Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Teachers vs. students: when interests don't coincide

I recently had a discussion with a close friend who is not a physicist by training but is very interested in many popular physics ideas. I was attempting to explain several paradoxes and non-intuitive scenarios such as Schroedinger's cat, the twins paradox, and the relativity of simultaneity. However, my friend was not impressed by some of these ideas, like Schroedinger's cat, and proclaimed them as "stupid."

I was of course exasperated by her failure to appreciate these concepts. Out of frustration I refused to explain any further ideas despite her questioning. As you could imagine, my refusal angered her; she interpreted my actions as pompous and arrogant. Fortunately, we are both open-minded to our own faults and quickly apologized to one another.

This bout made me realize that a teacher can't always convey why a topic is interesting. Interest is, after all, a personal attribute that varies between individuals. This mismatch of interests can cause a great deal of friction between a teacher and student and should be recognized by both sides for education to be successful.

Teachers must concede that sometimes students just aren't interested in a topic. A good teacher will be patient, even with difficult students, when they encounter a lack of interest. Eventually, the student will show interest in something that the teacher can help them learn about. Students should acknowledge when they are uninterested but still respect their teachers' enthusiasm. More importantly, they should not interpret their lack of interest as a failure to understand subtleties of a topic.

What's not so clear to me is with whom the greater responsibility for learning should lie. I'm inclined to place the greater burden on the student.