Monday, December 31, 2012

How to not teach physics

No one learns physics from being taught physics. Therefore, the best way to teach physics is to not teach physics.

It took me twenty years of teaching university physics to finally learn this about teaching physics.

I would kill myself trying to explain the concepts, patiently and step by step, repeating and re-casting, and on and on. I would grasp any sign as a proof that my efforts were being rewarded. I would read books about teaching and about interesting demonstrations, and go through all the stages of improving my method.

But, in the end, there was a final exam, which I had painstakingly tried to make as clear and as graded in difficulty as possible, to allow all to answer to some degree. And then I would look at the examination papers for hours, for days, for weeks, looking for evidence that someone had understood something or could communicate some idea that showed something about physics...

Or even just show me that they had understood my question. I told my students that if they could explain the question, explain what it was about, something about the conceptual context, then they would pass.

And, well, year after year, I found that no one learned anything from my courses. The few exceptions who did well on the final examination would have done equally well, in terms of understanding and reasoning, on the first day of class, and learned what they learned from engaging on their own terms with the subject, not from my classroom presentations and antics.

And half-way through I found that there was a whole research area called "physics education research" (PER) which proved that the students really do not learn anything, no matter what traditional methods are used. And the PER researchers tried to refine methods that were expected to work better. So I tried several of these. But I found that there were no improved results, not really.

I still had a sense that students were not getting it, not understanding the concepts, and not caring about the ideas. Even if I trained them to describe the concepts with proper words and alerted them to the importance of understanding the concepts, still nothing. Even if they got better at answering multiple-choice problems, still nothing really. Even if they could do the math to get good answers by practicing a lot with similar problems. Most who could, could do all this without ever really learning anything.

I mean, how many students sit down and figure things out? And which method catalyses such behaviour? How does reasoning develop in a life of artificial stimuli?

So I thought: "They don't learn from being taught. That's the mega-lie. So let me try not teaching. I mean really not teaching. Go in the other direction to let the learning do the walking..."

It's frightening when you first think of it because you might not know all the material you are not going to teach. You can't even predict what material you don't know that you are going to have to not teach. Frightening.

But I was so tired of living the lie that I decided to swallow my fear and boldly move forward. And this is what I did in my introductory university physics course, winter 2007. Little did I know, it was going to be the last time I would be allowed the privilege of "teaching" first-year physics students.

I told the students to close their books and not read them, unless they thought they might find something of interest in there that they wanted to know. I told them they could look anywhere they wanted and ask anyone questions to find what they wanted.

I told them that first we needed to figure out what was worth knowing, and what it means to know.

I got blank stares. They worried about how they would be graded in such a system. They wondered what I really meant and what did I want them to do. But they gave me a chance and, luckily, I didn't know what I was doing, so it was quite authentic.

So I said: "Let's see. There must be every day things that we want to know, that we can understand...? Things we are curious about?"

They couldn't find any. Some of them said they had a lot of work to do in their other classes so they did not want me to be too demanding. Many shared that view. But as the conversation continued and as it became clear that, well, it was a conversation; they relaxed. But they still could not think of anything they wanted to know, beyond the latest homework in the other courses. Sad really.

So I said: "Why is the sky blue?" "No really, how does that work?"

Well many of them had heard something about that in high school so we started a class-wide discussion about how and why the sky is blue. And for every answer that did not quite work, we were able to find a flaw in the answer, or a dead-end, where the word answer was not really explaining anything beyond "something something".

I told them that it maybe had something to do with why the evening sky can be red and also asked why clouds are white, when they are not red.

So this led us to what is light...? Now you can spend a lot of focused time asking yourself what light is if you want to know why the sky is blue. So I discovered... I helped them see, through questions, what it was to truly know or understand something versus just repeat the words...  that they could search and explore and critique themselves. So they did.

To achieve this, however, I needed to boldly risk humiliating or challenging or teasing or pushing each one of them, at various times, with a "Really?" "How do you explain that?" "Does that make sense to you?" And others would come to the rescue with "He means this I think..." or "No, that can't be because...".

And they could see that I really enjoyed the conversation and that, well, I was a good person even though I was frightening, in a good way. So we developed a relationship in physical phenomena. And well things just took off. There were almost fifty of them. They researched on their own and brought new ideas back to class.

We moved from topic to topic and never really finished anything. A very difficult one was "Why is it cold on mountain tops?" That question is rich with possibilities. I mean rich. And, is it hot in a deep mine shaft?

We learned about molecules, electromagnetic waves, perception, ... always coming back to things we wanted to know. And we kept explaining it to each other to test if we really understood. And we did simple calculations to see if it made sense. And, well, if you pardon the expression: No child was left behind!

