I’m afraid I don’t follow television very much and only saw “The Big Bang Theory” recently at the insistence of a friend. For those who are as unaware as I was it is largely about issues of social interaction with a mostly geekish and socially maladroit cast of characters who mostly work at Caltech.1
The reason I was asked to watch was to comment on the jokes and equations on the whiteboards. They are real - although there are some pretty funny parodies on the boards at times. The jargon is pretty good - they must have a physicist as a consultant. You can pretty much tell the subfield of physics or astronomy by looking at someone’s blackboard (note - slate blackboards are still common in physics departments) - it is sort of like a Rorschach test.
There are certainly people like that, but it isn’t common among the scientists I know. You can find characters like that among the undergrads at a place like Caltech, but undergrads everywhere tend to be immature. This isn’t what you would find among professors.
So even though the show is supposedly about an older crowd, it got me thinking about physics undergrads and that lead to thinking about education again.
The lecture as a mechanism for teaching is broken. It goes back to the days when books were scarce and often is little more than a mechanical transcription from the lecturer’s notes to the student’s notebook. But it can be seductive for the lecturer and I’ve fallen into that trap. The students often seem to be paying attention and very few complain - after all - you are grading them.
But lecturing isn’t very good at teaching deep concepts.
A few years ago I gave a large public lecture on global warming to a few mixed audiences. Although not as polished, most of it was similar to Al Gore’s style - a superficial deluge of facts and figures. There were some great Q&A sessions afterwards, but they were mostly unconnected with the talk. They did seem to center on a short two minute section where I managed to engage people’s minds - in my mind almost a throwaway piece of filler that was self obvious.
What I realize in retrospect is that piece was self-obvious -- to a physicist who has been thinking about the subject for much of his life. It caused me to wonder how much non-majors had learned about math or physics - even at the good Ivy League schools. Worse - it made me wonder how much I had learned in courses outside my major and passion.
I tried a little experiment. As past of my consulting I found myself talking with many CTOs. Most of them had backgrounds in computer science, although there were some from biology and the physical sciences. In talking with them I would subtly check to see if they knew the difference between energy and power. Out of nine CTOs only two seemed to and both had science Ph.D.s.
At the time I was trying to learn a bit about the physics of volleyball to better appreciate the passion of a friend who was a professional beach volleyball player at the time. In the process I found a nice metaphor to talk about energy and power and she quickly mastered enough of it that she understood more than most of the CTOs.
By then I recognized the problem of knowing too much physics to engage an audience of more than one person who was interesting in learning about energy. To really learn something you have to play around with and even struggle with ideas. You test them, throw out some, modify others and - well - understand it. I talked my athlete friend into co-authoring a book on how we use energy.
The project produced a few drafts in our copious spare time, but I’m not a writer and it is now on hold. She did manage to come up with some great insight in how people think about some of these things and, in turn, that led me to bits of insight.
Physics is a lovely area to consider this question of rote and shallow learning vs understanding and most of us have a view of the how the world works that we have acquired by simply living. Many of these mental models are good enough to get by with, but turn out to be incorrect under close examination. You can sort out what is understood and what isn’t.
Others have realized this and have done great work. My favorite is Eric Mazur of Harvard. He discovered that his classes were getting good grades and enjoying his lectures, but they were failing to understand the concept. He experimented and introduced some remarkable changes.
A few days ago I sent a link to a video of Eric talking about his learnings to a few friends who are interesting in the process of education. Kelly noted her favorite part was when he said “You can forget facts, but you cannot forget understanding”
This is great stuff and, even though it isn’t short anyone who is interested in education should watch it.
I'm still puzzled,worried and curious about this at several levels and am very interested in discussions.
Hopefully my talks are a bit better now and perhaps there will be enough inspiration to finish the energy book at some point - at the moment I lack the understanding of how to make it good enough that people will actually understand what is being said. That is a very difficult challenge.
I'm left with a huge hole in my education - areas where my understanding is very shallow. But I've learned how to learn and understand, so I have the tools to tackle these areas as I have the time, need and curiosity to do so.
At the moment I'm taking a break from such an attack. I give myself the gift of two weeks of time at the beginning of the year to look into something without interruptions. These tend to be new areas for me and it is great fun. You can't do much in a hundred hours or so, but at least you get to the point where you can form some intelligent questions and that is a proper beginning.
1 Caltech is a reasonably intense place. MIT is sometimes referred to as "that place where they do humanities..."