I wish I taught physics

Physics professor Joe Redish at the University of Maryland. (Photo: Emily Hanford) from the AmericanRadioWorks post.

I’ve always had a sneaking envy of physics teachers. Their subject comes with such a neat set of well understood and widely agreed (almost universally1 principles and concepts. In biblical studies everything is so frustratingly a matter of (almost always widely) different interpretations and approaches.

But now I have another reason to envy physics teachers. It may have taken all my life as a teacher, and more, but they now have a well-researched body of knowledge that demonstrates that “lectures” are nearly useless at communicating such ideas, and a nearly equally well-researched body of knowledge about how to do the job better :)

Of course, despite all this evidence most physics teachers are (like most biblical studies teachers) too much creatures of habit to actually change, but if I taught physics at least there’d be that body of research.

Take the simple principle that tells us that two metal balls dropped together at the same time will reach the ground at around the same time despite the fact that one weighs twice what the other does. You do know that principle? It’s called gravity, it’s breaking news, some guys called Newton and Galileo have done theoretical and practical research in the field.  Apparently a huge proportion of physics students, even at “good” universities, just don’t “get” it. Despite attending physics lectures and even passing physics exams. And it’s not because either (a) they are all Quantum Mechanics, or (b) because all physicists are thick ;) It is because lectures don’t work. What does work is the way most of us learned most of what we know.

But before I get to that here’s an anecdote from a post on the topic at AmericanRadioWorks:

Redish has been teaching at the University of Maryland since 1970. When he started, he lectured because that’s the way he had been taught. But after a few years in the classroom, Redish was meeting with one of his mentors, a famous physicist named Lewis Elton who had begun doing research on education.

“He asked me, ‘How’s your teaching?'”

Redish told him it was going well, but that he seemed to be most effective with the students “who do really well and are motivated” about physics.

Elton looked at Redish, smiled, and said, “They’re the ones who don’t really need you.”

“That was like an arrow to the breast!” says Redish.

So, what is this approach to education we (almost) all used as students that could revolutionise teaching and learning? It’s simple. I learned most of what I learned from my peers. The rest I got from books and journals, which I read because conversations with my fellow students over coffee had suggested I needed to read up more on a topic. The basic understanding though came from the chatting over coffee.2

For those who like formal technical language3 it is called Peer Instruction, and there is a whole website provided by Monash University dedicated to Peer Instruction in the Humanities. Read it! Or better still chat to your friends about it, here or over a cup of coffee ;)

  1. At least in the metaphorical, not-literal, sense that all physics teachers on earth agree, I can’t be sure those who might perhaps be in other corners of the Universe really do, though i suspect it would be likely ;) []
  2. No wonder I like drinking coffee, I used to tell my students in Africa that at Oxford teachers and students ran on coffee like cars run on petroleum ;) []
  3. Perhaps because it makes things seem reassuringly “academic”. []

4 comments on “I wish I taught physics

  1. Joe Redish

    On footnote 1 — Oh we all agree on the principles and concepts — just not on what they mean!

  2. tim

    Thanks for the comment :) It’s a real pleasure when a person one admires marks a visit! I suspect though (on fn.1) that any Physicists on other worlds might have a different list they agree on, until communication was established well and the evidence could be passed both ways. At which point there would be one list pretty much. (Assuming that they are also the creatures of a somewhat similar nature to us and not the sort of Xenophobic “bugs” that some SF imagines!) And that’s the frustrtation of the “Arts” or “Humanities” that we have much less well agreed systems of epistemology and hermeneutics than you Physicists do ;)

  3. Dewey Dykstra

    The systems of epistemology and hermeneutics that appear to be so well agreed upon are less well agreed upon than folks are led to imagine. Many physicists would take issue with the term, hermeneutics. But, this issue arises mainly from the fact that the word is not commonly used by physicists. For them, hermeneutics, if known at all, is associated with challenges to the naive realism assumed and practiced by the physics community.

    But, to get back to my original intent… At the PhD level there is a fairly strong selection process that tends to “weed out” those judged inadequate. There seems to be a preference for naive realists who do not ask or bring up philosophical issues. Such seems to relegated to the old curmudgeons who are tolerated. This weeding out process is described in Jeff Schmidt’s Disciplined Minds.

  4. tim

    What you say makes perfect sense to me, and adds nuance to my rather naive view of physics as a discipline (though not, of course, quite as satrry-eyed as my tongue-in-cheek title for the post might suggest). Sadly, the tendency of an established system of privilege (like tertiary teaching and research, which though less privileged than in many past times is still a much sought-after occupation) to protect its established thought patterns seems an inevitable part of the human herd. Though saying it is inevitable does not mean that we should not struggle against it ;) just that a full victory is impossible in this, as in most, wars.