Jan 24, 2012

Colleague Response to a PF Inquiry on the Scarcity of PF Research

I get teased by some friends about it, but I'm a very proud member of a couple of physics teacher clubs. In one, around 20 or so individuals meet monthly to discuss experiences in physics teaching and share ideas. Recently, a teacher wrote to this group to inquire about teachers' experience with Physics First, and a friend in the group named Yoav Bergner wrote a response that very eloquently gets at the heart of some of the questions about its effectiveness. Yoav is a former educator, and is currently an education post-doc in the ReLATE program at MIT (as well as a builder of fine furniture and a fellow education blogger). He gave me permission to post his response here... and to include this photo of the phenomenally beautiful Ms. Pacman butcher block he made as wedding gift for a friend!

Now, this blog isn't usually a venue for major criticisms of Physics First (I'm such a fan of the movement after all, did you know?). Yoav's response contains a lot of different viewpoints and opinions on PF, and a few of these positions don't match my own personal opinion. But one major point that Yoav makes is hands-down irrefutable: there's just not enough research yet done to show that a PCB sequence is more effective, on average, than a traditional sequence. Anecdotal evidence shows plenty of success stories, and indeed plenty of failures as well, but hard numbers for or against are scarce. I'd add to that, though, that "more effective" can mean a lot of things: FCI gains, Lawson's reasoning test gains, increased enrollment in a higher-level physics course, increased student affect toward science, or even simply (as Yoav himself mentions below) the number of students who end up taking a physics class at least once in their lives. Teachers and researchers across the country have been responding to this need with research of their own since back in 2003 when Pasero's State of Physics-First Programs was published, and I know personally of a few programs and schools with data that are just around the corner.

Anyway I apologize for the interjection... Yoav's words from here on out (citations below):

The Physics First argument is often made unduly complex; there may not be much to it beyond the desire to increase the enrollment of high school students in physics. Neuschatz and McFarling attribute poor performance by the United States on the TIMSS to the limited reach of physics, arguing that, “our prime shortcoming is not the poor job that is done when physics is taught, but rather the fact that so few students take it, and that fewer still get beyond the basic introduction” (Neuschatz). Other defenses for inverting the traditional sequence, such as the claim that chemistry and subsequently biology build on concepts from physics, are countered by the traditionalist’s view that physics simply requires more mathematical sophistication. But math prerequisites have subsequently excluded many students from taking physics at all. Exposing “the largest number of people” to the “broadest range of physics topics” might be viewed as reason enough for teaching physics in ninth grade (Bessin).

While there is not widespread agreement that Physics First is a good idea, there is a general consensus that if it is to be adopted at all, a ninth grade physics course should be conceptual and should not focus on mathematical problem solving. This was hinted at in Lederman’s Physics First advocacy writings, in which it is recommended that mechanics, for example, be de-emphasized (Lederman, 1998). The idea is explicit in the AAPT report, “the emphasis in a physics-first sequence should be on conceptual understanding rather than mathematical manipulation,” but the rationale is perhaps best articulated by Hobson and also Hewitt. Hobson’s point of view is that a first physics course should address societal needs for conceptual understanding of modern issues, that mathematical problem-solving is appropriate for a second course. A first course should expose students to exciting topics: quantum physics, cosmology, global warming, pseudoscience, nuclear weapons (Hobson, 2005; Hobson, 2006). He cautions that “many physics teachers resist teaching conceptual physics for all. If we insist on teaching a math-based course first, we will continue turning away both science and non-science students in droves, and it will be essentially impossible to institute physics first” (Hobson, 2003).

Hewitt is a well-known proponent of conceptual physics via his classic textbook, which has been in print since 1971 and is used in the vast majority of physics courses aimed at non scientists. In 1982, he opined, “I think most teachers feel that the conceptual and traditional can be taught simultaneously. I think not, and will exaggerate to make my point. I suggest that teaching conceptual and traditional physics together is akin to teaching children to dance during the stage of life when they'd normally be learning to walk” (Hewitt). Recently, Goodman and Etkina have hinted at a successful “mathematically rigorous physics first course,” but their claims need to be scrutinized in the context of the following: at the school under study, the physics class is designed to mimic the content and structure of the AP Physics B test as much as possible; the full course material is spread out over two years of physics (second year optional); the only assessment is performance on the AP Physics B; and only 20% of graduating seniors end up taking the test (Goodman).

