The Flying Circus of Physics began one dark and dreary night in 1968 while I was a graduate student at the University of Maryland. Well, actually, to most graduate students nearly all nights are dark and dreary, but I mean that that particular night was really dark and dreary. I was a full-time teaching assistant, and earlier in the day I had given a quiz to Sharon, one of my students. She did badly and at the end turned to me with the challenge, “What has anything of this to do with my life?”
I jumped to respond, “Sharon, this is physics! This has everything to do with your life!”
As she turned more to face me, with eyes and voice both tightened, she said in measured pace, “Give me some examples.”
I thought and thought but could not come up with a single one. I had spent at least six years studying physics and I could not come up with even a single example.That night I realized that the trouble with Sharon was actually the trouble with me: This thing called physics was something people did in a physics building, not something that was connected with the real world of Sharon or me. So, I decided to collect some real-world examples and, to catch her attention, I called the collection The Flying Circus of Physics.
Month: July 2012
Examinations: Students, Teachers and the System
We think of exams as simple troublesome exchanges with students:
Glance at some of the uses of examinations:
- Measure students' knowledge of facts, principles, definitions, experimental methods, etc
- Measure students' understanding of the field studied
- Show students what they have learnt
- Show teacher what students have learnt
- Provide students with landmarks in their studies
- Provide students with landmarks in their studies and check their progress
- Make comparisons among students, or among teachers, or among schools
- Act as prognostic test to direct students to careers
- Act as diagnostic test for placing students in fast or slow programs
- Act as an incentive to encourage study
- Encourage study by promoting competition among students
- Certify necessary level for later jobs
- Certify a general educational background for later jobs
- Act as test of general intelligence for jobs
- Award's, scholarships, prizes etc.
There is no need to read all that list; I post it only as a warning against trying to do too many different things at once. These many uses are the variables in examining business, and unless we separate the variables, or at least think about separating them, our business will continue to suffer from confusion and damage.
There are two more aspects of great importance well known but seldom mentioned. First the effect of examination on teachers and their teaching –
coercive if imposed from the outside; guiding if adopted sensibly. That is how to change a whole teaching program to new aims and methods – institute new examinations. It can affect a teacher strongly.
It can also be the way to wreck a new program – keep the old exams, or try to correlate students’ progress with success in old exams.
Second: tremendous effect on students.
Examinations tell them our real aims, at least so they believe. If we stress clear understanding and aim at growing knowledge of physics, we may completely sabotage our teaching by a final examination that asks for numbers to be put in memorized formulas. However loud our sermons, however intriguing the experiments, students will be judged by that exam – and so will next years students who hear about it.
Examinations: Powerful Agents for Good or Ill in Teaching | Eric M. Rogers | Am. J. Phys. 37, 954 (1969)
Though here the real power players the bureaucrats and (highly) qualified PhDs in education or otherwise who decide what is to be taught and how it is evaluated in the classroom. They are “coercive” as Rogers points out and teachers, the meek dictators (after Krishna Kumar), are the point of contact with the students and have to face the heat from all the sides. They are more like foot soldiers most of whom have no idea of what they are doing, why they are doing; while generals in their cozy rooms, are planning how to strike the enemy (is the enemy the students or their lack of (interest in ) education, I still wonder). In other words most of them don’t have an birds-eye-view of system that they are a focal part of.
Or as Morris Kline puts it:
A couple of years of desperate but fruitless efforts caused Peter to sit back and think. He had projected himself and his own values and he had failed. He was not reaching his students. The liberal arts students saw no value in mathematics. The mathematics majors pursued mathematics because, like Peter, they were pleased to get correct answers to problems. But there was no genuine interest in the subject. Those students who would use mathematics in some profession or career insisted on being shown immediately how the material could be useful to them. A mere assurance that they would need it did not suffice. And so Peter began to wonder whether the subject matter prescribed in the syllabi was really suitable. Perhaps, unintentionally, he was wasting his students’ time.
Peter decided to investigate the value of the material he had been asked to teach. His first recourse was to check with his colleagues, who had taught from five to twenty-five or more years. But they knew no more than Peter about what physical scientists, social scientists, engineers, and high school and elementary school teachers really ought to learn. Like himself, they merely followed syllabi – and no one knew who had written the syllabi.
