March 08, 2017

Traditional physics teaching is not always a virtue, but neither is being an arrogant physicist

(This turned out to be a lot longer than I expected it to be. The tl;dr version is that I agree that creativity in physics classrooms is important, but I disagree with much of the narrative of the Physics Today commentary by Ricardo Heras.)

In his Physics Today letter "Commentary: How to teach me physics: Tradition is not always a virtue" Ricardo Heras lays out all the ways in which he believes his first two years of undergraduate study have been a disappointment. He feels his professors focused too much on textbook problem solving, that he was overwhelmed with the workload which forced him to resort to memorize equations, and that the first two years had no room at all for creativity.

First, I'd like to say that it was pretty bold of Mr. Heras to characterize the entire University College of London department of physics and astronomy as a group of faculty which discourages students from engaging in deep learning and understanding of physics and to make that characterization in one of the most widely read magazines by physicists around the world. I wish him well in his last two years at UCL if he is intending to remain there. It's also a pretty bold claim to make that your creativity was stifled when in addition to the Physics Today letter, you had three manuscripts (1, 2, 3) published in the European Journal of Physics as well as one publication in a journal called New Astronomy. (I know nothing about the last journal.) I mean, every physicist has at one time in their life been accused of being arrogant, but you don't need to go out of your way to do so before finishing your undergraduate studies.

That is not to say that his experiences were not real or that his opinions do not matter. As an instructor of physics, I know full well the value of feedback that I can receive from students. I also know what feedback is meaningful and what to ignore. (Also, I know when students are hitting up the thesaurus to write a lab report. "Vicissitudes"? Really? Anyway....) But to address his points and taking them at face value, I would agree that:

1.) problem solving alone is not enough to learn physics and that
2.) we need to make more room in our curriculum for encouraging creativity

A surface reading of the commentary would yield little to disagree with.  Let's dig a bit deeper, though.

Mr. Heras quotes Feynman many times in this brief letter: five times he quotes Feynman by my count, he has two other quotes which are about Feynman and he has one quote from Noam Chomsky. Of the two main scholars he discusses (Feynman and Chomsky) both are sometimes put on pedestals, rightly or wrongly, as examples of the Lone Genius. This is not the first time that Mr. Heras has discussed his belief in the importance of physics as an individualistic pursuit. When that letter appeared in Physics Today, there was a bit of discussion online including this post at Scientific American and this response by Chad Orzel.  Both of the responses presented a more nuanced view of the history and present physics research environment; a nuance that comes, I will add, with the experience of being immersed in the physics community.

If he cares about physics education,  he should be engaging with the physics education community, which is generally not well represented in Physics Today.  Mr. Heras seems to care more about engaging with the physics community without bothering to learn about physics education reforms of the past ~40 years. On the one hand, he publishes in the European Journal of Physics (which has a mission similar to the American Journal of Physics), and he knows quite a bit about what he has published. I read the papers on the Lorentz Transformation that he authored, and there is little doubt that the physics contained within is solid. But, as evidenced by his reply to a critique of one his papers he does not show an awareness of the pedagogical content knowledge necessary to teach these topics to students seeing them for the first time. A real irony of all of his complaining about "traditional" physics instruction (with the rote problem solving methodology) is that the type of physics he is most interested in are the highly theoretical mathematical branches of physics, which lends itself naturally to solving some intense textbook problems.

For another example, see the special course he taught last summer on Classical Electrodynamics and Symmetry principles in Maxwell’s Equations. He claims that "Electrodynamics is a very exciting subject to learn. Unfortunately, Maxwell’s equations...are often taught in a rather dull manner, which usually involves solving a lot of mostly uninteresting problems without emphasizing the pivotal role symmetry principles play..."  The class is described as appropriate for advanced undergrads and beginning graduate students. The recommended textbooks include EM books by Griffiths, Jackson, and Schwinger, among others! And this is supposed to be a summer course? I find it hard to believe that this course can be successful in helping more

He points out that he learned more by pursuing a topic he was interested in than by calculating the electric field of a spherical charge. Yet he shows little awareness of WHY students are asked to pursue simple models such as spherical charge configurations. (It's baffling to me, for example that someone so enamored with special relativity would not see the usefulness of exploring the electric field of a charge configuration). In my classes I am constantly reminding students to ask themselves what they learn by doing the problems we choose.  Some of our best students are limited by what they are not even aware that they don't know - developing metacognitive skills is a critical part of a student's growth which does not show up in any physics syllabus, yet is important for reaching full potential as a physics major.

Mr. Heras is probably not a typical physics student. He spent some of his pre-college years teaching himself physics. I have no way of knowing how firm his conceptual understanding of basic physics concepts was before starting his university studies. But I have met several students through my teaching career who were honors students and had tried teaching themselves advanced physics before getting to college. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this, but occasionally the student has to un-learn some wrong ideas they thought they knew before getting to my class. It may be possible that the "time crunch of the heavy course load" Mr. Heras experienced was exacerbated by having to undo some misconceptions that he carried into those classes. But more importantly, students that have spent so much time before starting college learning physics do not represent the vast majority of college physics students. It is unreasonable to call out the physics professors for not tailoring their classes to a single student's preferred methods of learning on the

I have some additional thoughts about the context of a few of the Feynman quotes that he included in the letter, but I feel like I've already said plenty.

I feel bad for any student who has a disappointing experience learning physics. But every day is an opportunity to engage in learning and being creative. He has some valid points, but I feel that he is not representative of the vast, vast, vast majority of physics students in the first two years, nor does he have the experience or knowledge of current physics classroom techniques to be criticizing how physics is typically taught.

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