14 August 2010

The reward is in the Finding Out

While grading this evening, I had Tweetdeck open and saw that one of my PLN posted to his blog. The post was about how science can inspire awe in people, specifically students. It discussed some differences between religion and science (which is a discussion that is near and dear to my heart). Within the post, there was a video of an interview with Richard Feynman from probably almost 30 years ago. If I remember right, he died in '86, so it would have been from the early '80's at least. He talks a lot about the nature of science, along with some fairly complex physics thrown in for good measure.

The "take-away" (at least for me) of what he had to say can be stated with these two quotes: "I don't need a Nobel Prize, the honor is in finding the thing out" and "there's a difference between knowing the NAME of something and knowing something".

I am thinking deeply about how to express these two ideas to my students. By the time they get to my class they are somewhere between 15-18 years old. Is it too late by this point to instill this kind of curiosity in them? Have they already moved past the point of enjoying solving a puzzle just for the pure joy of seeing something complex come to fruition? If so, how do I undo that?

The second quote is probably more complex for me. I can talk all day about inertia (Newton's First Law of Motion) and some students will get the concept. But do they really know Inertia? I mean, do I really even know Inertia? I guess what I am saying is, how can I teach beyond the concept and get to the root of the why if I'm not sure I understand it myself? Additionally, at my level of my teaching, is the mechanism (why) even important?

I tend to lean towards the idea that if I can get my students interested in science at a deeper level and teach some critical thinking/problem solving skills along the way, I have been successful. Am I wrong in thinking this? Maybe I am taking the easy way out by not learning physics at a deeper level. I don't know. These are the questions that keep me up at night and make me have nightmares of being naked in front of my class when I am able to sleep. I'm sure I'll have that dream at least once this week.

I'm going to go with Feynman and say that I'm okay with the not knowing. I'm okay when there are things that I don't understand because it forces me to think at a deeper level. Hopefully, I can instill the same level of comfort in my students, but also instill a desire to want to find out the mechanism of something and not just the how. In the words of one of my tweeps, "I don't know all the parts of drill, but I know how to use one!" You have to consider what the purpose of your teaching is. Do students need to know the name of something? Or do they need to really know something? Those two may not be mutually exclusive, but I think its a question worth asking when considering students.

As a result of this video, I had the best conversation on twitter to date. I even found two new tweeps as a result! People may think twitter is a big old waste of time but I'd have to disagree. It can be an enriching experience for your on-going education. On the other hand, it can be a big old waste of time!

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