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Illuminating physics for students

posted Saturday, 5 September 2009

A brief essay on the role of a physics teacher appeared a few days ago in the Physics World section of the Institute of Physics website. The author was David Griffiths who wrote three really excellent advanced college level physics textbooks. (Well, the two that I read were excellent. I assume the third one is as well.) Griffiths basic thesis is that physics is the greatest achievement of the human mind, worthy of study for its own intrinsic beauty and power. He makes many great comments and I’ve singled out the ones that I identify with the most as they agree with my own personal philosophy of teaching.

On “selling physics” …

I have never felt the need to “sell” physics, and efforts to do so under the banner “physics is fun” seem to me demeaning.

On “learning by discovery” …

It is a nice idea, but stultifying slow and inefficient – how are we to rediscover 500 years of physics in a semester? I can explain the conservation of momentum in 15 minutes, but three hours in the lab would only convince an honest student that the law is false.

On PowerPoint and its predecessor, the transparency …

[T]hese things are fine for scientific talks, but not in the classroom. I want my students to know that something is happening in real time: I am thinking through each argument as I present it, not merely reciting something they might just as well have read in a book

On the value of physics …

My purpose is to teach students how to think, by exposing them to the most brilliant and successful example of human thought: physics.

Griffiths recently retired from teaching, but you can still read his textbooks. I read Introduction to Electrodynamics when I was a junior in college. I still pick it up from time to time to refresh my knowledge of electricity and magnetism (and also to steal ideas for problems to discuss in class). I purchased a used copy of Introduction to Elementary Particles about five years ago and read it for fun, believe it or not. The prose is well constructed and conveys the essential concepts clearly. I found the end of chapter problems difficult, however. I doubt I could answer more than 5% of them. I would need the help of a teacher.


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