They Sure Can Slide Fingers on a Pane of Glass

Increasingly it seems to me that if, twenty years from now, we took the time to assess what the young folk of today got from their childhoods, the one thing we’ll be able to state with surety is that there was never a generation so adept at sliding their fingers along a small sheet of glass.

Thirty-five years ago I began (getting paid for) my teaching career. In those days I self-identified as a science – math teacher. I loved it, especially the lab activities. I was lucky because at the time–the early eighties–science curricula were designed to be very hands-on. It was great, but there was something else: I generally found that the activities jived very well with the students’ personal experiences. Students could, for example, relate to labs studying motion because the objects of study seemed so very familiar. For non-accelerated motion the students were used to gliding along ice, rolling along level ground on skateboards, bikes and rollerblades. For accelerated motion, they could similarly draw on tobogganing or biking downhill, playing ball and just throwing rocks in the ocean. For circular motion they had experience on playground merry-go-rounds, swings and even with twirling things on the end of string.

But then time passed. I noticed it first for circular motion, never an easy topic and one that you had to ensure that students had up-close-and-personal experience with before digging in through the lens of physics. Students could not relate anymore to any of the once-familiar events. Not even twirling stuff on strings! I just put it down to the increased time that the children were spending playing video games indoors, figured, “That’s sad, but I guess we’ll just have to redouble our efforts with the hands-on activities in school,” and thought no more of it.

…until the penny dropped.

Talking to the young people who attend the university at which I work it became increasingly obvious that, not only are the students not directly experiencing the physical world (aka playing outdoors) but neither are they doing that in school! Regardless of what happens in k-6, once they hit Intermediate and then High School, their days in science class are mostly spent with their bums in uncomfortable ancient school desks, all neatly arranged in rows, and listening to an adult talk, talk, talk about scientific knowledge or show off how well they can “solve a problem,” which, by the way, is not that at all but, rather, a boring run-through of some algorithm for dealing with some contrived situation or other.

And there’s shag all interaction with the physical world.

Once there was a thing called “core labs,” hands-on activities that HAD to be done. In the eighties they numbered 12 to 15 per course. These days the number is more like six and, guess what, less than that are actually done. Oh, they’re talked about and sometimes even simulated–you know, rubbing your fingers across the glass top of a tablet or whatever to simulate motion, or something equally banal–but rarely ever really done.

What a shame. It turns out that our remarkable, wonderful brains are ideally suited to experience the world in two different but complementary ways. One way is procedural, logical, even rules-based. It is dealt with mostly–but by NO MEANS EXCLUSIVELY–by the left side of the brain. Talking, reading and experiencing simulations feeds it nicely. The other was is more holistic, even probabilistic, and, similarly is mostly handled by the right side. It’s best fed through direct physical and / or sensory experience with the phenomenon in question. Two views, ideally nicely merged and coexisting, producing a complex and useful representation of whatever the senses encounter.

Too bad that the simulated and  talked about and PowerPointed-to-death world is mainly processed procedurally. It’s not real in the experiential sense and, as such, the processing that the (mostly) right brain is so good at never gets to happen. As a result, the young people can talk and diagram about the physical world, even “solve” paper-and-pencil problems but give ‘em something real like some electrical components or mechanical parts and they have no clue whatsoever what to do with them.

Because they’ve never had the chance to. Still, they have experienced glass displays and they are no doubt adept with that.

3 thoughts on “They Sure Can Slide Fingers on a Pane of Glass

  1. Good to read your text again Maurice. You paint a sad picture of what’s happening in universities today. I can but hope this is not the case everywhere.
    I hope all is well with you and yours. I’m missing my lady here but trying to live life well without her as she would wish.

  2. This seems to be the topic that those of us of a certain age just keep coming back to – because this seems to be happening globally. Our curricula is all about theory and very little doing. Which is fine for the more academic students but is of little use to those kids who can’t sit still because they’re itching to get their hands on something to have a go. Unbelievably, it’s the students who kick off in the behaviour department who get to go off site to experience mechanics, carpentry and animal care. Anyone with the minutest chance of gaining a bottom level standard grade is forced to stay in class and slog it out. Where, I wonder, will our creative thinkers and doers come from in ten, twenty years time. It’s a worry. Maybe the panes of glass will become more transparent and something will change before it’s too late.

  3. Very interesting, Maurice, as usual 🙂 I observed something related: For ‘geeks’ it is easy to think in procedures laid out in programming language, but it seems to be much harder to think in the ‘analogue’ feedback cycles as ‘coded’ in hydraulics.

    I would say that both of those are governed by rules, logic, and the ‘left side of the brain’, and solving respective challenges are closely related. But the difficulty with the analogue cycles is that you have to keep the whole system in your head at once, or at least do so at more levels. You could call that intuition, but I think expert mastery of that is kind of learned pattern matching (of systems behavior) after you went through similar feedback cycles often and often and finally have developed a mental model.

    Then again, you also need that skills in programming if you exceeded a certain number of levels of abstractions. So I am not even sure if the ‘understanding’ of individual programming steps is fallacious. Using procedures adds / seems to add more ‘readable steps’ in between, and you could even lay out all differential equations in a hydraulic system in an extended step-by-step way, using temporary variables and abstractions that sort of ‘hide’ the immediate feedback … but to actually get what the system ‘really does’ you need to condense all the detailed steps yet again into something closer to the differential equations anyway.
    I am thinking of examples like using compiled code for an electronic controller versus a comparable analogue cycle – like electronic versus thermostatic expansion valve in a refrigeration cycle. I also know the effect myself from my numerical simulations of our system – where there is one crucial feature that I ‘simulate’ by calculating three temperatures ‘at once’ in a self-consistent way ‘in a single way’, solving an ‘equation of physics’ immediately, instead of numerically ‘following the a piece of the system round (brine in its circuit in this case), time slot per slot’ by discretizing the partial differential equation in simple procedural steps … as I do with the main state of the system.

    All that also explains where there are people who really learn about hydraulics by experimenting, hardly using math but instead – I think – intuitive development of the inner model, without getting side-tracked by putting it into procedural code first – or even by putting it into differential equations. I am not even sure if our current emphasis (in STEM education) on using analysis and algebra as the shortcut (over geometry) adds already too much of a formal abstraction layer already. I was once fascinated by the story about how Feynman struggled with Newton’s purely geometrical proof of Kepler’s laws and how he needed like 2 weeks and 100 pages to develop his own version of that proof to really understand it.

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