Monday, June 13, 2005

Teaching Astronomy (or not)

I was just reading over the June 2005 issue of the American Astronomical Society newsletter. It's not yet on-line, but the President's Column was very interesting. It's by Robert Kirshner who teaches at Harvard. He says, when talking about teaching astronomy:
Of course our real goal is not so much to teach a particular body of knowledge (how many AU in a parsec?), but somehow to nourish a desire to learn more. Students are in an astronomy course for a semester, but they live long and interesting lives. If we can ignite an interest in something bigger than themselves, use numbers to express ideas, and get them to think about how the world works, I think we'll have done quite a lot.

So far, not so bad, right?

Looking over last year's final exam, I'm not sure if I tested these ideas. It's a lot easier to ask how many AU in a parsec. Maybe that's a test that comes only with time.

Jeez. If he gave up that easily when researching supernovae he wouldn't get anywhere. How do we move past having the idea that it's not the little details that matter ... to getting people to understand you can design a course that emphasizes what we are all starting to agree is really important?


At 1:21 PM, Blogger hoagieboy said...

Nice catch.

You mean to tell me that there's a reason why people continue to not learn science, and it involves the people teaching it?

I guess it makes all our lives pretty easy, though, if we don't believe that we can actually measure what we're really trying to teach.

We can still go about giving grades based on the number of AU's in a parsec, but make high minded claims about how wonderful and important the spirit of creative and critical thought is. We can continue to go about doing the same things that we've done forever, while still sounding pretty progressive.


At 2:09 PM, Blogger maki-girl said...

It is such a cop out. And the thing is, I don't get the feeling this guy wants to be a "bad" professor or doesn't care or anything. That's what really got me.

At 4:28 PM, Blogger hoagieboy said...

Well, I think that's the thing. Most professors aren't trying to be bad. They're just not taught to self-evaluate, nor to evaluate the assumptions underlying their practice/field.

Which I do find remarkable, because the one thing we're always supposed to be doing as scientists is questioning our assumptions.


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