Monday, June 3, 2013

The Essential Classroom/Seminar Teacher: What We Shall Discover from Online and Distance Education

Online and distance education will make some people realize the value of the classroom teacher, not all of us, to be sure. What I do in my classroom or in a seminar is just what is less likely to happen in other contexts. Of course, I am not at all teaching them anything like the settled content of physics or economics. (But even then, given my experience, what I learned in courses that had what might be called settled content was how to think like a real scholar and scientist--by watching my teachers in action.)

Maybe it would do to watch on TV my giving a lecture to a class. I don't know. 

I am thinking of the Feynman Lectures on Physics, as a book, and then as a live course for Caltech undergrads in 1961-1963. The books are terrific, but I suspect watching Feynman think in class and being with him is valuable for some students.  I suspect that watching a screen-Feynman (on TV from a DVD) will not work.

Once past introductory courses, and into the realm of research and the forefronts of a field, students may misunderstand the nature of scholarship and what it means to think critically. It's not about mastery of what is already known and settled. Courses are not didactic.  Exams and papers are not matters of understanding the material in the class and reading. They are about a dialectical conversation.

Footnotes are rarely about avoiding charges of plagiarism, mostly they are about a conversation and your awareness of the various positions. Critical thinking involves being aware and acknowledging positions other than your own. I don't know if there is critical thinking, as I define it, in physics; but surely there is in most fields.

By the way, at the forefront of physics, critical thinking is called for. See the Peter Woit (Columbia, mathematics) blog, Not Even Wrong , where much of what is at the forefront is critically examined. Surely needed is an ability to understand how an experiment or a data analysis might go wrong, to ask incisive questions of lecturers and in the margins of papers you are reading, to appreciate how an argument might have serious lacunae.

Usually, we like to see this sort of inquiring mind in college, but many college students do not have much demanded of them in this direction. Absolutely, by the time people come up for a doctoral degree, they had better have it.

My education in college in the early 1960s, and my doctoral education, was a matter of our being in the presence of our teachers. For some courses, it might well have been better to have televised lectures by masters. But even when my teachers blundered, I learned a lot from them.