Questioning Authority and Building Models: New Semester Letter to Students

Cross-stitch with the words "question authority"I’ve really struggled this past semester with how strongly (and sometimes angrily) students defend simplistic models even in situations where they don’t work that well or blatantly contradict measurements or information.  Some examples are:

  • electrical resistance varies directly and only with orbital shell fullness;
  • conductors and insulators are always ideal;
  • current can’t flow in an open circuit.

I can’t help thinking there must be questions I could be asking that would yield more curiosity, but I haven’t found them yet.

I usually circulate a welcome-back letter at the beginning of semester 2.  My first day of class is Tuesday; here’s my current draft.  My questions for you:

  1. How else can I help students develop the habit of questioning authority, not as a practice of jockeying for position, but as way of trying to more deeply understand?
  2. How can I help students develop comfort and confidence with the ambiguous situations lacking a single correct answer that we work with every day?
  3. What helps your students struggle collectively against the status quo that promotes binary thinking, the idea that pointing out someone else’s “wrongness” can protect you from people noticing your “badness”, authoritarianism, “objectivity”, and the one true path?

EETN Semester 2 – 2 Fast 2 Furious

You heard about it.  It’s true.  This is the semester that the reins are coming off. You are not electronic beginners anymore.  You are full-fledged techs.  There may be times when you will say, “You are being a jerk.” That means that I will not tell you things that you have a way to find out for yourself.  I am here for the things you can’t do, not the things you can.  There are times when this will be inconvenient or annoying.  Let it be known that no amount of moaning will weaken me! The core of our trade is not memorizing rules, or building things; it is not even fixing things.  It is figuring out what needs fixing.  In other words, figuring out confusing realities.  You will not become better at it unless you practice figuring out confusing realities. This semester will at times be difficult, but YOU CAN DO HARD THINGS.

Sometimes people treat learning as if you can memorize the rules to find the single correct answer, and everything else is wrong (FYI – this is a pattern that aristocrats in Europe promoted 500 years ago, and there have always been people who did things differently. If you want to know more, it’s often called the “early modern” period).  But it’s impossible to have perfect answers.  We can’t measure everything in the universe, and even if we did, the measurements will always be imperfect. So we make models: ways of thinking that are backed up by evidence, that make good enough predictions for us to figure out what is broken.  That is what science and engineering are: judgment calls made by people like you, using evidence they observed or measured, same as you do.

Some models just don’t fit the evidence. Those are wrong answers. But often there are several models that fit the evidence, more or less. Usually one of them works better in one situation, and another one works better in a different situation.  I can’t teach you all the models you might ever need.  But I can teach you to make your own models, and how to figure out how much imperfection they have (it will never be zero), what causes their imperfections, and decide when to use and not use them. I can also teach you how to assess the models made by experts.  The experts know that their models only work under certain circumstances; but they don’t always tell you that.  So you need to be able to figure that out.

If you want me to help you learn to figure out confusing realities on your own, here’s what you need to do:

