EO Report - Spring 2003

Bernard Khoury
Announcer, Vol. 33, Iss. 1

Let's Eavesdrop

I heard two papers at our recent meeting in Austin. Each was by a well-established faculty person at a major university and each had a direct bearing on physics teaching; however, their contrast was so stark that I found myself wondering if we all shared a
common purpose in our teaching.

In one talk, Blair (not the person’s real name) reviewed a series of experiences in front of classes of students. After a long career of such experiences, Blair admitted to being a failure as a teacher who had not managed to teach anyone anything! Any student who learned anything did so on his or her own initiative and effort. Blair’s view of examinations and problems were that they would help students to learn some materials, but they were not an effective means to provide information to the teacher as to how much the student had
actually learned.

In the other talk, Courtney (also not the person’s real name) focused attention on a range of teaching experiences and how best to help students to learn. Courtney was concerned with how a student was reasoning, where were any faults in that reasoning, and how to induce the student to see his or her reasoning errors and to begin to correct them. Courtney found it important to allow the students to discover their own inconsistencies, so that the students could begin to develop some coherence in their approaches to the natural world. Courtney believed that incoherence and inconsistency were drivers of progress in science and that students should be made aware of this.

I have since wondered what might happen if Blair and Courtney had met in the lounge at the Austin Renaissance to share some of their observations following their many years of experiences.

Courtney: Blair, I don’t see how you felt that you never taught anyone anything. You seem to be saying that you were a failure at teaching.

Blair: As a physicist, I would never acknowledge that I had failed at anything. What I am saying is that we deceive ourselves if we think we can teach anything to anyone. If the person wants to learn, all you need to do is to provide a learning environment, and the learning will occur without the intervention of a teacher.

Courtney: Well, Blair, what if the student does not want to learn?

Blair: Then, there is no point in trying to teach that person anything; unless the person truly wants to learn, there is no hope for teaching.

Courtney: What if the student does want to learn but he or she may not know how to learn?

Blair: What does that mean? How could a person, an adult person in a college or university, not know how to learn?

Courtney: Well, what if they believe that learning is simply what they had to do in the elementary grades and in high school: remember things and tell the teacher what you remember when the teacher asks you a question.

Blair: In that case, such a student should not be in the physics class. He or she should probably not even be in college at all.

Courtney: Isn’t that the point, Blair? We get lots of students in our classes whom we might wish were not in our classes. How are we going to help them to learn?

Blair: Maybe if we had fewer students in our classes and if they came to us with a hunger to learn we wouldn’t have all these problems. We surely don’t need so many students to be in our physics class. Physics is too hard for many students, and we shouldn’t force them to be here. It is even worse when we persuade students that they can learn physics without needing to work very hard, much harder than most students want to work.

Courtney: Blair, you are focusing too much on physics as a subject, and on how difficult it is for many students. Why not focus more on the students who are in the class and try to make some incremental improvement in their understanding of the scientific world?

Blair: I don’t have time for all of that. Working with students who are not ready to learn is frustrating and too difficult. I’d rather work on a physics problem; that is hard enough for me. Don’t ask me to do the impossible.

Courtney: I’ll buy the next round.