Physics education research (internationally known as PER) is a research activity that is firmly grounded in the context of physics knowledge practices, and aims to understand, problematize and theorize the teaching and learning of university physics in ways that can improve learning outcomes.
In other words, PER practitioners work to make physics - and thus the world itself – a little more comprehensible by profoundly changing the experience of learning. And it is here that Prof Cedric Linder has excelled.
After matriculating from Parktown Boys’ High, Johannesburg, he spent a few years working to get money together for university, before heading to Rhodes University for a Physics and Electronics Honours degree, followed by a Higher Education Diploma (Physics and Mathematics). He became a high school science and maths teacher in Cape Town, and then was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to complete his Master’s at Rutgers University in the US.
When he returned to SA, he was passionate about finding ways to optimize physics learning through research-informed practices, particularly for those students coming from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds – and the University of the Western Cape (UWC) is where he started putting his plan into action.
After developing his own PER skills with a University of British Columbia, Canada graduate fellowship to read for a PhD that focussed on physics education research, he returned to UWC with new knowledge and skills.
Building up a notable research thrust in PER at the Physics Department, he served as HoD, Senior Professor and also as South Africa’s first personal chair in Physics Education Research, a position created by UWC in 1996. While retaining his UWC relations, Prof Linder went on to establish the first Physics Education Group at a Physics Department in Sweden at Uppsala University..
For the range, depth, consistency and international scope of his work, and for his leadership in many areas of teaching and research, and in changing the way Physics is taught, he received the 2014 International Commission on Physics Education (ICPE) medal for outstanding contributions to international physics education.
And now South Africa’s National Research Foundation has honoured him with an A-rating – the very first such rating ever given for physics education research.
Prof Linder had a few words to share on the honour, and what it means to him…
What got you interested in PER in the first place?
Originally, it was my disgust with apartheid and its education practices, which seemed designed to keep people from reaching their true potential; I thought I could use educational research to inform making real differences in the lives of the oppressed.
What made you decide to come to UWC? And what made you decide to stay?
The then-HoD of Physics at UWC, Prof Theunis van Schalkwyk, thought I could help make a difference at the University, and he arranged for me to be seconded here, as a PhD-less young lecturer. And when UWC – the “university of the working class” became my home, I became totally absorbed by the application of PER in the classroom.
What are you most proud of accomplishing?
Getting an A-rating seemed an impossible hurdle in the broader area of education, and especially in science education - I was a B1 for sooo long. But I always wanted to get it – not so much for me, but for UWC, to help bring to the fore its commitment to creating agency for its students and how our scholarship included teaching and learning. Every step of the way, UWC has supported me – from lecturer without a PhD through HoD through professor-at-large – and for all of that I’m a grateful, “home-grown A”.
And of course, I was extremely honoured to be awarded the International Commission on Physics Education (ICPE) Medal for my “outstanding contributions to physics education research” and at the same time giving “special mention” to what the ICPE described as the “opening up of physics for disadvantaged students with life-enhancing and life-changing effects.” This recognition felt very special to me because I’m most proud of my impact on students: in earlier days, reading repeatedly in their feedback how I had changed their lives; today, meeting old students on the streets of Cape Town and having them spontaneously reaffirm this. It also feels good to know that I have helped shape the special interest that many of my UWC colleagues developed in their scholarship of teaching and learning – so they would go on to change the lives of students in their own special ways.
That’s a special kind of reward all of its own.
What do you get up to when you’re not working?
Not much time for that, I’m afraid – there’s just so much to do! But I do love spending time in the outdoors – swimming, jogging, riding my bike.
Any role models, or folks you’d like to send a shout out to?
In academic terms, I really admire my PhD supervisor, Prof Gaalen Erickson – he taught me so much of value that has permeated all of my academic career. And at UWC there are many special people in my heart. Some of them I met when I lectured them as students; some of them at higher levels. Some opened doors; some became special friends. They know who they are – and I thank them.
But the person I most admire is my wife, Anne. After I suffered a “traumatic brain injury” in 2002, her deep and abiding love and care made it possible for me to return to productive work, when the medical folk thought that could not happen. She even gave up her own career and moved to work in my research group in Sweden to give me the strength and fortitude to start to re-learn what was needed for me to be a productive person again, and then to grow in scholarship again. At the same time Anne developed a special relationship with my PhD students teaching them how to present their work in ways that became exceptional. Without her, none of this would have been possible, and many lives (including my own) would be much poorer.
Any advice for other researchers who might want to become “A”-grade?
Don’t think you can do it on your own. I certainly could not have achieved this without my graduate students – putting in a huge effort into providing rich and rewarding educational experiences for them provides great benefits on both sides. Invest in them.