Expecting too much of the teacher?

By the time a young person enters a high school science class, they should be brimming over with curiosity and a desire to learn. Does that describe the average student? No. Most drag themselves to class, disinterested and intimidated by the material they encounter. The teacher is left with immense task of not only communicating the facts, but also trying to stir up some curiosity and instill and develop some basic skills (such as observation of the environment). Is this really the responsibility of the teacher, or are we expecting them to do the very things that should be part of family life?

I believe that education begins at home. I also believe that it should begin early. Developing the natural curiosity of a child is part of the role of the parent. Unfortunately, many parents sit their little ones down in front of the TV, pop in an “educational” dvd, and hope the edutainment on the screen will do their work for them.


Is it possible to put common sense back where it belongs?

For many students, something very fundamental is missing from the problem solving process. Many of my students simply couldn’t see the “obvious” as it glared at them from the question paper in front of them. Because they missed the simple sign posts that point the way to the solution in a problem solving activity, they quickly became hopelessly lost, and almost all would give up the moment the hopelessness attacked.

It took a while to realize that many of the students who struggled with the challenges of science or mathematics were not tripped up by a lack of knowledge of the subject. They knew the facts – they just didn’t know how to make the facts evolve into a solution to a fact-related problem. There are a number of reasons for this happening, but from my observation, the most common problem is that the students simply missed the “obvious”. It’s not that the students were rebelling against “common sense” just for the sake of rebelling. Most students simply had no idea that they lacked that vital ingredient to successful problem solving, that simple human quality which previous generations called good, old “common sense”. Sadly, it has become apparent that “common sense” is no longer common.

If common sense is missing, is it possible to put it back where it belongs? As we explore the process of learning, we will try to answer this question.


Where is the gap in my education?

As a teacher of Physics, I have spent years searching for ways to make complex concepts simple to grasp. I have looked for ways to make the learning process easier. And I have studied my students, listened to them, watched them, and experimented with different ideas to see which will enhance their understanding. In this process, one thing has never ceased to amaze me. In speaking to colleagues in similar study fields, I discovered that I was not the only one to notice this strange “phenomenon”. What astounded me was the gaping hole in the education of my students, and the frightening thing about it was that most parents and students didn’t seem the least bit concerned about it. What was missing? Common sense. Common sense? Surely I am mistaken? Everyone has common sense – it comes with the being human, right?


Obviously not obvious…

I spent years watching how students dealt with problem solving challenges. The majority of students were confident in the beginning, especially after spending time with the theory until it made sense to them. With the theories studied, they would move on to tackle complex problems with their new toolbox of Physics laws and mathematical formulae. But, in their haste to engage the challenge, they would leave behind all the simple, everyday skills that they would need to create the rock solid foundation for using the formulae and laws.

Imagine being summoned to a battle at the top of a mountain. You decide you are going to order some fierce “big guns”. You have them delivered at the foot of the mountain. In preparation for the battle you study those big, heavy monster guns, getting to know everything there is to know about them. You walk around them, you touch them, you knock on the metal, you sniff it, and you even practice pulling the trigger. On the day of the battle, you wake up knowing you are ready to use your weapons to defeat the enemy. Just as you do every morning, you use your bicycle to ride to the foot of the mountain. You and your guns are ready for battle, right? So, let’s go do battle at the top of the mountain. Oh, wait. That’s a problem, isn’t it?

Apparently there is no problem. What don’t the students see? The students will happily report for battle without realizing that they will not be able to use their “big, heavy guns”. Why? They didn’t organize any trucks to transport the guns to the mountain top for the battle. If you are thinking, “who would be so empty headed as to omit that very important step in the process of winning the battle?” you would be joining many other teachers who suffer this frustration daily. Isn’t it obvious to everyone that no matter how big your guns are, they will be useless to you unless you can carry them into battle with you? How can something so obvious be left out of the process? Perhaps the answer lies in the conclusion that it isn’t obvious at all.

This oblivion to the obvious happens constantly, and the result is that many young people drop out of science and mathematics classes, feeling “stupid”, disillusioned, and defeated. They have all the scientific and mathematical tools they need to solve the problems assigned to them, yet somehow none of the tools seem to work. The students stand on the mountain top, crushed, their faces ashen with their sense of betrayal, shamelessly whining about the useless guns that couldn’t be trusted in the heat of the battle. Can this disappointing end to the story be avoided? One of the objectives of this blog is to help students and parents of students find ways to “bridge the gap” on their journey towards successfully studying mathematics and science.


Do the words “science” and “mathematics” bring back bad memories?

If I asked you today which of your school classes gave you the most unpleasant memories, mathematics or science are bound to feature. My mathematician and scientist friends may recount stories of wonderful learning experiences, but most people can only remember the failed mathematics tests, the seemingly pointless experiments and lab reports, the boring geometry assignments, the pages of chemical formulae that seemed impossible to memorize, and all their teachers who couldn’t satisfactorily explain why anyone should have to learn arbitrary things like algebra.

In this blog, we will primarily, but not exclusively, explore learning in the context of science and mathematics. Why? Because fear and disappointment have a profound effect on us, and studying science and mathematics has been an intimidating and frightening experience for many people. Many people have concluded that they are “too stupid” to understand these subjects, and are destined to be failures where science and mathematics are involved. Many people have watched their own children struggle with homework, standing helplessly by as their kids sink deeper and deeper into their own sense of failure at not being able to understand the concepts and new ideas. Many teachers have hit the wall in frustration, having tried every way they know to communicate to their students what seems like a simple concept. Is success in science and mathematics really only the reward for an elite few?

Learning is simply the cognitive process of acquiring skill or knowledge. Instead of us trying to water down the facts, and dummy down the skill it requires to use the facts, why not do something to influence the process of acquiring the knowledge and the skill? And if we can indeed influence the process, how do we go about it?


Where it all begins…

Welcome to my blog.  You are invited to journey with me as we explore learning.  Before you decide that this topic has no relevance to you, let me present evidence to the contrary.  You are, after all, able to read this paragraph right now because you learned to read at some earlier time.  You can also tell me how many letters are in the first word of this paragraph, because once upon a time you learned to count.  Just like me, you are an experienced learner.  Learning is something we all do, and have done since we were infants.  As both a scientist and an educator, I derive great pleasure from seeking truth, acquiring knowledge, experimenting with it, and then sharing that knowledge and experience with others. This blog is my way to share what I have learned, and am still learning, with you. Join me as we ask questions, seek answers, digest old angles to the learning debate, explore new ideas that make learning exciting for children and adults alike, and take down the intimidating monsters that have guarded the gates to learning for too long.