The teacher assistant (TA) was asked to fully participate and observe the classroom dynamics and individual reactions, rather than do mindless grading of cookie cutter assignments. She was fascinated by the positive student reaction to the experiment and left physics soon after to do education, something she already loved.

The students were bringing their friends into class and telling their parents in glowing terms about the physics course.

And we had a final examination. And, honestly, it was like no final examination I had ever seen before. It was the opposite of depressing and fun to grade. It was full of intelligence and independent thought and evidence of significant research. I had a sense that the students had understood things, could explain them, and owned their knowledge.

I went back to the previous year's examinations and saw a huge difference. I lent the two piles of examinations to the TA and she concurred that, yes, there was a significant qualitative improvement that could not be denied.

Now know that I was not comparing "bad" teaching to "anything would be better than that". I was considered one of the best traditional method teachers, by the usual standards. So I was comparing certified bad teaching to something much better.

That was the only year that I felt I had done a good job in first-year physics. And they never let me teach introductory physics again, after twenty years. As soon as I figured out how to make it work, they deprived me of practicing my hard-earned trade. And I was fired from my tenured full professorship two years later, under the false pretext of fraudulent grading in one advanced physics course (LINK)(LINK). The latter was a separate course at the fourth-year and graduate levels, given in 2008 using the same kind of pedagogical method, and the circumstances of the institution's reaction are described in this 2008 TV-Ontario video interview: HERE.

I found out several years later that the chairman of physics wrote to the dean of science that he had heard I was doing something unusual in my 2007 first-year course and that the dean should probably know about it. They never asked me about it or brought it up during that magical year of not teaching first-year physics.

I would have been pleased to tell them about my discovery: Avoid all teaching. Class time is too precious to waste on such a numbing activity.

Other essays by Denis Rancourt are here: LINK.

The web site to Rancourt's new book "Hierarchy and free expression in the fight against racism" is here: LINK.


Anonymous said...

so from your experience, it is the way to encourage learning, but it is a bad way to keep one's job.
i assume this would apply in high schools as well. however, in the high school context the students will still have to write university entrance exams ... this material will have to be prepared for. i am assuming that one can lead learners to the knowledge through questions and conversation as well?

Anonymous said...

As a jew it should be expected that you know what is said about education of the masses (goyim) in the protocols. That is the law which you have infringed against.

Now, you have two options: continue on your present path and stay in the outs with the establishment and live with the consequences, or go to your rabbi and show contrition if you want to be allowed back into the fold.

That is from somebody who respects what you have done and the difficulties you have taken upon yourself.

A. Ominous said...

My uncle was a student at the University of Chicago in the 1960s and he gave me some of the books he'd read for class. I read a lot about Fermi and Bohr, et al, and loved Gamow's "One, Two, Three... Infinity" when I was ten. I became a physics nut (I even went around carrying a package of pitchblende I'd ordered, from Edmund Scientific, in my pocket! One day I tripped and the packet ruptured and I had pitchblend on my legs, causing a minor panic) and was developing some momentum in that direction when I hit a wall, in my teens, after wondering how anyone knew that the local "laws of physics" were Universal... ie, applied on the other side of the Galaxy or even further out. The only time I had the nerve to ask that question in class, I paid for the blunder dearly: I went from being "one of the smartest kids in class" to looking like a "doofus" in less than the time it took to articulate the question. Soon after that (abetted by hormones), I turned to the Arts. No regrets (far from it) but I still doubt that anyone is capable of answering that question with anything approaching certainty! laugh

Anonymous said...

When you describe the approach you took during that class - "close your book and what do you want to know" - I can say that I tried that out with students once and with patients and I understand what you mean by truly understand concepts. I said "no powerpoint and what do you want to know, what question do you have about nutrition?" Students joined the discussion easily because they were not graded and it was a perfect approach to truly understand nutrition concepts. Patients participate also better with this approach than with powerpoint presentation for example because we talk about things that they want to know, talk about.

Denis Rancourt said...

Received by email on January 2, 2012, from Patrice:


I read your blog entry, "How to not teach physics" and found it refreshing. I did the same thing in my network and operating systems classes... out with the textbooks; the students were to determine the direction and content. I experienced learning in a way that I never had in my previous classroom experiences. Since then, I have resigned from the teaching profession for a number of different reasons. One of which had to do with the pervasive ideology of "schooling" as opposed to learning.

Here are some educators who have compelled me to re-question basic assumptions regarding school and education.


P.S. I love your show, "5 o'clock Train."

Denis Rancourt said...

The latter email is posted with permission from its author, Patrice.

Unknown said...

Great work! I have examined that mostly people have little bit different concepts about the specific topic just at the time when have cleared all the topic but can not understand the last two to 3 concepts and after that they made there own one and do it like that.