On Keeping Gimmicks Out of the Classroom

David Griffiths, Reed PhysicistHaving resisted all manner of education gimmicks and fashions that have been thrust at me by well meaning college managers, it was refreshing to read the latest piece written by renowned undergraduate textbook writer and educator, David Griffiths. Published in the IoP magazine Physics World, Griffiths reminds us that Physics sells itself to students if presented honestly:
“Physics teachers are fortunate (I am among friends, so I can speak frankly): ours is a subject the relevance and importance of which are beyond question, and which is intrinsically fascinating to anyone whose mind has not been corrupted by bad teaching or poisoned by dogma and superstition. I have never felt the need to "sell" physics, and efforts to do so under the banner "physics is fun" seem to me demeaning. Lay out our wares attractively in the marketplace of ideas and eager buyers will flock to us.
“What we have on offer is nothing less than an explanation of how matter behaves on the most fundamental level. It is a story that is magnificent (by good fortune or divine benevolence), coherent (at least that is the goal), plausible (though far from obvious) and true (that is the most remarkable thing about it). It is imperfect and unfinished (of course), but always improving. It is, moreover, amazingly powerful and extraordinarily useful. Our job is to tell this story – even, if we are lucky, to add a sentence or a paragraph to it. And why not tell it with style and grace?”
He goes on to criticise the gimmickry that is supposed to gain better attention from students. He has this to say about the advent of flash cards and electronic clickers:
“They can be powerfully effective in the hands of an inspired expert like Mazur, but I have seen them reduced to distracting gimmicks by less-capable instructors. What concerns me, however, is the unspoken message reliance on such devices may convey: (1) this stuff is boring; and (2) I cannot rely on you to pay attention. Now, point (2) may be valid, but point (1) is so utterly and perniciously false that one should, in my view, avoid anything that is even remotely open to such an interpretation.”
The point is made that any new approach to teaching will produce measurable improvements, but only because of the enthusiasm of the practitioner. Infectious enthusiasm is most likely the key, and not all teachers have that, so maybe the gadgets help these classes. But I'm not convinced.

Griffiths was known as a great lecturer and scorned such fashions. You can hear one of his lectures here, audio only, though, without the luxury of visuals.

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