A simple entertainment story of mine went viral two years ago when Adam Savage of the hit show MythBusters said to me: "If you want the kids' test scores up, bring back band and bring back shop and get kids actually learning stuff instead of teaching them how to take a test."
Savage says he regularly gets the quote sent to him as a meme on social media, so he knows he touched a nerve and was eager to talk about it. He's returning to the Tampa Bay area with Brain Candy Live, a new science-based stage show he created with Michael Stevens, host of the popular YouTube science show Vsauce. They will be at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg on Wednesday.
Savage talked about how horrified he is to see arts and music thought of as a luxury in schools, at odds with science. He hears the frustrations of teachers who pay for materials out of their own pockets and don't have the freedom to be more creative in how they teach. "I don't pretend to know what the solution is. I'm just responding to the situation I see," he said.
Here's an edited transcript of our conversation.
After that story exploded on social media in 2015, I talked to you later about it and you seemed pretty stunned by the reaction. Why do you think this struck such a chord?
You never know what is going to catch fire. And I have seen that quote on my Twitter feed repeatedly over the last couple years. There's a raw honesty to it. I'm clearly a little angry about it. I really think that this idea that things like band and shop are "luxuries" — and people may not say that, but if that's the first line item that disappears when the money gets tight, it's clear that it's thought of as a luxury. And if we are raising kids to take tests, we are raising the wrong kind of kids.
I think a lot of teachers loved it because they feel like they don't have the time or budget to do the things you can do on stage.
Right, they don't have the time or budget and they are paying for materials out of their own pockets.
How would you do it, given the limitations teachers have?
Look, I would not presume to explain to a teacher how to do their job or how I might do it better. Teaching is really, really difficult. The idea of keeping a bunch of kids of any age interested for an extended period of time sounds terrifying to me.
I think, though, that the best teachers that I had were the ones that told the best stories. And this is part of my dawning and realization over the last few years. The reason art belongs in STEM isn't because that makes a well-rounded individual, though it might. It's because art and science are not at either end of a spectrum as we see them culturally. ... They are actually the same thing. They are both versions of storytelling. They are both ways in which we human beings help ourselves and each other figure out the world.
Science is so often taught, as mathematics and chemistry, as just facts to memorize. But those facts don't mean anything outside of any context. I had a science teacher who said the best way to visualize a glacier is it's a river on Quaaludes.
Isn't that great? I mean that is the thing I remember 40 years later. That's really important.
Not everyone has the personality to knock it out of the park every day and keep the kids enthralled. So what are some things that we are missing in the way we teach kids that we could be doing to make up for that?
Unfortunately we have had what's ended up being a very adversarial system. I don't think anyone within that system wants to harm kids. It's just with cuts and union battles, teachers don't feel they have the freedom to explain things to their kids the way they want to. That's the biggest tragedy.
You might have a school in which an accomplished musician can't teach band and that job instead goes to someone who taught English. That might be an isolated case, but when I talk to teachers, they all love teaching kids and would love the freedom to impart learning to the kids. Unfortunately, we keep ending up with national one-size-fits-all policies that don't benefit the teachers and definitely don't benefit the kids.
You said to me two years ago when that story blew up that you worried you became the darling of the anti-testing movement, that you aren't against testing per se. Can you clarify that?
I'm not against testing, and not necessarily for it. I would not presume to let anyone believe I know what the solution is. I'm only saying, in our current system it's well known that teachers across the country expend huge swaths of their school year teaching kids specifically how to take the assessment test that keeps funding coming to the schools in the school districts. That strikes me as a terrible system and I haven't met anybody on the ground implementing it that thinks it's a good idea. So when I speak about these things, I'm speaking for those teachers who have spoken to me about how difficult their jobs are.
You once said of your turn toward making education entertaining, "I think we need this." That almost sounds ominous. What are you afraid of?
We are in a difficult place culturally where genuine, wonderful science is being politicized. That's a dangerous time to live in because we are making policy decisions that are absolutely at complete diametric odds with our survival. And I really view it in those black-and-white terms.
Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @SharonKWn.