Sunday, February 13, 2011

Battle hymn of the Tiger Professor

Like Amy Chua, I'm choosing to be deliberately provocative in what I write below, though unlike her I don't have a book to sell. I recently heard a talk where a well reputed science educator (not naming names) argued that those of us teaching undergraduates need to adapt to the learning habits of "millennials". That is, these are a group of people who have literally grown up with google (a thought that makes me feel very old, since I went to grad school w/ Sergei Brin) - they are used to having knowledge (in the form of facts) at their fingertips in a fraction of a second. They are used to nearly continuous social networking, instantaneous communication, and constant multitasking (or, as a more stodgy person might put it, complete distraction, attention deficit behavior, and a chronic inability to concentrate). This academic argued that we need to make science education mimic real research if we want to produce researchers and get students jazzed about science. Moreover, this academic argued that making students listen to lectures and do problem sets was (a) ineffective, since that's not how they were geared to learn, and (b) somewhere between useless and abusive, being slavishly ruled by a culture of "covering material" without actually educating. Somehow we should be more in tune with how Millennials learn, and appeal to that, rather than being stodgy fogies who force dull, repetitious "exercises at the end of the chapter" work.

While appealing to students' learning modalities has its place, I contend that this concept simply will not work well in some introductory, foundational classes in the sciences, math, and engineering. Physical science (chemistry, physics) and math are inherently hierarchical. You simply cannot learn more advanced material without mastery of the underpinnings. Moreover, in the case of physics (with which I am most familiar), we're not just teaching facts (which can indeed be looked up easily on the internet); we're supposedly teaching analytical skills - how to think like a physicist; how to take a physical situation and translate it into math that enables us to solve for what we care about in terms of what we know. Getting good at this simply requires practice. To take the Amy Chua analogy, hard work is necessary and playdates are not. There literally is no substitute for doing problems and getting used to thinking this way. While open-ended reasoning exercises can be fun and useful (and could be a great addition to the standard curriculum, or perhaps a way to run a lab class to be more like real research), at some point students actually do need to become proficient in basic problem-solving skills. I really don't like the underlying assumption that this educator was making: that the twitter/facebook/short-attention-span approach is unavoidable and possibly superior to focused hard work. Hey, I'm part of the distractable culture as much as anyone in the 21st century, but you'll have to work hard to convince me that it's the right way to teach foundational knowledge in physics, math, and chemistry.


sujit said...

I completely agree. Today's twitter/facebook/google-savvy college student learning about oscillating pendula may be better equipped to chat with their peers about the day's lecture, find an online simulation that allows the user to play with the attached mass or pendulum length, or find three different derivations of the pendulum period. But the student still has to take the time to sit down, focus, and work through the math to learn how to actually calculate the period of an oscillating pendulum.

modern bathroom designs said...

What you’re saying is completely true. I know that everybody must say the same thing, but I just think that you put it in a way that everyone can understand. I also love the images you put in here. They fit so well with what you’re trying to say. I’m sure you’ll reach so many people with what you’ve got to say.

grumpy said...

As far as what you posted, I fully agree.

But can we also acknowledge that in many situations it is OK to substitute mastering a software package (eg Mathematica) for solving systems of equations by hand or rederiving (or trying to memorize) every last series expansion, integral, trig identity, etc.

Anonymous said...

I agree that students can't really get into physics if they are unwilling to do the mathematical legwork. But what about choosing which physics topics to teach first based on what interests students, and then getting into the gritty bits later on? I'm not sure that the parts of physics usually taught first are necessarily the best at getting students engaged with the material (and once they are engaged they are much happier about focusing on problems and doing the derivations/calculations needed). At Swarthmore, the first course in the physics major series is a qualitative course about special relativity, cosmology, and quantum theory, and seems to do a much better job hooking potential physics majors than mechanics does.

CarlBrannen said...

I teach "conceptual" physics at ITT. They've added a lab requirement which is done with software. A side effect of this is that the students can surf the net during a lecture as they all have computers on their desks.

I take advantage of this. I don't convert units, instead I ask them to convert stuff. When I want to know the mass of a nitrogen molecule I ask them to google it.

This has the effect of reducing the boredom for the better students, and I think it gives the mediocre ones a better understanding of how to use google, at least.

So I do think that pedagogy needs to change. Would we still be teaching in English if the vast majority of our students knew some other language better? Of course we adapt to our students not vice versa.

Anonymous said...

Would you believe my love of super hero comics was the catalyst for my study of engineering? James Kakalios' book helped me understand physics by making it fun due to the connections he made with Superman, Hulk, and Flash to the fundamentals of physics.

Zach said...

Anonymous 10:56:

I don't know anything about cosmology, but I really don't see how you can teach special relativity or quantum theory without a foundation in Newtonian mechanics. I suppose you could go over it on a completely superficial level, but I don't see how you could explain a Hamiltonian without first going over the Newtonian concepts of work and energy, and you can't do quantum mechanics without Hamiltonians.

leon said...

> [...] I really don't see how you can teach special relativity or quantum theory without a foundation in Newtonian mechanics.

Zach -- that's sadly how most undergraduate courses in quantum mechanics for chemists proceed.

Gaston Cantens said...

Amy Chua says she was raised in a very strict environment, where nothing but excellence was accepted.