Classroom Demonstrations for the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences: Don’t Let Physicists Have all the Fun! — Dylon McChesney

chemistry demonstrationIf you have a background in science or engineering, there is a good chance that you took part in a classroom demonstration at some point.  Perhaps in high school you helped your chemistry teacher explode or set something on fire (this is the type of teaching that tends to produce audible gasps).  Or, perhaps, in an introductory level university physics course, you did something riskier, like students who volunteer to lay on a bed of nails while their professor smashes a brick on their chest with a sledge hammer as in this example from Harvard). By the way, don’t try anything like this at home, folks!

When you witness somebody survive the force of a brick-smashing sledgehammer while lying on a bed of nails, something abstract like force suddenly becomes concrete.  Nobody will appreciate this more than the volunteers who find themselves indebted to their professors’ lifesaving knowledge of physical laws.  Such demonstrations clearly promote interactivity in the classroom: rather than passively soak in formula after formula, students become active and engaged with the material.  This is good pedagogy because active learning has many benefits, including increased memory retention. For an extensive review of the benefits, see Prince (2004).

Science and engineering make it natural for teachers to incorporate demonstrations because demonstrations are not that different from experiments.  And while an element of risk might ramp up entertainment value, it is fortunately not essential for promoting active learning.  Most demonstrations don’t require students to sign waivers in case they are harmed.  Regardless of risk factors, physicists (as a paradigmatic example) seem to have an advantage with respect to integrating demonstrations into their classrooms that are both inherently interesting and able to concretize otherwise theoretical material in immediately obvious ways.  In the arts, humanities, and some social sciences, the objects of study are typically more abstract.  Rather than looking at the physical world, students in these fields examine ideas and cultural forces—to the chagrin of some, this subject matter can be difficult to connect to the “real world” and, even more disappointingly for others, does not involve burning, smashing, or blowing anything up.  Demonstrations in the arts are perhaps less natural because the elegant but mindless operations of the natural world are not always directly considered.

The above might look like an excuse, but it’s not.  No matter what you teach, there is going to be some way to involve students in demonstrations, as long as some creative interpretation of the word “demonstration” is allowed.  Teaching economics?  Have some of your students volunteer to make trades (with, say, different pieces of fruit) in order to help them understand Pareto efficiency.  Teaching political science?  Split students into two groups that have to accomplish a co-operative task: one in Hobbes’ state of nature, and the other a sovereign state.  Teaching poetry?  Print out poems you have covered and cut them into pieces, then have volunteers race to reconstruct them based on memory.  Teaching game theory?  Have volunteers play a prisoner’s dilemma involving cookies instead of jail time, and see if player strategies veer away from Nash equilibria over time when outcome information is accessible to each successive set of players.

The possibilities for using demonstrations outside of science and engineering might not be endless, but they are plentiful.  It is to our students’ benefit to incorporate demonstrations and promote active learning, so if you are teaching in the arts, remember that you have access to a wide range of pedagogical tools.  After all, a demonstration is just a way of translating a concept into an experience, which is a central aim of teaching.  So don’t let physicists have all the fun!


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Dylon McChesney is a Graduate Instructional Developer in the Centre for Teaching Excellence.

Image courtesy of Penn State News