Teach science understanding, not recipes

By Marcus Wilson 19/01/2011

If you teach science at university (or, I suggest, at school too) and have an hour free (ha ha) this recent lecture by Eric Mazur is well worth a listen.  I’m willing to bet that it will be an hour well invested.


Here’s three points I thought were particularly significant (to the point that I wrote them down) while I listened to it this morning. I’ll say nothing more – just leave it for you to listen to.

1. Where does learning usually take place?   It’s unlikely to be in your classroom. So what on earth is happening in your classroom?  Anecdote – I learnt what Lagrange’s method of undetermined multipliers was all about around six years after I was ‘taught’ it – when I actually had to use it at work for a REAL problem (not a made-up simplistic textbook one – see point 2). The actual ‘a-ha’ moment was when I was walking from my flat to the bus stop, thinking about the problem.  (N.B. Don’t worry about what Lagrange’s method of undetermined multipliers is – you really don’t need to know.)

2. Most ‘problems’ and exercises provided in textbooks unsurprisingly neatly fit the recipes that the textbooks teach. What a textbook teaches is recipes, that may sometimes be useful in the real world, but often they are not. Real-world problems require real understanding, not following a recipe.

3. The longer you teach a subject for, the harder it is for you to grasp why a student might have difficulty understanding something. If it’s second nature to you – if it’s just ‘obvious’, how do you explain it to someone who is having difficulty? It takes effort to tease out how a student is actually thinking and pinpointing their misconceptions. Someone who has only just grasped it (i.e. another student) is probably better equipped at explaining it than you have. (So why not use that for the advantage of the whole class…)