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Norman Sperling
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The Rule of 3 Strange Terms

© Norman Sperling, January 9, 2013

In teaching astronomy, I not only have to teach many very strange concepts, I also have to deal with the very strange terms that Science uses for them. Over the years, I've learned that students find it harder to learn the words than the concepts.

When confronted by a strange term, a student will learn its definition and keep that in mind.

When confronted by a second strange term in the same field, the student will learn that definition, too, and keep it in mind.

Sharp students can even keep in mind the definition of a third strange term.

But that's the practical maximum. If you try to teach them a fourth strange term, their circuits go on "overload", they freeze, dump all 4 definitions, and regard your subject as "confusing" and therefore "too hard to learn".

So I minimize strange terms. The students benefit any time I can substitute plain English for a technical term.

Some are avoidable. Some are not. I can talk plain-English around a lot of astronomy. "Cliffs shaped like curlicues" works way better than "lobate escarpments" on Mars. "Layering" works better than "stratification" on many solid objects. "Mindset" works well enough for "paradigm". But I still use "nebula" because neither "space cloud" nor "hydrogen-helium cloud" conjure up the right concept in students' heads.

Where the astronomical term describes something entirely beyond human-level experience, no conventional term does well enough. "Nuclear fusion" is NOT "burning" - burning is much weaker, a chemical reaction in electron shells.

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