Human connection: the key element of education
Updated: Jul 3
by Alex Martin
Executive Director, Sidewalk Science Center
When you visit a science center, there's often a "science theatre" of sorts, a stage show to gather around and watch in awe as the educator dunks a balloon in liquid nitrogen, then smashes it to a million bits, or causes a foamy eruption of elephant toothpaste.
The purpose of science centers, and the purpose of museums at large, is to surround you with new experiences, as well as new ways of interacting with and interpreting life, the world, and the laws of the universe in which we live. Science centers of the past tended to have exhibits with passive visitor interactions. Modern science centers have transitioned to interactive, hands-on engagement. Where the science centers of today still fall short is the overall reliance upon self-guided learning: an interactive display will have a sign hanging to the side that provides instructions and an explanation. It's fun to turn the crank, hit a button, and watch a metal washer fling itself into the air. It's fun to press a magnet against the side of a glass tube and watch the shimmering black liquid inside form spikes and follow the magnet as you move it around. It's fun to stand in front of a green or blue screen and jump back and forth to block soccer goals at the World Cup.
Why does the metal washer fly upward? Why does the black liquid form spikes around the magnet? Why are the colors green and blue used to create CGI backgrounds, but not yellow, or red, or orange? Signs can certainly answer these questions, but they rely upon a visitor's willingness to read, as well as their fluency in that language, as a crucial part of the learning process.
Despite the rewarding experiences of a science center, the self-guided nature lacks one crucial component of a fully functioning education system: a teacher. The strongest experiences at science centers occur when an educator becomes involved with visitors and guides the learning process. As modern technology such as virtual and augmented reality (VR & AR), artificial intelligence (AI), and video- or computer-based education become more integrated into learning experiences, one key component that remains steadfast is the presence of a teacher, an educator, a human guiding the process.
Human connection in education provides a learning experience that at present cannot be replicated through other methods. Type a question into a search engine, and you will receive answers from all over the internet. In those answers is a sense of final certainty: "This is the answer. This is the way it is." To an inexperienced learner, the internet is an expert in every field, providing an answer to every question imaginable. A human, in a direct comparison, seems less reliable. For one, humans operate on a time delay: we must think before we provide information. And unlike the internet, no single person has all the answers to all the questions. Those who claim they do, are lying to you.
I would argue, however, that with the proper background and experience, these perceived setbacks of humans as information providers make us more reliable throughout the duration of the learning process than any search on the internet. Holding a conversation, asking side questions, exploring the knowledge of both the learner and the educator: these are elements that cannot be adequately substituted by other learning methods or technologies. An educator admitting "I don't know the answer to this question, but I can find someone who has more knowledge on this topic that I do" shows the learner it is normal and valid to not have answers to every question. As educators, we all have a share in larger bodies of knowledge, and we can and should trust the experiences and research performed by people practicing outside the extent of our own.
Human educators also provide nuance to the learning process. The way we tip our heads and fold our arms as we ponder a curious person's question; the jokes we make as we talk through explanations; the thought experiments we guide learners through; the hands-on activities we provide as tangible representations. These elements combine to create the active, fluid nature of human learning. Nuance creates flavor within education.
A rainbow does not form in the same place, at the same time, every day. But this does not mean they lack predictability. After an evening rain shower, and the clouds break in front of the Sun, you will often see a rainbow. It is because of the storms that precede them that humans view rainbows as a sign of hope: "The storm has passed; the darkness is over; the danger is gone." One might be led to think a rainbow is special, because it only forms after the storm.
We find this is not true, however, when we look into the vapor of a hot shower, or the spray of a garden hose, or the mist hanging beside a waterfall. In the right light, viewed from an appropriate angle, you will see a rainbow, despite the lack of any storm, any darkness, or any danger. The rainbow, we came to discover, forms for the observer when the wavelengths that compose white light enter a water droplet, refract every so slightly, reflect off the back of the droplet and exit again. After some distance, the spreading light will meet that particular observer such as you or me, and we will perceive the spectrum of visible light. Almost instinctively, then, we will call out for others to share the sight of the rainbow with us.
