Thursday, December 23, 2010

A veteran teacher shares his wisdom

David Griffiths taught at Reed College  for 30 years (a rather unique undergraduate institution in Portland, Oregon) and is author of several widely used textbooks. He has a provocative piece Illuminating physics for students in Physics World. [I first encountered the article on the noticeboard outside the Mott lecture theatre at Bristol University]. The summary is:
He says that the role of a physics teacher should be to illuminate the subject's intrinsic interest, beauty and power – and warns that attempts to make it more marketable using gimmicks, false advertising or dilution are bound to be counterproductive
It is worth reading in full. But here are a few extracts to picque your interest:
What we have on offer is nothing less than an explanation of how matter behaves on the most fundamental level. It is a story that is magnificent (by good fortune or divine benevolence), coherent (at least that is the goal), plausible (though far from obvious) and true (that is the most remarkable thing about it). It is imperfect and unfinished (of course), but always improving. It is, moreover, amazingly powerful and extraordinarily useful. Our job is to tell this story ....
[clickers] can be powerfully effective in the hands of an inspired expert like Mazur, but I have seen them reduced to distracting gimmicks by less-capable instructors. What concerns me, however, is the unspoken message reliance on such devices may convey: (1) this stuff is boring; and (2) I cannot rely on you to pay attention. Now, point (2) may be valid, but point (1) is so utterly and perniciously false that one should, in my view, avoid anything that is even remotely open to such an interpretation.....
I have never suffered the interference of a brainless dean concerned only with grants and publications, and as a consequence I have been more productive than would have been possible in the usual academic straitjacket. I do not know what makes good teaching, beyond the obvious things: absolute command of the subject; organization; preparation (I write out every lecture verbatim the night before, though I never bring my notes to the lecture hall); clarity; enthusiasm; and a story-teller's instinct for structure, pacing and drama. I personally never use transparencies or PowerPoint – these things are fine for scientific talks, but not in the classroom. ....

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