Peter’s next recourse was to examine the textbooks in the field. Surely professors in other institutions had overcome the problems he faced. His first glance through publishers’ catalogues cheered him. He saw titles such as Mathematics for Liberal Arts, Mathematics for Biologists, Calculus for Social Scientists, and Applied Mathematics for Engineers. He eagerly secured copies. But the texts proved to be a crushing disappointment. Only the authors’ and publishers names seemed to differentiate them. The contents were about the same, whether the authors in their prefaces or the publishers in their advertising literature professed to address liberal arts students, prospective engineers, students of business, or prospective teachers. Motivation and use of the mathematics were entirely ignored. It was evident that these authors had no idea of what anyone did with mathematics.
From: A Critique Of Undergrduate Education. (Commonly Known As: Why The Professor Can’t Teach?) | Morris Kline
Both of the works are about 50 years old, but they still reflect the educational system as of now.
What Wikipedia is not… then what it is?
Although anyone can be an editor, there are community processes and standards that make Wikipedia neither an anarchy, democracy, nor bureaucracy.
via What Wikipedia is Not
Disclaimer: Let me make some things clear, I am not against Wikipedia, or its policies. I am (great) admirer and (very heavy) user, and (very little) contributor to the wonderful platform, which aims to provide free knowledge to everyone. In this post I am just trying to collect thoughts that I have about the Wikipedia’s social system and its relation to the society at large.
Then what is wikipedia? Is it a feudal system, which they do not mention in the list above? Although there are people who are called bureaucrats, they say it is not a bureaucracy, I think they mean it in the traditional sense of the wor(l)d (pun intended).
But for a new person, who is trying to edit the first article, there is too much of bureaucracy (read rules), involved, and it may not be a pleasant experience at all, especially for the so called technologically-challenged people. To describe in one word it is intimidating. The trouble is only there till, actually you become used to it, and become part of the system. This is more like the adaptation to smell, after a while in a stinking place, you don’t feel the stink anymore (just an analogy, I do not mean that Wikipedia stinks!). The rules become a part of your editing skills, which you do want to see in other editors. But how many people are able to get over this first major hurdle is not known to me, but I guess (which can be completely wrong) this number can be significant. This will in general reduce the number of producers and just tend to increase the number of consumers in the commercial sense of the word.
Another thing that the above quote says it is not a democracy. Again here I think, Wikipedia is not a democracy in the sense of common usage of the term. In a democracy, by definition the popular aspirations get through, and they may not be even the best for a society, as we many times see in the Indian context. But then it mostly the people who are editing the Wikipedia who decide by consensus that certain thing should be done. Is it not like majority win? So there is in fact a strong democratic element in Wikipedia.
Do we also want a society that is same as above “neither an anarchy, democracy, nor bureaucracy”? What kind of society would you like to live in?
Debunking bad science
Debunking bad science should be constant obligation of the science community, even if it takes time away from serious research or seems to be a losing battle. One takes comfort from the fact there is no Gresham’s laws in science. In the long run, good science drives out bad.
Indian Workers and Global Capitalism
But why should Indian workers always suffer during a downward spiral cycle of global capitalism?
Rousseau on education…
There are, indeed, professors. . . for whom I have the greatest love and esteem, and think them very capable of instructing youth were they not tied down by established customs. . . . Perhaps an attempt may be made some time or other to remove the evil, when it is seen to be not without remedy.
via Morris Kline’s Why The Professor Can’t Teach
We are stardust…
The amazing thing is that every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements – the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution – weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way they could get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode. So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.
Indians at Olympics
… and perhaps for the first time, the Indian badminton contingent will not be travelling as tourists to the Olympics.
I also sincerely hope so.
Expected and Unexpected Malware
We have to distinguish the unexpected malware such as viruses from the expected malware such as Windows or Mac OS or Flash Player and so on, which are also malware; they have features that hurt the user but users know what they are installing.
via Richard Stallman on Restricted Boot | Techrights.
Cram, don’t think
The message from 15 years of education in my country – first at a top-notch school and then at one of the best known colleges in India – was:
Facts are more important than thought and imagination; that it’s more important to know the answers than think critically; that exams are more important than knowledge itself. Some may say that in college the majority of us chose the convenient way out and they are right.Our system of education, even at the undergraduate level, does not encourage us – in fact, gives us every opportunity not to think independently, critically, creatively or analytically.
via The Hindu