The key to what I've just described above is as simple as a single word found within that passage: predictability. Humans created the method of science to make predictions. Predictions help us function day-to-day, with routines, with stability, with peace of mind. At large, it is our understanding of cause and effect that allows modern civilization to sustain itself more or less successfully. In large groups, humans don't often welcome change. We tend to surround ourselves with communities of like-thinking people because we understand that, within our community, very little will change, and that will allow us to live our lives relatively uninterrupted. As individuals, however, we might welcome change, even strive to change ourselves or our environment. We can predict that having a baby will cause short term financial and physical stress, but many people are willing to undergo that change because they also predict that the long term emotional, intellectual, and financial rewards will outweigh the stress caused by the change.
This predictability, this recognition of cause and effect are the fundamental keys to education. Cranking a handle and causing a metal washer to fly into the air is certainly a cause-and-effect scenario, but without a teacher, without an active guide, understanding the complexity of the mechanism causing the washer's sudden jump will not come in a timely fashion. Hanging a sign by the exhibit is a feasible short-term solution to this situation, but a sign will not actively push you to ask one more question, think from another angle, or change a variable. A sign must be concise, the limiting factors being the attention of the reader, and the jargon of the explanation.
Teachers and educators should be held to the expectation that they will create an active and involved dialogue with participants and students, one that allows multiple methods of thought to be explored, questions to be asked, and nuances to be expressed. Learning cannot be relegated to passive interactions. Education all but dies when the learning process transitions from days filled with stimulating activities and inclusive conversations, to days filled with aimless lectures and mandated testing.
The Flaw of Memorization
Rote memorization, the memorization of information through repetition, is key to developing basic and surface-level knowledge: the alphabet system, simple mathematics, tying shoes, how to take a shower. The overextension of this technique, however, can inhibit long-term learning, creativity, and critical thinking skills.
In schools, heavy emphasis is placed upon testing students multiple times every year (and as a teacher at a public school in Florida, this testing seems near continuous throughout the year). Testing categorizes performance throughout the school year, and in many cases, provides enhanced funding and incentives for top-performing schools and districts.
A common complaint among teachers in public schools is how "We have to teach kids to take tests, rather than how to learn." A common issue that is rarely publicly addressed, but in my opinion is most concerning, is how the constant, repeated testing drains any individual student's motivation to learn, and worse yet, dampens or erases their creativity. Testing cannot be objective when it is excessively substituted in place of classroom learning, nor does it represent the true nature of the learning process. Whenever I hand out testing passes in the morning, or receive a call to send a student down for testing, the response is a groan, an eyeroll, slumped shoulders. That's the predictable external reaction of any teenager. However, when repeated a dozen times throughout the year, students miss multiple classes, notes, projects, essays, and other activities that they then must make up outside the classroom, taking away from their time to engage in interpersonal relationships, hobbies, sports, jobs, and other mentally, socially, and financially nurturing experiences.
In the end, those students who are already struggling or showing disinterest will not complete the mandated testing objectively. They'll rush. They'll sleep. They'll make random guesses. Then, a few weeks later, they're called back to take another.
The cycles of testing remove students from the nuanced experience of learning. Mandated testing forces teachers, particularly within the fields of math and science where facts and equations are the foundation of each subject, to present material based on rote memorization. Memorize the equation. Memorize the periodic table. Memorize the Scientific Method. Memorize the multiplication table. Memorize this person, in this year, who made this discovery. The state and federal directive for public schools to drive information into students, rather than the analytical ability to parse, group, retain, and discard that information, removes tangible incentive for students to understand their knowledge. This is a disservice to every student and educator in a classroom.
While my own top-performing students were consistent in their attention, motivation, and dedication to improving their personal education and enhancing their knowledge, they were the outliers of every class. Intrinsic motivational factors make up only a scattered handful of pieces in the puzzle of education. Extrinsic motivational factors heavily influenced the majority of students. Hands-on projects and analytical essays drove the most classroom participation in my science classes. Students want to create. Students want to collaborate with friends. Students want to be stimulated. With the analysis essays, students learned the "How did we get here?" aspect of science, which is a key component to understanding how certain concepts apply to your daily life.
A student, a learner, a curious mind will develop intrinsic motivation for expanded learning when they begin to understand how their life improves when they have the ability to analyze knowledge. The guidance of a teacher or educator can then lay a more solid foundation that allows them to understand the mechanisms of cause and effect.
