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.
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.”