We should not assume that children can learn to write as easily as they learn to speak, or that children in groups will learn science as readily as they learn to exchange gossip. Educators must figure out how to co-opt the faculties that work effortlessly and to get children to apply them to problems at which they lack natural competence.
I was particularly impressed by the idea of co-opting the faculties that are common to all of us to improve our skills in areas that are not so easily mastered. But what Pinker thinks we are really good at: emotions, speaking, making friends, are the things that current technology seems relatively poor at. Which is where the recent work and interest in ‘social software’ seems most promising.
Pinker goes onto cite one of my favorite stalking horses of recent days: the importance of a basic knowledge of statistics and probability.
But there are only 24 hours in a day, and a decision to teach one subject is a decision not to teach another. The question is not whether trigonometry is important — it is — but whether it is more important than probability; not whether an educated person should know the classics, but whether it is more important to know the classics than elementary economics.
Clearly there needs to be more education about probability and statistics throughout the world. From 19% of Americans believing they are in the top one percent of the income distribution to assessing the risks of spaceflight most of the conversations I hear today could use some solid statistical knowledge.