How we created a context

A course that emphasizes physics as a set of formulas to master has so many negative consequences. In this course, even I find myself at times needing to say something like, “Well, the formula for the force due to a spring is just different than the formula for the potential energy stored in a spring. One of them is F = -kx, and the other is PE = 1/2 k x²” It pains me to even think about speaking this… Well, actually, I take that back, it’s not so much the sentence itself; it’s the existence of a context in which such a sentence might actually make sense that is the real issue I have. So the question becomes, how did we create this context in our course?

I try to show you below how it’s not been terribly subtle.

Example #1:  Part of the directions given to students for solving 1D-kinematics problems on whiteboards

Example #2: Part of the directions given to students for solving projectile motion problems on whiteboards

Example #3: Part of the directions given to students for conservation of energy problems

Example #4: An excerpt from their readings on 1D kinematics

Example #5: An excerpt from their reading on conservation of energy

Example #6: Excerpt from their reading on angular kinematics

Example #7: Some computer exercises for them to work on for angular kinematics



4 thoughts on “How we created a context

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  1. Obviously it’s not a great way to study the material, but just to play devil’s advocate… in a system (such as a school or university) where a lot of emphasis is put on assessment, wouldn’t it be much harder, if not impossible, to assess 200+ students who each have individualized instruction rather than a selected guide for approaching these problems?

    1. Hey Paul,

      So two things I hear from you are: A concern about teaching in an era of assessment; and a concern about the seeming impossibility of individualized attention in classes with large number of students.

      These are both valid concerns, especially for you as a future teacher. How are you going to assess your students’ progress in meaningful ways? How will you operate within various constraints imposed by state- or national- assessment systems? How will you make sure that students get the individualized learning they need? …

      My concern here is largely about what student are learning about the nature of physics from my class. I’m concerned that students are learning that physics is about mastering the equations and following problem-solving recipes. Because of this focus, they are learning much less about the major ideas of physics and how to see connections between ideas, argument, equations, and evidence.

      We both have valid concerns about our professions and the contexts in which we do (or will) teach. In education, there are rarely simple solutions. There are always competing concerns, antagonistic constraints, and complex challenges.

      In my view, problem-solving in physics works when either students are the ones engaged in helping to develop the problem-solving steps; or problem-solving is a vehicle for engaging students in the development of ideas and an arbiter of argument. I aim to nudge my class in those directions when I can–but there are many constraints. For example, I don’t choose the text my students read; I don’t choose the assessments my students take; and I can’t decide to move more slowly and more quickly through material. You are likely to find yourself in various constraints as well, and how we choose to operate within those constraints and still teach in ways we believe are valuable is likely to be a lifelong struggle.

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