Science. Communication. Community.
In which I ruminate on good teaching and communication practices. Did you know, in some languages “teaching” and “learning” are the same word?
As I start my teaching career (or 50/50 teaching and research career, depending on how you look at it), I’ve been thinking about the parallels between teaching and communication. Specifically, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to engage students, as it’s been shown time and time again in the physics education community that teaching students passively, as in lecturing at them and assuming they’ll sink or swim, does not work.
Well, it sort of works. The students privileged enough to already have a basic understanding of the topic will think they’ve learned something and do well in the course, and possibly major. The others won’t be majors anyway — they couldn’t tough it out. It produces a crop of strong majors with virtually zero startup cost.
And it’s easy to implement. It often looks bad; there is the stereotype of the unintelligible professor regurgitating the textbook.
But in the hands of an artist, it can seem brilliant. Some of the rock star professors, the kind you’ll see on MOOCs, basically use this approach. It’s a hocus pocus of artful presentation, which obfuscates the fact that they aren’t really teaching. And why would they teach? They’re too busy being rock stars to have the time.
For these rock stars, the students may actually even love them, which clouds our judgment even more. The students who came in strong will love them and “get it.” The choir has been preached to. The students who don’t “get it” may often feel happy in lecture, but then feel abandoned when it comes time for them to do homework. No learning has happened.
The passive model may as well be called the “Physics Deficit” model, in analogy with the so-called “Science Deficit” model of science communication . The science deficit model treats the public like empty buckets: if the public just had the information, the public would be less ignorant. The problem: people’s values, opinions, and preconceived notions have much more to do with how they interpret that information than the facts themselves. If they’re faced with facts that conflict with their opinions, they will find a way to reconcile the two, but their opinion will always win in some fashion.
Examples of this are abundant in reporting climate change science and the public response. Some people just won’t believe it. And the Internet has enabled them to have peer networks to reinforce their notions.
Long story short, the Science Deficit model doesn’t work . That said, it’s hard to imagine what to do. And for the most part, articles are still articles, reporting the facts. Each side of a controversial topic will have a different reaction to an article about it.
A proven method to get people to change their minds is to interact in a peer setting. An example: while coming out is a personal choice, it is agreed upon to be the responsible thing to do in a broader context. Simply knowing a queer person actually changes people’s views on queer issues . If everyone came out, almost everyone would know a gay person, and maybe some of these issues can be put to rest .
But how to do this sort of thing in the context of general science communication is again, not so clear. We can’t just befriend everyone who needs help with their science literacy. (Though we should really do a better job of getting out of our own echo chambers: Facebook networks, Twitter followers, ivory towers, and so on.)
Back to the physics deficit model. Who cares if “only the strong survive”? Isn’t that the point?
I hope not. There’s real collateral damage with being so short sighted.
There are the students that are unfamiliar or under confident in the subject, yet who need a good grade, such as premeds. They may work overtime in a Sisyphean manner, learning as many plug and chug methods as possible. Inevitably, they resent the subject and leave with virtually no deep understanding of it. Sadly, this includes some of our future doctors, who would benefit greatly from understanding how to think critically (in both linear and lateral fashions) and problem solve.
Or, sometimes they will just wilt and just do enough to get by. I don’t get it anyway. It doesn’t matter. No one cares.
And of course there are the students who never take the course to begin with. And why would they if they don’t have to?
But if the course actually teaches them something, rather than potentially breaking them down, why shouldn’t they?
In any case, this passive teaching style perpetuates the stereotype of physics being hard. It further amplifies the disconnect between science and the public. And more importantly, it not-so-subtly drives home the erroneous Western notion that intelligence, especially in science and math, is fixed. (In reality, what we think of as intelligence can be distilled into several skills that can be developed, and knowledge of physics must necessarily be “built.”) 
It creates a structure that benefits the already privileged. Those who have been exposed to mechanical ideas already (more often men) and good math teachers (more often at least middle class) will do well in the introductory sequence. And then they can go on to do “real” physics.
Sadly, many institutions still teach introductory physics in this “lecture and forget it” sort of manner. It’s no wonder then, that the percentage of female physics majors has stayed flat at 20% for the last 15 years. For underrepresented minorities, the picture is just as bleak: they are underrepresented in physics by a factor of 3 .
Part of the issue with this passive lecturing is that the students who most need challenging are not challenged. I use the word challenge in a good sense, not a mean sense. (Note to self: Step 1: Make up a friendlier word for this. Step 2: ??? Step 3: Profit!)
What is there to challenge? One example is a student’s mental model of the world. They may hold an erroneous belief about how the world works. Many students will think that a ball launched horizontally will take longer to hit the ground than a dropped ball, because it has to go further, in some sense. Show them a demonstration to the contrary, and many will do “mental gymnastics” to try to explain away the demonstration in terms of their mental model .
A few minor tweaks can ensure that such a demonstration actually becomes a learning experience.
It’s been shown that deep learning happens when students :
1) Encounter a situation that challenges their beliefs.
2) Care enough to grapple with it.
3) Are able to handle the emotional trauma that comes with this challenge.
It’s a delicate task, to challenge students without it becoming adversarial. It’s especially important to avoid this dynamic, since the students who need challenging are sometimes the ones most sensitive to stereotype threats. On the flip side, it’s also difficult to praise students without implying that intelligence is fixed .
One way to bring about this deep learning is via the method of peer instruction . (Note the similarity to changing people’s minds in general.)
In the case of the demonstration, students are asked to make a prediction. They report their prediction via flashcards (that other students can’t see) or with a Clicker system. They discuss their prediction with their neighbor, and make a prediction again, sometimes changing their answer. The demonstration happens, and they discuss again with their neighbor. Sometimes, the whole classroom may converge to discuss.
Peer instruction is not the only way to go, but it naturally satisfies a few requirements needed to implement deep learning. At the very least, you must:
Understand the students’ perspectives .
With this peer instruction example, the students are forced to understand their own perspectives by committing to an answer and explaining it. Additionally, the students may already understand each other, so the discussion portion may be fairly natural. If not using peer instruction, you can use baby steps to gain perspective as a teacher. Simply getting to know students (start with their names) can be a huge first step.
Provide a safe space for failure .
With this peer instruction example, there were no stakes associated with reporting their original answer. They then discussed their ideas in private with their neighbor, which is not only safe but also forced them to discuss it (grapple). If they happened to converge on the incorrect answer before the demo, the blame is not on any individual (reduced emotional trauma), and they can discuss further.
Make a learning community .
With the peer instruction example, this is somewhat natural. But in a more traditional classroom format, to engage students you must be self-actualized, and encourage them to be as well. You must not be all-knowing and dominant. You must give up some power. This allows a teacher to build meaningful relationships with students. These relationships heavily influence their future choice of major or career .
Frankly, I’m still working out how to actually execute this flawlessly, but I always give it the old college try. If we don’t at least try, we’ll never succeed.
 See first comment.
 Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do
 Eric Mazur, Peer Instruction
 bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress