Friday, February 18, 2011

Best physics lecturer ever dismissed physics lectures

My son, who’s at a sixth form college, attended a lecture today, on chemistry, at his local university and the lecturer's first words were, "This is going to be a bit boring but there we are...." As Callum said, "It was about entropy and it just sort of fell apart". Glad youngsters have a sense of humour! But there’s a serious problem here. These sixth form students were visiting to be enthused about chemistry, not subjected to a third rate lecture.

Richard Feynman

It reminded me of the reflections of that great scientist Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, regarded as a great science teacher. His lectures in physics are still best-sellers. When I gave my ‘Don’t lecture me!’ lecture to ALT last year, several people tweeted claiming that Feynman was the counter-example to my thesis, that straight lectures are largely a waste of time, claiming that Feynman was the ‘man’. Now I actually showed a picture, during my talk, of Feynman and the cover of his book ‘Lectures in Physics’. I did this because he was deeply critical of the ‘lecture’ as a teaching method. It only goes to prove that even academics don’t seem to realise that memory during a one hour lecture starts to fail.

Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!

In his autobiography ‘Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!’ he writes cogently about his experience in teaching Physics to students in Brazil, where he stood up in front of the students and faculty (at their request) and said, ”The main purpose of my talk is to demonstrate to you that no science is being taught in Brazil”. His point was that the students were being taught to memorise techniques and formulae for passing exams, not understanding physics, “it’s not science, but memorising, in every circumstance”.

Lectures on Physics

But it is in the 'Preface' to his lectures, written long after they were delivered, that his reflections on his own work matured. When he arrived at Caltech he was dismayed to find that the students who arrived full of enthusiasm for physics were being bored into submission by ‘stultifying’ lectures. He tried his best, including '3 problem solving lectures in the first year, mixing things up, introducing advanced but interesting content earlier than usual. So what were his thoughts?

First, ”one serious difficulty….there wasn’t any feedback from the students to the lecturer”. This, as a lover of the experimental method, was a “very serious difficulty”. He compares it to an experiment without any measurable output, a complete shot in the dark. And his general conclusions were clear, “My own pint of view is pessimistic. I don’t think I did very well by the students….I think the system was a failure.” He quoted Gibbon, “The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.”. In the end he admits that what is necessary is a more student-centred approach to learning physics through discussion and reflection, “It’s impossible to learn very much by sitting through a lecture”. Incidentally, these lectures are still worth reading, and I say ‘reading’ deliberately because one can stop, reflect, re-read and go at your own pace, a necessary approach to learning physics. The short version 'Six easy Pieces' explains the fundamentals of physics, but the longer lectures are also available.

As Samuel Johnson said, "People have now-a-days got a strange opinion that everything should be taught by lectures. Now, I cannot see that lectures can do so much as reading the books from which the lectures are taken.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Latin: makes learning a new language MORE difficult!!

