Why Physics First?

In talking with other physics teachers, I admit that I take any opportunity to voice my excitement about the inverted high school science sequence known as Physics First. Though my personal commitment to Physics First is rooted in a love of working with ninth graders, I've come to believe that that there are some objective reasons why switching to a Physics First sequence makes sense. I'm using this page as an opportunity to lay out my own personal answer to the question, "Why teach Physics First?"

In my opinion, the single strongest argument for teaching Physics First lies in a student's relationship to the discipline of science. In physics classes taught through an inquiry-based approach such as Modeling Instruction, students design and perform experiments to investigate relationships before these relationships are explicitly identified within the class. Students then construct their own understanding through interpretations of the data they've collected. Not only has this process been shown to be an excellent method of teaching physics content, it also develops skills that are relevant far beyond the walls of a physics classroom (proportional reasoning, mathematical modeling, using empirical evidence in problem solving)*. A physics course in ninth grade is an ideal environment in which to develop these skills in a rigorous and deliberate way, and a transition to Physics First provides an opportunity to fundamentally transform a high school student's science experience.

Many physics classes taught at the eleventh or twelfth grade level are subject to strict curriculum requirements set by standardized tests. In order to prepare students for an AP test, for example, a teacher must get through a large amount of prescribed content material, often in just one year of class time. For some teachers, this means de-emphasizing the supervised development of skills to allow time to cover more material. Since most Physics First classes are not subject to standardized testing requirements (for now), the content of the curriculum is more flexible. Teachers can cover less material, and are therefore free to teach for greater understanding and better development of skills. Ninth graders are often less restricted by social inhibitions and pressures associated with high-stakes evaluations and the college process, and can be more willing to maintain the courage and patience necessary to participate openly in an inquiry class*. Furthermore, standardized tests associated with physics are often perceived as being too challenging for the average student, and most high schoolers graduate without ever taking physics. Many implementations of Physics First require that all ninth graders take a physics course, resulting in a significantly greater number of students being exposed to physics.

Some have argued that the math proficiency of typical ninth-graders prevents a Physics First class from being rigorous. Though it's true that a physics class designed for an average high school Freshman will typically include less math than most courses designed for older students, this fact should be seen as an opportunity to teach physics in a more effective way. In a traditional physics class, a focus on pencil-on-paper problem solving can overemphasize mathematical applications, thereby obscuring physics concepts. Students can become quite adept at solving classic "physics problems" without developing true conceptual understanding of relationships exhibited in these problems*. Removing much of the mathematics from a physics course forces teachers and students to rely more heavily on conceptual understanding, and building models of physical phenomena up from empirical observations. Furthermore, exposing students to mathematical tools through the lens of physics can help teach math*. Indeed, many schools have made a switch to Physics First in order to develop students' understand of algebra in order to prepare them for a standardized tests in math*. Furthermore, a transition to inquiry physics in ninth grade can "trickle up" to higher grades, as students are shown to exhibit the intellectual sophistication required to handle building scientific understanding on their own*.

Though data on the efficacy of Physics First is scarce, it's clear that the physics-chemistry-biology sequence is not inherently more successful than a traditional sequence. Widespread implementation of Physics First would result in more students taking physics, but this would be counter-productive if these physics classes are not taught in a way that is both stimulating and accessible to students. Physics First is not a silver bullet solution. Rather, it is a golden opportunity to teach a better physics class at a crucial time in high school students' intellectual development. With increasing popularity and versatility of inquiry-based teaching methods the potential of Physics First is more promising than ever before, and I look forward to seeing more and more schools embrace this opportunity.

* citation needed - Research on Physics First and the sequencing of high science courses is hard to come by. If you know of formal research or evidence that supports any of the claims I've made here, please let me know by email (see contact info in the right-hand column) or Twitter: @josephlkremer

Notable Quotes:

“Physics First will succeed or fail depending on the way it is implemented. If all it does is offer a math-based first course focusing on classical physics, similar to many first physics courses now offered in the 11th or 12th grade, it will fail for the same reason that those courses fail.” A. Hobson, “Considering Physics First,” Phys. Teach. 43, 485 (Nov. 2005).

"In 2005, 73% students at public schools and 100% of students at private schools implementing Physics First took physics at some point in their high school careers, versus 31% of students at public schools and 57% of students at private schools not implementing the program, according to AIP data." G. Popkin, "Physics First Battles for Acceptance," APS News. Vol. 18, No. 7, p3 (July 2009).

Here is a running list of helpful resources related to teaching physics in ninth grade, in no particular order:

AAPT Physics First Page: The American Association of Physics Teachers is an advocate of Physics First. This is a nice place to start if you are totally unfamiliar with the Physics-Chemistry-Biology (PCB) sequence of high school science education.

Physicsfirst LISTSERV: A helpful resource for ninth grade physics teachers to share information and ask questions of other physics first teachers.
AMTA Modeling Curriculum Repository: The American Modeling Teachers Association's online hub for resource-sharing for teachers by teachers.

Modeling Instruction: The Modeling Instruction approach to physics (and more recently, Chemistry and Biology) has been shown to be a particularly effective teaching method. Though modeling can be successful at many age levels, I feel it may have particular relevance early in science education, where a student's relationship to the discipline of science is often defined.

PhET Simulations: A large collection of interactive animations and simulations - an amazing resource for teaching physics at any level!

Assessment Instruments: This page is a collection of common assessment instruments for gauging the effectiveness of a science course.