Teaching Tips

Observations from two different Physics First Classrooms

As Art Hobson says in the November 2005 edition of The Physics Teacher, “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 complement to this statement is a story from Charlie Bock, Physics First Mentor, who was inadvertently exposed to the contrast between a “traditional” approach to teaching physics of and teaching using modeling and inquiry. The original article was published in the A TIME for Physics First Newsletter, December 2007:
I was visiting the classroom of my mentee, a teacher trained to use inquiry and modeling pedagogy in the A TIME for Physics First program. That day his students were presenting whiteboarded responses to the Framing Questions in the Accelerated Motion unit. He made students defend their answers as he and other students questioned them. He described objects experiencing uniform acceleration and asked them to draw motion diagrams, explain and defend them. I was thoroughly caught up in this back-and-forth interaction until my attention was diverted to the adjacent room.
Another freshman physics class was being conducted in that room. Following the best tradition of the movie, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” I was hearing, “Okay class, get out your textbooks. Read pages 17-19 and pages 30-33. You’ll need to be quiet and carefully read the material, because you’ll be taking a quiz after you’re finished reading”; “The answers to the quiz items are …..” (No discussion of the items); “Now I want you to watch this video and pay attention to how speed is determined by dividing the change in position by the change in time.” In that classroom, physics was being “taught” by handing the information to students.
In the classrooms of my A TIME for Physics First mentees, I see students learning as teachers model the behavior they want from their students. They show students how to observe, collect and organize information, look for patterns, represent those patterns graphically and mathematically, ask questions and form conclusions from facts. These processes allow them to get a more solid grasp of basic physics concepts.