Monday, June 2, 2008

Wow Moments in Teaching

I like this op-ed from Brain Greene. This paragraph in particular really strikes me:

...many students I’ve spoken to have little sense of the big questions those (scientific) technical details collectively try to answer: Where did the universe come from? How did life originate? How does the brain give rise to consciousness? Like a music curriculum that requires its students to practice scales while rarely if ever inspiring them by playing the great masterpieces, this way of teaching science squanders the chance to make students sit up in their chairs and say, “Wow, that’s science?”

I'm always amazed at this same issue when it comes to other important areas of study, such as mathematics. Students are often taught math in a very dry and boring way even if they have a lively teacher. I always thought it would be better to teach math as a history of discovery. Why do we have calculus? What led to its creation? What problems did those who created it need to solve and why? 

If the field of study doesn't have any Wow moments that can be shared with students, then find another discipline. At the same time, students should really try to not be too cynical with what they are being presented. A typical example I've had with students is describing humans walking on the moon for the first time. Neither myself nor the majority of the students I have taught were alive when Neil Armstrong took that step (and botched his line) and so we have a tendency to not realize how amazing that really was because it has always been a part of our lives. But, as one of my professors was fond of saying, other animals look at the moon and think, "Look at that bright light." We look at the moon and think, "That's a place where we can go." How cool is that?

The Rational Moderate


Lori said...

I think if I had been taught math in that way, I would have been much more interested and maybe have passed algebra the first time! Numbers have never made much sense to me(and yet I am bank teller), words make sense to me. If someone had just explained to me why I was learning math, not the lame ass excuse that you need it for college, I would have been better at it.

Rational Moderate said...

I feel the same way and I'm saying that having taught a college level math credit course several times (Symbolic Logic). I wish I had more math but I don't wish I spent anymore time in those classes. I don't want to know the formulas and steps, I want to know why these formulas and these steps. Math is, after all, an internally consistent logical system. So the reason that we use the things we do with the math that we do has meaning. Understanding that meaning, I think, would be a great way to really learn the topic and not just pass it.

Mike to the D. said...

Having a minor in math, the bachlors in computer science, I guess I have always treadted math as a means to an end. I tended to enjoy math classes as it enabled me to further my abilities in what I really loved, computers. Unfortunatly, the only thing said about math and computers is you need one to do the other. There was no explination of the cool things calculus/algerba/linear math can help you acholmplish. I had to find that out on my own...for better or for worse. I think it is not only helpfull to teach math and science in the context of why it exists and what problems it solved but also how it applies to what you are doing in your own field, where it helps you, and how to use it to advance what ever field you happen to be in. Constant discovery is what keeps scientist alive and it is the wow of the discovery that we need to show students.

Rational Moderate said...

Mike to the D.,
I can see the benefit of making something more palatable by showing how it relates to someone's field, but considering all the possible fields that students can be involved in that would make it really hard to implement. More so, at least from my point of view, why can't students simply be interested in it as a subject because it is interesting? Shouldn't it be conveyed that subjects like math are interesting because of what they do for us and also for their own sake?