Are you teaching or are you entertaining?

It’s always great when you find someone else ranting on the same subject as you – there’s nothing better than ranting agreement. Chemistry teacher Robert Stelling has a lovely rant at one of my favoured subjects (see here and here) – people substituting entertainment for education; or, as I so often put it, magic tricks for science.

What I love is the distinction that he draws between engagement and learning. He makes the point that kids can be engaged by seeing something blown up or set on fire in Chemistry, but that doesn’t mean they are learning anything from the experience. They may well remember it, but it doesn’t equate to education: “Students really like it, but it doesn’t really teach them anything.”

While this rant is in the context of Chemistry teaching, it applies just as well to other sciences, and, for that matter, to other subjects. How often these days do kids get put in front a movie that’s vaguely related to the History or English topic being studied? Watching Kung Fu Panda in Chinese class was one I heard of recently! Stelling refers to this practice as ‘pseudo-teaching’ and says it’s “the worst thing a teacher can engage in because the students think that they’re learning, the teacher thinks that they’re teaching but there’s no actual learning going on.”

This isn’t to say that you can’t get engagement and entertainment combined with learning, just that too often it doesn’t happen. Stelling says, “I’m your teacher and I’m going to do everything I can to make this class engaging and interesting, but my primary expectation is that you learn something.” It doesn’t matter if this is in the context of school teaching or, the usual subject of my own rants, science shows – the expectation and the criteria for success should be that the students learn something.

If you want to look at this from another point of view take a look at the recent series of Mythbusters where their answer to almost everything is to add explosives.  This sort of thing is creating an expectation that science means cool explosions, things bubbling out of beakers or making ice-cream with liquid nitrogen. All those things can be good but not if the explosions are just fireworks, the beakers pretty colours and the ice-cream a sugar-hit.

Engagement without understanding is like a rant without an audience – in the end it’s fleeting and deeply unsatisfying.

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