The philosophy of teaching quantum mechanics

The May 2007 issue of Physics World contains an article by David Kaiser, a historian and a physicist at MIT, that delves into the factors that may have caused the shift in paradigm in the philosophy of learning and teaching quantum mechanics after WWII in the United States. He compares the data ie the classroom curricula and the percentage of content and practice problems devoted to foundational and interpretive issues in quantum mechanics textbooks across the board in different countries such as the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and Germany, and dismisses any correlation between trends in the philosophy of teaching quantum mechanics and the trends driven by historical setting as any implication of causation between the two.

Kaiser concluded that class sizes and enrollment statistics for physics courses is the biggest factor that brought about the paradigm shift in how quantum mechanics was taught. However, historical settings do have a role in affecting enrollment statistics in physics. As such, there does exist an element of flexibility and versatility in science that enables it to adapt pragmatically to the needs of the times ie as class sizes grew larger after WWII due to brimming enrollment numbers in physics, it is expedient for instructors to focus more on content that can be conveyed easier to big classes – it is often hard to hold philosophical discussions with big audiences. This coincidentally honed generations of post-War physicists who were calculationally-sophisticated and were able to bring technological progress to its unprecedented post-War high.

The question then would be whether such flexibility is inherent in science. I think Lee Smolin brings this issue up in his book The Trouble With Physics – where he raises a call to theoretical physicists to consciously effect a change in the scientific paradigm. Perhaps, I could still call that as a reaction to the results yielded by scientific progress up till the present, rather than a concerted conscious initiative. In addition to this, it has to be made clear whether science should serve the needs of the times or whether it should serve purely the advancement of knowledge and understanding of the physical universe. The pedagogical system would then mold itself or should be molded to serve that end.

On a personal note, I have been taught both types of quantum mechanics courses ie the conceptually-attuned type and the calculationally-driven type, and would say that I appreciate both. In the former, we had more freedom to ponder on foundational and interpretive issues together due to our small number. The regret is only that the instructor tends to exclude details on calculations and thus my notes from his classes tend to be unreadable!

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~ by musafiremes on June 17, 2007.

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