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How to deal with a teacher who doesn't even teach why things work?

  • Thread starter ode_to_joy
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If I was in a bio class, I wouldn't even complain. But physics?
My teacher does not teach why things work, just throw random formulae and show how to 'plug-in' values. I know one must learn a skill to deal with this type of teacher but I have never had this kind before. How did you cope with this kind of situation?
 

Simon Bridge

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You have to read around your topic.

Nobody teaches the "why" of how things work. Off topic for science classes. However, some sort of understanding is useful ... you are being taught the rote-algorithm method of solving physics problems which has the drawback, you have noticed, that there seems to be no particular reason to pick a particular equation. It becomes a bunch of esoteric tricks.

Your recourse is to use your wider resources to broaden your learning. There are a lot of physics resources online. Usually you can find lessons and tutorials to fill in the gaps just be googling the topic header.
 
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Nobody teaches the "why" of how things work. Off topic for science classes.
I think TS meant 'how' rather than 'why'. I don't think he was getting at some deep philosophical reason for why the physical laws are what they are.

Teaching how something works is definitely in the scope of a physics course.
 

Astronuc

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If I was in a bio class, I wouldn't even complain. But physics?
My teacher does not teach why things work, just throw random formulae and show how to 'plug-in' values. I know one must learn a skill to deal with this type of teacher but I have never had this kind before. How did you cope with this kind of situation?
Some particular examples, for instance in mechanics or EM, would be helpful. It's difficult to assess the situation without knowing the background, or the persons involved. Certainly, different teachers/professors have different approaches. I've had excellent teachers as well as poor ones.
 
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There are teachers who should be teaching and teachers who are in the wrong job. Hopefully yours is not the latter.

One thing I know as a teacher myself, there are not many who are gifted at the job and we shouldn't expect every teacher to be so gifted. That said, there are many good teachers, especially in high school, who have become jaded, and lost interest.

But if you get to the heart of why most want to teach, then you can inspire them to do it better. The way to do this, as a student, is to show persistent curiosity, showing them that you are the kind of student that has a thirst for the knowledge that they can impart, asking how things work, and asking them to demonstrate for you. And make sure you don't just ask during class, but before and after.

Nothing is more satisfying for a teacher than to feel their job is making a difference. And don't give up on them, it may not happen immediately.

I had the opposite in HS. My physics teacher was great, always demonstrating and showing how stuff works. It was my chem teacher who rarely did anything but hand out sheets on chemical equations. I remember engaging him once and it made a difference.
 
My teacher does not teach why things work, just throw random formulae and show how to 'plug-in' values. I know one must learn a skill to deal with this type of teacher but I have never had this kind before. How did you cope with this kind of situation?
I learned formulas and algebra, and then I practiced lots of problems. But what Simon Bridge mentions is good... today (as opposed to in my day) there are a lot of online resources that are decent supplements. If you want some help selecting them, let us know the topic (mechanics, EM, modern, etc) and level (algebra-based, calculus-based, etc.) of your course.

Nobody teaches the "why" of how things work.
This isn't true. I teach a whole two-semester class called "HOW THINGS WORK" (using Bloomfield's text of the same name)... and this type of conceptual course is common at many universities for general education credit. In my case... I designed the course to use limited math (since no math course is a pre-req) in in-class simulations- and/or materials-based activities, and no math on tests. One example of the curriculum: One chapter looks at fluid dynamics, in terms of baseballs (curve-balls, knuckle-balls, etc.) and airplane wings. In my class, the students "play" with lots of kinds of "toys" that use "air" in their design: gliders, parachute-men, etc. In part of the activity, they blow across an inverted spoon to see "lift." In the class follow-up lecture, we extend to talk about the design of racecars (in terms of lowered centers of masses, spoilers, etc.). In a test problem, I might present multiple ways the spoiler shape can be mounted, and ask the student to select the appropriate one.