  1. Be open to QUESTIONING things you know. Where did that idea come from?  Especially if it’s an idea that seems like it’s just “the truth” or “the rule” or “the only way”, it’s time to ask, When is it useful? Why does it work?  How true is it?
  2. When you know a lot about a topic but you look more closely and find a contradiction, or a new possibility, that’s wonderful news!  It means you have NOTICED something that you couldn’t see before.  Looking at something you know about, and noticing something new, is one of the most important skills of the science and engineering world.  Look for your “noticing moments” whenever you can, and celebrate when you put your finger on them! If you share them, I will celebrate with you
  3. “Noticing” moments are a good time to say “I knew X and Y, does that conflict with Z?” Or “It seems like A should happen, because B, but C does instead, why is that?”  It takes COURAGE, and it’s a very fast way to get really skillful.
  4. Every time you learn an idea, use it to try something.  Use it to build something, or explain something, or question something, or agree or disagree with something.  That’s SKILL.
  5. Don’t be afraid of ideas that CONFLICT!  If both ideas have lots of strong evidence behind them, it probably means that they apply in different situations, or that there’s a miscommunication somewhere. It’s another great way to find good questions. “How can X happen if Y is also happening?”
  6.  Sometimes this can feel confusing or frustrating.  It’s ok to have FEELINGS; it’s ok to talk about your feelings (“Mylene, I’m frustrated.”). It’s not ok to reject ideas just because they’re unexpected or different from yours (“This is dumb”), or to just keep repeating your idea over and over without trying to understand someone else’s. Remember, it’s always ok to take a break.
  7. The school forces me to give grades – otherwise I wouldn’t give them at all. If you get a good grade but you don’t understand, that grade is meaningless.  If you understand something thoroughly and can do it really well, then no number matters. Please remember that someone who gets 80.1%  is not better than someone who gets 79.9%.  What you do is worthwhile if it matters to you and the people you care about. Question the motives of anyone who tells you otherwise.
  8. If you get all the Level 3 skills in this course, that means you are ready to do this work – in any part of the industry, in any job where they hire technicians.  When you develop those skills, AND YOU WILL if you keep working at it, I would hire you myself, and I’ll tell anyone who calls for a reference that you have my confidence.  COURAGE and UNDERSTANDING are worth being proud of.
  9. I’m not here to help you get a diploma – I’m here to help you get skills.  I will do that by any means in my power. Work with me here, by always giving yourself a “first draft” or “prototype” to try things out.  You can lower the pressure on yourself by assuming that re-assessment is necessary, and the first time you try something is just a scouting mission.  Pressuring yourself to do things perfectly the first time actually makes your learning worse, and it stresses out your classmates too.  Take your time, give yourself a few chances to really, fully understand.  If you learn to notice when you don’t understand, you can GET HELP from a teacher, classmate, tutor, etc. right away.
  10. Plagiarism is super-duper seriously bad. Here is a true rumor: anytime you copy stuff off the internet and put it anywhere without using quotation marks, a citation, and a bibliography, “a gnome will stab you in the kidney with a rusty harpoon. Then, you will have to face charges of academic misconduct with a bleeding kidney.” [1] Don’t say I haven’t warned you.
  11. Be safe. Great harm has come to those let the world swim by them, unquestioningly believing authority, not noticing their assumptions, and accepting ideas that are not backed up by at least two sources of evidence.  Or hoping that if you ignore hard ideas, they will go away. I don’t want that on my conscience.  Also, take care of yourself and the lab equipment.  That means no Timmy’s paper cups in the shop.
  12. If you are struggling with some aspect of the class, let’s find a way for you to get support. I am free almost every day during lunch and am at school after class every day.  I have crappy staff meetings a lot, so make sure and check my calendar to see available times.  Please book your appointment for 15 minutes so others have time too.


When you are demonstrating a theory skill, you can do anything that shows your understanding, as long as I can tell that it’s your work.  In the past, students have demonstrated theory skills by writing reports, creating videos, building circuits, making a blog, doing a verbal presentation, crocheting, etc.  I’m still waiting for the day someone writes a song or does an interpretive dance.  If it shows your understanding and I can tell it’s you (probably I’ll want to talk with you about it), that can be your reassessment.  Feel free to propose your personalized form of reassessment when you submit your application.

See you in there!



  1. I learned this line, and the inspiration for some of the ideas in letter, way back in 2011 from a math teacher named Greg, at his blog called This is a very informal bibliography.  It means that the right person gets credit for the idea, it allows anyone who’s reading to go back to the original source for clarification and questions, and lets you know that I myself do not have the skill of writing such comedy.  These are the three main reasons why I think we need bibliographies. If you need a formal bibliography, you can look up one of the popular sets of rules, or you can let your word processor make the bibliography automatically.


  1. The letter is marvelous, and I’d like to borrow from it, modifying it for high school freshmen studying biology. (I’ll give you attribution, of course.)

    The kids (and not just kids) struggle with creating, modifying, and ultimately ditching models we develop in class.

  2. Here’s to letting go of models that no longer serve us 😉 Or finding them a new home where they do work! Please adapt away. Will be curious to hear what comes of it.

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