Monday, January 25, 2010

Teachers and Their Audiences

Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand.”
~ Chinese Proverb

Every few months an outfit called One Day University brings some of the country’s top college professors to midtown Manhattan to impart a little knowledge. The audience is composed entirely of adults and includes a high percentage of people of retirement age. As for the teachers, most are breathtakingly gifted, but one or two usually have a bad day.

At last Saturday’s session, three of the five classes were brilliant, inspiring and a whole lot of fun. I'll be writing about those in the next few days. For now, I want to focus on the two that went less well and what would have made them better.

Dr. David Helfand is the chair of the Department of Astronomy at Columbia University and co-director of the Columbia Astrophysics Laboratory. The title of his talk was “Is There Intelligent Life in the Universe?” — a question that suggested not a definitive yes or no answer, but a partly scientific, partly philosophical discussion enlivened by, who knows, Hubble telescope photos. By the time Dr. Helfand took the stage, the room was packed and primed.

Dr. Helfand — tall, bearded and rather jolly — has an engaging, informal manner that undoubtedly makes him a popular figure in the Columbia University pantheon. He is an astrophysicist who would be fun to have a drink with. And yet…and yet...these gifts could not save him from a fundamental flaw in the design of his lecture.

A few minutes into his presentation Dr. Helfand introduced a lengthy mathematical formula, explaining that this string of terms was the recipe for a scientific guesstimate of the number of planets that might contain sentient, communicating life forms. Fair enough; he's a physicist and formulas are his grammar. The problem was, Dr. Helfand framed his entire presentation around a step-by-step demonstration of the formula. No matter how amusingly a formula is presented, it is still math. Very quickly, the needle on the incomprehension meter moved to the right, eyes began glazing over and people began to tune out. Ten or 15 minutes into the presentation, the first few audience members stood up and left. About halfway through, the man in the row behind me began snoring loudly. Most people stayed through the end, but it was tough going. I happen to be a fan of astrophysical concepts — but not of mathematical computation — and felt myself leaning into the presentation as if into a strong wind.

The problem with Dr. Helfand's lecture is obvious: people were expecting Carl Sagan and instead got a math lesson. To reach a general audience, Dr. Helfand needs to start over. Astrophysics isn't simply to about numbers. It's also about the awe-inspiring scale, drama and beauty of the universe. Tell us about that, Dr. Helfand, and tell it in visual — not mathematical — language.

“More important than the curriculum is the question of the methods of teaching and the spirit in which the teaching is given.”
~ Bertrand Russell

Sherwin Nuland is Yale faculty member, an award-winning author and a retired surgeon. As is abundantly clear in this TED talk in which he recounts his epic battle with depression, he can be a tremendously compelling speaker. But on Saturday, when Dr. Nuland's subject was Leonardo DaVinci, he was off his game. Dr. Nuland idolizes DaVinci and his presentation came most alive when discussing DaVinci’s obsession with anatomy, an area Dr. Nuland clearly knows quite a bit about. Problems surfaced when he ventured into his theories about the Mona Lisa’s smile (he believes she was pregnant) and Leonardo’s sexuality (he thinks he was virtually celibate). While I have no doubt that Dr. Nuland has good evidence for his theories, he hasn't found an engaging way to discuss them.

Most puzzling, Dr. Nuland spent several minutes discussing the shocked looks on the faces of the people in DaVinci’s The Last Supper — without ever showing the painting.

If I were rewriting this lecture for Dr. Nuland, this is what I would recommend. Focus on the area where Dr. Nuland's life dovetails with DaVinci's: human anatomy. Bring it alive with storytelling. And— since we're talking about Leonardo —show a few more pictures!

“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”
~ John Steinbeck

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