Friday, December 23, 2011

How to Teach (and Not to Teach) Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Math, Reading, Etc., Etc.

"Teacher Appreciation" featured phot...Image via Wikipediaby Bruce D Price

Many top-level educators seem obsessed these days with creating flow charts or schematics for how schools should be organized, and children should be taught. These plans tend to be generic, like a city’s water pipes (flow charts, of course, always work on paper).

These plans don’t talk about the specific knowledge that children will learn. In a real classroom, however, children are always studying a subject (one hopes), such as French, Biology or Algebra.

I suspect that the challenge is not to draw up a blueprint for learning in the abstract, but an ideal blueprint for teaching something in particular.

The problem, in too many classrooms, is that the facts to be taught - the knowledge - are badly, inefficiently, perhaps even chaotically organized. Students don’t have a chance. This disorganization is the problem I want to address.

Suppose you have to visit 100 cities in the shortest amount of time. Obviously, there are going to be millions of slow routes, but only one route that is the fastest and most efficient.

Education presents the same challenge. What is the optimal way to teach 100 facts? Or 1000 facts? Which way takes the least time, feels the easiest, and achieves the most lasting results?

The big question is: how can all these pieces be made to fit together into a pretty picture?

Education should be planned to achieve excellence. The goal is to create a smooth, apparently simple flow, in any given subject. Students should look back and say, "It was fun. It was easy." Here are some suggestions for how to do this:


Conversely, there must be nothing complex or advanced. Those are precisely the topics you are working toward many months in the future. If there are 10 very easy bits, start with the MOST INTERESTING. The goal is to build a strong foundation; and then to build on that foundation. Think of the pyramids.


Teachers should pretend that they are teaching difficult material to slow students. Then teachers won’t hold back from making everything crystal clear and explaining it still another time.

Joan Dunn, a teacher, in her excellent 1953 book, "Retreat From Learning," observed: "Children suffer academically because learning is neglected, and the time that should have been devoted to school work in reading, writing, thinking, and speaking is given over to chatter. Nobody knows this better than the children. They want to be taught step by step, so that they can see their progress. The duller they are, the more important and immediate is this need."

This is education’s great truth: "They want to be taught step by step, so that they can see their progress. The duller they are, the more important and immediate is this need."


Students should feel comfortable and in control. They know what’s going on to the degree that they could teach it themselves. There should be no spiraling about from topic to topic, no moving forward to B until the class has mastered A. Better to wallow in one spot for a while, if that is what it takes to assure mastery.


If every student is learning the same information, they can talk about it outside the classroom. They can compare notes and theories. They can be invited to discuss and debate specific points. Conversely, so-called learning styles are sometimes used to divide the class into little groups, thereby wasting lots of time. So-called prior knowledge can be used to justify odd detours, thereby wasting lots of time.


In "The Art of Teaching," Gilbert Highet said: "No-one knows, no-one can even guess how much knowledge a child will want and, if it is presented in the right way, will digest." This is education’s other great truth.



"The Sound of Music" sings:

"Let's start at the very beginning,
A very good place to start.
When you read you begin with A-B-C,
When you sing you begin with do-re-mi."

Why does it seem that a Broadway musical knows more than our Education Establishment? Welcome to Bad Ed on Parade, where one supposedly clever strategy after another turns out to be a dud. Herewith, Ways Not To Teach:

1) To teach reading, you would logically start with the smallest bits and pieces, the letters. But Sight Words insist students memorize ENTIRE WORDS.

2) New Math and Reform Math, instead of starting with simple arithmetic and mastering it, insist on mixing in high-school and college material. Nobody masters anything.

3) Constructivism, instead of giving children material in the easiest-to-master way, insists that children wander around on their own for weeks and months trying to invent new knowledge.

4) Multiculturalism insists that children in second and third grade must learn about faraway countries and cultures; but they don’t need to know the simplest, most elemental things about their own city, country, and culture.

5) Relevance dictates that children ignore all the traditional content, and focus instead on the often petty details of the child’s immediate environment (all by themselves, Multiculturalism and Relevance can be used to destroy all traditional content).

6) Self-Esteem demands that children not be made to feel badly about themselves, yet another pretext for challenging less, and teaching little.

7) And mastery? Many elite educators are scornful of it. They believe there is little worth teaching and almost nothing worth remembering or mastering. And that’s a perfect formula for creating the bad results we see all around us.

QED: Get rid of all these goofy ideas. Present your facts in the most satisfying way. Now you’re flying.

Let’s close with one of my favorite Siegfried Engelmann quotes: "The school failure is not the failure of kids, and often not the failure of teachers. It's the failure of a sick system that places more value on the whims of adults than on the obvious needs of children."

“Whims” may be too kind a word. I’m seeing incompetence, at least.


For a short video that uses most of the same copy, HOW TO TEACH PHYSICS, CHEMISTRY, BIOLOGY, MATH, READING, ETC., ETC. (

For an article that explores some of the same ergonomic concepts, see “26: How To Teach History, Etc.’ on

About the Author

Bruce Deitrick Price is an author, artist and education activist. He has 250 education articles, videos, and book reviews on the web. For a quick sense of what's wrong in our public schools, see "56: Top 10 Worst Ideas in Education" on

His YouTube videos have gotten over 570,000 combined views. For a short version of what went wrong, see "Good School, Bad School" (about 3.5 minutes).
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