Don’t teach facts!

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Joseph Wright of Derby, “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” (1768)

Cultivating the right mindset is more important than cramming mnemonics.

When teaching or lecturing, it’s often easiest to just explain how things are, rather than how they were discovered (e.g. A binds B, and then recruits C). It’s a simple formula that induces an equally simple response from the committed student: ingest, hold, regurgitate on demand. Easy, yes – but ultimately unhelpful.

By far the better approach is to teach the experiment, rather than the results of the experiment (e.g. an in vitro pulldown using A will bring down B, but not C; B will bring down A but not C; A+B will bring down C). What was tested? What were the results? What was the interpretation? Were there other interpretations possible? How could they be tested? In other words, instead of teaching facts, teach students the scientific method.

The inclusion of an historical perspective enriches both approaches, although the payoff is different. It’s one thing to learn that [X] discovered that A binds B, and then recruits C; it’s another to say that [X] carried out this experiment, this is what she observed, and this is what she concluded. The former way actually creates a distance between the student and the scientist by veiling information on the methodological details, and this distance may even act to discourage the student from thinking that they could accomplish something similar. The latter approach may provide the converse stimulation precisely by highlighting the methodological details, and even challenge the student to think how they could have approached the same problem (perhaps in a better way).

And that challenge is exactly the kind of training that we should be imparting to our students. The aim should be to raise generations of bold, confident young scientists, not ones in thrall to their predecessors’ achievements.

It’s an old truism from mathematics that you don’t need to learn an equation if you can derive it, and it’s likewise the case that understanding something is not the same as being able to repeat it. And in order to extend human knowledge beyond its current limits – the existential aim of every scientist – then it absolutely requires that full understanding of what is currently known, ideally from intimate acquaintance with the practical detail. The true scientist is a natural philosopher, not a parrot.

Such an approach was perhaps most forcefully articulated by the physicist William Francis Gray Swann (one of Ernest Lawrence’s mentors), who railed against the “cult of the glorification of facts”. His insistence was that a real scientific education is about the generation of a particular “attitude of mind”. Facts can always be retrieved from reference sources (now so more than ever), but creativity must be stimulated – this is what opens the door to the world of ideas. You need to train people how to think.

It’s worth noting too that although this approach – teaching the experiment rather than blithely teaching the facts – imparts considerably more work on the lecturers, it also provides a far more stimulating exercise for them in turn by forcing them to go back over old work and reassess it. The great Richard Feynman is worth quoting at length on this point:

“In any thinking process there are moments when everything is going good and you’ve got wonderful ideas. Teaching is an interruption, and so it’s the greatest pain in the neck in the world. And then there are the longer periods of time when not much is coming to you. You’re not getting any ideas, and if you’re doing nothing at all, it drives you nuts! 

If you’re teaching a class, you can think about the elementary things that you know very well. These things are kind of fun and delightful. It doesn’t do any harm to think them over again. Is there a better way to present them? The elementary things are easy to think about; if you can’t think of a new thought, no harm done; what you thought about it before is good enough for the class. If you do think of something new, you’re rather pleased that you have a new way of looking at it.

The questions of the students are often the source of new research. They often ask profound questions that I’ve thought about at times and then given up on, so to speak, for a while. It wouldn’t do me any harm to think about them again and see if I can go any further now. The students may not be able to see the thing I want to answer, or the subtleties I want to think about, but they remind me of a problem by asking questions in the neighbourhood of that problem. It’s not so easy to remind yourself of these things.

So I find that teaching and the students keep life going, and I would never accept any position in which somebody has invented a happy situation for me where I don’t have to teach. Never.”

Scientists are not, and never have been, defined by their ability to retain facts: it’s the questing intellect, the willingness to explore the unknown, the discipline of thought and action, the relentless drive to refinement, that are the true marks of the breed. And importantly, the acquisition of that mindset is something that can be put to use far beyond the dusty realms of academia – something that’s likely to be of ever greater relevance as science and technology increasingly permeate modern life.

A final tip of the hat – Gundula Bosch and Arturo Casadevall have recently and very eloquently articulated a graduate program for Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health that builds exactly on these sentiments. You can read about it HERE.

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