Practical decisions can’t be avoided

Commenter Steven doesn’t like using ‘practical’ as a criteria to decide what gets taught in science education:

People routinely critique research (like mine!) because they don’t believe it or think it’s practical.  But as to whether something should be taught … I still think that ‘practical’ is a misleading idea.  I’ll use medical examples to stick to a theme:  teaching nurses to use Wordperfect 5.1 and DOS might have been a supremely practical idea in 1989, but these days it would be hopelessly outdated.  What’s practical today is outdated tomorrow (next-gen sequencing today, who knows what tomorrow?)…

You could also ask that fundamental skills be applicable in a day-to-day work environment, which (I believe) is where much of the talk of ‘practical’ comes in.  This, too, has definitional challenges.  You could argue that obscure diseases, for example, should receive little attention because doctors will never see a case of them.  And then, you get a German doctor diagnosing cobalt intoxication because of something that he saw *on TV*. That’s why notions of ‘practical’ bug me:  there’s very often a counterexample on its way, you just haven’t seen it yet.

As someone who did his undergraduate thesis in numerical relativity–one of the most impractical and useless abstract and theoretical branches of physics–and who counts string theorists among his close friends, I appreciate that being practical isn’t everything in life. But even though it is a limited metric, it can’t be completely avoided when we think about science education.

Quantum Field Theory (QFT) was not required for all Stanford physicists. I’m sure there are creative examples where knowing QFT helps you in any field of physics. But the overwhelming majority of the time it is not that important. We can’t practically make grad students take 5 years of coursework, and we have to cut it off somewhere. And so we reasonably decide to nix QFT. Again, expedience, convenience and utility aren’t the only things that matter. But anyone who’s worked on course design will tell you they play a role.

Similarly, I’m sure there are examples where learning more physics would help doctors. Quantum mechanics, e.g., might help doctors better understand MRIs. But are we really going to force doctors to start wading through Griffiths? And if so, why stop there?

We cannot conceive of education in terms of possible counterexamples. As distasteful as some of us might find it, practical considerations play an important role.


  1. Great post, but I feel like I may have failed to make clear what I was saying. My point was that deciding what is and isn’t practical is challenging because a useful definition of ‘practical’ is slippery. Even if you get all parties involved to agree on what’s ‘practical’ or allowable (sex education in schools, anyone?), what’s practical is a matter of context that you can’t predict. Teaching Riemannian geometry to a physicist in 1914 would have been ‘impractical’. In 1916, it would have been completely ‘practical’ ( I’m exaggerating a little for effect, but not so much that the point is invalid. The history of science is full of examples of things that suddenly acquired great practical significance.

    I’m not ideologically opposed to making decisions about what to teach based on criteria such as practicality. But people who honk on about ‘practical’ education rarely have a great idea of what that is, and it’s usually pretty easy to blow a hole in their operationalization of it . That’s why ‘practical’ bugs me. In conversations I’ve had on the topic, it’s usually more of a cover for the speaker’s biases and prejudices than a useful decision-making tool.

    1. Thanks for the comment and the link. I love the Reimannian geometry example. I agree that determining practicality is challenging, tricky, and not always obvious. But from my experience, all curricular decisions are. I was simply pointing out that it is one among many criteria and may be an important one depending on the context. To go back to medicine, I’ve heard med student complain about the insane amounts of basic science they have to learn, most of which they never use again. It seems to me that’s one field where considering practicality more strongly could bear fruit. But in either case I agree with you.

      I’m curious who you mean by “people who honk about ‘practical’ education.” In the educational literature I’ve read, it is a legitimate discussion. I guess if you’re talking about informal discussions. But I’d say that most such discussions (even among scientists) aren’t always well-informed.

      1. I’d be interested to hear your operational definition of practical (not just examples, but the actual criteria by which you decide one subject is ‘practical’ and another is not). Even in talking with you on this blog so far, I haven’t really seen a usable definition; it’s more of a Potter Stewart ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ affair.

        As to the people I’ve discussed this with, I’ve had conversations with a variety of people, ranging from creationists telling me that we shouldn’t teach evolution because it’s not practical (that was a fun time), to social conversations with teachers and parents about ‘practical’ (my wife is a primary teacher, and I’ve discussed the matter with her, her colleagues, and some of her parents), to discussions at the university level about curricular matters. If you have educational literature that has bearing on this, I’d love some links, especially to discussion about what actually constitutes a practical education.

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