Education / Politics / Science

Teaching Physics Differently

File:Physics Class (8651547653).jpg

In 1959, British chemist and novelist C.P. Snow, in his now famous lecture “The Two Cultures”, observed that western society is split between a culture of the sciences and a culture of the humanities. This view might be a bit simplistic, but he had a point in there. There are many people who have a good understanding of literature, the arts etc. but know and understand very little about science. Even among politicians or other decision makers, you will find many people whose understanding of science is very limited or even nonexistent. Many people don’t have the means to form an educated opinion about matters of science, technology and environmental issues and are an easy prey to quacks and ideologist because they lack basic scientific understanding. In today’s technology-permeated world, with all its huge problems, I find this dangerous and alarming.

I believe this situation is something that should and could be changed. A large part of the problem might be the way science, and especially physics, is taught in schools. My opinion is that we should radically change the way we present science to pupils. More specifically, we should throw out most of the math.

If you look into popular science magazines or at popular science programs on TV or on the internet, you may note that people there are explaining scientific insights using very little math or even no math at all. This makes it possible for a much wider range of people to achieve an understanding of scientific matters. Teaching physics manly in a mathematized fashion where pupils learn, say, how to calculate the trajectory of a cannon ball, limits the physics curriculum to a small subset of physics that can be treated with the limited math available to the pupils. Large interesting and important areas of physics are left out of the school curriculum because they cannot be treated in this way. But it would be much more useful for many people to have a broad qualitative understanding of physics and science even if they are not able to do the calculations. The mathematized physics curriculum, on the other hand, turns many people away from science. They leave school with the impression that science is difficult and uninteresting and only good for a few geeks and nerds. They never get experiences of success and the “aha” moments of insight that make science fascinating. As a result, most of them will then also not look into those popular science sources that they could actually understand.

For those “geeks and nerds” who like the math, schools may offer advanced courses. For the rest, a new much broader curriculum should be created that spans the whole range from particle physics to cosmology, from quantum physics to general relativity, from thermodynamics to geophysics, but mostly on a popular science level. The use of mathematics in physics can be demonstrated in a few simple examples so people develop an understanding of the role of math in science, but besides that, it should be kept out. The aim would be to achieve a much broader understanding and interest in science in a much broader section of the pupils.

Most people don’t need a mathematical understanding of science but most people need an understanding of science. The “two cultures” divide is the artificial result of bad teaching methods. We cannot afford it. Therefore, people who understand the importance of the role of science in society should campaign for a change of the way science is being taught in schools.

(The picture is from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Physics_Class_(8651547653).jpg?uselang=de)

7 thoughts on “Teaching Physics Differently

    • I am convinced it is good to teach people to appreciate math, but I think this would not solve the problem.
      The problem is that advanced math is difficult and much of the math you would need to understand advanced physics requires math that is way beyond what can be done in school. Therefore, insisting to teach physics in terms of math limits what can be done in schoolIt and it also takes a lot of time that could instead be used to increase the general understanding of what science is and to cover more different things. Moreover, it turns pupils who are not so good in math away from physics and science. And I think a better understanding of science by a larger number of people is very important (especially for the fight against superstitions you are involved in).
      Generally, science has moved out of the realm of what most people can understand. A real and detailed deep understanding even of a special section of it requires a university level course. But a popular science level understanding should be achievable for a much larger number of pupils. Thats why I think we should separate physics classes in school into basic level courses (with very little math) and additional advanced level (with more math, geared at the especially science minded ones among the pupils, e.g. those who are likely to later study things like physics or engineering).
      I think the separation of the two cultures is mainly to be blamed on the members of the science culture themselves because they failed to communicate the way of thinking of science and its most important results to people in a way that is understandable to many. But I think such a communication is possible.
      It is happening again, for example, on Wikipedia. If you look at articles about topics like quantum mechanics or general relativity, for example, the most mature articles are completely incomprehensible for the non-expert, full of mathematics and referring to articles which are just as incomprehensible again. I am quite interested in science and physics, but I must say I don’t understand most of these articles. You need to have studied physics or math to understand them. I have studied computer science and linguistics and I am studying philosophy and history now. For somebody like me, most of these articles are useless. They may be very exact and accurate, but as encyclopedic articles geared at a general public, they fail completely. Each of these articles should be extended by another section on a popular science level. The content of that section would maybe not be as exact, they might be simplified and maybe even a bit wrong in the detail, but it would make it understandable for more people what these science guys are talking about.

      • I agree with you totally on this. There are times I get referred to an online science article and I can’t make head or tails out of it. You have identified a need that need to be taken care of.

        • I think the first people to try to communicate this to are the scientists. If you try to add a section to such a wikipedia article where you describe the concept in a more accessible way, you may have to make some simplifications. Then the experts might step in and “correct” it until you are back to square one. Perhaps a Wikipedia project with its own discussion page has to be started about this (or maybe there is one already?) so that a larger group of Wikipedia authors become aware of the problem.

          • Most scientists I think are not good communicators. It is the lay people who have come to understand these concepts who could help with making science accessible.
            And wikipedia is a good place to start to make the science accessible.

    • Excellent! This is how to pack some scientific contents so that everybody can understand them and it is useful information too.

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