“It’s Oxidation, Actually”

The New York Times article “Alan Alda’s Challenge to Make Science Easier to Understand” begins with a story. Young Alan asks his teacher, “What is a flame?” and is dissatisfied with her answer, “It’s oxidation”. This was a response that he did not comprehend.


The article goes on to provide an overview of Mr. Alda’s acting career and long-held interest in science. In recent years these two aspects of his identity have merged together with the formation of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. The mission of this center is to use theater improv. techniques to train scientists to better communicate their work with people outside of their discipline. I agree wholeheartedly that this is important to do. However, I disagree with the notion which often emerges that ‘if someone doesn’t understand what an expert is saying, it’s because the person talking/teaching/etc didn’t explain it well enough’. Just because we don’t ‘get something’, doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t explained well, our teacher isn’t good, or so on. It just means we don’t get it! Could it have been explained differently? Possibly. But, perhaps we just don’t have enough knowledge at the time to fully understand the information presented. At a surface level, we can likely appreciate and comprehend the work of another researcher, or at least understand why it is important, just as young Alan could describe a flame and its properties. Can we understand the nuances of an experts’ work? Highly unlikely. Not because they did not explain it well, but because we don’t have much, if any, education in that area.

It seems that may have been the case with 11 year old Alan’s inquiry about a flame. At the end of this article the reporter asks how he would now answer his own question of “What is a flame?”. Mr. Alan’s response: “It’s oxidation, actually”.

Agree? Disagree?


About tanyamh

A PhD Student at Virginia Tech. This blog was created as a class requirement for Contemporary Pedagogy - Spring 2013.


  1. Hi Tanya,

    I enjoyed reading your post and I have a few thoughts to add. I agree that often when someone “does not get it” it may not necessarily mean that the person explaining the material is a bad teacher. My idea of learning (and this is just my perspective) is that learning is a process that includes many factors resulting in assisting one in making meaning of information. I often wonder when someone does not “get it” that they may not have arrived at making meaning of what they are studying. My belief is that we all do this at different levels, in different ways, and at different speeds. Thanks for sharing your post!

    1. Jenna, I love how you described the learning process so well. I agree that process, and speed, and might I add, the amount of repetition needed differs for all! Thanks so much for stopping by and expanding on the post!

  2. Thank you Tanya and Jenna for your great discussion points. I think you both bring up great points about how learning is not necessarily one-sided. However, I also believe that this depends on your audience. In the realm of the communicating science class, it seemed like those exercises were trying to help us convey our science to those not just outside of our field but to those of all academic, social, economic, political, geographical groups. In other words, putting our research into a more universal context. We discussed the many reasons this is important such us funding, public perception, etc. And in this realm, I do think it is more in the hands of the “expert” to be able to convey their science in a way that is plain and understandable to almost anyone. On the other hand, when we are talking about teaching our science effectively in the classroom, I definitely think the burden of understanding is shared by both the “expert” (i.e. professor/teacher/etc.) and the “novice” (i.e.student/listener/etc). In the classroom, active learning is so important. It is still important for the person teaching the material to present it in an understandable way, but the person learning needs to then take that material and put it into a context that they can use, understand, and build upon in the future.

    1. Sheryl,

      Great point! I completely agree that we must tailor our presentations to the audience. As such it makes sense that the level of responsibility on the “presenter” for having others understand the information varies greatly.


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