In an odd article, in the Spectator, Toby Young, who seems obsessed with Latin, recommends it as a compulsory subject in state schools, with a string of ridiculous anecdotes. He describes how a friend used Latin on an easyjet flight to communicate with others on the plane. “If I’m on an EasyJet flight with a group of European nationals, none of whom speak English, I find we can communicate if we speak to each other in Latin,” says Grace Moody-Stuart. (I’m checking the passenger list next time I fly easyjet, just in case the awful Grace sits next to me!) Young even claims, with no evidence whatsoever, that Latin would help inner-city kids speak better, as they’d practice unusual word-endings!
He does, however, produce one piece of academic evidence, which he claims gives us “chapter and verse” on the subject, a 40 year old study by from the journal Phi Delta Kappa, where a group taught Latin was compared to another similar group and positive effects found.
Latin is not the cause
Of course, he simply trawled back through the literature to cherry pick a study that fitted his case, ignoring the more recent, superior, work In Search of the Benefits of Latin by Haas and Stern (2003) in the Journal of Educational Psychology.
In a review of the literature, they found that Thorndike “did not find any differences in science and maths in students who learned Latin at school and those who did not”. And in the Haag and Stern (2000) follow up study, to the study quoted by Young, two groups of comparable students, where one studied Latin, the other English, were assessed after two years, “No differences were found in either verbal or non-verbal IQ or grades in German or Maths”. In general, they found an absence of transfer effects of learning Latin in reasoning. This had been predicted by Thorndike decades before, namely that transfer needs common ground in the source and target.
Now for the bad news: Latin makes it worse
The problem with understanding Latin is that you need to pay close attention to word endings; case markers on nouns and time markers on verbs. But in English and Romance languages word order and prepositions are more important. Endings play a minor role.
What Haag and Stern found, predictably, was that students who had learned one Romance language first found it easier to learn another Romance language, than those who had learned Latin. But it gets worse, as Latin caused incorrect transfer, such as the omission of prepositions and auxiliary verbs in Romance languages. In other words, learning Latin was detrimental to the learning of the new language.
They took two groups of German students, one who studied French, the other Latin as their second language. Both groups were then given a course in Spanish and the results measured. When the results were analysed by a Spanish assessor (who didn’t know who had taken French or Latin), the assessor found no group differences in verbal intelligence.
However, the French students made significantly fewer grammatical errors than the Latin students. As predicted the Latin students wrongly transferred the rules of Latin to Spanish. For example “misconstructions in verbs emerged to be either highly reminiscent of or identical to Latin verbs”. The French group turned out to be much better prepared to cope with Spanish grammar. Psychologically the Latin students had suffered from negative transfer using false friends in their new language. The fact that the grammatical similarities between modern Romance languages are much greater than that between Latin and modern Romance languages, means that the defenders of Latin are flogging a dead horse.
Incidentally, if you’ve heard the argument that Latin helps medical students learn and understand the considerable amount of medical vocabulary that has to be learned in medical schools. This also turns out to be false as shown in Pampush and Petto (2010)
This is not an unimportant or esoteric debate. Our state education system is in danger of being hijacked by minor celebrities, wannabes and TV chefs. Much of the debate is purely anecdotal, and worse, the anecdotal memories of a small clique of inner-London types who want to impose their worries and idiosyncratic ideas on the rest of us. It is important to counter this nonsense with the real evidence. The plural of anecdote is NOT data.

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

10 reasons to NOT teach Latin (reductio ad absurdum)

