Our Department has a new Teaching Seminar (concerned with teaching mathematics at the university level) which is led by legendary math professor Aviv Censor. The first lecture that I attended this semester was given by Professor Emeritus Avinoam Kolodny (Hebrew abstract here. A link to the talk – works only for Technion accounts – here). In the compelling lecture Kolodny started by mentioning the assumptions that we make when teaching (students come to class, they listen, they understand what we say, they then go home and solve homework problems) and contrasts this with empiric reality (a huge portion of students don’t come to class, the ones that do don’t listen, the ones that do don’t understand, and then they go and copy homework or solve routine problems like robots). Prof. Kolodny – an esteemed and decorated lecturer – said that he was troubled and puzzled by his students’ lack of success, and that at some point he became aware of the paper “Why not try a scientific approach to science education?” by eminent physicist, educationist and Nobel Prize laureate Carl Wieman. Kolodny explained various ideas of how to improve science (or engineering) education at the university level, to a large extent in line with ideas presented in Wieman’s paper.
The bottom line of Kolodny’s talk and Wieman’s paper is that the university lecture as we know it doesn’t work and is a waste of time. They have some ideas how to fix it, an approach that – as a first approximation – we can call “technology driven flipped classroom”. To me, the most disturbing parts of their approach are (1) that they believe that their opinions are “science based”, and therefore (2) they believe in promoting institutional change. These two aspects worry more than any technical discussion whether we should flip the classroom sideways or upside-down.
Kolodny remarked during his talk (I am paraphrasing): “I am not here to bury the concept of a lecture. Lectures are good and important. In fact, I am giving a lecture at this very moment. But you should remember that lectures are no good at passing information. In a lecture you motivate, you stimulate, you do propaganda. I’m here to do propaganda”.
Certainly I was stimulated by the talk, I was motivated to look up and then read Wieman’s paper, but most of all I was angry, I felt that someone was trying to brainwash me to believe in a certain ideology, rather than sharing some insights on teaching. Part of what made me feel this way was the “scientific approach” rhetoric. Another thing that bothered me was the jump from facts (some problems that almost everybody will agree on) to conclusions (a particular pedagogical methodology is the only way that works), disregarding tradition as not much more than momentum. Indeed, it felt like propaganda.
In this post I want to record my thoughts on some arguments raised by flipped classroom enthusiasts, and in particular on two aspects: the “scientific approach” approach, and with it the claim that lectures don’t work and we have to revolutionize the whole structure of courses to make them work.
I wish to recommend reading Wieman’s paper. Not only so that you can appreciate my criticism, but because it is a well reasoned piece of work by someone who has not only thought deeply about, but also researched the subject. I have a lot of respect for his efforts.
I am focusing my criticism on his paper, because it is written and available and interesting. But I am really arguing with talks, lectures, discussions, blog posts etc. that I have seen through the years, and have got me thinking for a long time. Now is just an opportunity to pour all of this out.
So, why not try a scientific approach to science education? Here’s why not:
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