In December, I drove down to Baltimore to observe a few Physics First classes in the Baltimore City Public Schools. There are about a dozen schools in Baltimore that made the switch to Physics First two years ago, and I visited two of them. It's taken me until now to process my visit thoroughly enough to say something concise and substantial about what I witnessed. Public schools in Baltimore are struggling, and teachers and administrators in the system are faced with great challenges every day. All the individuals I spoke with or wrote to are working hard to find creative solutions, and the implementation of Physics First should be seen through this lens.
As I understand it, in 2008 the central administration of the Baltimore City Public School System (BCPSS) announced to individual high schools an opportunity to be a part of an experimental phase of Physics First implementation. The reasons for this push seem to be in a large part due to a need to prepare students for the Maryland State "High School Assessments" (HSA) in algebra and biology. It was thought that since physics provides good opportunities for application of algebra techniques, teaching physics earlier would better prepare students for this algebra test. The students' math skills are indeed one of the challenges faced by Baltimore's teachers. While watching students doing a lab on the reflection of a light ray off a plane mirror, I noticed that some students were experiencing significant difficulty measuring angles with a protractor. It was clear that activity was exposing them to real-world applications of math. Though I didn't notice any questions concerning angles on the sample HSA I looked through, I have no doubt that students' algebra skills are developed in the physics course. However, one teacher mentioned that she takes a full week away from her physics curriculum in January to do algebra test preparations, and hearing this made me a little uneasy. Physics class should be about learning physics, not about doing algebra.
The physics classes use Hsu's CPO Physics: A First Course, and its accompanying lab manual and equipment. Teachers at each school are expected to cover four of six possible units in the course. The CPO equipment is well-designed and very sturdy, but expensive, and each classroom had only enough equipment for four lab stations. Teachers seemed fairly satisfied with both the text and the lab book, but one felt that the text was far above the reading level of her students. My main criticism of the CPO course was that it reflects none of the insight that PER has gained into how students learn physics. The content of the course places emphasis on memorizing terms and methods, and the labs encourage students to simply follow the directions that have been laid out for them. On some level this exposure to physics concepts is certainly valuable, but Physics First offers a chance to do much more.
The two teachers I saw had very different approaches to classroom management. One teacher began each class with a "Do Now" activity, and rewarded students who were working on this problem with a stamp on an index card that could later be redeemed for small prizes. With the use of a projector (which she had purchased with her own money for use in her classroom!), she gave a short lesson, then demonstrated the procedure of the day's lab. With ten minutes of patient, attentive instruction, she was able to get the entire class working on a lab activity, and by the end of the class period every group had completed the lab. Though this activity was roughly one third of what CPO guidelines suggest could be completed in one class period, this teacher was familiar with the pace of her class and willing to work patiently to accomplish a realistic goal. The other teacher felt she could not allow students to work independently with the lab materials because the students would try to break the equipment. She has had problems with this in the past. Instead, students spent most of the class period copying lab instructions out of the lab book into a spiral-bound notebook, a trick she employs "to keep the class settled." She walked around the room with one set of lab materials and supervised closely while students carried out discrete steps of the procedure for few minutes at a time.
Though the methods used by the first teacher seemed more successful when compared to those of the second teacher, I don't think the CPO curriculum made it easy for either teacher to encourage students to feel ownership of the topics they were studying. In my view, this aspect of a student's experience is essential to true learning, and needs to be at the center of any physics class. It was obvious to me that both were extremely passionate, hardworking, teachers committed to passing on a love of science to their students. But in an environment where students are expected to memorize terms and follow abstract steps in a procedure without any internal motivation for doing so, it's up to the teacher to synthesize that motivation. Good teaching can certainly encourage motivation in students, and I'm not suggesting that a more student-centered curriculum would eliminate the need for effective classroom management. Students' lack of motivation (even active, very vocal resistance to the work being done...) was a challenge common to both these classes, and every teacher in every classroom employs their own methods for addressing this challenge. My experience teaching at a small New York private school was worlds away from what these Baltimore teachers face every day, but I believe that the idea that students must own their knowledge is common to all classrooms. Any Physics First curriculum that is to be truly successful on a wide scale must encourage students to actually experience a personal, intellectual connection to the material they're studying.
This is one thing that has continued to impress me about Modeling Instruction. Not only does Modeling employ a student-centered approach throughout every unit, but any teacher who is expected to teach a course using Modeling methods must undergo training to learn how to use this approach. Teachers of the CPO curriculum in Baltimore, in contrast, get one professional development day every year to learn how to use the lab equipment. (The first teacher I mentioned above had received more extensive training in science education from a school in Washington DC.) A lot of education reform these days seems to be centered around identifying good and bad teachers, but it seems to me that the effectiveness of a good teacher lies mostly in providing a framework of motivation for the students in their class. If the curriculum itself is able to engage students in a way that unleashes their own internal motivation, then training of teachers should be specifically designed to facilitate this process.