Friday, March 26, 2004

Teaching High School Physics

Lance Fortnow recently posted a note on teaching evolution in which he said:

We should fight these attempts but we need to do so in a careful manner. Scientists should not impose the truth on school-age children, that will make us no better than the creationists who wish to impose their version of the truth. Instead we need to explain the reasoning behind evolution, the same holds for any scientific principle we teach. For example, I can't expect students to trust me when it comes to the Church-Turing thesis but instead I need to lay out a careful argument why the thesis must hold.

One should not force students to accept evolution, rather lay out the arguments and let the students learn to believe evolution on their own. Only then will they become true believers.

In a comment to this post, I replied:
On the other hand, we teach school-age children Newtonian physics without laying out a careful argument why the thesis must hold.
...[other unrelated stuff]

to which he responded, after talking to an Indian grad student of his:

This caught me as strange so I asked one of our Indian graduate students how he learned physics in school. He said they were given the appropriate theory and formulas. I asked if they did experiments. He said they were given descriptions of experiments on exams and had to predict the outcome but they never actually performed any experiments.

This is in sharp contrast to my high school physics class in New Jersey...


Which teaching method is superior? In India they can go into more depth in the theory since they don't spend time on experiments. However I don't think you truly get an understanding for a scientific principle without getting your hands dirty.

I was going to comment on his blog, but I felt a longer response was apropos:

First of all, the impression that my post (and lance's interpretation of it) gives, that in Indian schools one doesn't do experiments, is completely false. I have had my teachers practically burn their clothes with demonstrations of hygroscopic activity (and the reactivity of sodium), and I remember long painful hours in physics labs wondering why the value of g was not coming out to 9.8 m/s^2 in my experimental setup. Also, I am likely to get into trouble with my mother for even implying that all indian schools teach is theory: she spends much of her time as a middle school science teacher designing practical activities that demonstrate scientific principles !

My point (possibly mis-stated) was that evolution is a phenomenon that happens over very large time scales, at least the effects that are being challenged by the ID folks. It is not hard to set up a petri dish and the right conditions to see bacteria evolving. However, from what I understand of ID theory, they don't argue about the simple evolutionary behaviour you can see here. What they argue about are the large jumps in complexity: formation of an eye being one example that was bandied about.

Now you can set up a lot of petri dishes, but you are not going to get bacteria with eyes any time soon. The same problem comes up with quantum computing. You can perform a diffraction experiment to get some inkling of the wave/particle duality of light, but it is quite hard to conduct experiments that really test the theory well; one has to read about the experiments rather than "do them" (again, I am speaking in the context of high school).

One of the hallmarks of science is the right to question a claim and demand reproducible results. We should definitely encourage that at every level of scientific education. But we have to be willing to be objectively biased i.e assert (current and temporary) superiority of a theory based on the weight of evidence; otherwise education can be reduced to post-modern "We report; you decide" media buffoonery.

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