What is Meant by “Teaching Fundamentals”?

In my previous post I noted how students and professors are often talking past each other, where some the former want to learn immediately applicable knowledge and the latter want to teach long-lasting fundamentals. I also noted that there is no contradiction here, which begs the question what professors mean when the say they want to teach fundamentals? Students may hear “irrelevant stuff nobody cares about” but that’s obviously not it. So let me explain.

A concept, or a piece of fundamental knowledge, that professors want to teach, is knowledge that is considered (for now) accepted broadly relevant knowledge that the discipline builds on. Examples are the concepts of imperative programming, the relational algebra, and mechanisms of ray tracing in computer graphics. Such knowledge is not immutable and eternal, its significance rises and eventually also fades. However, it is expected to do so over a long-time horizon, not just a few years.

The reason for teaching concepts like this is that they will guide the student for a long time and will help them acquire the practical knowledge of the day as something that is based on and reflects these fundamentals (rather than replaces them). This property of long-time applicability justifies teaching a specific concept (over another one with less long-time relevance).

That’s it. Except that it can go wrong.

It goes wrong if the professor cannot teach these fundamentals well and students don’t actually learn them. This can happen easily. Things go wrong if the professor cannot tap into the students’ practical experience, for example, by using ancient technology to illustrate the fundamentals. Things may also go wrong if the fundamentals are not being applied and experienced; then they are unlikely to stick with the student.

However, with the proper didactics, it doesn’t have to go wrong. Just because a particular professors may not be so gifted in teaching as one might hope doesn’t mean the content isn’t worth learning. It is just (unnecessarily) hard.

If you are curious about how I teach, you may like reading up on my principles and practices of teaching.

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