Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Celebration of Learning?

I don't think so.

OK, so this is another one of those where I know that I am being overly critical here, and possibly nit-picking the issue. But still, based on my experience, the important distinction here is lost on many people who are not familiar with science and science education.

This story is reporting a group of high school and college students reading out loud various books in an effort to highlight the love of learning.

Inside the gazebo at Goettel Park was not the place Monday for anyone with a headache: Sebastian Notaro's voice boomed chapters from "College Physics" while Kate Sheldon read a cookbook. Andrea Catania recited from a Harry Potter book, and Chelsea Meredith read from the Quran.

Five others were reading aloud - all at the same time.

They even explained the reason why they are doing this silly exercise.

The event, which didn't have a name, had two purposes, including the collection of donations for a food pantry.

"It's a great way to revitalize intellectual spirit among our youth and show we are interested in learning," Miller said.

The food pantry drive thing, I have no problem with, and certainly can be effective if advertised. But the "we are interested in learning" part has a lot of things wrong with it especially as far as learning physics and mathematics are concerned.

First of all, just because someone can read something, doesn't mean he/she understands the content. Give a high school student a copy of Jackson's Classical E&M text and I can easily see that student reading it. He may stumble over a few words, but he can read it. But did he understood what he just read? I bet you cash the weight of that book that he did not. So just because someone reads off "College Physics" is meaningless as far as "learning" is concerned. That is why you never see authors of a college physics text at bookstores or coffee lounges reading chapters off their books. That would be absurd.

Secondly, one does not study physics and mathematics simply by reading it similar to what one would do when reading a novel, or a cookbook. You don't just sit in a chair with nothing else, and read Griffith's Quantum Mechanics text. While you can get some superficial knowledge out of doing something like that, you do not get the clear grasp of the content without actually working it out while reading the book. One learns and understand the material via working out the examples and following along the mathematics with pen and paper. It is also why these texts have exercise problems to test one's understanding of the material. This is the only way to really get a grasp of the physics. There are no shortcuts.

So while I can appreciate this as being nothing more than "symbolic" or a publicity stunt, the way it is done to emphasize "learning" is all wrong for understanding "College Physics". They could have done better if they read and understood the book and showed a demonstration instead. It certainly would have been a lot more exciting for the audience and may even had prevented headaches!



Pace said...

I had a similar reaction when I saw CNN coverage of some kind of economics competition for high school students. The competition is in the knowledge bowl style of two teams racing to buzz in and be the first to answer questions posed by a moderator. The example questions that CNN showed, however, featured students buzzing in and answering after only a few words of the question had been uttered. The person interviewed said that he knew the students had really learned economics because they could answer questions before they were even asked!

My impression was different. I imagine that the students study for this competition by memorizing the various definitions and most common questions. Then the competition is really about buzzer speed and memorization. The meaning of "learning something" is being abused in that case as in the one you mention.

Doctor Pion said...

An interesting point, but I'll never complain when a student actually reads the textbook!

But simultaneously? It would have been much more interesting if they had alternated paragraphs in the style of a "round".