I have long posited that the real success of education cannot be determined in the short run. How a student does on the next test is not really a measure of the effectiveness of teaching. We really need to look down the road at how students are faring a year, or two, or five later to get a real sense of how what we have taught has been useful or effective.
A recent reunion, where I met students from as far back as 13 years, gave me a (admittedly somewhat uncontrolled and subjective) sample of how my students have done. And you know what? There is not really a strong correlation between how they did in my classes (or school in general) and how they did later. While many students who did well in school continued to do well in university and career, it is also the case that many who were “troublemakers” in high school went on to be very successful (some even becoming teachers!), while some who were excellent students in school went on to perfectly uneventful and mundane post-secondary study and careers.
Frankly, it looks like students will go on to do what they do, with or without us. While we may have some influence – a little inspiration, a little nudge, exposing them to things they might otherwise not have seen, I think it is naive to think that what we teach them (or try to) determines their future.
So how do I feel about this? Does this make me feel like what I do has no meaning or value? No. I think this means that I can help provide a foundation for the majority of my students – including some who may not actually think so at the moment. I can act as a role model, foster an interest in (and understanding of) science, and help provide them with tools that they can use in later life. But it also means that if I decide to stray from a proscribed curriculum to allow them to pursue what might be construed as “peripheral” material, it probably won’t disadvantage them in the long run. Those who would be successful will still likely be successful, and those that wouldn’t be, well, just maybe I can help them choose their own destiny, or point them in a way they hadn’t thought of before, and just maybe that can improve their chances of finding success.