Now this isn't the only course I teach. In the other courses that are algebra- or calc- based, while some example problems are clearly included in my lectures, I also often try to balance the lecture with some discussion of these types of applications.

But, as Astronuc mentions... there are different teachers and different points of emphasis. If you're at the university level, perhaps two or more professors are assigned the course... and try to pick the section with the professor who is known to be difficult but a quality instructor (talk to your peers about this, or look at university-evaluations of teaching if they are posted... don't look at some site like rate-my-professor, where it's not even really clear if a student finished the course or is trying to "get even" for a bad grade, or even just write some funny rant).

Edited to add: oops... I read Simon Bridge's original quote there wrongly in favor of the original spirit of the OP. Yes -- I don't get into any God-/Not-God- philosophical discussions.
 
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Nobody teaches the "why" of how things work.
Science can answer how a thing works. For instance, gravity is an inverse square force, it attracts planets to the sun in the same manner as apples to the earth. It works the same in warm weather as cold, on Tuesdays as well as Thursdays. That kind of 'how does it work' stuff. But no one knows why it works.
 
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My classical mechanics professor skips over the majority of interesting information, the proofs, history, basically anything that your typical engineering student does not need to know. This is frustrating for me, being one of the few physics students at my university. I have sat in on the other physics professor, the same thing could be said. I think it's more of an effect of the universities need to teach (applications of) physics, rather than to teach physics. I simply supplement the material with anything that I can get my hands on and hope that upper level physics courses turn out more as expected.
 

FlexGunship

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My teacher does not teach why things work, just throw random formulae and show how to 'plug-in' values.
There's something to be learned from this. A formula can tell you a lot on it's own. In fact, most explanations of physical laws seem to just be vocalizations of the formula. The aforementioned "inverse square law" for example, also Boyle's law and most of Newtonian physics.

Here's a skill to build, learn how to SAY your forumlae. I'll give you an example here:

F=ma

"The force required to accelerate a mass is expressible as the product of the mass and the acceleration."

You can add a few mental examples without ANY numbers, too: "The force required to accelerate a mass varies directly proportionally with respect to both the mass and the acceleration." Further, "a doubling of the mass doubles the force required for equal acceleration."
 

AlephZero

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In part of the activity, they blow across an inverted spoon to see "lift."
Just watch out for somebody who asks how planes can fly upside down, if that "explains" lift :devil:

(But if they do ask that, at least you know they are still awake!)
 

Ryan_m_b

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Saying biology is merely just remembering facts; I think it's mandatory.
Do you have any reasoning to back up this (ridiculous) statement? :rofl: it really, really isn't. What makes you think that a full understanding of the processes and phenomenon involved isn't necessary? And how exactly do you think further research is done if everyone just "remembers facts", surely this implies no deeper understanding?
 
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Do you have any reasoning to back up this (ridiculous) statement? :rofl: it really, really isn't. What makes you think that a full understanding of the processes and phenomenon involved isn't necessary? And how exactly do you think further research is done if everyone just "remembers facts", surely this implies no deeper understanding?
Wow. The sarcasm went over your head. I'm studying bio, I even e-mailed you.
 

Ryan_m_b

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Wow. The sarcasm went over your head. I'm studying bio, I even e-mailed you.
So you did, sorry that slipped my mind :redface:. Though it's pretty hard to tell sarcasm when it's typed with no indication.
 

Simon Bridge

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"All science is either physics or stamp-collecting."
-- E Rutherford (quoted in Rutherford at Manchester (1962) by J. B. Birks)

It's one of the conceits of physics.
Of course, there is quite a bit of physics in biology ;)
 
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I understand the frustration of the OP, because I have the same feelings about physics. I was always very frustrated that the teachers never explained well how things work.

But it was only many years later that I found the answer. In reality, questions like "why" and "how" are extremely difficult to answer. Even things like "when I drop something, it falls to the ground" are impossible to answer. Sure, it is due to a force called gravitation, but how does that force work?? I don't think anybody knows (correct me if I'm wrong).

