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Historical Method in Teaching Physics

  1. Apr 25, 2012 #1
    The French physicist Pierre Duhem wrote:
    The legitimate, sure and fruitful method of preparing a student to receive a physical hypothesis is the historical method. To retrace the transformations through which the empirical matter accrued while the theoretical form was first sketched; to describe the long collaboration by means of which common sense and deductive logic analyzed this matter and modeled that form until one was exactly adapted to the other: that is the best way, surely even the only way, to give to those studying physics a correct and clear view of the very complex and living organization of this science [emphasis added] (Duhem, P.: 1905/1954, ‘The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory’, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, p. 268).​
    Ernst Mach also advocated the history and philosophy of science (HPS) teaching method:
    A person who has read and understand the Greek and Roman authors has felt and experiencedmore than one who is restricted to the impression of the present. He sees how men, placed in different circumstances, judge quiet differently of the same things from what we do today. His own judgments will be rendered thus more independent (Mach, E.: 1886/1986, ‘On instruction the Classics and the Sciences’, In: ‘Popular Scientific Lectures’, Open Court Publishing Company, La Sale, IL., p. 347).​

    Igal Galili, author of "Experts’ Views on Using History and Philosophy of Science in the Practice of Physics Instruction," wrote to me that the historical method "presents a great controversy in university physics textbooks of physics."

    Arnold B. Arons, in his Teaching Introductory Physics, opposes the HPS teaching method; he thinks something "goes wrong if you suspend judgment (page I-229) in order to retrace historical footsteps."

    Why is this? Do you agree or disagree? Is the historical method a "legitimate, sure and fruitful method of preparing a student to receive a physical hypothesis"?

    Thanks
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 25, 2012 #2
    I'd agree, the problem with a lot of things are taught (especially in maths textbooks) is lack of motivation for things.
    Although sometimes the historical route isn't much better. I'd say a fictitious retelling of the historical trail, that makes sense and is directed towards the end result would be better imo.
     
  4. Apr 26, 2012 #3

    Andy Resnick

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    Presenting or sketching a historical record can be useful, either to motivate the topic or simply to provide a context, definitely. However, many students object since (in my case) it's a Physics class, not a History class.

    To be sure, many of my students consider discovery of the W and Z particles to be ancient history.....
     
  5. Apr 27, 2012 #4
    Yes, but it's so much more than that. Physics class isn't just about learning physics concepts, it's about learning how to be a physicist (even if our students don't want to be physicists, we can certainly at least try!). And studying how people learned and made mistakes and made progress helps train the student to understand what the process is really like, and helps inform their own intellectual discoveries in the subject (and in other sciences). I really don't think that you can overemphasize the importance of the scientific method in high school or undergraduate courses, and just like teaching Newton's laws, one of the best ways to teach it is to give examples :)
     
  6. Apr 27, 2012 #5

    Andy Resnick

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    Just to play Devil's advocate, is that really true? Even for non physics majors?
     
  7. Apr 28, 2012 #6
    Even at the grad level, too

    I had a classmate in a second-semester quantum class who, based on a question the student asked about why a certain aspect of the addition of angular momenta had to be, clearly conceived physics as an axiomatic system like Euclid's geometry; the student basically thought physical theories are uniquely deducible from "axioms" (physical laws, equations), that physics is a branch of mathematics. The student didn't understand the hypothetical, tentative nature of devising physical theories. The professor of this quantum class told me: "Moses didn't come down from the mountain with the laws of physics written on his tablets." and "Physics isn't an exact science [like mathematics]." Indeed! :bugeye:

    I remember, in my first high school physics class, when my teacher presented us with a wave and asked us how we'd model it mathematically. He then started guessing for us, writing down different equations and describing how they might or might not work. I remember thinking, "This is strange. Can't the equation be deduced from a simpler physical law (equation)? Why are we guessing?" Thus was my first encounter with an HPS teaching method. :smile:
     
    Last edited: Apr 28, 2012
  8. Apr 28, 2012 #7
    I think that's one reason the HPS method is so opposed. E.g., at the college level, at least ½ of students in the intro physics classes are engineers who will only apply physical theories anyways, and an even smaller fraction of the remaining physics majors will actually end up becoming professional physicists who devise physical theories.

    But I think the HPS method is needed in order to teach all students what the true nature of physical theories is and how knowledge obtained from physics relates to knowledge obtained in other disciplines. Erwin Schrödinger wrote in 1951, “The isolated knowledge obtained by a group of specialists in a narrow field has in itself no value whatsoever, but only in its synthesis with all the rest of knowledge”.
     
  9. Apr 28, 2012 #8

    Fredrik

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    I disagree. The historical approach is better if you consider history to be part of the course, but if you don't, there's almost always a way to present the subject that gets the students to understand the subject faster and better. I think it's lazy and dickish to not try to teach the subject better than how it was taught to you.

