TEAL is a step in the wrong direction

The well-intentioned program treats students like children

More controversial than Obamacare and Lady Gaga’s meat dress combined, TEAL (Technology-Enhanced Active Learning) has been the education choice of MIT’s intro-level physics courses for nearly a decade. The program pioneered a new way of learning physics, a glittering Shangri-la away from the abstract equations and faceless 300-plus person lectures, and into a more intimate setting, focusing on hands-on evaluation of physical principles. At its inception, TEAL faced criticism from students (who petitioned to keep it out of the school) and professors alike, a trend which continued as it moved from the experimental stages to widespread usage. A recent Tech article sang TEAL’s praises; allow my commentary to be the antithesis to that article.

After over about two months in an 8.01 class, I can see why TEAL faces such criticism. I don’t profess to speak for all of my peers, and much of my viewpoint has been derived anecdotally from my own experience and those of other TEAL students, new and old. It is not the teachers that are the problem, nor the students; it is the system. But many of us share the same opinion of TEAL: well-intended and fantastic on paper — but in practice, a childish exercise in monotony.

I will preface this by saying that I am neither a physics savant nor a model student, but I do strive to get the most out of my education. For those of you who haven’t had the misfortune of taking a TEAL class, here is a primer. The main premise of the class is for students to have an active engagement with subject material, aided by technology. To this end, students are assigned to circular tables of about nine people, frequently collaborating on “table problems” throughout the class. While a group project scenario is common in the “real” — not synthesizing new info like working people are — table problems are often mundane exercises in the exploration of concepts ranging from the blindingly obvious to those so vague they would be clearer in Swahili. Generally, though, the table problems are doable by one or two people. The strict encouragement to work as a team inevitably creates a vicious cycle of allowing those who do understand concepts to monopolize a problem, leaving those who do not understand to flounder and become even farther behind. I, for one, would be quite intimidated to ask a student domineering my group for help, which would render this so-called “teamwork” fairly inefficient.

Like vultures scouring desert grounds for moribund flesh, TAs are enlisted to impose their standard of “collaboration” (i.e., collectively tackling a problem on a whiteboard) upon any group showing the slightest sign of inactivity, even if they’ve already solved the problem. The result of this is an endless parade of redundant busy work and futile labor. Goading students to work together in such a manner is not only infantile but downright insulting to students’ intelligence. Students should have the resources available to them to take advantage of at their own discretion, rather than having “help” shoved down their throat. Compulsory, graded attendance further harkens back to the I’m-trying-to-induce-amnesia-to-forget-them days of high school. This is MIT; contrary to the apparent beliefs of TEAL advocates, we are capable of solving problems without militant intervention.

While I applaud the effort to incorporate “hands-on” education in the physics classroom, the technology component of TEAL, too, is laughable. Computers used for labs possess memory rivaling that of a goldfish. A recent lab assignment required an extensive pre-lab component, which, as it turns out, was exactly the same as the lab itself — the only difference was that students collected the data in the actual lab. So the only portion of the assignment related to learning new concepts was primarily done theoretically, which leads one to wonder why we even bother performing the physical experiment at all. Lessons consist largely of unhelpful Powerpoint presentations (that are, mystifyingly, converted into pdfs) containing physics problems. Occasionally professors work examples on the board, and broadcast them onto screens around the room that cannot be comfortably viewed without owl-like abilities of neck contortion. “Clickers” are the platform of choice for the pointless gimmick of multiple-choice questionnaires that could be easily done without an overpriced external apparatus. Though useful for the collection of experimental data, the technology in TEAL ultimately serves as little more than a decadent distraction from legitimate education, rarely utilized for pragmatic purposes.

One supposed benefit of TEAL is its adaptability to student critique. While this is admirable, it is hard to provide concrete suggestions to improve a class which is fundamentally flawed. TEAL sounds like it should be doing everything right, engaging students in an active education. In practice it is juvenile and contrived, regardless of numerical measures of aptitude. While I do not profess to believe that lectures are the best format for physics education, I believe that many of my peers would join me in saying that TEAL is a step in the wrong direction.

Tom Roberts is a member of the Class of 2014.