Monday, February 08, 2016

Book 9: What makes a good teacher? Probably a good student.

Writing nonfiction is kind of like trying to be a good teacher. I know this because I in fact frequently write nonfiction, in the form of seminar materials, my law blog, and now a book about debt collector secrets. It's harder than most people might think, to be a good teacher. For one thing, you've got to know ridiculous amounts of stuff about the subject you are teaching. For another, you've got to be able to present it in an interesting way.

That latter part, I think, can't be overlooked.  I think a lot about how I was really a poor student throughout most of my schooling, until I got to law school. When I was younger (so much younger than today) I would blame my teachers for gaps in my education and/or the fact that I hadn't become a scientist or whatever. If they'd made it more interesting, I thought, I'd have learned more. That's only partially true. Teachers can't be blamed for students who don't try, and I was a student who never really tried until late in the game. It was easy enough for me to get good grades without working at it, so why work at it?

So I bear some of the blame for not learning, but not too much because, after all, I was ages 5-17, and between the ages of 5 and 17 people are basically morons. Even the smartest of us was as dumb as a box of hammers at 17, technically speaking. Whatever you might have known and however intelligent you might be, you didn't know much of anything about the world, people, what life could be like, and most importantly, what good an education was.

We waste education on the young, really. We throw all kinds of things at them in all the wrong ways, forcing kids to sit still and listen much of the time, making them read terrible awful boring things (I have seen what the kids have been assigned, for two decades, to read. OH GOD IT'S TERRIBLE.) We thrown memorization at them and concepts taken out of context and we rarely make learning fun or interesting or relevant.

Everytime a kid says, or said, What are we ever going to use this for? that was the kid, the teacher, and our whole system failing. I can distinctly remember sitting in math class, one of the classes where I had to really fight just to understand it (I passed college algebra by simply memorizing things), bored and confused and struggling to understand the basics. Yet when I used to go jogging, I would help distract myself from how hard it was by trying to calculate how many extra laps I would have to do to go the same distance on the innermost, rather than outermost, lap. I've read a bunch of books about math and related subjects since college, and enjoyed them all.

The problem was, I was being taught very specific kinds of math without any context whatsoever, and not being taught basic concepts or thoughts. It worked the same way with foreign languages, history, almost everything: here are some things you definitely have to know, school said, so memorize them.

I bring this all up because book 9 -- I figured it was time I got around to the subject-- is Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik. (You probably guessed that from the picture up there.)  It's a nonfiction book that explores material science by taking all the materials shown in a picture of the author having a cup of tea.  From that basic conceit, the author walks readers through boiled-down explanations of glass, carbon, concrete, chocolate, porcelain, and more. He explains, briefly and without a lot of mumbo-jumbo how these things came into existence, how they work, some of the more esoteric applications of them, and then how they helped shape society, and us.  There are interesting tidbits, like the section on concrete curing itself of cracks, or what the difference is between bone china and porcelain (basically: where they are made).

The book isn't dumbed down in any way, but it's accessible: Miodownik explains things clearly but you have to pay attention and think about things to understand and get a lot out of it -- and yet, most readers probably won't mind learning.  I got the book on audiobook a week ago and have been listening to it while I take Mr F for his rides, and then finished it up today in the car on a four-hour round trip.  Which means I have voluntarily taken about 10 hours worth of science class in the past week, and enjoyed it, and learned something in doing it.

What's most helpful about the book is that it doesn't get bogged down in the details, but teaches you just enough of the specifics to help you understand the larger concepts.  For example, I learned why it is that nanomachines can assemble themselves, while cars can't (gravity is not really a force on microscopic scales, while electromagnetic forces are, so gravity can't pull the nanomachines apart.) SEE? I learned why there are different kinds of chocolate and what happens if you heat a diamond up until it becomes red hot (it evaporates) as well as why that happens. Along the way, Miodownik sneaks in a bit of quantum mechanics, some astronomy, and more.  It's fascinating.

Miodownik as a writer is not particularly engaging; there was a rather lengthy section on plastics and celluloid written as a mock screenplay that I found kind of annoying in its concept -- but the information was overall presented in a format that allowed me to work past minor annoyances or distractions and still learn.

I had a few really good teachers as a student. I can remember the ones who were good as opposed to interesting. Some teachers were funny but terrible teachers. Others were smart but terrible teachers. The best ones were the ones who found a way to connect with students and get them to see why the material was engaging. I had an English teacher who so loved Charles Dickens that I can still see him acting out the role of Aged P in Great Expectations, but he also explained the larger themes running through Dickens so we could understand the story on a different level.  My criminal law professor called on me repeatedly because he knew I thought about the stuff a lot and that I disagreed with him on some things -- so he wanted to draw me out.  Those are two that spring to mind. Neither of them was particularly entertaining. They just understood that simply having cool information -- Charles Dickens' stories, criminal statutes -- wasn't enough, and being an entertainer wasn't enough. Teachers (and nonfiction writers) have to find a way to make people care about the subject, and to make the subject inviting.

In Stuff Matters, Miodownik does that. He takes a supercomplicated subject and opens the door by focusing not on esoteric applications, or the mathematical formulae that prove something, or the technical details (you won't learn how to make chocolate yourself), but by picking out things from everyday life -- a teacup, paper-- and showing how the basic thing came into existence, and what its existence means for the rest of society. I never thought about how the fact that paper being bound into a book made learning, and teaching, far easier than paper in a scroll, as it had been prior to binding. (The answer: with books in pages, you can mark a place and easily jump back and forth, so people like preachers could find passages in a bible more easily-- the precursor, as Miodownik explains, to "random access memory" for computers.)  That's the kind of stuff the book teaches.

I'm never going to be a materials scientist. But if I'd read this book at 15, or had a class that was like it, I might have given it some thought. It's an introduction not just to materials science, but to why we have to learn this stuff: if you know how paper is made you know why it took so long for us to make it and what it means that we can make it, as well as then how pens work (the ink bleeds into the paper, which is why pens can't be erased so easily, which then made me wonder about erasable pens, and how they work, so after I finished the book I went and looked it up, and found out I was wrong in my theory.)(My theory was that the ink doesn't bleed into the paper right away, but in reality erasable pens have ink that disappears when heated by the friction of the eraser.)

SEE? It not only taught me a bunch but made me wonder about something else, form a hypothesis, and then check it out. It taught me science.

Anyway, that's enough blather. I'm a bit disjointed because I did, after all, drive four hours to and from a thing today. The book is really a very interesting book; not the greatest nonfiction book I've read recently (that honor goes to What If? by Randall Munroe) but still one that should be added to your list if you have even the most cursory interest in science.

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