The head of the science department at this public high school in New Jersey was one of a few people in my area who responded to an open request I sent out to the physics first listserve in the spring of 2010, and I'm very glad he did. The program at this school was exciting to see, and it is a rare example of a large public school that's been able to institute a successful physics first program at multiple skill levels. The program is an excellent example of successful Modeling Instruction, and students have shown significant gains on diagnostics tests and an increase in upper-level physics enrollment over previous years.
This school has been teaching physics first for quite a while (8 years)
but the program has only been as successful as it is currently since
they instituted Modeling Physics school-wide. When the ninth grade
class began, they were essentially using a college-prep text at the
ninth grade level, and this wasn't successful. One physics teacher
learned about Modeling Physics at a seminar for the "It's About Time"
program a few years ago, and then attended a modeling workshop at
Arizona State University. He, like many others who experience Modeling
Physics for the first time, came back with his perspective on science
teaching completely changed, and he and the head of the science
department gradually initiated a push to convert the entire ninth grade
physics program to a Modeling approach. This change, as far as I can
tell, took place totally independently from any other schools in their
area (I find this impressive!).
This school has since become authorized to offer a workshop in Modeling
Instruction on site, and this has made it much easier for them to
maintain a consistent approach among their physics teaching staff.
Science teachers have a four-course teaching load, and every physics
teacher has been trained in Modeling. Furthermore, the department has
collaboration time built into their schedule to facilitate discussions
between teachers on what is working well for them. It's clear that the
success of the program is a result of the department taking very
seriously their responsibility to educate teachers in this unique
approach to physics education, and to giving teachers this time to
collaborate. All science classes take place in 90-minute periods,
meeting three out of every five days.
There are over 400 students in the Freshman class, split into 20
sections, so at any given moment there are three to four ninth grade
physics classes being taught. These courses are split into three
tracks, called "Honors", "College Prep", and "Applications." The
Applications course is taught to students who did not pass the New Jersey ASK 8
test in 8th grade (some of whom are special education students), and
each of these classes is co-taught by a physics teacher and a special
education teacher. The diversity and quantity of physics classes being
taught make this shcool an ideal place to see Modeling in action.
In New York state, some successful physics first programs have been
forced into switching back to a standard Bio-Chem-Physics (BCP) course
order because of pressure to do well on the Regents,
a state-standardized test. That is, since students have a difficult
time passing the "Physical Setting" Regents, a test designed to be taken
by high school Juniors, it has been difficult to defend Physics First
to parents and administrators, since these Freshmen have a hard time
passing this test. (This is a fruitful topic of discussion in itself,
and I plan to devote a future post to this entirely...) In New Jersey,
however, there is no state-standardized test for physics, so this
particualr school has been free to continue offering the ninth grade
course. In fact, reversing the order of the sciences has made it
significantly easier for students to pass the required NJ state test in
biology (since they end up taking biology as a Junior, and the test is
designed to passed by Freshmen). Therefore, to prove the effectiveness
of their science program, the school employs two different diagnostics
before and after their unit on mechanics: the Force Concept Inventory
(FCI) and Lawson's Classroom Test of Scientific Reasoning.
The school's program has shown substantial gains in both tests. Data
showing the effectiveness of physics first is still relatively rare, so
these results are invaluable to the physics first community.
Since I haven't been personally trained in Modeling Instruction, I can
only speak rather superficially about what I saw taking place at this
school. Students are taught that a natural phenomenon, like an object
accelerating, can be represented in multiple ways, but that each of
these multiple representations
is at best a vehicle for gaining insight into the actual phenomenon
itself. The power of this seems to be that the conversations students
have about how to solve a problem take place at the intersection of
these different models. In the case of a standard acceleration problem,
for example, students are asked to solve the problem algebraically,
graphically, numerically (with a table of values), and also represent
the same situation using a "motion map."
I witnessed students discussing standard accelerated motion problems,
not with the language of, "What's the next step I need to solve this
problem?" but instead, "How does this algebraic solution connect to this
graphical solution?" One or more of their multiple representations
could be wrong, but the multiple representations themselves gave the
students a strong footing for their discussion about the problem, and
more nuanced understanding of the natural phenomenon itself.
Students in a modeling course make extensive use of "whiteboarding":
recording a solution in multiple representations in a group of 3-4
students on a 2'x3' whiteboard, then presenting their solution to the
rest of the class. Although I did witness one class where a teacher
employed a more conventional lecture-style approach (He said he felt
pressed for time to get through more material,), almost all the class
time I observed was spent whiteboarding. The 90-minute periods for
science classes at the school I visited also make this whiteboarding
process more effective, since the process is quite time-intensive.
Physics teachers at this school are free to employ their own teaching
methods and exercises. One teacher assigned a "Picture Project" where
students were asked to take one picture each of subjects that
demonstrated constant velocity and uniform acceleration, then write a
paragraph about each explaining their picture's relevance to those
topics. There were certainly differences between classes, and between
different levels of instruction (Honors, College Prep, and Applications)
but in general I was struck by the uniformity of teaching method
throughout these levels. This is certainly due to the fact that all
teachers are trained in Modeling, and are expected to teach in this
style. Furthermore, it seems as though the Modeling approach is
expanding into the Chemistry and Biology classes. I sat in on one
Modeling Chemistry class, and glimpsed the potential of expanding this
type of thinking into the rest of the high school science curriculum.
If this expansion is effective, Physics First will serve as a high
school student's introduction to the modeling approach.
I haven't yet had a chance to see specific results of the FCI and the
Lawson from this school (and haven't yet asked...). It strikes me that
the details of these results are essential to truly understanding the
effectiveness of the Modeling approach. I came across an interesting
paper titled Learning of Content Knowledge and Development of Scientific Reasoning Ability,
in which the authors demonstrate that FCI scores do not correlate with
scores on the Lawson. That is, training a student to think according to
Newton's laws does not necessarily train them to think like a
scientist. There's no question that this school spends more time on
mechanics problem solving than many other programs do, and I'd say that
the problem solving approach that they take is very well suited to
solving the types of problems on the FCI or the Mechanics Baseline Test.
So perhaps it's no real surprise that these students perform more
successfully on these tests, since they are more familiar with these
types of problems? As a big fan of the FCI, I'm still not personally
sure whether these questions really test whether a class is doing what
we want our high school science classes to do. However, if FCI gains DO
correlate with gains on the Lawson as a result of this program, then
that's a very different result indeed.
In general, I was totally blown away with what
I saw at this school, and I hope to go back to see more Modeling in
action during the unit on Newton's second law. This program provides
clear evidence that a successful ninth grade program at a large school is possible, if
adequate resources and attention are devoted to teacher training and
collaboration. The administration at this school deserves credit for
giving the science department the freedom to pursue this approach.