Mind of a teacher
Steven Pinker, researcher, author and teacher, has put his course at MIT on the net. John Bald meets him
Tuesday June 24, 2003
Steven Pinker, internationally famous researcher and author, is first and foremost a teacher. He may be director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but he also holds an MIT teaching award as a MacVicar Fellow.
This reflects both his lucid and enthusiastic teaching style - "nearly the entire class is actually participating in every lecture," said one colleague - and also what comes across as a natural belief in teaching and learning as an expression of democracy.
His introduction to psychology course was the prototype for MIT's open courseware programme, which allows the general public (or students at other universities) access to the course materials of the world-famous university. Emails to his MIT website receive thoughtful replies, signed "Steve". He accepts congratulations on his move to Harvard - "institutionally in a month, physically end of summer" - with a straightforward grace.
Pinker sees his main strength as a teacher as "explaining difficult concepts in ways people can understand, breaking them down, systematising them". He takes care over analogies, trying to find one "that goes to the heart of the concept that must be explained. It doesn't hurt to entertain, but if you just do that, students see through it very quickly."
His style also seems to inspire confidence in students; as one put it, following his teaching award, "learning from Professor Pinker, all at once one feels smarter".
The main weakness in university teaching is, in Pinker's view, a tendency to "have teaching reflect very closely the practices of research". Too often, he says, teaching is based on presenting and analysing flaws and contradictions in research data. This, he says, "leaves the student in a state of confusion. Why spend all this time on flawed experiments and false theories? Why can't we think about true theories and why things do work?
"You have to give people some kind of conclusion that is defensible, but not always focus on research techniques. For undergraduates, you want to convey some increased understanding, not get totally bogged down in contradictions and flaws."
How far, then, can good teaching be made available to students in less prestigious institutions than MIT and Harvard? Pinker has had "surprisingly little" feedback from his internet course in terms of questions from readers, but was placed on an MIT committee to consider the consequences of the system. There was a fear that star professors would take courses they had developed in the institution, package them commercially and sell them.
There was also a real fear that people would not share their work with other faculty members, and that the idea could be the end of the traditional, expensive, American university. Why pay $35,000 (