Lessons from Laureates to Stoke Curiosity, Spur Collaboration, and Ignite Imagination in Your Life and Career


Carl Wieman: The Teacher's Teacher

Carl Wieman

2001 Nobel Prize in Physics
"for the achievement of Bose-Einstein condensation in dilute gases of alkali atoms, and for early fundamental studies of the properties of the condensates."

  • If we want to have good teachers, they need to be experts on how to teach
      • That means that they have to know 
        • Latest research on basic learning
        • Cognitive psychology
        • How to implement those insights in the classroom
    • We are in education where medicine was in the mid-1800s, when scientific medicine was starting to emerge 
  • “The standard University professor is still currently practicing the pedagogical equivalent of bloodletting when there are antibiotics out there” Carl Wieman
  • If our culture recognized the importance of training new faculties and set up efficient programs to do so, both professors and students would benefit tremendously
  • To be creative in a discipline you need to be very well-grounded in it
    • Picasso didn’t start out with Cubism; he started as a classical artist replicating the Masters

Dr. Wieman mentioned Anders Ericsson’s book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise in regards to Malcolm Gladwell’s idea that you need 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something

  • Carl Wieman is an American physicist at Stanford University. In 2001 he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the Bose-Einstein condensation
  • Host: Dr. Brian Keating (@DrBrianKeating)
  • In this interview, I talk with Dr. Wieman about the lessons he learned in pedagogy and creativity, especially in regards to how they can be applied in Physics
  • I was surprised to learn that to become a certified flight instructor I had to study a great deal of human psychology
    • That made me realize that in my 14 years as a professor, I was never taught how to teach
  • I ask Dr. Wieman whether he thinks Physics professors should be taught how to be instructors
  • He thinks it’s clear that if we want to have good professors, they need to be experts on how to teach well
      • That means that they have to know 
        • Latest research on basic learning
        • Cognitive psychology
        • How to implement those insights in the classroom
    • Until 20 years ago, there was not much research on the topic, so teaching was considered more as an art
      • We’re still in a transition, as we have to integrate the lessons from research
      • We are in education where medicine was in the mid-1800s, when scientific medicine was starting to emerge 
  • “The standard University professor is still currently practicing the pedagogical equivalent of bloodletting when there are antibiotics out there” Carl Wieman
    • Science professors seem to be very confident about their knowledge and intelligence
      • This may prevent them from wanting to learn how to be more effective teachers
  • “It doesn’t take any more time to teach well than it does to teach the old, traditional stuff” Carl Wieman
  • If our culture recognized the importance of training new faculties and set up efficient programs to do so, both professors and students would benefit tremendously
    • New professors often spend enormous amounts of time not so productively
      • There’s no need to re-invent the wheel every time you start teaching a course that’s been taught for many years
    • It would only take several tens of hours to instruct teachers on how to be effective
      • From then on, it wouldn’t take any more time
      • It would provide professors with huge leverage for the rest of their careers
  • Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that you need 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something
  • 10,000 hours is an arbitrary number, but it’s clear that you need many hours of practice to become an expert
  • Dr. Wieman points out that it’s really important that those hours are spent practicing the right things
    • As a pilot, for example, you need to practice flying in different environments under different weather conditions
  • Cognitive psychology research looking at brain activity showed we don’t actually make great leaps when we are learning
  • What feels like a big breakthrough to us is the result of a gradual process that is preparing our brain
    • We feel like we made a big leap when the last “link” in our brain has been connected
  • Sometimes we get frustrated when we feel like we are not making progress
    • But we are actually preparing our brain to achieve our next breakthrough
  • Can you teach creativity?
  • Dr. Wieman sees creativity as finding a different way to look at an existing situation
    • Creativity is not about bringing something completely new but realizing how we can apply things we already know in a different way
  • To be creative in a discipline you need to be very well-grounded in it
    • Picasso didn’t start out with Cubism; he started as a classical artist replicating the Masters
  • Many physicists had tried solving the problem of Bose-Einstein condensation 
    • Dr. Wieman’s breakthrough occurred by realizing that the bottleneck that needed to be solved, was not the bottleneck that other physicists were working on
  • Students are encouraged to provide the answer that the instructor wants to see
      • That’s the opposite of teaching new ways of looking at things
  • Creativity gets penalized
  • The education system is still based on the model that was set up to bring up good workers in British Industry in the 1800s
  • Through his work in education, Dr. Wieman learned that negative feedback is more useful than positive to improve learning outcomes
  • I remember my first flight instructor telling me:
    • “Never stop learning because once you stop learning you get complacent. Once you get complacent bad things happen”

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