The Core of Sidewalk Science Center
In January 2018, I was unemployed after the glass engraving shop I had been working at in the Oglethorpe Mall outside Savannah, Georgia shut down. The next two months, I interviewed for jobs around the country before staying in Savannah to work at the Savannah Children's Museum, my entrance into education as a career path. But during those two unemployed months, there was a day I was doing laundry in my apartment, and as I passed by my bathroom, I saw a strange phenomenon on the floor: eight beams of light were splayed across the floor, shining through a crack in the bathroom door.
I dropped what I was doing to investigate, posting on Tumblr and Snapchat the explanation I derived from some studying of the effect (a famous optics phenomenon described during the single and double slit experiments). This led me to create a YouTube channel (and subsequently, the education business that became Sidewalk Science Center), all of which was initially named after an organization in my science-fiction books. On the channel, I began by exploring various small, virtually unnoticed phenomena or mathematical trivia. By April 2018, I moved into doing "science interviews" on the sidewalks of Savannah, discussing various scientific concepts with people in a guided question & explanation. Then, in July 2018, these videos transformed into Sidewalk Science Center.
I tell this story because it highlights what I consider to be the fundamentals of being both a learner and a teacher. As we live out our lives, we experience physics, optics, chemistry, biology, marine science, thermodynamics, meteorology, magnetism, and more. All of these are playing out around us, often unnoticed, despite how fundamental they are to our very existence. Witnessing that phenomenon of eight distinct light beams as I did my laundry catalyzed a change in how I experience the world.
This desire to share simple phenomena lives on through Sidewalk Science Center. In our mission, we state that Sidewalk Science Center provides 'regular and reliable access to educational tools and resources.' Every session, whether it be at a playground, beach, outdoor mall, or waterside park, provides participants the opportunity to create their own catalyzing experience. By showing up multiple times each week, we establish regularity and reliability: "You can come to the park, and we will be there."
Providing guided interactions with fundamental experiments and concepts not only increases engagement and familiarity with scientific concepts, but scientific literacy skills as well. There tends to be a broad assumption among adult participants in particular that science is similar to religion, in that because there are multiple, often exclusive systems of belief throughout Religion, there must also be multiple exclusive systems of belief throughout science.
Religion addresses morals, values, systems of power, and personal belief. From country to country, culture to culture, denomination to denomination, community to community, religion is varied. Values here are not always values there. Right and wrong are gray areas. Democracies often allow citizens the freedom to practice (or not practice) any religion of their choosing; Authoritarian rule will often reward citizens who practice state-recognized religions, and punish or outright kill citizens who attempt to practice outside the law.
These limitations do not exist within science. Science, at large, is a method that has been standardized around the world in every country, every culture, and every institution. It is no more, and no less, than a process by which information and data are collected and communicated. In its most basic form, science is making an observation, collecting data, and drawing a conclusion. Making it more complex, science changes variables and compares the new data with the standardized data. Ideas, experiments, data, and theories should then be shared among individuals and institutions and observed or tested to failure. Science should be objective, free of human interpretation, and guided through cause and effect. Science does not teach values, morals, or systems of power; these are each retroactively applied to the fields of science and the activities undertaken by the scientific process.
While educators might engage with participants on higher concepts during their visit to Sidewalk Science Center, the experiments we showcase are designed to allow all participants of any age to practice the basic method of science, proceeding step-by-step to observe the mechanisms of cause and effect in each experiment. "This happens because of this." When relevant, educators discuss prior research and current or future applications, or how people might notice the effect in their daily lives.
This approach allows people of all ages to explore together while simultaneously having the convenience of an educator present at all times who can help stimulate their thinking, talk through questions, or elaborate on explanations. That is what sets Sidewalk Science Center apart from other informal and nontraditional methods of education: 100% of the experience is complemented with an educator at all times. Though Sidewalk Science Center might not have a brick-and-mortar showroom filled wall-to-wall with experiments and activities to explore, we make up for this through direct human connection during every step of the learning process. We will always provide a human answer to the best of our abilities, and work with you through questions, problems, and any other curiosities that might arise.
Alex Martin is the Executive Director of Sidewalk Science Center. Learn more about him here.