What’s the difference between a bad teacher, and a good teacher in a bad system?


Here’s one for you:  “What is energy?”

Even if you have a degree in physics, like me, you’ll probably struggle to answer that (like me).  Even if you’re a science teacher, I’d take a bet that you struggle in answering it.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about both the answer to that question, and how to convey it to children.  Naturally I’ve taken to the Internet for help, and two videos showed me something.

Video 1 was produced in collaboration with Google, which one can only imagine means access to infinite resource and one hell of a marketing and communications team.


Video 1 – Bad Teaching

This is my example of the ‘bad teacher’ (apologies to SciShow, who are otherwise doing great work.)

Look it’s hard to get this right at all, let alone in 4 minutes. But compare it with this:

Video 2 does a few things that video 1 doesn’t.  It defines what it means to ‘know’ something (‘does’ vs. ‘is’, ‘compare and contrast,’ ‘divide and categorise’ – I see more than a  little Engelmann in here) it creates a map of different kinds of energy and compares them with one another, it uses clear diagrams and animations to help convey meaning, and finally it accepts that there are reasonable limits to what it can mean ‘to know’ a thing (see Feynman for a *beautiful* explanation of this!)


Video 2 – Good Teaching in a Bad System

It also makes some mistakes.  The early etymology was probably superfluous in this instance (I’m otherwise in favour.)  It brings in relativity at the end, but only to raise further questions, rather than providing their answers (again not opposed to in principle, but not in a 4 min video…?  Would work better as a hook into ‘the next video’ in a series,)  and ultimately I can’t help but wonder if it goes too fast for someone who doesn’t already have a physics degree…  I’m not sure what the target audience is for Science Asylum, but the Turtles t-shirt and silly running around earlier would hint at a younger audience.  In this, it helps itself to concepts like potential energy, chemical bonds, quarks and nuclear bonds with very little explanation.

BUT!  Compared with video 1, the explanation is a good one – it systematically fleshes out what we mean by energy in a way that Video 1 doesn’t.

Video 1 tends rather to jump around randomly to vaguely talk about things that are related to energy in some way.

If you came to video 1 looking to know what energy is, by the end of it I worry that you’d leave just feeling that you’re stupid… because you probably don’t have any more clear an understanding than before you started, and that will hold true no matter who you are.

Whereas, in video 2 is it possible to feel like you’re getting some kind of answer to the question from this video?  Yes.  I felt my understanding was deepened by it.  The flaw is in whether the explanation is too fast for everyone to keep up.

If you don’t already have lots of scientific training, I’d love to hear how clear you found Video 2 – my guess is ‘not very’ for most people, but would be good to know.

I call video 2 Good Teacher in a Bad System.

I’ll explain why in the next post.


About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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