Teach the Ones You're With
by Stan Jones
I would like to address an issue that arises fairly often when I am talking with faculty in my own and in other science departments. The issue is the under-preparation of students, or at least the perception that students today aren't as prepared as students of 20 years ago. It is primarily an academic issue, but it really is an issue that concerns all of us if we are concerned about education. And it is an issue that non-academics and academics alike can help resolve.
To be precise, it is not so much the under-preparation of students that I wish to talk about, but rather the attitude of faculty who don't see this as their problem. I see this as a kind of finger-pointing: High schools (or elementary schools? preschools? moms and dads?) aren't doing their job. If we are teachers of physics, isn't the teaching and learning of physics our responsibility? If students today learn differently from students of 20 years ago (whether from under-preparation, TV, video games, or whatever), isn't it our responsibility to try to reach these students?
I really don't know what the facts are; maybe our students aren't as good or as hard-working as they used to be, although I always wonder if we aren't thinking back to a golden age that never was. What concerns me is the attitude that it is not our responsibility to make up for the deficiencies our students enter college with. To me, this is a total misunderstanding of the nature of teaching. We are guides to our students, not delivery systems who throw out material, however entertaining, and leave it to our students to sink or swim. As teachers, we have several options for addressing this perceived under-preparation of our students, and pointing the finger at someone else is not on my list.
Our obligation is to teach our students, not the ones we wish we had. And as research clearly shows, students learn by building on what they already know. Learning is thus a personal thing, and to ignore this and plow ahead as if all our students had an ideal preparation for our course is not only wrong-headed, it is also an enormous waste of both their time and ours.
So if we really want to attack this problem of under-preparation, what can we do? Here are some ideas:
If high schools aren't doing their job, why not help them? Become a volunteer consultant, or better yet, get a grant and pay yourself. The same can be said for elementary schools. The APS Forum on Education (FED) newsletter, Spring 1995 issue contains several articles that relate how scientists in industry and in education can work with their local schools to enrich and improve their science offerings.
If high schools aren't doing their job, maybe it's because we really don't know how to teach science; explore the research on this and maybe do some yourself. Help find more effective ways of preparing students for college physics, and more effective ways of teaching those students we serve. Joe Redish has a great bibliography of Physics Education Research available through the University of Maryland Physics Department WWW homepage. Information on accessing this bibliography is presented in the FED newsletter.
And if our students aren't up to snuff when they arrive, then we must figure out how best to teach the students we get. Teaching is not a sterile activity that operates independently of the students we are teaching. There are a wide variety of effective teaching methods, and one of our jobs as teachers is to decide for ourselves what the best approach will be to turn our particular students on to learning.
If students start out behind, how can they possibly succeed in our courses? Perhaps we are measuring success by the wrong yardstick. As has been said very eloquently by a number of physics educators in recent years, it is not necessary or even desirable to cover all the material that we are so used to covering in elementary physics. It is more important to cover well those elements that we feel are central. Research shows that students retain disappointingly little of the concepts of physics, and it may be that we need to place more emphasis on the basic concepts, and less on the many other details we sometimes spend time on.
What about standards? This is a red flag for many of us, and I certainly don't want to leave the impression that I am for lowering our standards. Part of the question becomes, what are the standards of achievement we want to insist on - even for our under-prepared students - at the end of a given course? If we agree that concepts are of the most enduring significance to our students, then we may wish to alter our goals from what we now expect. And if we are successful in finding more effective ways to teach the students we have, perhaps they will be more successful than has been the case. And if our students truly are under-prepared, then perhaps we must make sure they get at the college level those preparatory math or skills courses (yes, remedial) that will help them be successful over the long term.
There is a lot of concern that students don't want to learn science, and that the general public doesn't support or understand science. Perhaps we're not teaching it very well, to anyone, at any level. It certainly is a question worth exploring, and there are real benefits for us as well as for society if we can make improvements in the delivery of physics education. So, if you can't be with the students you'd love, teach the ones you're with.
Stan Jones is a professor of physics at the University of Alabama.
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