Permission to try again

Dr David Hoxley inspires students to think differently about physics

By Dr Giselle Roberts

I admit it. I don’t get physics, I failed maths in high school, and less than three years ago I couldn’t have told you the difference between an atom and a molecule. Perhaps if I had met Dr David Hoxley somewhere in my educational past, I may have had a different experience in STEM.

Hoxley is a physicist who specialises in using diamond to create next generation medical biosensors. But it is Hoxley the educator, with his refreshingly unconventional style, who has inspired a legion of students to think differently about relativity, quantum mechanics and life’s true momentum.

The law of physics

GISELLE ROBERTS: In a couple of weeks you will be standing in front of a lecture theatre full of new students. What does physics offer them?

DAVID HOXLEY: It builds discipline. Physics is hard, but it’s got an advantage because there is always a right and a wrong. It allows you to tackle hard problems and know when to stop. That’s very reassuring, because physics involves a lot of delayed gratification. It builds all those mind muscles of persistence and creativity that are so important, particularly in today’s society.

GR: What do you love about it?

DH: I see beauty in physics, through my senses, in things like sunsets and lamb roasts, abstractly in sagging power lines and pyrite flecks in quartz, and mystically in the ocean, flying in aeroplanes and children. Having a rich story to tell is a huge driving force. What makes science different is that it throws up surprises, and the story changes. I love the twists and turns. I also love the mystery and uncertainty, not just the gaps in the story, but the contradictions and downright nonsense. Accepting the transcendental is an important part of physics.

GR: It sits at the very core of life.

DH: Yes, and it has an ancient vibe, all the way back to Aristotle. As physicists we are comparing ourselves to the best practice of thousands of years. It’s a high bar. It’s like ballet, or painting, or gymnastics; it’s a classical pursuit. Every conjecture must be anchored in an experiment, and to a measurement, and that’s really challenging. You are wrong all the time in physics. And if you can’t handle that then you are not going to survive a femtosecond in this field.

Building resilience

GR: I imagine therein lies the challenge for teaching staff. Physics is hard, you have setback after setback, and that’s an accepted part of the discipline. So teachers are confronted with the task of realigning student expectations, which is not so easy in a culture of instant gratification.

DH: The biggest challenge I face as a teacher is helping students develop a healthy relationship with failure. It’s increasingly difficult to get them to embrace the idea of having to do something twenty times to get it right. It’s something all classical disciplines face, including drawing, which I have recently taken up. By the way, I am terrible at drawing. Examining the light, and finding ways to shade it, I am not good at that at all! But there is something really important about failing, and getting better at climbing the learning curve. Getting students to accept that process of temporary failure is hard.

GR: And making that explicit is critical, because otherwise students can’t help but think they are not cut out for it. It’s about building resilience.

DH: Exactly. I tell students, “I want you to go up to the whiteboard and get it wrong. I don’t want you to go up there and write down the correct answer because that’s a waste of everyone’s time.”

GR: Well, I could do that!

DH: Did you notice your entire body language loosened as soon as you said, “I could do that.” That’s what happens in the classroom. The pressure is off and suddenly the student has permission to be wrong. We need to make mistakes and learn from them. We often forget that.

Life lessons

GR: So what makes a good teacher?

DH: It’s got to be a partnership. ‘Students as partners’ is really big in teaching at the moment, but it is as old as the hills. For me, it’s just good teaching practice. You’ve got to diagnose the problem, figure out what the student doesn’t understand, and find a way forward. You need reflective metacognitive maturity. You also have to calculate how much repetition is required, how small the steps of understanding are, and how much time is involved in each. As teachers, we need to dig deep into the cavity of the rotting tooth of ignorance.

GR: Great phrase!

DH: And if you try and plug it when it’s still got rot, it will continue to rot. It’s also about having an absolute command of the material, which is almost impossible. That’s why teaching is so stressful, because you are frequently out of your comfort zone.

GR: And if teaching is a partnership, how has it changed you?

DH: It has given me the opportunity to know myself through my students. Teachers must have the courage to identify what their teaching practice is teaching them about themselves. It is a challenging thing to do. To be honest about your own strengths and weaknesses is really hard. But that’s what elite athletes do. They know exactly to the heartbeat what their bodies are doing. They don’t curse their genetic failings, they work around them. If anyone asked me, “Why should I go into teaching?” I would respond by saying you will learn a great deal about yourself.

GR: And in the best case scenario, the same thing happens to the student.

DH: Yes. Some might go into the world thinking differently. Maybe they now say, “I can” rather than “I can’t.” When that happens, it is really gratifying.

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