Physics reformed

An old friend of mine, Chris Meyer, a Toronto-are physics teacher, has been passionate about reforming the way physics is taught. Working from research of physicists like Eric Mazur, he has moved beyond lecturing and towards a deeper level of engagement. (His collection of articles on PER – physics education research – are worth the look on their own).

Check out his work, and if you’re feeling like it, it seems he’s willing to let teachers (and teaching candidates) drop in.

His work raises many good questions – the one I’m most interested in currently is whether there is a universal grammar of good instruction underlying all of the best teaching practices, or if the subject taught determines the approach.

Confessions of a Converted Lecturer

Eric Mazur, professor of physics at Harvard University, explores a not-so-radical notion that still seems radical to most people: as a consequence of the tendency among teachers (of science especially) to cover the material in the most efficient way possible, students often achieve very little genuine understanding. He argues that it is interaction – frequently between students themselves – that makes knowledge permanent and abiding, and therefore transferable to situations that deviate from the formulas found in textbooks. If we are to go beyond mere recitation, we need to move beyond the idea that learning is a teacher filling students with knowledge – because using that model generally fails to do little more than create in the minds of the students a weaker version of the textbook.

This important lecture speaks for itself, really, but a few observations occur:
– he argues that how we define student success is rarely discussed and yet central to improvement. If we define success as simply high grades on the usual tests, well, that only tells us how we students can recite the old answers. If we define success by student survey, then it only tells us who the good showmen are. (He used a natural-language test from the world of physics to demonstrate how little his students actually gained from his teaching – such an tactic would yield interesting results across many fields, I think.)
– his insistence on the importance of data elevates the reliability of his ideas and is an inspiration to educational researchers. (Yet, even when he borrows the genius phrase “the plural of anecdotes is not data,” he uses the former as often as the latter. Old habits are hard to break.)
– his lecture style is remarkably engaging. But like I’ve pointed out elsewhere, he is advocating against lectures – and doing so with panache. I wonder if a more precise formula exists to describe the circumstances suitable for lecture and those that demand interaction.
– he rightly points out that students themselves are not great judges of the effectiveness of the instruction techniques – we all have preconceived notions about what constitutes teaching excellence, rarely supported by little more than hunches. Often, students deify teachers with less-effective techniques because, partly due to the inscrutability of the instruction, those teachers seem more serious.
– if more teachers watched this kind of discussion over more-popular-but-less-substantive ones, I can’t help but think we’d have a more elevated discussion on schooling.