General Relativity – Why high school students should learn about Einstein’s most revolutionary idea

Albert Einstein
One century after Albert Einstein revolutionized our worldview, physics educators are finally catching up, says physicist Magdalena Kersting. Credits: Pixabay

General Relativity – Why high school students should learn about Einstein’s most revolutionary idea

Despite our better knowledge, physics in schools is still taught from an outdated 19th century point of view. This essay argues for introducing general relativity, a cornerstone of modern physics, to physics students at high school.

“Why is it nobody understands me and everybody likes me?”
Albert Einstein (Princeton, 1944)

Magdalena Kersting
Magdalena Kersting is a physicist working at the ReleQuant project at UiO. Credits: UiO

100 years ago, Albert Einstein had the revolutionary insight that gravity is not a force but an effect of the geometry of spacetime. With this idea, Einstein laid the foundation for modern physics and deepened our understanding of the universe.

Even today, this impact hasn’t lost any of its force or fascination: In February 2016, the LIGO collaboration announced the first direct observation of gravitational waves. Shortly after, the Nobel Prize committee awarded the 2017 physics prize “for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves" positioning the theory of general relativity yet again at the forefront of research.  

But not only does general relativity continue to inspire scientific progress, its repercussions have influenced our everyday life in countless ways as well. GPS positioning technology, now available on most smart phones, relies on both the special and the general theory of relativity in order to work. Yet, despite its relevance and public popularity, there are surprisingly few attempts of bringing general relativity to classrooms.

Why GR has not entered high school education yet

Introducing the notion of spacetime, Einstein turned classical physics upside down. Instead of describing gravity as a force, he interpreted the gravitational pull as an intrinsic feature of the structure of the universe itself: Massive objects such as planets, stars, or black holes bend the fabric of spacetime, and matter – trying to follow straightest paths possible in a curved world – moves towards those massive objects.

Being introduced to general relativity, learners face a twofold challenge: First, they have to discard their traditional worldview that has been cemented by years of school education. At the same time, they have to handle new and abstract concepts of space and time that often contradict their everyday experience. Since the nature of spacetime is four-dimensional the human mind cannot perceive or visualize general relativity in an intuitive way. This challenge is probably one of the reasons why general relativity is usually only taught to physics majors at universities and has not entered mainstream education yet.

In response to our lack of imaginative power, physicists and mathematicians have developed sophisticated theories to describe gravity in a rigorous way. Yet, this level of advanced mathematics takes several years to master and is therefore inaccessible to high school students. Not having the right mathematical tools at disposal, science educators and teachers have to develop means of communicating important features of the theory without relying on the mathematical foundations of general relativity.

Why GR should be part of the school curriculum

The task of bringing general relativity to schools might look challenging, but who are we to be scared off by an educational challenge? Let’s rather feel inspired to push boundaries when communicating scientific ideas! Indeed, I argue that it is not only worth the effort but that we owe it to our children to introduce them to relativistic ideas from an early age. After all, in schools we present outdated nineteenth century ideas on physics as if they were the best description of the world.

Do we really want to communicate those ideas as our best understanding of the Universe? Do we want to shape the way the broad public thinks about science in those classical and outdated terms?

General relativity is our current description of gravity and governs the laws of physics on cosmic scales. Credits: Pixabay

Not only do most physicists agree on general relativity being a sublime achievement of the human mind, but this achievement serves as a superb example of the nature of science as well. Scientific laws are not set in stone; modern physics is not completed. Science evolves, it is dynamic, a human endeavor cast into a non-linear progression of ideas. Scientists improve existing knowledge; they work creatively and propose ideas that can completely transform current scientific understanding.

It was Einstein’s ingenuity that surpassed the reach of the classical understanding of physics: For centuries, physicists had used Newton’s description of gravity though no one could give an account of the true nature of this mysterious force. In the beginning of the 20th century, Einstein introduced the idea of a dynamic interplay between space, time, and matter. His theory for gravity had a wider explanatory reach – it could explain everything that Newton’s theory could and predicted warped time, black holes and gravitational waves as new phenomena in addition.

Teaching how general relativity has overcome classical physics can help students to build bridges between physics, history, and philosophy. Eventually, this understanding might foster a critical awareness for the nature of science and its scope and limitations.