    There are however a few subjects where it makes sense to structure parts of the presentation in a way that resembles the historical order of things. For example, in topology, I prefer a presentation of metric spaces first, followed by a discussion about how to generalize things to topological spaces. This will provide the motivation for the definitions of terms like "continuous" in the context of topological spaces, and that motivation will make it easier to remember the definitions. It will also help the student understand the concept of generalization better.
     
  10. Apr 28, 2012 #9
    I do think it's a useful practical teaching tool. Interjections that break up the monotony of lecture on a subject are very useful in keeping the student's attention, especially if they can relate to the ideas presented in the historical context better than the actual subject of the lecture.

    I also think that as physicists we have an obligation not just to teach students what our models are, but why we should even be in the business of making models of the world to begin with. For any other course, if you were taking it, you would want to know what the purpose is of learning the material. If it was, say, an engineering course, you would believe that you would walk out of there better knowing how to build some machine that works. For a physics course, it is not knowing how to solve a pulley problem, but rather how to accurately model a physical situation. So yes, I am firmly in the camp of those who think physics courses should not only teach the specific models we believe in now, especially since any of those could very well be proven wrong tomorrow. Historical content should never be the main source of any material but I think something of value is lost if you neglect it completely.
     
  11. Apr 28, 2012 #10

    D H

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    Using a few historical experiments, a few historical insights to give the student some perspective? Sure.

    Teaching science the way humanities are taught? I can't imagine a worse way to teach physics, or biology, or math, or engineering, or any other technical subject.
     
  12. Apr 28, 2012 #11

    Andy Resnick

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    I think you took my reply out of context- I was not referring to presenting some of the historical record, but rather a later statement:

    My point is that my health science majors would likely resent any attempt I make to 'teach them how to be a physicist'. Far better to demonstrate that certain physical principles (and related things like logical reasoning and critical thinking) are useful to practicing physical therapists.
     
  13. Apr 28, 2012 #12
    Logical reasoning and critical thinking (as well as model building and problem solving) are what being a physicist is all about. This is the sort of information that is more likely to stick long term than the specific physical principles (not to downplay the importance of actually teaching the content, but anyone can read Newton's laws on Wikipedia; the point of the course is to learn the content in a certain way). You don't have to openly admit that you're training them in the techniques of how to be a physicist; you can teach it under the guise of learning general techniques or algorithms for how to solve classes of problems.

    I imagine that health science majors already resent the fact that they are required to take introductory physics courses. No need to apologize for showing them what it is we do, at that point.
     
  14. Apr 29, 2012 #13

    Astronuc

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    Hopefully a student receives a continuous exposure to reasoning and critical thinking throughout the educational process. Although I wasn't aware at the time, I was exposed to reasoning and critical thinking in grades 1 and 2. By 5th grade, the scientific process and historical anecdotes were becoming much more common, and and scientific instruction was more formalized 6th grade and beyond. By the time one reaches a Physics course in high school, one should have been exposed to plenty of history.

    One of my earliest textbooks in unversity was George Simmons, Differential Equations with Applications and Historical Notes, McGraw-Hill, 1972. I enjoyed the short biographies or anecdotes of folks like Pierre de Fermat, the Bernoulli family, Euler, Newton, Gauss, and others. I like physics texts that delve into some of the background of physicists and their thinking.

    I do prefer physics textbooks that use calculus.
     
    Last edited: Apr 29, 2012
  15. Apr 29, 2012 #14

    Andy Resnick

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    Hope is a wonderful thing. Reality is quite another matter. :)
     
  16. Apr 29, 2012 #15
    This is what I'm trying to emphasize, anyway. It sounds kind of cliche to say it, but I don't think it can be overemphasized that this is the primary purpose of the educational process at all levels (as opposed to fact learning, which can be done from a book or on the internet). As Andy observes, this does not always happen, which makes it even more important that we stress it whenever we can.
     
  17. Apr 29, 2012 #16

    D H

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    The question then is, is teaching from a historical and philosophy of science perspective a better way to teach this? Let's take the historical perspective to an extreme: Teach physics exactly in the order in which it was developed. That means teaching Newtonian mechanics per Newton's Principia. Students will eventually be taught the algebraic equivalent of Newtonian mechanics, but only after years of struggling through the geometric reasoning that pervades the Principia. They might start seeing how calculus eases the understanding of basic Newtonian mechanics by the time they're sophomores in college. By the time they are juniors in college they might finally see the Lagrangian formulation. In their senior year they first touch on the Hamiltonian formation. Finally, by the time they are grad students, they get to see how much easier vectors make Newtonian mechanics. There is no room in physics education for teaching quantum mechanics in this purely historical perspective.

