Up until this point, I have focused most of my Big Year on observing the natural world and seeing birds and other wild critters. But as Labor Day passed, and schools all over the country have resumed their academic schedule, I have started to think more seriously about the other half of my Big Year: the search for good teaching. I have to say, I’m not entirely sure how to approach blogging about good teaching and good teachers – there is an element of privacy and discretion that I want to consider carefully. I also don’t want to set myself up as some kind of judge or arbiter of what is “good teaching” (and conversely what is not!). But I also want to share a few of my musings and thoughts on the matter as I visit various schools and teachers this year.
Yale is a bit of an odd choice to begin my exploration of good teaching, considering that I am primarily interested in teaching at the secondary (i.e. high school) level. And while there are some excellent professors at Yale, many of them are known more for their expert scholarly research than for their teaching prowess. But I was passing through the area, and felt a strong attraction to return to the place where I first discovered my own passion for teaching. It would also give me the opportunity to interview one of the most influential teachers in my own life, Dr. J. Michael McBride, professor of chemistry. For the past several decades, Dr. McBride has taught a freshman organic chemistry course, one that I took myself in the early 1990s, and later returned to as a senior to help tutor struggling students.
This is Sterling Chemistry Laboratory, the building where I learned chemistry at Yale, and the place where Dr. McBride still keeps his office.
While McBride’s class did include most of the concepts you’d find in a “standard” organic class like stereochemistry, nucleophilic attack, and resonance stabilization, he also spent a great deal of time trying to teach more fundamental lessons. A major theme for the course is “How do you know?” And not just how do you KNOW, but HOW do you know, and also how do YOU know? Professor McBride shared with us a historical perspective on how we know what we know in science – a perspective that renders insight into how science operates, and what is “good science” and what is not. There are “no rigid rules about what constitutes good science or bad,” he said, which is why it is so important for students to “develop good taste” for what makes convincing evidence. Dr. McBride hopes that as a result of his class, students will learn to “distrust assertions” and instead make full use of their reasoning abilities and knowledge of science.
Another thing that made Dr. McBride’s class different than many other organic classes was his emphasis on learning the basic tenets of quantum mechanics and molecular orbital theory. While these topics seemed mind-blowingly sophisticated to our 18 year-old brains at the time (and of seemingly little relevance to organic chemistry), we soon began to see how they could be used to truly understand organic structures and reactions on a deep level. With a solid appreciation for MO theory, we didn’t have to simply memorize the dozens and dozens of basic organic reactions – we could predict and intuit for ourselves what would happen when two molecules react. This approach turned out to be immensely powerful, not only for learning organic chemistry, but more broadly to convey the idea that the natural world is built on logical, understandable truths. And if you are able to master these truths, you can understand and accurately describe a great deal about the world around us.
Anyone can watch the lectures associated with the first semester of Professor McBride’s course – they are available through the Open Yale Program here. And while only people with a deep interest in chemistry will likely be interested in the session on “Stereotopicity and Baeyer Strain Theory,” almost anyone might enjoy his opening lesson on “How Do You Know?” or some of the later ones on the historical development of chemistry.
I spent a couple of days at Yale, visiting old professors and mentors, touring the campus, and even coincidentally running into one of my former Lakeside students on the way to her research lab in Sterling! My walks around campus also allowed me to reflect on what I thought “good teaching” was when I first started down the road to being a teacher myself in the 1990s.