Home > physics, schools, Thinking out loud > Moving from easy to hard

Moving from easy to hard

Nothing profound here, more thinking out loud. How is it that we move from ‘easy’ material to ‘hard’ in a sensible and systematic way? I mentioned on twitter a figure my son had drawn based on what he has been learning about magnets at school, and some stuff his mum was telling him about the Northern Lights. He drew the picture to explain them to his little sister.

The interaction of the solar wind with the Earth's magnetic field, as envisaged by a seven year old.

I was fairly impressed, as the basic ideas of magnetic fields and the solar wind are clear to see. It’s a bit scrappy, but he’s seven, so let’s not complain that it’s not a da Vinci. The thing is, it set me wondering how well one of my first year undergraduates might go about drawing such a diagram. Would there be much more detail or information there? Surely at seventeen I might expect a whole lot more? We do teach first years the basics about magnetic fields. We deal with vectors and field strengths and field interactions, so clearly this is much more difficult than a primary 3 kid can deal with, but it’s not so much more advanced. How do we bridge this gap between ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ and why does it take ten years and embarking on a technical degree to get more info on magnetic fields?

The second thing that started me thinking about this was one of my son’s reading books. He uses a set of books by Collins called the ‘Big Cat‘ series and they are all fairly modern and up today, with interesting fiction and often very good non-fiction. One of the non-fiction books he had a while ago was called, “Is there anyone out there?” and it’s about the possibility of extraterrestial life and extrasolar planets. It gives an overview of how one can detect extra-solar planets, and what life might be like on the type of planets that might exist (with different gravity conditions etc). So we are teaching seven year olds how to find extra solar planets, but again to really do this (in a technical sense, rather than do one of the crowd sourced data analysis projects like those from Zooniverse) you probably have to study at University. There is a large gap here I think, there is little in the way of middle ground on many of these technical subjects. For sure you need to learn the tools, you must learn increasingly advanced maths, and delve into other subject areas (optics, signal analysis, for the planet hunting, for example), but unless these are interesting in and as of themselves, you may just get bored, unless the end goal is really exciting for you. Maybe this is why so many give up on things like science and engineering. The easy bit is fun and cool, perhaps, and gives you the take home message, but the effort, the 10 years of work to understand the hard bit, just isn’t worth it in the end for most.

It is this, the ‘hard’ bits and the knowledge acquired to get there, that makes those who do learn the tools the experts. A biologist can explain to me how a cell binds to another cell and I could describe this to you, but without much more significant study I won’t really understand the details, won’t really be able to craft that information into something new. The question I have, is if all I know is the ‘easy’ knowledge is there anything I can usefully do with it? Or do I not really need to know the hard stuff? Maybe it is the experts who find the path from easy to hard interesting in spite of itself. My son and daughter are quite happy with their explanations of where the Northern Lights come from, and they don’t really know anything about ionisation or atomic energy levels. I hope they will one day, but until then I guess I am quite happy about what they are learning at school.

  1. lukehalliwell
    February 12, 2012 at 12:45 am

    I think to become really good at anything you have to put in a lot of time – there are no easy shortcuts. It’s why it’s so important to pursue things you are passionate about. Although I also see plenty of people who are passionate about something that really requires solid maths to take to a high level, and who don’t like maths at all. That’s highly unfortunate and is a strong argument for improving the way maths is taught.

    • February 13, 2012 at 4:41 pm

      Yes, I think effort, study and practice are the keys to getting to expert level, but I do think that it helps to be fairly good at something when you start. I didn’t have to struggle very much with, say maths, at school, and consequently it was not too difficult to teach me. But in a class where I had no real talent to start with, say in music, I found it much tougher. I didn’t/couldn’t practice outside of class and only had the classroom time to improve. The teachers tried, but it was difficult to make substantial improvements. I’d like to be able to play the piano, but just haven’t put the time in, and I know I’d never be terribly good anyway. I think this is the real challenge of teaching, to take the (probably) majority who do not excel in their subject and somehow raise them up towards the a higher level – and it implies to all subjects. When the end goal of lots of that information is not evident and there is little inspiration in how to teach it, pupils disengage (and this applies at all levels of education). It is rare that people preserve with stuff they find really dull just for the hell of it.

  1. March 24, 2012 at 8:18 pm

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