“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”

I’m writing this while watching my summer astronomy students take an exam, which I consider just payback for the times they spend chatting on Facebook when they’re supposed to be doing classwork. Since said summer class has been keeping me busy (though not busy enough to keep me completely out of trouble), so I’m happy for a little enforced downtime in which I can write, at least for a few minutes. This is not just a busy week for me: a lot of really interesting science and good science writing is going on, and I want to be able to share my thoughts about it.

I have taught introductory physics and introductory astronomy many times at a variety of colleges and universities, and I always gripe about the textbooks. They’re overpriced, usually too big, and there isn’t enough to distinguish one from another in terms of content or style. Some are better than others, it’s true, and I’ve found some that work well for my particular teaching style. However, I still am critical of the standard approaches to the order and choice of topics practiced by the majority of textbooks.

So into these thoughts dropped Marie-Claire Shanahan’s excellent blog post “Escaping the rhetoric of “the past” in science education”, in which she points out that science educators have criticized the way science education has been done — practically since the beginning of modern science education! So before I say anything else, let me confess my own sin: I am as guilty as many of the other people Shanahan writes about when I talk about “the past” in education. It’s very easy to say that things could be better, because that’s obviously so — there’s a lot of room for improvement, both in terms of what we teach and how we teach in the science classroom. It’s unfair, however, to assume that others don’t see those same problems and desire to fix them, even if we don’t always see eye-to-eye on what the corrections should be.

As Shanahan points out, a lot of the problems are systemic: “standardization pressures, assessment practices, changing curricula, to name just a few”. (To her list I add “textbook publishers”, but that’s a hobby horse to ride another day.) One of my colleagues shared an anecdote about the author of a popular introductory physics text, whose original purpose was to address a lot of the same complaints we have today — bloat, irrelevance to recent results, etc. — and over the years, he was annoyed that newer editions reintroduced a lot of the problems. Inertia is hard to fight, to use an appropriate physics metaphor.

Education writer Rachel Levy (who happens to be a friend of mine) also wrote today on why teaching content is so important even when kids are just learning to read. Though my knowledge about early-childhood education is virtually nil, it seems her point is valid for college students as well. Science is a language, one which must be learned — and engaging students with content that interests them will help them learn that language. I think most of us would say we’re in physics not because of the stuff we learned in introductory physics, but what came afterwards: relativity, quantum physics, materials science, cosmology, etc. We should lay all this out in the open and talk about it; recognize our collective inertia (and I’m as guilty of this as anyone); and find where the system doesn’t work in favor of education, so that we can fight to change it.

(Today is Bloomsday, the date on which James Joyce’s experimental novel Ulysses takes place — I borrowed the title of this post from a line of dialogue. See, I’m not just about Warren Zevon or Pink Floyd.)

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