Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Historical Method in Physics

The following email exchange with a professor in the State of Israel who studies physics education makes me really wonder if there is something flawed with the way physics is taught today (cf. "Why No 'New Einstein'?"). Out of all disciplines with PhDs, graduate students are obtaining fewer and fewer PhDs in physics than in any other field and more and more in psychology. There must be a reason for this. I wrote:
Dr. Galili,

I was glad to see that you do research following the admonition of Pierre Duhem in your "HISTORY OF PHYSICS AS A TOOL FOR TEACHING:"
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.
(And apparently Mach's "textbooks in mechanics and optics that adopted this approach remain to be valuable and interesting teaching resources.")

Your studies seem to focus on physics in secondary education. Has the historical method been applied in undergraduate and graduate physics programs? Do you do research on this?

I am a graduate physics student, and graduate-level physics seems mostly taught to a certain type of learner, i.e., to one who "learns by doing," who learns solely by solving written problems. I am from the United States, and this seems to be the predominant method most of the physics departments employ in training their students. Are there graduate programs—besides those HPS departments—that do things differently, who maybe even implement the historical method?

Thank you
(The quote is from Duhem's Aim and Structure of Physical Theory pg. 268.) He responded:
Thank you for your message and interest to my work.
The subject you write about actually presents a sensitive discourse in physics teaching. Nothing is harder than to cause a conceptual change to physics educators,and researchers especially. Currently, the prevailing mode of teaching adopts profession oriented pragmatic approach which is very instrumentalist although widely uses the rhetoric of conceptual understanding. Within this understanding problem solving and modeling occupy the central role. I hold a different perspective oriented to physics education (different from physics as a profession). Such education aims at learning physics as a special culture people create in making sense of nature and natural phenomenon.
Not to cause people much negative emotions and resistance, I prefer to investigate secondary school students. However, I am convinced that my materials are applicable and perhaps even more effective for university students who deal with these the same subjects. They all need good conceptual bases in the physics they learn. Complex formalism does not replace understanding fundamentals. Such is, for example the issue of weight definition. Although included in middle school physics curriculum, it presents a great controversy in university physics textbooks of physics.
Best regards,
Where did this "profession oriented pragmatic approach which is very instrumentalist although widely uses the rhetoric of conceptual understanding" originate? Perhaps the pragmatism originates from the progressive education movement of John Dewey (cf. these articles by Fr. Hardon, S.J., on Dewey: Part 1, 2, and 3)? Duhem's philosophy of science is considered instrumentalist, yet he would agree that "modeling," which he criticized the English physicists like Maxwell for advocating as physical explanations, should not "occupy the central role." And "the rhetoric of conceptual understanding?" Rhetoric? Would all physicists agree what they do is rhetoric? Feynman might have, because he said he won the Nobel prize for "sweeping [e.g., inconsistencies] under the rug." Perhaps all the psychology PhDs will finally get it across to physicists what it actually means to know and to understand, assuming an epistemology grounded on sound philosophy,