Carl Wieman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on super cooled atoms but over the last three decades he has also been applying a scientific approach to something different: improving education. Ahead of this year’s Nobel Week Dialogue on the challenge of learning, we spoke to him about better teaching methods, what COVID-19 has taught us and how we could all benefit from a scientific way of thinking.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
“I’m a professor at Stanford University, and I’m in both the Department of Physics and the Graduate School of Education – I’m in an unusual position that’s joint across both of those. My current area of research is the teaching and learning of science and engineering in higher education, but in recent years I’ve focused on what makes up expertise, what is it that’s special about it? What makes a good, successful scientist, engineer, or medical doctor, and how can you best teach people to have those skills?”
You have an interesting, and perhaps unusual, combination of research interests. How did you first get interested in the area of education?
“It came about kind of naturally through my work in physics. In the kind of physics I do, I work closely with one or two graduate students on small projects. And so I paid a lot of attention to how well these students were thinking and solving problems and how they developed those capabilities. And what really intrigued me was there was a very consistent pattern that these students would do very well in all of their courses. And yet, when they came to work for me as a graduate student, in the laboratory, they didn’t know how to do physics at all. But they could learn rather quickly and within a year or so they become physicists.
After I saw that pattern happening consistently, I decided there were some basic questions here about learning. And so I went off and spent a couple of years really treating this as a science project, looking at what we knew about how people learn, and particularly how people learn physics. For 20 years, I actually had two research groups. One of them was shining laser light on atoms and studying their properties, and the other one was doing experiments and testing theories on the teaching and learning of physics. And then over time I expanded to do education research on other sciences, most recently engineering and medicine.”
So when students started in your lab they began learning how to be scientists. Do you think this is a skill that everybody could benefit from learning?
“I absolutely think it’s something that everybody could benefit from in society, whether they’re going to become scientists or not. Our research says that it’s not a terribly hard skill to learn, although it’s not easy. But it’s certainly accessible to a vastly larger fraction of the population if it’s taught correctly.
And that leads into talking about, what is the problem with education theory today? The first problem is thinking about education as just acquiring knowledge – facts and information. That’s really not meaningful or useful, it’s only good for passing tests that ask you things like to name the parts of the atom.
What education really needs to be about is knowing information in a way that you can use it and apply it to make better decisions in your life. The ultimate value of education is about learning to make better decisions. And every member of the public needs to have that capability and make good decisions about, for example, what they’re going to do in their life to be healthier, or create less pollution, and dealing with all of these important societal problems that we face that have some technical underlying principles in them.
Fundamentally, I see science as about learning to apply the relevant information to make decisions. That’s something that our studies say everybody can learn, and everybody needs to learn.”
Is that what is at the heart of being a good scientist?
“It’s a big part of what’s involved in being a good scientist. I would argue that there is one other important thing scientists need to be doing. That is thinking about: ‘How could this work I might do benefit humanity? If I solve this problem, and make advances in it, is it going to help people in some regard?’
In medicine the answer to these questions is sort of obvious. I think that in other fields it’s not so direct, but eventually almost all good science has its implications in benefiting people in some way or another. And so that consideration has to be part of what goes into a good scientist, I believe.”
What are the challenges that you have found when it comes to teaching science in particular?
“I see two big challenges in teaching science better. Firstly, the one that I already talked about: Students think they’re supposed to be learning a bunch of information, and not that they’re supposed to be learning how to make decisions in real world situations. That expectation of what learning is, and changing that expectation, is one of the big challenges, especially when I start thinking about, not just me teaching my own courses, but better teaching of science more broadly, at all grade levels. The first challenge is changing that old basic attitude and philosophy about learning science.
The second big challenge is the erroneous view that being good in science is an issue of talent, or in other words, some kind of special innate property of a brain. I understand why our societies tend to think that way, but our research, and that of many others, says it’s just completely wrong. We get students in our classes and some of them know more physics than others. But it’s all a matter of the educational privilege they have had, it’s not anything to do with innate talent. Same with Nobel Prize winners.
This idea that it’s all about talent puts up a tremendous barrier in terms of students thinking they can be successful or, if they come from a poor background, thinking they can’t be successful. It puts up a tremendous barrier in convincing teachers what they should be focusing on, and what are the most effective ways to teach. A good teacher sends the message to their students that success is not about talent, it’s about what educational learning efforts you put in, and that you can all be successful if you have the right kind of educational activities and the right kind of effort to work through them.
I think we have a long way to go to move science education from how it is done now to what research says would be much more effective. But we have a tremendous potential for improvement in the future. We’re rather like medicine was in the 1850s, where you had all these crazy medical practices, like bloodletting and so on that were not good for people at all. But because of serious medical research starting at about that time, people came to understand medicine, and how to practice medicine in a completely different way. And of course, that change to research-based medical practice tremendously changed our health outcomes for the better.
I think we’re on the cusp of a similar change in science education. We now have rigorous research on teaching and learning, and hopefully over the next few decades we can make this transformation in our teaching of science in the same way as we had a transformation in medical care.”
How has COVID-19 and an increase in digital learning and digital teaching affected teaching science?
“This is a really complicated issue, because there’s just so many factors that come into it. There are very different ways people are teaching, and different student experiences, and students have different amounts of technology at their disposal.
What I will say is that technology offers great opportunities for improving education. Most of those opportunities are not being very well utilised. And so most of what’s being done in the COVID-driven switch to online learning is to take what research like mine shows were poor teaching practices, and make them worse. For example, we have lots of data showing that someone standing up in front of a bunch of students and giving them a lecture is really ineffective at having students learn the important ideas that I talked about – the learning to apply knowledge to make decisions. A recorded lecture and the student watching on their computer at home is almost certainly even less effective in most cases.
So that’s a downside of this switch to digital teaching. But one of the upsides is that it makes it more obvious how bad some of these practices are. And so it’s generating a fair amount of discussion among teachers about how can we do better. Discussions that many teachers, at least at the university level were not interested in and willing to before. So many are now thinking more about what are better teaching methods they could use.”
You mentioned earlier that as a scientist, you want to do something that really impacts society. Do you see your work in education the same way?
“With both my physics work and my education work, there’s unquestionably a personal appeal and satisfaction that comes from exploring things that no one else has explored. Whether it’s discovering the strange properties that atoms can have if super cold, or discovering that the ways people, including myself, were teaching something was actually quite ineffective – and by doing something different, like introducing interactive simulations, students could suddenly learn in a much different and better way.
Those are both personally exciting and rewarding, but with the education work there is also the feeling that this is just vitally important for the future of humanity. People have to learn to make better decisions about our lives, and our societies, if we’re going to survive and thrive. That certainly is a large part of what drives me now.”
Carl Wieman will be speaking at the 2020 Nobel Week Dialogue ‘The Challenge of Learning’.
First published November 2020