Podcast Episode 25: Changing the Culture of Teaching With Noah Finkelstein

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Noah Finkelstein has a BS in Math from Yale and a Phd in Applied Physics from Princeton. He started teaching physics and studying how to teach physics during post-docs at UC San Diego and UC Berkeley. Now, he teaches physics and is a director at University of Colorado’s Center for STEM Learning, and he thinks hard about how to induce and sustain improvements in teaching across the university. In our wide ranging conversation, Noah shares his deep insights into what happens and what should happen in the classroom and at the institutional level. This is a good one.

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Show Notes

0:00 Intro

0:31 Introducing Noah Finkelstein

1:23 Yale’s undergraduate eduction as a model

2:46 Anecdotal longitudinal evidence about the benefits of Yale education; Empowering individuals to engage society and to contribute to society; Fighting the “raw utilitarianism of workforce development that is reigning in education right now”

5:38 Noah and Doug geek out over undergraduate philosophy courses that blew their minds.

8:09 Edward gets tearful hearing science-y types to sing the praises of the humanities.

11:12 Physics learning goals at University of Colorado include things like “Develop scientific habits of mind.”

16:15 We can’t reduce science education such that the human element drops out.

18:33 How do we encourage teachers to explore teaching differently? Teaching is more than information: it’s changing the norms and culture of the classroom.

22:20 Clickers are an artifact, but turning to my neighbor and peer instruction, that’s culture, and that’s part of larger norms of the classroom. CS50 as changing the culture of the classroom at Yale and Harvard.

24:43 Disciplines have conceptual tools, practices, and norms: it’s not just about tests. Noah wants to change the culture of the classroom: not just adding clickers or peer instruction.

28:56 Is it the projectors that matter in the ‘smart’ classroom? Or the tables? Our learning spaces need to be about people.

30:27 We often measure performance (including prior learning) rather than learning: so we’re just sorting students, not teaching them. But isn’t it the student’s responsibility to learn? Do we want a hierarchical society that limits the potential of our individuals?

34:14 Should we “unbundle” college into parts like badging and certification? Liberal education aims to prepare students in broader ways and there is value in everyone being in the same physical location and taking classes in classrooms with friends.

37:15 Mediated communication has downsides, but we can address them. Some of the best learning Noah did in his Yale philosophy class was not inside the classroom. Conversations amongst strangers are more challenging.

39:55 Technology stretching time and space is useful, but the bandwidth is lower than face-to-face communication. Saying “no” to the naivete of unfettered belief in technology.

49:58 Let’s be scholarly about how we evaluate teaching. The students’ voice is incredibly important, but we’re generally asking students the wrong questions in course evaluation forms.

52:26 Doug is inspired for department-level change.

55:48 Something that did not work out so well in Noah’s teaching.

58:12 We can’t substitute technology for engagement.  Where does light get the energy to speed up when leaving a pane of glass?

1:00:20 Just telling people ‘clickers work’ is not enough. We need to define good teaching together. We negotiate meaning–inside and outside the classroom.

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