    Or one could teach things a bit out of order, hitting vectors, algebra, and calculus right from the get go.

    This is certainly a better way to go. While an occasional reference to a key experiment or a key person, and very occasionally to a key mistake, does make the learning more accessible to the student, putting the primary focus on the historical and philosophy of science perspective hinders learning. The goal is to teach the concepts and problem solving techniques. So use the tools and techniques that best help achieve that goal.
     
  18. Apr 29, 2012 #17
    This is a highly exaggerated way in which it could be applied, not the optimal way. That is, obviously one does not spend years teaching it in the order in which it was originally learned, because most of us do not have the luxury of time. So in that sense I disagree with the rigorous extent to which the OP makes reference to, because it makes little sense for people for whom the actual content is not of a primary interest. But I think there is substantial benefit to be gained by demonstrating what it is the scientific method achieved for us. If we present to students the concept of vectors and calculus from the beginning, without making reference to why we came up with these concepts, how will students ever gain this conception? Consider the content of an introductory astrophysics course (or the topic of orbital mechanics in an introductory physics course). Would you start off by teaching general relativity the first day, since that is the finest modern physics has to offer? Of course not; one starts with Kepler's laws, because even though it is a concept hundreds of years old, it is an excellent pedagogical tool. So I argue that we do this all of the time (that is, introduce obsolete physical ideas) in our demonstration of physics in an educational context. Even if you use vectors in your intro physics course, you still start out with one dimensional motion.

    Yes, part of this is that one needs the background in basic physics before one can learn more advanced physics; but this argument holds no weight for the, say, health science majors, who will not take more than the required course content. At that point, why is it that we do not simply tell them the absolute latest in physical knowledge? It is because we care a little bit less about the absolute knowledge gained by the course and a little bit more about the learning experience itself. If vectors and calculus make it easier to teach the concepts (which I highly doubt for students entering the course with little mathematical training), then by all means -- do it! But you disservice your students if you do not take into account what it is they can most usefully get out of the course (at least, within the bounds of still covering all the topics). I recognize not everyone who teaches has this luxury. But there are definitely ways to work the idea into any physics course. One does not need to make every physics course a philosophy of science course. But if one prepares a lesson plan without an objective for critical thinking gains, I submit that this lesson plan is incomplete. I further submit that one excellent way of fostering said critical thinking is to frame content in the context of what its part actually is the history of physics, and contemporary physics. There are many fruitful ways to do this in a lecture setting.

    But again, I believe in using it as a tool to make content more appetizing for students, yet another in the teacher's toolbox. But one of the best, if you can make it work, because there are precious few opportunities to connect with non-scientists on a level that they're comfortable with, at least in a formal educational setting.
     
    Last edited: Apr 29, 2012
  19. May 1, 2012 #18

    Andy Resnick

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    Who is to say we don't? My students enjoy bringing in news blurbs about the recent neutrino 'measurement', majorana quasiparticles, extreme hydrophobic materials, etc. Last year we discussed the Fukushima reactor, fluid antennas, negative refractive index materials, etc.. And we discuss them as much as possible.

    That said, The State of Ohio has an explicit content list that I must follow for general-education courses (I'm in a state university)- this is more so that students can easily transfer from one place to another as opposed to say, state-mandated indoctrination.
     
  20. May 6, 2012 #19

    Astronuc

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    micromass made a pertinent comment regarding mathematics - that math (the study of or knowledge of) is cumulative. Learning is a cumuluative process.

    We start learning science in elementary school, while learning the basics of language/communication and mathematics. Over time, we also learn about nature or our environment, which becomes a study of science.

    I didn't study 'Physics' until my senior year of high school, although I did take an introductory course in Physics during a short (6 weeks) summer program between 9 and 10th grade. I would have preferred to have had more rigourous exposure to physics in the earlier grades, along with a coordinated program in mathematics.

    I was always puzzled about the disconnect between the math and science programs. (Actually, in my high school, the physics classes were at one end of the building and math and chemistry were at the other end. It never made sense to me that we'd learn calculus during the senior year, when we should have been exposed in earlier grades, especially given that derivatives (and differential equations) and integrals, and linear algebra, are basic math in science.

    I would have also preferred more exposure to observational astronomy before I got to university.
     
  21. May 12, 2012 #20
    This reminds me of when Gaussian surfaces were introduced, my teacher dived straight into it without giving any motivation for it, and I left being thoroughly confused. It turned out that these things aren't even real, and how was I supposed to know that?

    I am starting now to have tendencies to stay after class to have the professor explain the motivation for all the crap he writes on the board instead of doing some hand waving and long strings of algebra to get somewhere that I dont know where its going. Maybe the teachers would run out of breath explaining it and it saves them the breath/time just do hand wave
     
    Last edited: May 12, 2012
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