Published on [Permalink]
Reading time: 4 minutes
Posted in:

Education as scaffolding

Adam Mastroianni had another interview with Russ Roberts, and this one didn’t sit with me as well as his previous appearance. They talked about things we learn in school — higher education, for the most part — and what the point of it all was when most of what we cram in is forgotten.

They gave several examples of this, all of which I have quickly forgotten (ha!), but listing things we were made to learn in medical school never to use again was a popular past time on #medtwitter so I will list a few topics that come to mind first:

Though that last one was clearly a relic of Serbia’s socialist past, the first four weren’t, and are still being taught in pre-med courses and medical schools around the world. If the goal was to have every doctor know all of these throughout their careers, well, mission failed. But why would we even want that to happen?

Well, I have come around a bit since that 6-year-old tweet and came to appreciate the exposure to different concepts as the scaffolding to whatever career we end up in. No one cries out, after a skyscraper is complete, about all the money and time wasted putting up a scaffolding, setting up cranes, temporary elevators, and such. It is not a perfect analogy since most people in higher education don’t have a blueprint — not even medical students since a doctors' job can be anything from an artist (plastic surgery) to woodworking (orthopedics) to glorified administrative asssistant (general practitioners in most countries) — so it is like building a scaffolding to nowhere, parts of which ossify into the building proper, parts of which decay with time, and parts of which you dismantle as soon as it seems safe to do so, since you hate them from the bottom of your being.

“Why ever did I bother learning about the Krebs cycle five different times!?” Twice in high school — biology and chemistry separately, and three times in medical school — chemistry proper, biochemistry, and physiology. I cry out now, as a hematologist/oncologist without a regular practice; but things could have taken a turn towards a career in organic chemistry, or genetics, or one of those specialties where the cycle is more relevant (though really oncology may very well be one of them!)

The poor Krebs cycle is notorious because it is repeated so often without practical use for most of medicine, but there are many more such concepts throughout life that went in one ear and out the other (Are viruses causing hemorrhagic fevers made of DNA or RNA? Well, I knew it for my USMLE Step 1 exam!) RNA, says Wikipedia.

The scaffolding analogy puts a slightly different spin on grades as well, which could be a rather useful signal of where your construction should go and what kind of a building you want to make, and not your worth as a human being that most teachers and some students want it to be. But let’s not bring up grades again.

So I was surprised by Mastroianni’s and Roberts' surprise about us forgetting — because of course we do! And if the intent of the teachers was to instill knowledge that will last forever and ever, well, most of it is a miserable failure, except for that one sliver of insight that each of us carry for life. But the slivers are different for each of us, and to appreciate your unique sliver you may still need background knowledge that you will eventually forget — the more specialized the area, the more background knowledge needed, so good luck trying to untangle that web.

✍️ Reply by email

✴️ Also on