Another, and admittedly more pragmatic, reason to introduce students to relativistic ideas is the need for well-educated citizens in a society that is growing fast and that displays an ever-increasing degree of complexity. We need students that are passionate about physics and that chose to pursue a career in science.

Educational research in Norway and Australia has shown that Einsteinian physics can act as a catalyst for student motivation. Students are fascinated by Einstein’s genius that grappled with mind-boggling concepts such as black holes, wormholes and time travel. Einstein has become a modern icon and his theory has the potential to motivate children and young adults to show a keener interest in physics. General relativity might be abstract and challenging, but it challenges young minds to reach for the stars and to realize their potential.

What remains to address in our quest to make general relativity teachable is its abstract nature.

First of all, there is good reason to believe that curved space and warped time only seem counterintuitive because we have learned about them only late in life after our classical worldview had already been formed. Australian studies have shown that very young children handle Einsteinian ideas quite well if they have not been exposed to Newton’s description of gravity before. They display the ability to include curved spacetime in their conceptual understanding of reality without the common conceptual struggles that we see in older students both at high school and university level.

In addition, modern technologies allow for new ways of visualizing exotic phenomena. We are not able to travel with velocities close to the speed of light and we do not live close enough to black holes as to experience noticeable distortions of space and time around us. Nonetheless, modern computers and new algorithms are able to simulate those phenomena. Physicists and science educators have started to make use of those possibilities in educational settings – not least in astronomy courses at the University of Oslo. Students’ experiential understanding of the world might be limited, but neither is their imagination nor the technological possibilities that carries their imagination beyond the realm of our senses.

Norway as an educational pioneer

So far, this essay has presented benefits and challenges that come with teaching general relativity on high school level. Admittedly, those considerations have been rather academic. As chance would have it, though, Norway is a great example to study the teaching and learning of general relativity in school settings.

The ReleQuant team investigates novel ways of teaching Einsteinian physics at high schools in Norway and internationally. Credits: Berit Bungum

In recent years, Norway has had a leading role in introducing modern physics into high school curricula. With the latest school reform introduced in autumn 2006, both general relativity and quantum physics became mandatory in upper secondary physics education. The reform placed increased focus on qualitative and philosophical aspects of physics by encouraging students to explore different interpretations and philosophical aspects of Einsteinian physics.

In response to this curriculum change and to make it easier for teachers to teach modern physics, project ReleQuant was founded. ReleQuant researchers develop digital learning resources in general relativity and quantum physics and include teachers and teacher students in the process of development. The project combines the development of digital learning environments with research on students’ learning processes and motivation in physics.

You can read more on on this procject (unfortunately only in Norwegian): Nå skal skoleelever lære Einsteins teorier

After two years of development, ReleQuant launches a digital learning environment in general relativity targeted at high school students.

So far, our first trials have shown promising results: Both students and teachers appreciate a shift from blackboard-centered teaching to conceptual and philosophical explorations of general relativity.

A key feature of this approach is to “talk physics”, that is to use language and discussions with peers actively in the learning processes. Our results indicate that the use of language can facilitate conceptual understanding of general relativity.

Even though teachers and students admit to struggle with the abstract nature of general relativity, many find the topic motivating. Their overall feedback is that a combined approach of digital learning environments and active classroom discussions can create engaging lessons in modern physics.

Science educators are finally catching up

In this essay, I have argued for introducing general relativity as part of early physics education at schools. Even though the subject is abstract in nature and challenging to teach and learn, the far-reaching scientific, philosophical and cultural importance of general relativity is worth the effort both for the individual and the society as a whole.

Novel ways of presenting general relativity utilize means of modern technology and enable teachers and young learners to handle the subject quite well. This approach is further promoted by emphasizing philosophical aspects of the theory. First results of pilot studies in Norway and Australia have shown that teaching general relativity in schools is feasible and can improve students’ motivation and attitudes towards science.

One century after Einstein revolutionized our worldview, educators are finally catching up: In bringing general relativity to high schools, we give students a glimpse of what lies ahead if they choose to study physics. Shaping the way our next generation will think about the universe will hopefully ignite a passion for science among many.

Who knows, the next revolutionary idea in physics might come from a student who is just about to learn about general relativity using the innovative ReleQuant learning environment?


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