Biocurious is a weblog about biology, quantified.

David Griffiths Educates us on Physics Education

by Andre on 7 September 2009

David Griffiths is best known as the author a fantastic series of textbooks. His book on electrodynamics is a classic in North American undergraduate education, although I’ve been disappointed to learn that it’s not as well known in Europe. Since I enjoyed reading his texts so much, it was nice to see that he has an article in the latest edition of Physics World and even nicer to read it. Now that he’s retired, I get the impression that he’s just calling it like he sees it and it makes for a good read.

My parents were professors (history and zoology), and they firmly believed that the purpose of education is to show students “how to think”. When I began teaching, I quickly discovered that many of my students could think much better – or at any rate much faster – than I could. What distinguished me from them was that I knew things that they did not, things they had been led to believe they ought to want to learn. I adopted a less-exalted goal: I think the purpose of education is to pass along to the next generation the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of humankind, and my role as a teacher is to make that process as efficient and palatable as possible.
I have known people who are in some sense too smart to be clear; they cannot remember what it was like not to understand something, because, I suppose, they never had this experience. They may be outstanding physicists, but they do not belong in the classroom. (There are exceptions: the most brilliant physicist I ever encountered, the late Sidney Coleman, was also – by far – the best and clearest teacher.)

Interestingly, another of Sidney Coleman’s graduate students, Phil Nelson, also has a knack for clear and engaging textbook writing and lecturing. Apparently something of Coleman rubbed off on them both.

Read the rest of Griffiths’ polemic for the full story. I can’t resist one more quotation:

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.

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