Dec 13, 2010

Differentiated Instruction in Physics

Physics First provides opportunities for an interesting type of differentiated instruction, where students might arrive at a complex understanding of fundamental concepts through their exposure to a variety of experiences.

I just got back from a trip to Baltimore to observe Physics First classes. I had a chance to visit two of the fifteen Baltimore public schools now teaching CPO Physics First, but the details of this visit will have to wait until I have a chance to wrap my head around it somewhat!

In the meantime, though, I wanted to describe my experience at a monthly workshop for Baltimore physics teachers, called "Physics Works." Physics Works is a monthly gathering of physics teachers in the Baltimore public school system, and my trip happened to coincide with this month's meeting. The day's 2-hour workshop was based on planning differentiated instruction geared toward students' varied intelligences. (This idea was first suggested by Howard Gardner in 1983: humans exhibit multiple different types of intelligences: bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, musical, etc. An effective teacher can give students opportunities to participate in activities geared toward their personal strengths.) After discussing the varied strengths of the people in the room, we worked in small groups to complete the following task: develop a plan to teach Newton's laws that considers the multiple intelligences of students in a class.

Most groups in the room interpreted this task to mean providing students with a variety of assessments to choose from. These assessments could range from writing a physics rap to drafting a letter to Isaac Newton to analyzing of video footage from a football game. This is what the teacher running the workshop intended for us all to do, and she provided us with a handout on suggestions for creating a "menu" of options for students to choose from.

It took our group a while to notice this "menu" handout, and as a result our group interpreted the task to mean something very different. Instead of giving students a choice between assessment styles that might suit their strengths, we asked ourselves how we could exploit these intelligences to engage the students through different perspectives. We designed an activity on Newton's third law that began with students pushing each other outward in rolling chairs, to engage them through their bodies. We then imagined students breaking into smaller lab groups to discuss fictional students' interpretations of the results
*, to engage them through words and conversation. Student might then work to design an experiment to collect quantitative data on mass and change in velocity with spring-loaded carts, to engage them through manipulating objects in space. This brought up a discussion of the link between logical-mathematical intelligence and spatial intelligence in data analysis using graphs and pictures, and so on.

What was exciting to me about this activity was that the concept of Newton's third law exists somewhere at the intersection of all these related activities. Students aren't just given the freedom to choose which types of activities they identify with more than others. Instead, they are expected to engage with the physics through each of the various activities, through areas of intelligence that they both excel at and struggle with. This seems similar to
the multiple representations which lie at the heart of Modeling Instruction, discussed in the 11/17 post below.

When taken one-by-one, the "multiple intelligences" seem like a simplistic interpretation of human strengths and weaknesses, and indeed there is much to criticize in Gardner's theory. But perhaps the interaction between these intelligences is something to devote more attention to?

*These fictionalized discussions are used in Lillian McDermott and Peter Shaffer's Physics by Inquiry and Tutorials in Introductory Physics. These programs were developed by the Physics Education Group at the University of Washington, and they are both excellent. The format might look something like this for the activity discussed above:

Consider the following statements:

Student 1: A
smaller student is always going to move faster because the larger student pushes them harder. Larger people are usually stronger than smaller people, so they have more pushing power.

Student 2: The recoil effect makes the person who did the pushing move backward, but this recoil never makes that person move faster than the person they pushed because their push is directed forward, not backward.

Student 3: Whenever two people interact, they push against each other exactly the same amount. A smaller person moves away from the interaction faster because they have less inertia, it’s easier for that same push to make them move.

Do you agree with any of these students? Explain.

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