Jul 202008

This is one of the best blog discussions I’ve ever seen: WSJ Health Blog: Do Pre-Meds Really Need that Year of Organic Chemistry?

There are some excellent points, pro-and-con, that apply to a lot more than just pre-med education. I’ve been involved in some of these same arguments in debates about curriculum change in our local K-12 school district.

My antenna picked up a bad signal when I saw these words from the academic dean of Harvard’s med school: “[The curriculum] could be more focused on hypothesis generation and solving problems rather than doing the rote exercises that were there in the old textbook.” Whenever educators start talking about rote learning vs problem solving and critical thinking, you can be pretty sure they’re getting ready to dumb down the curriculum and that if they have their way, students will be less equipped to solve problems than before.

Most of those commenting are MDs. The closest I came to their profession was when I took microbiology in a class full of pre-med students 30-some years ago. I am not a person who can say whether the full year of organic chemistry should be replaced with something else. Times and academic disciplines do change and curricula need to adjust. It could well be that the year of organic chem should change. But if the reason for making the change is to replace rote learning with problem solving, I’m pretty sure I’m against it.

Not that I’m against problem solving, but because I’m in favor of equipping students to do it. And the way you do it is usually NOT by sitting down and teaching students how to solve problems as an isolated skill, isolated from the drudgery of obtaining basic knowledge.

So I stuck my nose in and commented:

Nah. Every profession needs a good, old-fashioned flunk-out course with marginal relevance to the profession. If nothing else, it weeds out those people who have no patience for irrelevance.

I was hoping to get people to think about the nature of “relevance.” The person who is interested only in what’s obviously relevant to getting the job done is not the person who is going to pick up on the seemingly irrelevant clues that are needed in dealing with difficult problems. (I heard way too much about “relevance” back in the 1960s, and could go on and on about it.)

And rote learning is never mere rote learning. But opposition to rote learning is usually anti-intellectualism in thin disguise.

Well, I don’t know if any of these MDs were responding to me, but there are certainly a lot of them who have great insights on what it really takes to learn how to solve problems. There are discussions on medicine as a profession vs medicine as a trade, and much more. Their comments are worth reading and re-reading by anyone who cares about education.

  • hi,
    i think kids with learning problems are like a closed box which has a lot of things kept inside but are unable to express it.