FEd Fall 2002 Newsletter - Don't Lecture Me on Lectures!

Fall 2002



Previous Newsletters

Current Issue

Contact the Editor

Don't Lecture Me on Lectures!

Kelly R. Roos

A combination of the title of the upcoming Illinois Section of the AAPT Fall Meeting, Teaching Better Physics Better, and the location of the meeting has stirred me to revisit a delightful article I read several years ago by David Griffiths, the recipient of the 1997 Robert A. Millikan Medal (the location for our Fall meeting is Millikin University, hmmmm). The article was actually a transcription of his acceptance speech at the national AAPT meeting, and was published in the American Journal of Physics (Am. J. Phys. 65 (12), December 1997).

We are somewhere in the neighborhood of the tenth anniversary of a reform movement to revitalize physics education. Those of you readers who are more “in the know” about the exact dates of the pioneering efforts of the reform movement may take me to task about the exact number of years since it all started, but at least I think I remember that it was around ten years ago that “physics education research” started to become a familiar term. One goal that seems to me to have permeated the movement over these last ten years is the debunking of the traditional lecture as a sound mode of physics instruction. And not just debunking, but there seems to be within the movement the attitude that our traditional teaching modes are hopelessly flawed and that not even a good lecturer can effectively lecture, regardless of any evidence or argument to the contrary. Griffiths does not buy into this. As you read through Griffiths' article, it becomes immediately apparent that he is not an advocate of the need to reform physics teaching, and indeed still rather likes the traditional lecture. He makes a very convincing, and intellectually sound case for the traditional methods.

My first direct experience with true debunkers occurred while attending the "Building Undergraduate Physics Programs for the 21st Century Conference" in 1998 in Washington, D.C., a meeting jointly sponsored by the APS and the AAPT. We had just gathered into our breakout groups to discuss the role of reforming teaching methods in revitalizing undergraduate physics programs. With a majority of debunkers present in my particular group, the overwhelming sentiment was toward a definite need to stop lecturing, and the few of us in the minority lecture party were continually “lectured” about the futility of the lecture. Upon suggesting that perhaps the effectiveness of any method of teaching strongly depends on the passionate dedication of the teacher we were informed that such an assertion was “demonstrably wrong!”

Whether the debunkers are right or wrong concerning lecturing, one thing is certain as we gaze across the physics teaching landscape today: the debunking hasn't worked, at least in the sense that the larger physics community has not adopted the anti-lecture stance. There is still an overwhelmingly large stronghold of traditionalists who cling to the lecture, despite a great effort by the reformers to “prove” to us lecturers that lectures are not effective.

So my debunker friends' rather curt statements regarding the “proven” inferiority of lecturing suggests to me that we who have not adopted “demonstrably” superior modes of teaching are either ignorant or stubborn. Now, I'm not sure about my degree of stubbornness (although I'm certain that there are those who would gladly comment on it), but I am not ignorant. I am open to new ways of instruction (as we all should be), and indeed, I have over the last ten years stayed abreast of and experimented with many of the novel modes of instruction which have come forth as a result of the reformers. But, I always seem to end up convinced that the new mode I had been trying was not really better than the traditional methods, and not worth the extra time and effort I usually expended in implementing the new fangled ideas. This, of course, is my own opinionated conclusion based on my own personal physics education experiments. For me the most important thing to bring to a classroom (perhaps along WITH several demos and the Force Concepts inventory?!)) is my passion for the subject matter born out of being deeply involved in scientific pursuits, and my dedication to the learners. I really do believe that such a combination CAN be demonstrably effective for teaching physics. Regarding my stubbornness-I refuse to consider it!

Well, if I have stirred you up by all this, and provoked you all a bit, then my mission in writing this short column has been accomplished. I believe these are things which must be continually discussed, and we should never believe that we and/or our chosen methods of physics instruction have “arrived” at such a state that we are beyond critical self examination towards improvement. I invite your comments, and would love to discuss further these issues with any of you who are interested. In the mean time, independent of your “mode,” keep up the good teaching!

Kelly Roos, a professor in the Department of Physics at Bradley University, is serving as President of the Illinois Section of AAPT. A slightly shorter version of his editorial appeared in the Fall issue of the Illinois Physics Teacher.