Noncommutative Analysis

Category: Academia

Why a “scientific approach” to science education is something I reject

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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I quit (from MathSciNet and ZbMath)

(This is the post that I wanted to write this weekend.)

Several months ago I informed both MathSciNet as well as Zentralblatt that I would like to stop reviewing papers for these repositories. If you don’t know what I am talking about (your PhD thesis advisor should be fired!), then MathSciNet and Zentralblatt are databases that index published papers in mathematics, contains some bibliographic information (such as a reference list for every paper, as well as a list of papers that reference it), and, significantly, has a review for every indexed paper. The reviews are written by mathematicians who do so voluntarily (they get AMS points or something). If the editors find nobody willing to review, then the abstract appears instead of a review. This used to a very valuable tool, and is still quite valuable.

I quit because:

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A comment on the sowa versus Gowers affair

I wanted to write about something else this weekend, but I got distracted and ended up writing this post. O well…

This is post is reply to (part of) a post by Scott Aaronson. I got kind of heated up by his unfair portrayal of the blog “Stop Timothy Gowers!!!“, and started writing a reply which got to be ridiculously long, so I moved it here.

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Babies welcome in my class!

Re this news item (or here, in English):

This is so wrong.

Mothers to very young babies must be given the choice to bring their babies with them to their workplace, or to the college where they study. Obviously, if the baby starts screaming, they should step outside until the baby is quiet again.

What other possibilities are there? Not study? That’s one solution (I know a lot of very smart moms who chose that). Wait with the babies until after the career goals are met (say, age 38)? Another solution. Put a 6 week old baby in a nursery? A solution. I don’t think anybody can honestly say that there is a perfect solution for mothers. Taking a baby to work or university is also not a perfect solution, but in my opinion this solution should be accepted (not to say, encouraged) by society as a legitimate one.

Normally, a baby (especially a young, nursing baby that is held) can be very quiet for a rather long time; babies are much better behaved than the average student. Don’t worry: no one wants to hush a screaming baby and ruin everybody’s day while not being able to understand anything themselves.

If anybody feels that an occasional gurgle or murmur (or a completely silent breastfeeding mom) is disruptive to learning, perhaps they should carefuly check if that is really what is bothering them. I never heard of anyone with an annoying cough, or someone who wears short sleeves or shorter pants, or has an obnoxious attitude, or somebody who asks the instructor not to use Greek letters, etc., being asked not to enter classes because it is disruptive. Universities are about people, right? It’s nice that there’s all kinds of people of various kinds and sizes, enjoy it!


Interesting figure

I found an interesting figure in the March 2014 issue of the EMS newsletter, from the article by H. Mihaljevic´ -Brandt and O. Teschke, Journal Profiles and Beyond: What Makes a Mathematics Journal “General”?

See the right column on page 56 in this link. (God help me, I have no idea how to embed that figure in the post. Anyway, maybe it is illegal, so I don’t bother learning.) One can see the “subject bias” of Acta, Annals and Inventiones.

On the left column, there is a graph showing the percentage of papers devoted to different MSC subjects in what the authors call “generalist” math journals (note carefully that these journals are only a small subclass of all journals, chosen by a method that is loosely described in the article). On the right column there is the interesting figure, showing the subject bias. If I understand correctly, the Y-axis is the MSC number and the X-axis represents the corresponding deviation from the average percentage given in the left figure. So, for example, Operator Theory (MSC 47) is the subject of about 5 percent of the papers in a generalist journal, but in the Annals there is a deviation of minus 4 from the average, so if I understand this figure correctly, that means that about 1 percent of papers in the Annals are classified under MSC 47. Another example: Algebraic Geometry (MSC 14), takes up a significant portion of Inventiones papers, much more than it does in an average “generalist” journal.

(I am not making any claims, this could mean a lot of things and it could mean nothing. But it is definitely interesting to note.)

Another interesting point is that the authors say that of the above three super-journals, Acta “is closest to the average distribution, though it is sometimes considered as a journal with a focus on analysis”. That’s interesting in several ways.