In general, asking why and how is not the purpose of physics. The purpose of physics is to describe what happens and to propose a theory that helps you to calculate and predict things. Physics goes by facts and observable phenomena. Its purpose is not to explain why or how (that doesn't mean that it doesn't provide such explanations at times). This makes physics quite hard to understand conceptually, but it's the way it's done. You have to get used to it...

Here are three videos where a monument in physics explains this much better than I can:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMFPe-DwULM

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E383eEA54DE

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=05WS0WN7zMQ
 
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F=ma

"The force required to accelerate a mass is expressible as the product of the mass and the acceleration."

You can add a few mental examples without ANY numbers, too: "The force required to accelerate a mass varies directly proportionally with respect to both the mass and the acceleration." Further, "a doubling of the mass doubles the force required for equal acceleration."
Although I agree with your point I consider all of those translations ambiguous in some way.I think sometimes is more important to abstract the concept until translating it in words is unnecessary and the formula is all that you need.
 
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Just watch out for somebody who asks how planes can fly upside down, if that "explains" lift :devil:

(But if they do ask that, at least you know they are still awake!)
lol.. afaik, all production planes can fly upside down, they're just not meant to :biggrin:
 
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There's something to be learned from this. A formula can tell you a lot on it's own. In fact, most explanations of physical laws seem to just be vocalizations of the formula.
But that's the key. In learning to teach, you learn about individual learning styles. The Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic model (VAK) is the dominant model taught. In my own class, I have students who need to touch and do, to learn, whereas others are quite happy learning from a text. Powerpoints are great for many, while others fall asleep with them. Teachers should always try to incorporate a variety of different learning activities, where possible.
 
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But it was only many years later that I found the answer. In reality, questions like "why" and "how" are extremely difficult to answer. Even things like "when I drop something, it falls to the ground" are impossible to answer. Sure, it is due to a force called gravitation, but how does that force work?? I don't think anybody knows (correct me if I'm wrong).

In general, asking why and how is not the purpose of physics. The purpose of physics is to describe what happens and to propose a theory that helps you to calculate and predict things. Physics goes by facts and observable phenomena. Its purpose is not to explain why or how (that doesn't mean that it doesn't provide such explanations at times). This makes physics quite hard to understand conceptually, but it's the way it's done. You have to get used to it...
This is missing the point. I agree with it, but it's confusing two different kinds of why.

The OP has every right to be upset with his profs.

If you give me Newton's laws and I ask why, one way you could respond is to say, that's just the way nature works. No one knows why. But if *I* was the one asking that question, you can bet that you misunderstood my question completely.

Newton may not have known why nature behaves that way. But he surely knew why he was introducing those laws as a description of nature, or else he would not have introduced them. THIS is the problem. It's not why nature does it that way. We don't know that. The question is why do WE do it that way? And if we can't answer, I'm sorry to say we are not doing science, but making arbitrary assertions.
 
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This is missing the point. I agree with it, but it's confusing two different kinds of why.

The OP has every right to be upset with his profs.

If you give me Newton's laws and I ask why, one way you could respond is to say, that's just the way nature works. No one knows why. But if *I* was the one asking that question, you can bet that you misunderstood my question completely.

Newton may not have known why nature behaves that way. But he surely knew why he was introducing those laws as a description of nature, or else he would not have introduced them. THIS is the problem. It's not why nature does it that way. We don't know that. The question is why do WE do it that way? And if we can't answer, I'm sorry to say we are not doing science, but making arbitrary assertions.
Well, and what's the answer?? There is no answer. We don't know why Newton's laws hold. We don't know why math is so suitable to describe the physical world. We introduce those laws because they seem to describe nature and because they make quantitative predictions. We don't know why they do and we can't ever explain why.

The OP has every right being upset. But that doesn't mean that he'll get a good answer to his question.
 

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