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Logic and Reasoning– Tools for Empowerment or Coercion?

October 11, 2014

We just came into that week in Physics Licensure–the week where students start asking, “Did I learn anything in Physics I?”

As I’ve talked about before, Physics Licensure I and II are very much a band-aid sequence of courses for our future physics teachers–helping students to develop the reasoning skills and conceptual understanding they didn’t have much opportunity to learn our introductory physics sequence.

Students are really struggling with reasoning about Newton’s Laws. The course, being a band-aid, isn’t really providing the right kind of opportunities either. We go through tutorials each week, students do tutorial homework, and they have to write brief reflections each week. In addition they work some AP physics problems, and they have to make ongoing concept map to make connections among what they are learning. In all that, students get a fair amount of practice building concepts and reasoning, but they don’t get enough opportunity to explore and grapple with actual phenomena.

We’ve encountered many days where students seem to follow along with a guided line of reasoning stemming from Newton’s Laws (not easily).  At the end of it, someone will say, ‘That makes no sense”. In that, they are understanding and can produce the logic of the argument, about how if N2nd Law and N3rd law are true, it implies that some other conclusion must be true. To students, N2nd and N3rd law are not ideas they “own”; they aren’t using these ideas to discover puzzling implications about the world. Rather, the guided reasoning they are asked to follow coerces them into concluding things they’d really rather not say and definitely don’t believe. They aren’t happy about it.

My sense as a instructor is that many of our students still largely think that force is in the direction of motion, that you have to push harder than friction (or up against gravity) to keep an object moving steadily, that pushing harder will result it moving faster. Sure, you can remind them of Newton’s 2nd Law, and they can be coerced into saying something more correct, but it’s definitely coercion.

That’s how we’ve gotten to the place where students are saying, “I think I learned nothing in Physics I”. These students need a lot more experience with phenomena and grappling with their own ideas, the ideas of each other, etc. Right now, I don’t think I’m providing what they need.

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