Time spent on basic ideas is never wasted

Yesterday in my statics lecture, I tried to explain why it’s good to spend time thinking about things that seem really elementary. I always spend the first week reviewing concepts they should have picked up in Physics I and Calc II, trying to connect the dots in a way they’ve never seen before.

What’s disheartening is that you can see it in many glazed over eyes:

“I already know this.”

Perhaps that’s true on some level, but you can always attain a more fundamental understanding, and these new insights are really valuable. Think about what Feynman had to say from the perspective of the teacher:

If you’re teaching a class, you can think about the elementary things that you know very well. These things are kind of fun and delightful. It doesn’t do any harm to think them over again. Is there a better way to present them? Are there any new problems associated with them? Are there any new thoughts you can make about them? The elementary things are easy to think about; if you can’t think of a new thought, no harm done; what you thought about it before is good enough for the class. If you do think of something new, you’re rather pleased that you have a new way of looking at it.

What a nice perspective! If my students think they already know the material, what about me, at the tail end of a PhD in structural engineering and mechanics? Aren’t I bored?

Not at all. I’ve gained a lot of insight for all that time spent contemplating something as basic as statics. In fact, given the chance, I’d re-teach every engineering class I’ve ever taken.

You have nothing to lose from gaining deeper insight into fundamentals of a topic you care about. Time spent on basic ideas is never wasted.

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