Nov 22, 2010

One Teacher's Texbook-Based Course

I visited this private school a slight drive outside of New York City on a rainy day, and I got a little wet wandering around the campus for a while. I had to ask three people for directions before I was able to find the science wing. My point is that this school is well-equipped, and their campus is BIG and beautiful. The school is not predominantly a boarding school, but some students (and some teachers) live on campus. There are about 100 students in each grade. The ninth grade physics class covers a lot of material, and there is a heavy emphasis on using algebra and even trigonometry to solve quantitative problems. For students that have not had the necessary math, physics teachers teach the math that is needed for the physics class (for example, students are taught how to work in radians in their unit on circular motion and rotational dynamics). Labs make heavy use of technology (PASCO sensors, mostly), and students are given a set of instructions to follow, through which they are generally expected to arrive at an expected result by entering data into a preexisting spreadsheet. In general, the class resembled a traditional eleventh grade physics class taught at the ninth grade.

I had been in touch with the head of the science department and a physics teacher here, for quite a few months before I managed to make my visit. This teacher told me early on in our discussion that he had written his own textbook for their ninth grade course, and I found this intriguing. In talking with him, I learned that this textbook evolved out of his own personal lecture notes. It resembles a standard introductory physics texbook, with some personal touches of specific problem solving methods and terminology he is partial to. For him, this textbook falls somewhere between the difficult level of, say Giancoli's algebra-based text, and Hewitt's Conceptual Physics (He mentioned that he thought that the Hewitt book was too rudimentary for his taste.). This is the first year that they are using this textbook for all students, though ninth grade physics has been taught at the school for about six years. The class seems very popular these days, and a biology teacher who led me to the physics classroom mentioned without prompting that she loved physics first, because her bio students had a solid understanding of chemistry.

I was amazed at how much content the teacher got through in one 90-minute extended period. On their third day of discussing forces, the class began with an introduction to free-body diagrams and concluded with (a) a Newton's second law problem where an upward pull accelerates an object in opposition to gravity, emphasizing the difference between F=ma, and Fnet = ma. He used (b) a force diagram of pushing a book horizontally against a wall to introduce the idea of friction, and spent a few minutes discussing (c) what I would consider a difficult problem of the forces involved when pulling two blocks linked to each other horizontally.
This teacher is an entertaining lecturer, and students seemed engaged for the entire 90 minutes or so, even though they were in their seats for the entire time.
(The net force double arrows in examples (a) & (c) are my own addition... an old habit from my own course.)

I also observed another ninth grade teacher who has been at the school for five or six years, since the early years of their physics first implementation. This teacher was a very charismatic lecturer, and he worked to pull students into his lecture with stories about his past, and fictional narratives about Newton developing the laws of motion. Newton's laws were introduced one after another at the very beginning of the class, on what seemed to be the first day of discussing forces. Students recorded word-for-word definitions in their notes, and discussed with each other questions like, "Which way will an iPod on the dashboard of a car move when the car accelerates?"

In my conversation with the science head, I asked what discussions they'd had around using inquiry-based education. He said that they weren't sure where they stood on implementing more inquiry-style activities, but they were trying to come up with something that would fit.
When I mentioned the FCI, this teacher said he was familiar with the test, but I don't think he uses the test to collect data on the effectiveness of his own class. I get the impression that inquiry-based teaching and a focus on conceptual understanding are both gaining traction in physics classes across the country, but I think that at places with a reputation for high-powered academics (like this particular school), this focus may seem too rudimentary. Both teachers I observed are engineers by training (One also has a Master's degree in physics education.), and they seem to share the view that a difficult physics problem is a physics problem that involves difficult mathematics. Some students in the class were able to solve some tough problems, problems that my own IB Juniors would have had some challenge solving. At times, however, I noticed myself feeling defensive for having set very different priorities in my own course. In a program like the one here, where problem solving is a primary goal, would an individual teacher who wanted to devote more time to inquiry activities (at the expense of content, because inquiry takes SO MUCH TIME to do right!) feel some pressure to get their kids down to business solving more problems?
In summary, it was clear that this school was proud of their academic program, and prioritized a high degree of quantitative problem solving in their ninth grade class. Students are enthusiastic about physics, at least in part due to the very animated personalities of their physics teachers. The course fits well into their entire high school curriculum, and teachers of other subjects feel that the ninth grade course has added to the effectiveness of their own courses.

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