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Teaching Physics…

October 30, 2011

I am planning out a course that I’ll be teaching next semester for called, “Teaching Physics”. A major question I am wrestling with is, “What do I hope these students to walk away from this class knowing and being able to do?” Some thoughts that crossed my mind today.

Less than two years ago, Andrew Heckler opened a colloquium at the University of Maine with his take on the most compelling and important contribution of physics education research. From my best memory, he said something like this: “Our community is coming to the conclusion that it’s impossible to teach physics well without knowing how your students think and relate to physics content.”

Several decades ago, J. Minstrell wrote that it is a necessary part of teaching physics for “you and your students to know their initial conceptions before commencing a unit of study… Both the teacher and students must be aware of, and verbalize, students’ initial ideas.”

David Hammer wrote in the lates 90s: “A curriculum succeeds, not by guiding the flow of learning and instruction, but by helping to establish an arena of activity rich with opportunities for student and teacher discovery.”

There is something particularly interesting about Jim Minstrell’s recommendations for getting started in teaching physics. He doesn’t suggest you go out and start reading Physics Education Research articles. He doesn’t suggest you start using research-based curriculum materials. (Although I doubt he would recommend you not do these things). What he does suggest is this: Start by listening to your students’ ideas. Start by providing both your students and yourself with opportunities to learn about their ideas. Start by asking questions and constructing activities that engage those ideas. This is also reflected in David’s notion that the curriculum doesn’t succeed because it guides student thinking, but that it provides the teacher and students opportunities to find out about each others’ thinking.

At the end of the day, it is your students you need to come to know about. It is your students’ own mind that they need to know about. Yes, research materials can  help you create opportunities to learn about your students’ ideas. Yes, research articles can help you refine what it is you think you are listening for. But the work of learning about your students ideas is always now. …

What does this mean for my course? I’m not sure, but more and more I think I am committing to teaching this course in such a way that the students in my class experience student thinking– through examinations of actual student work, through observations and reflections of live clinical interviews I’ll conduct in class, through their participation in learning activities with students we invite to class, through interviews they will have to conduct, etc. Yes, we’ll get to reading some physics education research and examining research-based curriculum and teaching strategies, but not until we’ve spent time thinking about our own ideas about what students are thinking and doing, and why they might be thinking and doing those things. I’ll try to provide them with the opportunities to discover student thinking, and I’ll discover what ideas they have for thinking about student thinking. At some point, I’ll invite them to learn about how physics educators and  researchers think and how they have aimed to create curriculum and instruction based on what they think. I hope to do this partially by reading, but partially by inviting those people into our classroom.

I don’t see much reason why we can’t talk to researchers and educators over video. I don’t want the things we experience to be distant. Not distant student data or quotes. Not distant curriculum and curriculum developers. Not distant researchers.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Christopher permalink
    November 3, 2011 6:05 pm

    Can I get an Amen!?!

    My experience with math courses for future teachers is that there are challenges and opportunities to the approach you describe. But it pays off hugely. Just today I sent off a group of future elementary teachers with a complicated series of tasks around base-5 “decimals”. They were happy, curious and hungry to explore this territory because I’ve spent 11 weeks building the case that this will help them to understand the thinking of children. And kids are what they care about.

    So the opportunities are great here. I look forward to following your journey.

    One of the challenges is finding ways to position my students’ knowledge with respect to children’s knowledge. It HAS to be OK for students to hold the same (wrong/simplistic/etc) ideas that children do. And students have to know that it’s OK with you that they do, and that they won’t lose face with their classmates when they do. This is harder to pull off with secondary licensure students than elementary (in my experience) for a variety of reasons that may be obvious to you (but I’d be happy to elaborate).

    One important way for me to navigate this challenge is to describe “people’s ideas” and to describe these as common among children. So that when my students think like an 8-year old, they hold an idea that “people” hold, not that “children” hold. I can’t communicate to my students that their ideas are “childish”.

    I’m curious how you are thinking about the challenges of the approach you propose. It’s not terribly far from the inquiry work you do in the content courses, right?

    • November 3, 2011 9:21 pm

      One benefit is that I have many of these students right now for a one hour seminar course, in which we do a lot simple physics problems that demand a lot of thinking, arguing, and working through. I’ve done a fair amount of work to make the class about working through our own (wrong/simplistic) ideas about physics, and to the role that argument can play as the mediator of truth. We aren’t completely there, but a lot of the groundwork for mindset is there. Even more recently, we have been talking more about other people’s ideas, as part of argumentation.

      My biggest challenge (I think) will be moving us from just flirting with some physics ideas and how other people think to an immersion into people’s ideas about physics. I need to think more about how to balance the “big picture” of why we are doing this, the nitty gritty work of attending to our own and others’ thinking, and the mid-level connections I need to help them make between content and students, content and content, and content, students, & engagement.

      I plan on posting a draft of some of the class structure, and sequence of activities that try to operate at these different levels. I’ll be curious to see what you think for sure…

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