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.


Daniel said...

I honestly couldn't agree more. I'm still a first year college student returning after 8 years of academic absence. I find that lectures as a whole are often boring and challenging to the memory of the observer. Taking notes can prove rather difficult as one might find themselves drawn into a particular subject of note and losing sight of vital details. Lectures are very informative and educational in a sense, but without a hard copy of the text presented, retaining the information alone can be cumbersome. Now to actually learn from the information encompassed, not only do individuals need time to reflect upon what has been absorbed, but also a chance to question any omitted thoughts or links, as well as a chance to apply this newly aquired information in some sort of "real world"-like situation. Personally, I find myself learning and retaining information upon application. I can read the information until my eyes roll back into my head, I can understand the logic of a subject, but still have trouple recalling the information upon later questioning.

As a side note, I found your blogs while doing a research paper for my English Composition II class. My paper is on Jean Piaget's Developmental Stages Theory. I read your blog on "Piaget - Why teach this stuff?". At the start of my research, I was merely questioning the validity of the age range in each stage. My main argument was that each child is different, that although this might be a building block for education, that its real world application is slightly different. I assumed that with the evalution of man, along with the increase of education's pressure to have young children know more at younger ages, that I would discover some findings supporting my argument. I was starting to find evidence that I was right when I came across your blog. I now know that I have to dig further into my research, but it seems as though not only are the age ranges false, but research methods aside, that the stages themselves seem inadequite for catagorizing human development. I also believe that you are right that Piaget shouldn't be taught in remedial college courses. I see the usefulness of knowing the history of developmental psychology, but that should also be left for people pursuing a Master's or a Doctorite and any other individuals to research on their own accord. All comments aside, I was wondering what it is your profession? You seem to be very well educated and you seem to speak out on a lot of educational topics. I was wondering if you have written any books, if you have a PhD, if so, in what field? I also thank you for the references on your Piaget blog. I will be sure to use them in my research and my report.

Paul Angileri said...

Richard Feynman is very interesting. I like how he gives an explanation ( as to why asking for pat answers to seemingly simple questions (that aren't) can be frought with pitfalls that end up confusing an issue. The basic lesson he gives is that if you want to know, seek to discover and understand, and that as he states in the video, a thing can become increasingly interesting the digger one has to dig to figure it out.

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