On teaching

Do elite nerds need any education? 

[Finnish version: click here]

Niko Porjo’s posting last week (Finnish only) raised some conflicting feelings. Summary: based on his own experiences when studying physics, Porjo strongly questioned whether lectures are an efficient type of teaching at all.  I found this argument compelling, given that it resonates with my own experiences.

Porjo then suggested, perhaps polemically, that it would be more efficient to get rid of most artificial and formal types of education. Learning by doing is the most efficient way, and theory should flow from the practical work rather than vice versa. I did not agree with this suggestion at all.

I believe Porjo may be right, but only within tight boundaries. It is true that sitting in compulsory classes is slow and inefficient, especially now that much of the information is available on the Net already. If someone wants to listen to good lectures, there are sites like  TEDx or the Khan Academy.

Whatever the field of study, the actual learning happens elsewhere, not in lectures. Physics requires vast amounts of exercises. Some subjects require massive amounts of reading and writing. In practical subjects, only the practical work teaches what the work really is.

I do not break any confidences if I say that Porjo is a gifted physicist and an extreme nerd (in the most positive sense of that term). He studied physics in Turku in the 90’s, and I studied physics in Helsinki in the 90’s. Although we only met at work in the 00’s, our student experiences are similar.

That is why I found Porjo’s skepticism about lectures so familiar, even heartwarming. I never got much out of lectures, even the good ones. I was mostly too fidgety to even sit in them, even the good ones. I did pass, and even got a PhD (though it took me exactly twenty years), but I was no academic star.

This was quite common in the University of Helsinki’s physics department in the 90’s. All the familiar faces sat at the cafeteria, not the lecture rooms. (Actually, the largest number of familiar faces sat at the library doing physics exercises. It is not possible to graduate in physics without undergoing a punishing regime of thousands of calculations. For every hour spent goofing off from lectures, I spent two hours doing exercises).

But — and here is the crux — we are talking about maybe a few dozen people. Not really an elite, but an unusual crowd. We spent our first kegger making physics calculations, even though there was beer on offer (no women though, for some reason). We spent all keggers that way, actually. Those were the days. The Big Bang Theory may be a parody of physicists, but it is a subtle parody.

What do the learning experiences of this crowd teach us about the ways in which education in Finland should be arranged?


The situation Porjo describes applies to a very specific group of Finns: introverted people who are voluntarily studying scientific or technical subjects. In practice, this group would teach itself the basics whether or not there was any formal teaching at all.

Should the world rotate around this group? It is trendy to suggest that a nation succeeds only if its cognitive elite succeeds. Give the top percent all the resources it needs, weed out the weak ones, and let Darwinism do its magic. The fittest will survive and save society.

I beg to disagree. A nation is on average as competent as its average citizens. Finland has no Nobel laureates, but even a mediocre engineer is quite good and well-rounded here. This is almost certainly one reason why the cell phone business rose so quickly in such a small country. A company could recruit almost anyone at random, and be reasonably sure that they were reasonably competent.

This business has now collapsed (see the Finnish-only blog by Timo Tokkonen), but the average competence means that people will learn to do something other than cell phones, although the transition will be painful. If all Finnish engineers were only trained to optimize Symbian code, we would be in trouble. Luckily, the educational system is well-rounded, at all levels.

So who should we focus on: the elite or the average? Porjo’s blog gives an immediate answer. The most gifted and motivated people will dig up their knowledge from under a rock, if they have to. All they need is Net access. After that there is no particular need to pamper them.

Resources should be put into providing a good well-rounded education for the average Finn. (In fact, I feel that a civilized society should give even its weakest members the best feasible education, even when it doesn’t seem to make quantitative economic sense. I have no rational defense for this idea, it is simply an ideology).

Since I know nothing about pedagogy, I don’t quite know what this means. Probably, it means that education must be quite structured, perhaps repetitive, and even include some formal discipline. It definitely cannot mean the type of anarchistic workaholism that got me and my friends through. But I am happy to leave the exact definitions to the professionals.

The key point is that in this debate, the experiences of people like Porjo and me are largely irrelevant. We have our place in the margins of society (an important place even). But in terms of the education debate, almost everyone else is more important.

3 thoughts on “On teaching”

  1. Your key point is wrong. Our experiences teach that the teaching methods should adapt to the pupils and not vice versa. As it happens, this is also how a good education can be given to everyone. The second lucky coincidence is the one I tried to make in my post, modern technology makes this cheaper than ever.

    And Finland does have a Nobel laureate: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/1945/virtanen-bio.html . Ok, his dead and I don’t really understand the implied “we”, but still.

    1. I probably could have phrased my key point better, but I will still stick with it: most people are not motivated and autonomous enough to handle education without some discipline. (We actually have two laureates, Virtanen and Sillanpää, but not recently).

      I will, however, admit that my whole blog has a serious logical flaw: the reasoning, in a caricature, is that
      a) nerds don’t like lectures
      b) nerds are bad
      c) therefore lectures must be good.
      Therefore I’m inclined to place this into the category of failed blogs. One can’t always succeed…

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