Dec 7, 2010

Teacher-Driven, Student-Centered

The ninth grade physics class at this Quaker school is an example of how a creative and dedicated teacher can make extensive use of resources from a variety of places to design a unique and popular course.

I'm quite partial to the emphasis that Quaker schools place on holistic education, and I think that philosophies of Quaker education match nicely with some the ideas behind Physics First. This particular Quaker school I visited is fairly small. The 70 or so students in a typical ninth grade class are split into four sections, at 15-20 students each section. The physics class is required for graduation, so students who enter the school as a Sophmore or Junior take the physics class along with the ninth graders. The school also offers AP Physics B, which approximately 15 students a year elect to take in their senior.

The school has been teaching physics in ninth grade for many years (15+), and most sections of ninth grade physics have been taught exclusively by one teacher for the past four years. This teacher was a middle school math teacher before teaching physics, at MS104 in NY for six years and at her current school for five, after which she was recruited by the science department to take over the ninth grade class. She has a background in chemical engineering, and worked for 10 years as an engineer before deciding to get into teaching.

I'd been in touch with this teacher for a while before arranging a visit, and she was very generous about sharing the teaching materials that she uses in her course. This is especially notable because she uses a lot of different materials! Though students have access to Hewitt's Conceptual Physics text, the class seemed to be mostly built around activities and handouts that she has found in various places and sometimes altered slightly to better fit her course. (She models for her students a responsible respect for intellectual property by using material that has been distributed online for exactly this purpose, and by citing the author of a resource if she alters it from the original.) In the classes I saw, she made use of or referred to having used: a PhET simulation-based lab activity on graphs of accelerated motion, a handout on skydiving written by JL Stanbrough at Batesville High School, a clip from an episode of the Discovery Channel's Mythbusters (about Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze's timeless classic Point Break!), a short lab activity on dropping coffee filters taken from Hewitt's supplementary lab activities book, as well as some handouts of her own design. This type of diversity is exciting to see, and it's evidence of a class that's engaging for students.

To facilitate a discussion on the air resistance on a falling object as it approaches terminal velocity, she employed teaching method that was similar to Ron Thornton and David Sokoloff's Interactive Lecture Demonstrations, or ILDs. ILDs were initially developed for use in large classrooms where the availability of materials and time prevented students from performing their own inquiry-based labs on a topic. Students are given two copies of a handout filled with prompts for predictions and explanations relevant to a demonstration that is performed with equipment large enough to be seen by every student in the room. Before the teacher performs each step of the demonstration, students record predictions and explanations on one copy of the handout, to be collected at the end of class and checked for completion. After the demonstration is performed, students record the correct result and explanation on a copy of the handout that they keep in their notebook. She applied this method to a discussion about the shape of position, velocity, and acceleration graphs of a skydiver approaching terminal velocity. Since the size of her class was rather small, she was able to check student's guesses simply by walking around the room. I was especially impressed at one moment after students recorded their own individual guesses: She gave them permission to discuss their answers with other students in the class, and the room erupted into substantive, engaged conversation. After this, the teacher facilitated a discussion that included references to free body diagrams and a slope analysis of the graphs, and all students seemed quite invested in the explanation of what was wrong about their own graphs (almost every student drew acceleration increasing gradually from the moment of the drop, when the acceleration is the greatest at t=0s). The determined look on the faces of students who had
passionately and convincingly argued a graph that turned out to be incorrect is an excellent example of cognitive dissonance in physics education. (A note about this link: This paper from 1982 examines an approach to teaching the particle model of gases that first exposes students preconceptions, but the first half of the paper gives a nice summary of some relevant cognitive psychology. A student's interpretation of the motion graph of a falling object is certainly more removed from their understanding of the natural world than their picture of the matter they interact with every day. But in comparing their own graph to the correct graph, many students in this class were directly confronted with their own incorrect assumption that acceleration increases as speed increases. The role of identifying "alternative frameworks of understanding" in physics education is a huge topic, one that is certain to come up again in future posts!)

The summer before teaching the ninth grade physics course for the first time, this teacher attended a physics teaching workshop through the Institute for Inquiry at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, CA, during which she was exposed to a wide variety of demonstrations, labs, and online resources. She attributed a lot of her exposure to good physics teaching practices to this workshop, and maintains frequent contact with individuals she met at the program.

The course has evolved significantly since this time, but the central focus of the course has remained constant. After attending the Institute for Inquiry workshop, this teacher made the decision to cover less significantly less content than her predecessor, choosing instead to cover material in greater depth. The content of the course changes from year to year, but her decisions have been informed somewhat by conversations with other teachers in the science department. For example, she does not include thermodynamics because the chemistry class covers these concepts. The decision to remove thermodynamics from the physics class was made after the chemistry teacher taught a section of physics a few years ago. It strikes me that this sort of crossing-over of teachers between the sciences facilitates greater communication between these teachers, and can in turn allow for a more consistent presentation of science throughout a student's high school education. That is, if science teachers at a school are familiar with each other's classes, the language in which concepts are presented in different classes can be more consistent, and the logic of the PCB sequence (physics informs chemistry, chemistry informs biology) can be exploited more effectively. Furthermore, one aspect of the science program at this school that's worth noting is that the format and priority of lab reports is consistent from year to year, through the different subjects. The teacher explained that this consistency was a recent development in the science department, but it's one that was surely facilitated by good communication between teachers in the different disciplines.

The physics classes are split into three sections of Quantitative Physics and one section of Regular Physics (for students that particular difficulties with math). For students that attended Friends for middle school, recommendations on which students belong in which section are made by the middle school math and science teachers. Placement of new ninth graders is based mostly on their performance on a math diagnostic test. Tracking students with difficulty in math allows the difficulty level of the "quantitative" sections to be higher than it would be otherwise, though none of the sections of Quantitative Physics I saw had much of a quantitative emphasis at all. The primary emphasis of the physics class at the school was on conceptual problem solving and exposure to new physics concepts through experience. The tests and quizzes I saw reflected this priority, and the teacher made a point of emphasizing that the algebra-based questions students were asked to solve in her course were never the questions they had trouble with.

The classes I saw on this visit were diverse in their presentation of material, and emphasized student discussion and involvement in activities. The teacher has not attempted to use diagnostics to gauge the effectiveness of the class, but the class fits well with the progression of the classes at the school.

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