Sunday, June 29, 2014

What is physics? (And who are you asking?)

Mid-afternoon Friday, I tweeted:  "What do you do with / for the student who zones out during discussion? The one always saying, "What did you say?" ".  I don't know if it's being short on sleep, the Friday-ness of it all, or a real problem with spending most of the day whiteboarding worksheets, but I did have a really hard time focusing on Friday.  And I do have students who have an equally hard time focusing on a discussion that I and some of my students find engrossing.  I wonder what happens to those students when whole-group whiteboard discussions become a primary mode of instruction.  Maybe they make up for it in the small-group discussions and catch up with the model summary at the end of the discussion?

Reading this weekend, I found the Hammer "Two Approaches to Learning Physics" article VERY useful.  I hadn't previously thought to step back from individual physics concepts to the overall concept of what it means to learn physics and do physics.  The two example students made it really concrete for me, and it gradually became clear to me that I, Dr. Jekyle and Mr. Hyde-like, teach two different conceptions of physics.  With my ninth grade class, I have a lot of leeway on content coverage, I've deliberately and repeatedly chosen depth over breadth, and I think I do a reasonably good job of having students develop the qualitative concepts before the equations (especially fall semester, when I do CASTLE and we don't really get any equations until November or so).  With my 11th grade class, which I taught for the first time this past year, I felt very pressured to cover a large syllabus of content to prepare my students for the IB Physics exam, and I think I've slipped into physics = formulas mode much more than I like to contemplate.   The idea of pacing as a marker for how much time is allotted for independent reasoning and sense-making was a revelation to me.

As I started the second article, Mestre on "Learning and Instruction in PreCollege Physical Science" I noticed the 1991 publication date.  Then I went back and noticed the 1989 date on the Hammer article.  I remarked to my husband how depressing it was that all these amazingly true and useful ideas about teaching and learning physics were published 25 years ago and yet haven't seem to have any impact on the mainstream approach to teaching physics at any level.  My intuition is that this is at least in part because Mestre's list of science education reform stakeholders at the end of his article excludes some of the most important players.

At the beginning of my education program and the University of Michigan, we pulled out the Michigan High School Content Expectations for our subject area and went through them.   We were taught that the processing of designing instruction started with those standards.  Most science teachers I know would love to take a deeper, more conceptual, more student-driven approach to learning, but feel that their primary responsibility, the job on which they are being evaluated, is to teach their students as much of the HSCEs as they can in the time available.  And they feel that the traditional transmission method is the only chance they have to come anywhere close to that.

You can argue that the traditional transmission method is actually less efficient at achieving real learning than a slower, more constructivist method.  I think that probably depends very highly on what instrument you're using to measure the learning.  If it's individual interviews or written explanations of scientific concepts, I believe that the constructivist approach is more productive.  If it's a very facts-driven standardized test like the MEAP, I suspect that (much as the formula-driven student did better in her physics class) the transmission method instruction gets higher scores.   But I'd love to see data that proves otherwise.

Which leads me back to Mestre's list of stakeholders who should be involved in physics education reform.  It includes teachers, scientists, and textbook publishers.  It does NOT include the state or federal departments of education, the legislature, or parents.  And yet, they are the ones who "pay the piper" through taxes and appropriations, and thereby "call the tune" by setting standards and evaluations of both student learning and teachers.   Maybe the Next Generation Science Standards relax the breadth requirements and allow more breathing space for students to construct their own understandings.  I haven't read them closely enough yet to have an opinion on that.  But I also have doubts that they will be easily adopted by Michigan, given the resistance to adopting the Common Core and replacing the MEAP in the legislature over the past year or two.

We're inviting our school administrators to come visit this workshop.  That's important.  But maybe we should also be inviting our local state senators and representatives?  And the heads of our PTOs?  Are we spreading the research-supported view of a better conception of what physics (and science) is to the right people?

1 comment:

  1. Wow Emily, those last questions are really great. I'd never thought of inviting the PTO. I usually sell the parents through the year on a case by case basis. I too was struck by how all the articles were written so long ago! Why has nothing changed? This is frustrating and something we are currently working on with universities and at the state level as well.

    Also, if you conceptually understand the topic shouldn't you do as well on the plug-and-chug type tests? I would think you might have an advantage because you actually know which formula you are using and why.