Lessons learned from a 43-year long teaching career

Prof. Harold White is an Emeritus Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Delaware, and is a proponent and practitioner of problem-based learning (PBL). Presented below is his lecture on the lessons he learned from a 43-year long teaching career at the university, presented on the occassion of his retirement from the institution.

I found Prof. White’s lecture very good food for thought. He makes ten points over the course of his lecture as the lessons he gleaned from his teaching career. Not in the least being impudent here, but somehow all of those ten takeaways seem like things a teacher just ought to know. But then, who am I kidding? As I sat listening to his video, I realised there were things in what he said that I learned only because I taught. Not because I would teach someday.

I went into teaching after a self-imposed sabbatical of teaching myself philosophy. I had workable (even if I say so myself) ambitions of integrating history and philosophy of science in my lectures. I did what I could where I could, given the usual constraint of covering the syllabus in time. But somehow something was still missing. Yes, the students were excited when we discussed atomism or when I boldly declaimed borrowing from Paul Needham: water is not H2O. But it all had to stop at some point in the core classes because the curriculum demanded I focus on something else about the atom or water.

Things were however different when I found myself in the elective courses Research Methodology and Forensic Science that I offered. Yes, I had done research, but no one had taught me Research Methodology as a course. And again yes, I knew the interdisciplinary concepts that went into making forensic science, but again, I had never taken a course in the subject. Consequently, I researched and prepared harder for these elective courses than for my core chemistry courses. Seems funny, but it was in these classes I began to realise how one topic can be taught in different ways. Pedagogy – that word began to make sense when we discussed Jane Goodall with her chimps in the Kenyan jungles, and when O. J. Simpson’s Italian shoes steered the direction of the class proceedings in our discussion on footwear impressions. But even then, these were mere case studies to me.

It was only recently through the works of Rick Moog and Harold White when I was formally introduced to guided enquiry and PBL that realisation dawned. Perhaps most of us as teachers are already adopting concepts from educational research without knowing that it’s a thing. But then, yes, having been exposed to the concept, I did realise directions I had not taken simply because I didn’t know they would lead somewhere. It is only now with hindsight that I know that O. J. Simpson’s case would be a classic contender to set up a PBL in Forensic Science. I did a case study, but a PBL session would have been so much more engaging.

Richard Feynman once said philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. And I did see this general attitude towards (history and) philosophy of science being reflected by some colleagues during my postdoc and also while I taught. Education research too seems to suffer the same fate. I feel sad, and I feel bad. In our bid for more and more narrowly focussed specialisations, we have forgotten that a good education is to make us think. History and philosophy and sociology and literature have much to offer to (and take from) science if we’d just open our eyes and really observe.

Video source: http://www1.udel.edu/chem/white/Talks.html

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