I am planning out a course that I’ll be teaching next semester for called, “Teaching Physics”. A major question I am wrestling with is, “What do I hope these students to walk away from this class knowing and being able to do?” Some thoughts that crossed my mind today.
Less than two years ago, Andrew Heckler opened a colloquium at the University of Maine with his take on the most compelling and important contribution of physics education research. From my best memory, he said something like this: “Our community is coming to the conclusion that it’s impossible to teach physics well without knowing how your students think and relate to physics content.”
Several decades ago, J. Minstrell wrote that it is a necessary part of teaching physics for “you and your students to know their initial conceptions before commencing a unit of study… Both the teacher and students must be aware of, and verbalize, students’ initial ideas.”
David Hammer wrote in the lates 90s: “A curriculum succeeds, not by guiding the flow of learning and instruction, but by helping to establish an arena of activity rich with opportunities for student and teacher discovery.”
There is something particularly interesting about Jim Minstrell’s recommendations for getting started in teaching physics. He doesn’t suggest you go out and start reading Physics Education Research articles. He doesn’t suggest you start using research-based curriculum materials. (Although I doubt he would recommend you not do these things). What he does suggest is this: Start by listening to your students’ ideas. Start by providing both your students and yourself with opportunities to learn about their ideas. Start by asking questions and constructing activities that engage those ideas. This is also reflected in David’s notion that the curriculum doesn’t succeed because it guides student thinking, but that it provides the teacher and students opportunities to find out about each others’ thinking.
At the end of the day, it is your students you need to come to know about. It is your students’ own mind that they need to know about. Yes, research materials can help you create opportunities to learn about your students’ ideas. Yes, research articles can help you refine what it is you think you are listening for. But the work of learning about your students ideas is always now. …
What does this mean for my course? I’m not sure, but more and more I think I am committing to teaching this course in such a way that the students in my class experience student thinking– through examinations of actual student work, through observations and reflections of live clinical interviews I’ll conduct in class, through their participation in learning activities with students we invite to class, through interviews they will have to conduct, etc. Yes, we’ll get to reading some physics education research and examining research-based curriculum and teaching strategies, but not until we’ve spent time thinking about our own ideas about what students are thinking and doing, and why they might be thinking and doing those things. I’ll try to provide them with the opportunities to discover student thinking, and I’ll discover what ideas they have for thinking about student thinking. At some point, I’ll invite them to learn about how physics educators and researchers think and how they have aimed to create curriculum and instruction based on what they think. I hope to do this partially by reading, but partially by inviting those people into our classroom.
I don’t see much reason why we can’t talk to researchers and educators over video. I don’t want the things we experience to be distant. Not distant student data or quotes. Not distant curriculum and curriculum developers. Not distant researchers.