Friday, November 05, 2004

Something Non-Political

I think I was deeply affected by our conversation on the phone last night (and not only by our discussion of certain astronomers and their *ahem* "girlfriends"). What exactly are we teaching in physics? Are we trying teaching people something about the way the universe works, or are we trying to teach them a way to solve word problems found in textbooks. The two aren't necessarily related, but given a limited amount class time, and an eye for what students might need in future classes, a teacher (aka you, makigirl) is hard pressed to do both.

I feel like I've walked through the looking glass a bit, and I don't really like the other side. Yeah, I "succeeded" in physics class because of hard work and some natural intelligence, but I also know how to play the game. I know how to pick the right equation to solve a problem in a textbook when I'm given certain values, regardless of my understanding of that equation itself or its applications. I'm wondering now if that has more to do with my "success" than anything else. Students who are like me are viewed as "smart" in intro classes, and their "smartness" is reinforced thereafter by exposure to research and other new situations. Suddenly the get PhD's without really being sure that they would pass an intro class.

The students who are not good at playing the game get frustrated and go home. A teacher or professor is rarely able to connect with these students and explicitly teach them the game because no one ever taught them the game explicitly, and the game is so intuitive to the teacher that it doesn't make sense how someone might not get it. The teacher and student do not exist in the same paradigm, and communication ceases.

Woe be unto the student who doesn't know how to play the game, but does not give up. A lifetime of rejection, dismissiveness, condescention, and long hours pouring over useless questions is their lot.

Here's my big question: Can a "traditional" physics class be changed enough so that everyone in the class learns both something about physics and how to play the textbook problem game, but the class still resembles something like a "traditional" physics class? (Furthering my line of questioning . . . ) Analagously, is it possible for a male human to run one mile in under 3min 30sec? If you needed to travel a mile in 1 minute, would you run or would you get in the car? Is there a phyical limit to how much you can improve a physics class? Do we need to invent a car of physics classes, which operates completely different from the current human body model of physics classes? What if you're running on a limited access, narrow path that cars can't travel on? Is your speed then fundamentally limited? What if the students in your car based physics classes need to take classes later that require knowledge learned more obviously from a human body based class? Are you fundamentally limited in how much you can change your physics classes based on our societal expectation of pre-requisites?

Should the whole concept of "physics class" be thrown out the goddamn window?

I think that's where I'm going with things, but I don't know yet how it fits into an overall sceme of learning.


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