Great Stuff From Nobel Prize Winner Carl Wieman

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“To be a successful teacher, you must understand how a student thinks. To be a successful student, you must learn how an expert thinks.” 

That important insight was delivered by Physics Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman earlier this month in a public lecture at UC Santa Barbara. From a statement issued by the university:

Titled “Taking a Scientific Approach to Science and Engineering Education,” the  lecture outlined an emerging, evidence-based method of teaching, specifically in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields which have become a priority for public education in the United States.

‘We need better science and engineering education for two big reasons,’ said Wieman, 2001 Nobel winner and director at the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia. ‘One is that the modern economy is so based on science and technology that you need more scientists and engineers for that economy to thrive; but we also need a more scientifically literate public to understand the important societal issues and decisions that we face in the world.’

But conventional, teacher-centered methods of teaching science and engineering have been found to be less effective than newer, more interactive and collaborative methods, according to Wieman’s research. The one-way transmission of information from teacher to student has been found lacking when compared to methods that include peer learning, constant monitoring and feedback, and activities that encourage thinking like scientists and engineers.

‘There’s no brain that comes in having these capabilities innately,’ Wieman said of the expertise that science and engineering students are expected to acquire capabilities that include a specific mental framework and the ability to monitor one’s own thinking, in addition to vast factual knowledge.

Designing challenging but not impossible tasks specific to the concept being taught, an awareness of student pitfalls, motivation, and timely feedback to guide thinking become the responsibilities of the teacher.

‘To teach this way actually requires much more subject expertise than giving a traditional lecture,’ said Wieman. The range and depth of questions students are likely to ask in the more interactive environment is far greater than in a normal classroom, he said.

Such learning, meanwhile, also demands an investment of time, and greater levels of engagement and mental activity from the students. Most of the learning, said Wieman, will happen outside of the classroom, during homework and other activities meant to prime students into continuing to learn.” (Read more here.)

There is so much good stuff here:

First, Wieman’s recognition that the teacher must recognize and find ways around “the curse of expertise”—the fact that it’s very difficult for an expert to imagine what it’s like to be a novice again (for some ideas on handling the curse of expertise, see this post of mine.)

Second, Wieman’s point that we need a scientifically-literate public, educated in the way science works and what it’s found. Science classes used to operate on a weeding-out model: “Look to the right of you, look to the left of you—only one of you will pass this class.” It’s about time we realized that we have to make science instruction as welcoming and accessible (while still rigorous) as possible—for everyone, not just science majors.

Third, Wieman’s great line that “There’s no brain that comes in having these capabilities innately.” A scientific orientation, and a body of scientific knowledge, is learned. A commitment to effective teaching on the part of the professor, and a commitment to hard work on the part of the student, should make it possible for everyone to acquire scientific expertise—not just those who are “good at it,” who are “naturals.” There’s no such thing.

Clearly, I’m a big Carl Wieman fan! What do you think of what he had to say?

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One Response to “Great Stuff From Nobel Prize Winner Carl Wieman”

  1. Judy Lundy says:

    These lessons are not just relevant to STEM education, they are applicable to all disciplines and to institutional and organisational learning. Whether you are a university educator or a workplace coach these lessons are important to keep in mind, in particular being cognisant of the ‘curse of expertise’.

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