The sad reality is that there are almost no real data showing measurable success or failure in the Physics First effort. Dozens of articles and letters published in The Physics Teacher make claims with barely a shred of support (for example, Dreon, Ewald, Korsunsky, Taylor); meanwhile the San Diego school system experienced a rejection of the new curriculum by some affluent districts, which were subsequently granted academic independence to return to traditional sequences (Tomsho). There is scant evidence that decades of physics education research are being applied in Physics First programs––high school teachers are not by and large documenting their progress. There is scant evidence that decades of physics education research are being applied in Physics First programs––high school teachers are not by and large documenting their progress. Pasero’s 2001-2003 ARISE report on the state of Physics First programs acknowledges the following points (quotes due to Pasero, enumeration mine):

1. “Teaching a math-free physics course [is] very difficult,” Pasero observes, noting further that schools typically select one of the following strategies to deal with math-related challenges: (a) make algebra prerequisite, (b) offer two tracks, or (c) coordinate physics and algebra courses. “Negative comments [from students] were almost exclusively reserved for times when they felt the math was overwhelming.”

2. “Students’ favorite part of physics class was labs.”

3. “This may be the most significant finding of this study: Physics-first schools are not quantitatively documenting the degree of their success.”

American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT 2006). “Physics First: An Informational Guide for Teachers, School Administrators, Parents, Scientists, and the Public”.

American Institute of Physics. Teaching Physics First

Bessin, B. (2007, March). “Why Physics First?” Guest Editorial, The Physics Teacher 45, 134.

Dreon, O. (2006, Nov). “A Study of Physics First Curricula in Pennsylvania”, The Physics Teacher 44, 521-523.

Ewald, G., Hickman, J., Hickman P, and Myers, F. (2005, May). “Physics First: The Right-Side- Up Science Sequence,” The Physics Teacher 43, 319-320.

Goodman, R. and Etkina, E. (2008, April). “Squaring the Circle: A Mathematically Rigorous Physics First,” The Physics Teacher, 46, 222-227.

Hewitt, P. (1983). “Millikan Lecture 1982: The missing essential––a conceptual understanding of physics,” Am. J. Phys. 51 (4), 305-311.

Hobson, A. (2003, Dec). Letter to the Editor, The Physics Teacher 41, 508-509.

Hobson, A. (2005, Nov). Letter to the Editor, The Physics Teacher 43, 485.

Hobson, A. (2006). “Millikan Lecture 2006: Physics for All,” Am. J. Phys. 74 (12), 1048-1054.

Korsunsky, B. and Agar, O. (2008), “Physics First? Survey First,” The Physics Teacher 46, 15-18.

Lederman, L. (1998). “ARISE: American Renaissance in Science Education,” Fermilab-TM- 2051.

Lederman, L. (2005), “Physics First?” Guest Editorial, The Physics Teacher 43, 6-7.

Neuschatz, M. and McFarling, M. (1999). “Maintaining Momentum: High School Physics for a New Millennium,” AIP Report R-42.

Pasero, S. (2003). “The State of Physics-First Programs”, Revised March 2003, Fermilab-Pub-01/206.

Sheppard, K. and Robbins, D. (2002) "Physics was once first and was once for all" The Physics Teacher  41, 420.

Taylor, J. et al. (2005). “Curriculum Reform and Professional Development in San Diego City Schools,” The Physics Teacher 43, 102-106.

Tomsho, R. (2006, April 13). “Textbook Battle: Top High Schools Fight New Science as Overly Simplistic”, The Wall Street Journal.

3 Responses so far

  1. Jane Jackson says:

    Here is a URL where you can download several studies (listed below) of 9th grade physics and pcb that use Modeling Instruction.