There’s often a tension in education between the traditional and the progressive. But when the traditional hauls us back 2000 years, we really do need to worry. So, whenever I hear ‘Latin’ recommended in curricular discussions, I want to reach for my pedagogic gun, as it’s invariably subliminal snobbery. The perfect example is the toady Toby Young, who wants Latin to be a compulsory subject in all secondary schools. Yes, a D-list celebrity, who’s made a living from writing about being feckless and hapless, wants us all to listen to his petty, inner-city, London, middle class concerns about the quality of schools in his area. His solution – learn Latin!
Now you have to have some pretty convincing argument to put Latin into your core curriculum, so here goes? I’ll be a devil and advocate.
1. Helps you learn other languages
Sorry, it doesn’t. The metastudy Research and the teaching of English by Sherwin, found that “the study of Latin does not necessarily increase the ability to learn another language… No consistent experimental evidence in support of this contention was found.” The argument runs along these lines, that the Romance languages have Latin roots, so knowing Latin helps one learn French, Spanish and Italian. Now there may be some marginal advantage to knowing Latin before you learn these languages, but only if your Latin is very extensive, and you do Latin before you try the other languages. Why scratch your ear by going over the top of your head? Learners have limited time and that time is clearly better spent on the target language itself. You don’t have to go out with the grandmother to help you understand your wife. This argument is simply a non-sequitur.
2. Cognitive skills
One could argue that Latin teaches one to think. But what does that mean? If it’s true of Latin it’s true of any language, so why not learn one that is at least useful? What special cognitive skill(s) does dead Latin confer over dozens of other living languages or dozens of other analytic subjects for that matter? Stephen Pinker, Harvard’s world renowned expert in psycholinguistics backs this up in The Language Instinct, “Latin declensional paradigms are not the best way to convey the inherent beauty of grammar”. He recommends computer programming and universal grammar on the grounds that they are “about living minds and not dead tongues”. reductio ad absurdum
3. Latin language mavens
Pinker also has a go at the Latin language mavens who want to pointlessly foist Latinate rules of grammar into English. As Pinker explains, this snobbery took root in 18th century London, when Latin was used as a mark of social class (still true today) and Latin grammar rules were crudely pasted into books on English grammar, for example, ‘don’t split infinitives’ and ‘don’t end a sentence with a preposition’. Latin simply doesn’t allow you to split an infinitive and to stupidly insist that it’s wrong in English, is as ad hoc as making us wear togas.
4. Latin is misleading
It can be argued that learning Latin grammar is simply misleading as there is no real transfer to the target languages, certainly not English, and similarly in modern Romance languages. Latin has seven (six for some) cases, five declensions in nouns and doesn’t have articles. Far from being useful it’s positively misleading. And in terms of vocabulary, one would be far better spending one’s time studying etymology, rather than only one root language.
5. Waste of time
Of course, the cardinal argument against learning Latin is the fact that there’s only so many hours in a day for learning and there’s dozens of other subjects that should take precedence. We have to make choices in learning and this one is irrational. So as we’ve seen, there’s no real argument for learning a dead language on the basis of utility (unless one wants to become an ancient history scholar) as no one speaks the damn thing. tempus fugit
6. Lingua franca of the world - English
Learning a language, to a reasonable level of competence, is as difficult a learning task as one can imagine. This is made all the more difficult in the UK by the fact that English has become the world’s unofficial, and in some fields official, lingua franca. The vast majority of children who take a second language in the UK fail to achieve any real level of competence because it has to be taught in classrooms with no contextual opportunities for practice. Many therefore argue that the global reach of English has greatly reduced the need to learn another language, let alone a dead one!
7. Romance is dead
And why this obsession with learning romance languages over say, German or Mandarin? You are far more likely to hear Punjabi, Bengali or Urdu (the top three minority languages spoken in the UK). I suspect that there’s more than a whiff of snobbery in our selection of languages at school? “Mum - I’m dropping French and taking Urdu”. “You’re what!”
8. Illusion of utility
A GCSE in Latin barely enables you to decipher a few Roman inscriptions and numbers. It will certainly not allow you to interpret the works of Seneca and Cicero. Even at A-level you’d have to be exceptional to get as much from these texts, as you’d get from a good translation.
9. Why not Greek?
Wouldn’t you prefer the riches of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Plato’s Socratic Dialogues and works of Aristotle; a far richer literary and philosophical tradition that the Roman? If so, learn Greek. Our literary, philosophical and political traditions have far more to do with Greek texts than Latin. Graecum est; non legitur
10. Pomposity
The benefits of a ‘classical education’, they say. But is there anything more annoying than those who drop in Latin phrases and confuse erudition with pomposity? I saw that hideous snob Rees Mogg do precisely this on a documentary on class recently and it made me wretch. Enoch Powell was the last politician who felt the need to pepper his speeches with this nonsense. Latin remains the cold, dead language of exclusivity and exclusion. It’s a peacock’s tail, the luxury of being able to ignore utility for superfluous acquisition of a useless and purely academic exercise. It says, subliminally, to hell with vocational subjects, I’m not ‘trade’. The dirty truth of the matter is that Latin has long been used as a marketing device by largely private schools to advertise their posh pedigree and attract parents of a conservative bent to cough up the fees. quid pro quo

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