Volume: 7, Issue: 3


Physics as a means of social education
Горбушин С.А. [about]

KEYWORDS: activity-based classes, students’ independent activity, problems in physics, physics as a science, cultivating honesty, role of physics in social education.

ABSTRACT: A renowned Russian physics teacher discusses a complex and eternal problem of cultivating honesty among students by means of an academic discipline, namely, physics. Based on the legacy of outstanding scientists of the past and his own extensive pedagogical expertise, the author validates fundamental statements of teaching physics as a school subject, shows the crucial role of the activity-based nature of learning in the formation of students’ independence, and uncovers the true potential of this subject in social education.

On the craft

Let us agree upon the basic principles. It is the “activity-based” rather than “lecturing” lessons that really teach and produce a character education effect. The unswerving struggle for the elimination of “lecturing” lessons is a permanent top priority task. Indeed, the lesson does not achieve its goal if the students are listening to the teacher with bated breath, stay interested and mesmerized, but they themselves are doing nothing. In this case, there is no learning unless the teacher is an active proponent of such pedagogical fireworks. But such teacher is obviously wrong. One can be absolutely sure that by the next lesson his students will remember absolutely nothing, so the teacher may as well start all over again. At most they will remember to have already come across this. The second time will not change anything either except for that vague feeling that something of the kind has already been taught. During the lesson students should work actively. 

I intentionally limit my discussion to the issues of social education while teaching physics, and I am not going to argue about the learning outcomes of the subject. As far as the social education part is concerned, practically everything is clear. A student must at all times continue educating him/herself – that is the only way of success in any educational strategy. To realize this goal, a student needs a strong willpoweras the key instrument without which such continuing self-education is impossible; in its turn the development of a willpower (just like any skill development) requires continuous and diligent practice or activity. This is a maxim familiar to all university graduates – education must be hard, but feasible.

A student should make a personal effort, first, by carrying out standard tasks together with the teacher, then doing it independently and, finally, proceeding to the so-called creative work. Although, strictly speaking, the creative part begins as soon as the student stops just listening and starts doing. Willpower develops only in these constant “hard but feasible” efforts, which trigger the hackneyed personality growth everyone is talking about these days. Since childhood everyone is aware that it is the type of actions to be undertaken that informally divides all school subjects into major and minor. Mathematics is always a major subject because it is practically impossible to be properly ready for a lesson by simply reading a subchapter from the textbook. It does not matter whether the subject involves writing or speaking (for example, you have to talk a lot in a geometry class) or how many classes per week one has in this particular subject (there are, actually, not many hours allocated for geometry in comparison to algebra). What matters is whether the subject is honest and activity-based, but not listening-based, and it is not just memorizing or retelling a new subchapter.

Physics has all necessary prerequisites to become such an honest subject. The potential here is much more powerful than in many other subjects. It is almost as powerful as in mathematics. And it would be wrong not to use that potential. I am talking about the ideas that are evident, and that everyone knows. Just like in mathematics, there is some vital remedy in physics, something that is absolutely necessary. It is exceptionally beneficial, absolutely natural for the subject and constitutes its remarkable specificity. This remedy is in problems. They help teachers to make the lesson truly activity-based. This is what teachers make use of. To be more exact, this is what teachers should make use of. Students should study and learn how to solve problems. By doing this they will finally master everything that has been discussed during the lesson or written in the textbook (and read during the break before the lesson). It is exactly at this point when students finally face challenges without which neither real education nor the formation of willpower is possible.

The aforementioned is not in conflict with the so-called motivation. It will show up as soon as the student starts to cope with the task. We always like to do things we are good at – that is what makes particular subjects become our favorites and enable us to remember things we learned at school long after our graduation. There is only one thing we need for this, and that is to be busy with something and learn to cope. One can argue that physics is not unique in this regard. Teachers can design lessons in any subject to be really activity-based. We are far from the desire to dispute this. I am simply trying to draw your attention to a significant potential, surprisingly, often unused and characteristic of physics only. In comparison, an assignment in Russian to patiently copy a text and fill in missing letters and punctuation marks is not worse in this regard.

However, apart from the development of willpower there are other aspects worth mentioning.

On science

Let us take a chance and assume that physics clears up or rather allows students to find the answer to the question about the purpose of science. It is no secret that they are constantly asking themselves, what is the use the “stuff” fed to us by teachers. After all, it is a general question whether students understand what they are learning for.