    The webpage is that of a long-time physics teacher and Modeling Workshop leader, Tim Burgess, Ph.D. Tim is science department chair at McGill-Toolen Catholic High School in Mobile, Alabama.

    His latest report (the first one listed below) is brand-new! It gives powerful evidence that the pcb sequence is more effective than the bcp sequence, when Modeling Instruction is used. -- Jane

    Physics First Research, McGill-Toolen, Mobile, AL

    Here are some direct links to specific papers:

    MTACT12.pdf Higher ACT Scores as Physics First Implemented
    (Tim Burgess, Kerry Goff, Rebecca Hyre....McGill-Toolen, Mobile AL)

    MTAPEn12.pdf Higher AP Enrollment & Performance
    (Tim Burgess, Kerry Goff, Rebecca Hyre....McGill-Toolen, Mobile AL)

  2. Jane Jackson says:

    This is Jane Jackson again. I should add that Modeling Instruction integrates mathematics seamlessly, by an emphasis on mathematical modeling. Students take algebra I in 9th grade, and when they take 9th grade physics, they UNDERSTAND the algebra. We have much evidence of that; not only Tim Burgess' several-years of research at McGill-Toolen Catholic, but also at many other high schools nationwide -- even at high-poverty urban high schools.

    Your quote by Yoav mentions that Goodman and Etkina hint at a mathematically rigorous 9th grade physics course. Bob Goodman's PSI program in New Jersey is terrible, I heard Prof. Eugenia Etkina say in autumn 2012. Non-physics teachers take his cookbook course, with every lesson scripted, and then become certified to teach physics. Unfortunately, NEA funders doesn't know physics education research; the NEA gave his program $500,000 in 2012. It can do a lot of damage to high school physics education.

    Eugenia Etkina developed a different 9th grade mathematically rigorous physics course that is research-based and very well-designed. It is called PHYSICS UNION MATHEMATICS (PUM). Prof. David Hestenes, co-founder of Modeling Instruction, reviewed it last fall and gave it high marks. Teachers can request the password to download the modules by emailing Eugenia Etkina at Rutgers University (eugenia.etkina AT gse.rutgers.edu), and describing their commitment to effective physics teaching. The modules are compatible with Modeling Instruction, and a 3-week summer Modeling Workshop in mechanics would prepare teachers to use them. For a list of Modeling Workshops nationwide, visit http://modelinginstruction.org.

  3. JK says:

    Hi Jane,

    It's funny that you mention Goodman's curriculum... PSI, I think it's called - "Progressive Science Initiative". You, Eugenia, and I all agree that this curriculum is very, very problematic, and represents precisely the wrong approach to take with an inverted science curriculum. A blog post of mine from a while back describes a failed Physics First initiative at a new public school in New York City that was based in PSI. Students, parents, and teachers all revolted against the hyper-quantitative workload, and cried out for more hands-on work. Eventually, the school abandoned the curriculum as teachers tried on their own to come up with something more effective. Unfortunately, though, the school ended up dropping the Physics First sequence completely.

    It's clear to me that teachers and schools are desperate for a more effective Physics First curriculum. I think research into Modeling-based Physics First is emerging, as you've mentioned here, and with that research Modeling becomes a more attractive alternative. PUM is also awesome, and has steadily been growing in popularity, at least among "Etkinists" in New Jersey. (I think I'll be spending a lot more time with PUM this year, as I'm enrolled in Eugenia's "Teaching Physics Science" course at Rutgers...) So far this year I've been working with mostly Modeling materials, as well as some stuff I've developed on my own. Still getting my sea legs in making things run smoothly, but it's been an amazing year so far. As I learn more about ISLE - the Interactive Science Learning Environment, on which PUM is based - it's been interesting for me to see where PUM does things differently from Modeling, and where they're more similar. It's struck me that the two approaches have different strengths, and are suited to different student populations and priorities and even different concepts, but I'm still trying to figure out how to blend these strengths together.

    Thanks for your comments here!

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