An Academic Apprentice
Once the path to learning a trade or profession was to become an apprentice.
Whether you wanted to become a sea captain, silversmith, or doctor, you found
specialists in your field of interest and joined them as an entry-level assistant.
Over many years, with enough aptitude, determination, and luck you might work
your way up to becoming an expert. Eventually you could take on apprentices
of your own, passing onto future generations the skills you learned and likely
An apprenticeship is learning by doing the gold standard of education. A thousand
days of continuous exposure to PowerPoint slides about sailing is no substitute
for actually changing a sail in a storm on a pitching deck. Books and PowerPoint
slides might help with sailing theory, which will be easier to absorb when icy
waves are not trying to wash you overboard. The combination of theory in class
and practice in labs or in the field has been embraced in almost every discipline.
To get a pilot’s license, for example, one must spend time in ground
school and in actual flight, and as well as passing both a written exam and
a flight test. Prospective doctors spend countless hours in class followed by
sleepless days and nights in a residency program actually treating patients.
Even for students who will not spend any time in laboratories after graduation,
lab work is used extensively to extend knowledge and experience. Labs enable
students to learn by doing in a controlled environment that is often not possible
in the field, without the long-term commitment of an apprenticeship. Labs, however,
especially at the undergraduate level, have many shortcomings. Time is always
tight and there is often more emphasis on getting the right results than doing
any real experimentation. Some things are so difficult to do that they can’t
be made into simple lab experiments. There are also limitations to what can
be done safely in a lab. A student lab, for example, is a bad place to try thermonuclear
reactions or grow a new strain of anthrax. And then there are physical limitations
to what can be done. Studying a process that takes a long time to occur cannot
be done effectively in a lab.
To avoid the limitations of labs yet still achieve learning by doing, simulations
are often used. The very best simulations are so good that they may be used
as substitutes for the real thing. Excerpted from CEA.com: “Today’s
commercial flight simulators are so sophisticated that pilots proficient on
one aircraft type can be completely trained on the simulator for a new type
before ever flying the aircraft itself.” And of course when Neil Armstrong
set down on the moon, the only previous experience landing the Lunar Module
was with simulators.
Simulations are wonderful, but they have limitations, too. I have a simple
program that draws regular stars with any number of points by connecting vertices
of polygons. Whether you want a familiar fivepointed star or an unusual 55-pointed
one, you just key in the number of points and it draws the star. But it accepts
every number without question. Ask for a star with -6.39 points and it d'es
the math and draws something that it proffers as correct. A colleague of mine
wrote a simulator of complex gears that did not fuss about on e-toothed or fractional-toothed
gears and was accepting of an enormous gear fitting inside a tiny one.
Simulations also often assume a level of precision that is not possible. A
one-kilogram object in a physics simulator has a mass of exactly one kilogram,
though except for the platinum-iridium bar in the custody of the International
Bureau of Weights and Measures near Paris, France, the kilograms you use in
the field will be a bit bigger or smaller. Small differences can have a profound
effect on the outcome of an experiment. A simulation is a simulation. It is
never the real world.
An apprentice develops intuition over many years by trying thousands of ways
to do things and learning from his or her mistakes. Some of those mistakes produce
the serendipity that leads to advances in the field. As Albert Einstein said,
“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”
Intuition is what we really hope to develop in our classrooms. Why would we
just settle for having a student know the formula for every possible parabola
and having him/her ace the advanced placement parabola exam, when what we really
want in our students is parabola karma? A student can get parabola karma—or
French literature karma, or economics karma—by spending long years as
an apprentice or by a few hours, days, or weeks experimenting with an appropriate
Limitations aside, well-designed interactive simulations allow students to
learn not only by doing, but more important by experimenting; exploring the
proven, the dead ends, the true, the false, and the unexpected. But college
students who have been told for years to do things right need to be taught that
it is okay to experiment; that their goal is to develop intuition, not to find
the one right answer.
While we fuss to improve learning in the classroom and embrace each new instructional
delivery system, we need to remember that our goal is not so much information
transfer as it is kindling curiosity, enthusiasm, and the desire for knowledge
in our students. Einstein skeptically notes that “It is a miracle that
curiosity survives formal education.” If we use IT to get our apprentices
fired up, then they will not only survive formal education, they will flourish.