Teach science understanding, not recipes

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…)

2 thoughts on “Teach science understanding, not recipes”

  • Is physics taught cookbook style, or more than any other subject? My daughter’s NCEA2 results include a pleasing number of Es in maths and chemistry, but mostly As in physics. I asked her why physics is harder than maths or chemistry, when they must use much the same academic skills. As an aside, she liked her physics teacher, who she said knew everything about everything and could talk for hours on any topic. She thought it was because in maths and chemistry the formular you need is given with the question but in physics you have to work out which one to use ie less cookbook. I’m not convinced she’s right and still wonder what it is about physics. I’ll have to find one hour for your lecture link.

  • Marcus Wilson says:

    Is physics taught cookbook style? Personally, from what I’ve seen of NCEA physics, it’s actually in reasonable shape. If a student wants to get his or her excellences (and especially scholarship physics) he or she cannot draw from their recipe books – the questions are not that sort of question. This maybe why your daughter found it too difficult to pick up ‘E’s in physics. Unfortunately, however, one can quiet happily get one’s ‘achieved’ without demonstrating any understanding of physics at all.
    My gripes with NCEA are 1. that it suggests physics is a modular subject – e.g. that electricity and magnetism (say) is utterly unconnected with mechanics, and that 2. there is insufficient focus on practical skills (though, to be fair, some schools do do this really well).
    Anyway – do listen to the video (you only really need the sound – the slides are fairly minimal) – and note how a teacher who is ‘liked’ is no more effective at getting students to learn than one who students can’t stand.

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