Friday, December 7, 2007

Teaching and Education

I've been mulling over something for a while now: education and learning styles.

You see, in physics education there are two groups. One believes that the best way to learn physics concepts is to have the students "discover" them on their own. The teacher is a "facilitator" or "mentor" or "guide". You (as teacher) are to never lecture nor make any pronouncement of right or wrong when a student asks for guidance. You are to carefully lead them with questions toward the "correct" answer. But if you are not good at that, that's okay because they will figure it out eventually.

The other group believes that you may lecture but you should do more questioning and demonstrations. You should focus on the concepts and not the mathematics. Thus, it's okay for the acceleration of gravity to be 10 m/sec squared. Just teach the concepts and they can take the math parts later. It should be a fun and interesting Science class not a Math class, they state.

Obviously, the first group has never taught a group of apathetic kids, or resistive kids. Kids who enjoy doing exactly what you do not want them to do. Kids who would rather sleep than do the lab. Then quiz you on what are the "right" answers to fill in the blanks on the lab report. Who couldn't care less whether the grade was a C or an A, as long as it was passing. And if it wasn't passing, it is entirely YOUR fault.

The second group completely forgets that the language of physics is mathematics. That the genius and beauty of the concepts are best expressed in simple mathematical formulae. That understanding what is happening in V = I R or better yet dp/dt = 0 has tremendous ramifications.

But I see and understand their point. Today's physics education needs more hands-on open-ended labs where the students can see the relationships better. The lab should reinforce the lecture, or better yet, the lecture should reinforce the lab. And the lab should be the springboard for the lecture, especially the analysis of the data. Here the students would see the connection between the dry writing of the textbook meeting the squishiness of real life. They would see the application of the concepts played out in the manipulation of the data. And then maybe they would understand why they learn about graphing and slopes in math class.

So, I've been really wanting to revamp my teaching style. However, things have seriously changed in the world since I was a student. We used ticker tape and 60 Hz tapper with carbon paper to learn about motion. Now I can use a motion detector connected directly to my calculator. To revamp, I'll need to learn a whole new set of skills. How do I manipulate the lists of data collected in the calculator? How do I input the mpeg of our lab into the physics program on the computer so that I can analyze the motion? How do I set up a simulation in the interactive physics software so that what happens matches homework problem #35, which is about drag racing? Ugh...so much to learn....

Add to that, I want to keep up with how they (the students) view and interact with their world. I've learned (barely) how to keep a blog. I've learned how to use IM and text-messaging. I'm not at a high comfort level yet, but I can do them. And now, I've got to learn this new set of programming skills. It's almost too much. But I love my job so much, that I'm going to give it all I've got. I may not be able to do it all, but I can at least do enough to not look like a n00b.
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