Teaching

There is much going on in the field of education, most of which I do not understand. However, one thing that can be quite distinct is the way teachers teach.

Even if we would claim that our system is broken, that the natural causes of learning and becoming interested in the world around us is broken, it is still arguable that there are teachers around us who try to change that. There are still those golden people whom every student wishes to get, who are able to turn learning fun, and make facts stick.

But what happens if even the most devoted of teachers get it wrong?

Our school has been in full IB testing mode for the last week, and our Gifted Physics teacher is also the IB Coordinator for our school, meaning that he gets the special status of being the “instigator of the examination”. Basically, it means that he’s been sitting bored out of his mind with students for 4 hours at a time to be a glorified proctor for the last two weeks. With our own testing schedules, my peers and I have not been going to many classes because of conflicts with testing times. However, this morning was a rare opportunity to sit for an hour and a half in the physics classroom with no teacher but a sub.

While others began pulling out chess boards, and I started pulling out a IB Chemistry review booklet, our sub put in the video that Mr. OB chose for us. Even while being entirely freaked out about the upcoming chem test, it was hard not being distracted by the video.

I do not remember the exact video title, but it was a rather outdated Harvard study on how students learn. It went into detail over the basic concepts that students, not only high school students, but ivy league college graduates, were still stumbling over. Even more embarrassingly, they managed to stump a batch of recent MIT grads with the most simple circuit problems.

Watching the video, I was reminded by Richard Feynman, arguably one of the best teachers, in physics as well as in life, for the past century. Quoting from his autobiography/memoir:

The same thing happened: something would look good at first and then turn out to be horrifying. For example, there was a book that started out with four pictures: first there was a wind-up toy; then there was an automobile; then there was a boy riding a bicycle; then there was something else.

And underneath each picture it said, “What makes it go?”

I thought, “I know what it is: They’re going to talk about mechanics, how the springs work inside the toy; about chemistry, how the engine of the automobile works; and biology, about how the muscles work.”

It was the kind of thing my father would have talked about: “What makes it go? Everything goes because the sun is shining.” And then we would have fun discussing it:”No, the toy goes because the spring is wound up,” I would say.

“How did the spring get wound up?” he would ask.

“I wound it up.”

“And how did you get moving?”

“From eating.”

“And food grows only because the sun is shining. So it’s because the sun is shining that all these things are moving.” That would get the concept across that motion is simply the transformation of the sun’s power.

I turned the page. The answer was, for the wind-up toy, “Energy makes it go.” And for the boy on the bicycle, “Energy makes it go.” For everything, “Energy makes it go.”

Now that doesn’t mean anything. Suppose it’s “Wakalixes.” That’s the general principle: “Wakalixes makes it go.” There’s no knowledge coming in. The child doesn’t learn anything; it’s just a word!

What they should have done is to look at the wind-up toy, see that there are springs inside, learn about springs, learn about wheels, and never mind “energy.” Later on, when the children know something about how the toy actually works, they can discuss the more general principles of energy.

It’s also not even true that “energy makes it go,” because if it stops, you could say, “energy makes it stop” just as well, What they’re talking about is concentrated energy being transformed into more dilute forms, which is a very subtle aspect of energy. Energy is neither increased nor decreased in these examples; it’s just changed from one form to another. And when the things stop, the energy is changed into heat, into general chaos.

But that’s the way all the books were: They said things that were useless, mixed-up, ambiguous, confusing, and partially incorrect. How anybody can learn science from these books, I don’t know, because it’s not science.

Richard Feynman is quite an amusing man. Wish I had the opportunity to speak to him while he was alive; I suppose his Big Red Feynman lectures will have to be enough for me.

The video went along a similar path, focusing on those simple and fundamental problems in physics, and showing that even the smartest people, or perhaps especially the smartest people, would mess up on the basic level, meaning that all that “book  learning” really hasn’t done much for them! No matter how much they could claim to understand how B-Fields and flux and inductive currents work, they could not figure out how to light a lightbulb with a single wire and a battery!

I think that this is a remarkable problem, one that our physics teacher tackles rather directly. Even though our group of students is gifted, as we did all test in order to participate in the programme, we would often either just do rote-memorization or not really absorb information. On tests, there aren’t as much “problem solving” type questions than just direct and simple application, but the real world is entirely different. You can’t just assume a perfectly spherical cow of uniform density with no gravity in a vacuum as you might be able to do so in physics! There aren’t simple multi-step problems, where every single step essentially begs for you to realize the next.

In the real world, there is thinking, there is analyzing, and there is solving. In order to get to that level, you need to understand the basics, not the advanced stuff. For many cases, the advanced stuff should come more naturally if you have a firm foundation. You should be able to understand why something works, not just how it works!

However, kids also have natural assumptions when they walk into the classroom, while teachers naturally assume that they don’t have assumptions. This results in the teachers trying to apply a “blank slate” learning process to a half-full vase, leading to inconsistencies in learning. The proper way to fix this, however, is quite painful.

If you are anything like me, you might be pretty used to the standard way of learning. You might already know how to get by in school, and don’t need for a radical change in how the educational system. We are comfortable with how the system works right now, and are satisfied by what we are taking out of it. Transitioning to a state of constant problem solving, where nothing is truly taught but everything is “discovered”, where assumptions are challenged and then even the grounds of the challenges are challenged, is a difficult task that both students and teachers will resist.

But if it leads to a better educational future, why aren’t we implementing it yet?

Part of a series on Education

Previous: What Next?

Next: Score Shaming

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