Economists, political scientists and sociologists have long suffered from an academic inferiority complex: physics envy. In a recent NY Times op-ed, Kevin Clarke and Primo follow this witty allusion to a Freudian concept with a more serious point: [Social scientists] often feel that their disciplines should be on a par with the “real” sciences and self-consciously model their work on them, using language (“theory,” “experiment,” “law”) evocative of physics and chemistry.
Another discipline recovering from physics envy is psychology which, to be fair, exhibits less symptoms today than 50 years ago. One reason being a diversification of psychology into many–some very large–sub-disciplines such as clinical, developmental, social, cognitive, evolutionary, genetic, biological. Many psychologists no longer belong to the same scientific organizations or share the same space on university campuses. There’s a second reason physics envy has diminished in psychology. Admiration of the cool detachment of physical sciences has been, is being, supplanted by more orientation to the biological sciences’ focus on adaptation over time of living organisms. For many psychologists this is a more agreeable frame given the dynamic nature of human cognition, emotion, and behavior. As the 20th century wound down, many psychologists diversified the research methods considered suited to study of humans.
(Wooden, personal communication, February 12, 2002).
There’s an interesting parallel between Coach Wooden’s pedagogy and contemporary views on teaching mathematics. It is not a perfect analogy because the subject matters are different in fundamental ways. Consider Coach Wooden’s hope “ …to be as surprised as our opponent at what my team came up with when confronted with an unexpected challenge.” The desire to be “surprised” by his players is surprisingly analogous to contemporary ideas on teaching mathematics. If students are only taught to memorize solution methods, any deviation in problem structure or form may stymie them. If they were taught to understand conceptually the underlying mathematics, they are typically better prepared to devise solution methods as the need arises.
Learning the “basics” is important; however, students who memorize facts or procedures without understanding often are not sure when or how to use what they know. In contrast, conceptual understanding enables students to deal with novel problems and settings. They can solve problems that they have not encountered before.
(National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2005) ).
Coach Wooden emphasized repetition of fundamentals so that his players would be resourceful, imaginative, and creative, not because he wanted them to be robots mindlessly relying on rote memory. For him, repetition is a means to an end; he firmly believed that when students understand what they are doing and can connect the ideas they are taught, they are better prepared to solve new problems as they arise in the future. He teaches that understanding and conceptual knowledge, supported by automatic mastery of fundamentals, prepares students to tackle problems of all kinds, like those they had encountered before, and novel ones, too.
For more how Coach Wooden taught concepts and used repetition to build automaticity, see Nater and Gallimore (2010), Chapter 6.