Big Questions for My Teaching of Physics Course

In spring, I’m teaching “Teaching of Physics” again.  Here is my stab at trying to organize my thinking about that course around 3 big questions:

Understanding Physics: What does it mean to understand physics content in deep and meaningful ways? What do such understandings look like in general? What does this look like in particular with respect to the specific domains of physics content that I will likely teach?

Learning Physics: How does meaningful physics learning develop? What do my students need to be engaged in for this to happen? In what ways are exemplary physics curricula / instructional practices organized to engage students in these ways?

Teaching Physics: What do I as a teachers need to know and to be able to do to effectively orchestrate exemplary instruction that supports students in meaningful learning? What practices and habits of mind should I consider high-leverage and generative for me in developing as a teacher?

I’ve tried lots of other ways of organizing it, but this is where I’m at now.

Next steps:  

(i) What specific learning outcomes do I think are most important?

(ii) What would count as evidence that students have learned those things?


When a Student Teaches the Teacher about Teaching

Today, I didn’t have time to revise the sample problem I’m supposed to do in physics. So I worked the sample problem as given. We were doing standing waves. In the particular problem, there was a string with both ends fixed and we were told it was vibrating in the second harmonic. In this case, the wavelength is equal to the length of the string.

After my sample problem, students were given a problem where the string was vibrating in its fifth harmonic. A fourth of the class did it correctly, drawing it out and concluding that the wavelength must be 2/5 the string length. Half the class did it wrong saying that the wavelength was equal to the string length. And a third of the class said the wavelength was 5/2 of the string length. As I was walking around, I asked a student why they thought so many people were making these mistakes.

She responded without hesitation, “The sample problem was poorly designed. You shouldn’t have given us an example in which the wavelength and the string length were equal. That makes it easy for everyone to think that’s what you are supposed to do every time. Plus dividing by 1 or multiplying 1 gives you the same result, so it’s easy for people to mix it up. Next year, you should use a different harmonic to set up the problem.”

I wish my future physics teachers knew had to unpack a sample problem like that, and see how it might lead to over-generalizations and misinterpretations.

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