Friday, January 28, 2011

Thoughts on teaching well

I'm thinking about the interview with Brian Greene on Fresh Air, and why I believe his books are the best--by far actually--science books for non-scientists that I've ever read. Obviously being in love with your subject, and enthusiastic about explaining it from scratch, over and over, while always seeking new and better ways to explain it, are all critical.

But Greene also shows a tremendous faith in his audience. I think it's this attitude that makes the work of explaining far more enjoyable for everyone. Witness this exchange with Terry Gross, as Greene is explaining the basics of string theory as opposed to the standard (particle) model:

If we change that idea and envision that these particles are actually not little tiny dots but little tiny loops, little loops of string, a little piece of string that can vibrate at different frequencies, that change from a dot to a string is able to cure the mathematical inconsistencies between general relativity and quantum mechanics at least on paper. We haven't tested. We have not been able to test these ideas yet. That's the big issue. But at least on paper, that modest change from a dot to a loop cures the problem.

GROSS: How does it cure the problem?

Prof. GREENE: That's a very interesting and difficult question, but I'll...

GROSS: Yeah, I figured it would be difficult.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. GREENE: I'm absolutely willing to give it a shot.

GROSS: Okay.

Prof. GREENE: So first let me just give you what the problem is in a touch more detail...

This little exchange, which I've bolded, says so much. How often does it happen that some sage (on a stage) is explaining some complex concept, and the non-specialist listener says or thinks something like "this will be too difficult for me." (If you listen to the audio, you can hear a note of defeat in Gross's voice, a note that's pretty familiar to any non-expert talking to a specialist--as is the laughter.)

But then Greene says "I'm absolutely willing to give it a shot." He takes that difficulty upon himself as a challenge, because his listener is obviously interested and willing to take on her part of the challenge. He reduces the listener's sense of intellectual inferiority by recognizing that he has to do something hard here, as well--explain this complex topic clearly. And he goes on to do so surprisingly well.

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