Many of the works dedicated to the life of Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell contend that his scientific accomplishments were much more significant than his teaching achievements. During his lectures, for example, he would often correct himself and double-check what he’d written, which tended to frustrate and confuse the few students he had (from two to eight per class). As a result he had limited communication with the students, and in his classroom there was excess noise and a lack of discipline. He developed a reputation as a poor teacher who lacked self-confidence.1 

However, we obtain a very different perspective if we step away from the details of his teaching personality and look instead at his own writings. They reveal that Maxwell’s pedagogical ideas and approaches were in general agreement with many of today’s views.

In his inaugural lecture2 at Cambridge University in October 1871, Maxwell presented concrete and concise concepts as a part of his methodical plan for classroom teaching. Here are a few of his ideas.

When Maxwell arrived at Cambridge, the traditional method of education, concentrating on mathematics and theory, was the norm; students were to trust the proofs that professors provided in their lectures. “The familiar apparatus of pen, ink, and paper will no longer be sufficient for us,” he said, “and we shall require more room than that afforded by a seat at a desk, and a wider area than that of the black board.” He suggested a new approach that he called the “experiment of illustration.” He wrote,

The aim of an experiment of illustration is to throw light upon some scientific idea so that the student may be enabled to grasp it…. To exhibit illustrative experiments, to encourage others to make them, and to cultivate in every way the ideas on which they throw light, forms an important part of our duty. The simpler the materials of an illustrative experiment, and the more familiar they are to the student, the more thoroughly is he likely to acquire the idea which it is meant to illustrate. The educational value of such experiments is often inversely proportional to the complexity of the apparatus (reference 2, page 15).

Maxwell was certain that much of a future scholar’s training must take place in a laboratory, where the student could administer his own experiments and become practically familiar “with all kinds of scientific methods, to compare them, and to estimate their value” (reference 2, page 20). Cavendish Laboratory, developed by Maxwell, realized that notion and became an outstanding school of experimental physics.

Maxwell’s remarks about using mathematical tools in research and education can be readily accepted by today’s scientists: “It is therefore natural to expect that the knowledge of physical science obtained by the combined use of mathematical analysis and experimental research will be of a more solid, available, and enduring kind than that possessed by the mere mathematician or the mere experimenter” (reference 2, page 18).

Furthermore, Maxwell noted the value of history of science in teaching: “The history of the development … of ideas is of all subjects that in which we, as thinking men, take the deepest interest” (reference 2, page 21).

In the lecture, Maxwell said, “It must be one of our most constant aims to maintain a living connexion between our work and the other liberal studies of Cambridge, whether literary, philological, historical or philosophical” (reference 2, page 20). His idea of interdisciplinary study is fully consistent with the view of science education espoused today by liberal arts colleges.

Many modern educators in colleges and secondary schools may be surprised by Maxwell’s textbook Matter and Motion,3 written in 1876 for beginning students in mechanics. The organizational structure of that textbook is nearly identical to texts used in colleges and high schools today, some 130 years later. They have the same introduction of vector algebra in the beginning course, the same sequence of material, and the same end-of-book review of the important points.

Maxwell was thus, both in terms of what he said and what he wrote, far ahead of his contemporaries in the teaching of physics.

I am indebted to Yitzhak Sharon, of the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, for his input.

1.
H.
Lamb
, in
James Clerk Maxwell: A Commemorative Volume, 1831–1931
,
Cambridge U. Press
,
New York
(
1931
), p. 142.
2.
J. C.
Maxwell
,
Five of Maxwell’s Papers
,
Project Gutenberg
eBook (
2004
), http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=1457501.
3.
J. C.
Maxwell
,
Matter and Motion
,
Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge
,
London
(
1877
).