Let us not dwell on teenagers’ sensitivity to clarity in this matter, how they crave the sense of purpose, and how much this is related to their motivation. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry stated, “Prison exists at the point where the convict's stroke is dealt. … It is using a pickaxe to no purpose that makes a prison” (1). Physics is able to clarify this question, for it is absolutely ideal as a science. It is completely falsifiable according to Popper2 and therefore, appears to be an exemplary specimen of scientific knowledge. Physics has a great power to demonstrate that the purpose of science is not to explain, but to predict. This is what separates scientific knowledge from unscientific. We will exploit this or that phenomenon only when we know what course it will take before it even starts. Only the ability to predict is the criterion of accuracy of a certain physical or any scientific hypothesis, while the explanation is nothing more than a means, but the purpose is in foreseeing the future, and that is the benefit. A student who is aware of the purpose of science will escape many treacherous traps. Specifically, he will understand with all the proper clarity what hides behind the “theory is confirmed by practice” cliché and the popular expression among most teachers – “physics is a science of experiment”. Yes, theory is confirmed by practice, but what kind of practice? Essentially, not the one that existed before it and was known, dissenting from it is not of any value. A hypothesis is confirmed by the result predicted in it, when awareness of its outcome preceded the experiment. Therefore, the purpose of the theory completely determines the criterion of the used set of instruments – the explanation. Once again, nothing contributes to the clear understanding of this more than problems do. Initially they are scientifically organized by the way the question is formulated, “What happens, if… ?” Getting accustomed to the genre of this question within physical problems for the sake of understanding the concept of scientific knowledge is a lot more effective than any narratives about “falsifiability” and Popper within the framework of philosophy. And here we need physics again.

On the world

Finally, let us briefly talk about miracles. In his famous paper, On educational effect of math lessons (2) Hinchin speaks a lot about intellectual honesty. Indeed, formulating a theory in mathematics is unthinkable without honesty, and I am not going to repeat his arguments here. Physics is no less exigent as far as honesty is concerned, and it helps cultivating it in students. If you give it a thought, the necessity of honesty is based on a truly amazing fact. The point is (and students must be really surprised to learn this), mathematics is directly connected to our world. One shouldn’t think of it as a “servant of physics” or the “language of physics,” or anything similar. Every professional is the field  is fully aware that it is immeasurably broader and cannot be reduced to such definitions. However, parallel to its unquestionable independence one cannot fail to notice that any processes in nature occur in an absolute accordance with it; that mathematical divisions created without any acknowledgement of nature find, with time, those natural objects that, as it turns out, they describe.

It is astonishing that having started drawing segments with pointers – vectors – and having settled certain mathematical manipulations with them, we can predict real phenomena concerning the objects around us, granted that these segments exist in our imagination only. Galileo Galilei wrote, “Philosophy [nature] … is written in mathematical language, and the symbols are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without whose help it is impossible to comprehend a single word of it; without which one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth” (3). Honesty here lies in the unconditional acceptance of this connection and taking it into account. If a student solving an equation loses its roots, this, however paradoxical it may seem, is in direct ratio to a thrown ball and the opportunity to understand in what direction it will go; and the student should realize it. And a stool will inevitably break if one crafts it so that its leg doesn’t get in the cone of friction, which exists solely as a mathematical abstract. If one tries to ratiocinate nature “without mathematics” and “in spite of mathematics,” it will be impossible to predict anything correctly. Recognizing this circumstance is, as experience shows, the only adequate attitude to the world. If it is wrong from the point of view of mathematics, it is impossible for nature as well.

That is the type of attitude to the real world that should be cultivated. This is a certain antidote to possible total nihilism – when a claim to verity of any judgement or intellectual relativism is denied a priori – when all judgements are recognized as equal. This honesty must prevent intolerable “liberties” with respect to scientific knowledge, the ones that are incompatible with it. Let us turn to the memoirs of a famous Soviet academic Alexandrov,

Soon after the war, in 1946 I believe, I was summoned to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and I was informed that quantum theory, a theory of relativity and alike are just nonsense… In response I told them a very simple thing: “The atomic bomb shows a transformation of substance and energy that corresponds with these new theories and with nothing else. That is why if you refuse to recognize these theories, you should also refuse to admit a bomb. Please, reject quantum mechanics – and create a bomb yourselves however you want it (4).

And even here – let us not be afraid to seem too tendentious – the leading role belongs to solving problems. It is these problems in physics that consecutively demonstrate an objective connection to the students. The connection to the nature of the language it speaks. It is only possible to comprehend and predict due to this language, without which “one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth.”


  1. De Saint-Exupéry, A. (2009). Citaty iz knigi Planeta Lyudej [Quotations from the book The Planet of People]. М.: EHksmo.
  2. Hinchin, A. Ya. (1961). O vospitatel'nom effekte urokov matematiki [About the pedagogical effect of Mathematics lessons]. Matematicheskoe prosveshchenie, 6, 7–28.
  3. Science/The last book of Galilei. The planet of everything. Information portal. Retrieved on October, 4, 2015. http://www.planetavsego.ru/news/html/32.html
  4. Alexandrov, A. P. (1988).  Kak delali bombu [How the bomb was created]. Izvestiya, July, 22.

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