If we want to improve our world, we need to know science--not just to solve problems, but to understand the underlying patterns of nature. Many of humanity's greatest advances came from physics: radio, transistors, lasers, the world wide web, leaving Earth, and so on.

Science and physics will be essential in solving our future challenges: global warming, fusion, alternative energy, and so on. Society, innovation, and entrepreneurship depend, not completely, but a lot, on science.

(I may be biased, as I have a PhD in physics, though I've found my training applies to my subsequent practices of entrepreneurship and leadership.)

Problems at the root

Given the importance of physics and science, would it surprise you to learn that studies have shown that traditional introductory college classes can decrease students' conceptual understanding of the subject?

A 1998 University of Maryland study on "student attitudes and beliefs about university physics and how those attitudes and beliefs change as a result of physics instruction" found

At every school we studied, the overall results deteriorated as the result of one semester of instruction

A 2006 University of Colorado study on "student beliefs about physics and learning physics" found (emphasis added)

Our preliminary data already show the importance of certain beliefs for success in physics courses and a student's inclination to continue in or drop out of physics, and it shows that most teaching practices have a detrimental impact on all of these critical beliefs.

What's going on?

How can teaching science lead to students understanding less?

The good news

The problem appears not to be teaching science in general, but lecture-based passive instruction.

Physics teachers at Harvard, Ohio State, and Beijing Normal University compared student learning in similar groups of undergraduates at BNU, some taught through traditional educational techniques, some through Peer Instruction, an interactive technique developed in the 90s by Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur.

They found that

students in the traditional lecture became more novice-like in their attitudes and beliefs about physics over the course of a semester

while

Invariably, students in the PI classes exhibited positive shifts in their learning attitudes.

Teaching and leadership

I've sat in on Professor Mazur's classes. Unlike lecture classes, students sit and work in groups, actively solving problems together, not passively listening to a lecture.

The authors of the peer-reviewed papers above can't responsibly extrapolate from their results. But we entrepreneurs can propose hypotheses more freely: telling people the answers doesn't help them learn like giving them direction to work and letting them discover the answers for themselves.

The parallels between teaching and leading are strong. I still see people leading lecture-style: based in authority, promoting passive acceptance, not creating teamwork, and so on.

Besides the studies' demonstration that colleges could serve their students, and society, more effectively with peer instruction, they suggest to us how we leaders and entrepreneurs can activate our teams to learn more too.

Published on: Apr 18, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.