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Refusing to throw stones

Posted by Arjendu on April 20, 2008

The fatal pedagogical error is to throw answers, like stones, at the heads of those who have not yet asked the questions. – Paul Tillich

My intro class took their first test, and generalized fear and panic hit during the Dynamics section. This is predictable, perhaps, since I’ve seen that year after year, no matter what method I’ve taught (except the matter and interactions course, but there we selected for a particular kind of small cohort, so it’s not a fair question).

Intellectually it comes down to the fact that kinematics is sheer description, while dynamics is explanation. To understand why something behaves the way it does in the Newtonian paradigm means that you have to get (a) the notion of force clear in your head, (b) create the appropriate catalog of courses and then (c) learn to deploy them correctly, while (d) getting geometry and (e) algebra right throughout.

And some of the things we tell them are absolutely counterintuitive, particularly if they involve any aspect whatsoever of Newton’s 3rd Law.

So it’s not surprising that the frustration level in the class rose. And it was easy at first to blame the whole ‘refusing to lecture’ thing that I was doing. But I thought about it for a while, talked about it with colleagues (I found what was written in response to Chad’s post — thanks for picking this up, Chad — and in the comments to my last post very useful, incidentally), looked through my notes and realized: Aha! I bet they’re not reading the book. And of course they weren’t — I could tell the moment I probed lightly. They weren’t reading because they haven’t been trained to read books the right way.

It’s critical they read the book and ask me questions — both. Consider that the author’s someone who’s put a lot of thought and energy into getting precisely the right explanation for a certain concept — why do I think that I can present the basic script any better? What I can do is find out how students react to the ideas, and use my time to help them with the ideas (it’s the “guide on the side” VS “sage on the stage” perspective).

The reason they weren’t reading was because I had forgotten one of my cardinal rules of teaching: Do not expect anything from students that you have not explicitly asked them to show you, explicitly linked to their grade. Because your grading system is your way of telling them what you value.

So I sent out a note asking them write me questions before class (a subset, so I don’t get drowned), and reminded them that this was part of the implicit contract (the syllabus).

And I’m getting some superb questions as I sit at my email. Tomorrow is going to be *so* much better — I know what they don’t know, so I have some idea of what to tell them! Cool.

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2 Responses to “Refusing to throw stones”

  1. rob said

    i still remember when bruce thomas replied to a question a student had about going from one step to another in a derivation he was doing on the board.

    he said: “that step comes from reading the book.”

    good advice to take.

  2. […] for me this time: Spring Break and new experiences So far so good Stable and unstable lectures Refusing to throw stones and Almost […]

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