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Re: [Phys-l] science education goals and strategies

I am not questioning the value of spiraling, but rather the value of
spiraling vs other approaches. Ideally one would revisit concepts, but from
a different angle and with more complexity. With respect to physics, at
present the physics course may be the one and only physics courses students
ever have.

I would also question the value of physics first relative to other
approaches. If you just reverse the topics, there will probably be no
difference in either student attitudes or understanding of concepts. So the
real issue is how to have science "taught" in a coherent, interactive
fashion so that concepts are actually understood.

If physics first is taught as the usual laundry list, with the usual
conventional teaching methods, it is probably doomed to failure. There is
evidence that students with higher thinking skills learn physics better.
For evidence see the abstracts of my various talks and the paper by Colletta
an Phillips. So just delaying physics is beneficial. But using a learning
cycle approach with interactive engagement the thinking level rises, and
concepts are learned better. But my data shows that the gain is limited by
the thinking level, so if the students come in at an extremely low level,
the gain will be low. BUT research inspired teaching can push student
gains up to the maximum possible.

At present spiraling is used in college with conventional teaching, and gain
happens each time. But interactive engagement pushes up gain tremendously,
and as a result one could spiral back at a much higher level. Also
spiraling takes advantage of the rise in thinking, so is it the spiraling or
the rise in thinking that produces more understanding?

Spiraling happens in math teaching all the time, but the evidence is that
students simply do not understand math and can not transfer it to other
subjects. Actually math seems to be based on memorizing techniques that are
forgotten 2 weeks later. The American lower level educational system is
based on revisiting topics each year, but the level of competence still
seems to remain low. Each year the school revisits the pilgrims and the
public seems to think they were important. Yet they were a failed colony
that did not expand much, so they were absorbed by Mass. Bay Colony. They
also at various times engaged in brutally killing native Americans.

While supposedly spiraling is used extensively in Europe, there is no
evidence to show that European students are that much higher on the FCI or
FMCE. I suspect they are somewhat higher, but probably not as high as
obtained from IE classes.

The TIMMS report had some very revealing evidence for what works. They
found that European teachers asked high level questions 10 times more often
than American teachers. This is likely to be a much bigger factor than just
rearranging the deck chairs, er curriculum. But notice along with better
questions one must have all students give answers by some kind of voting
process a la Mazur.

The biggest problem with physics first is that it will replace the current
9th or 8th grade physical science course. It will be taught by teachers who
do not know the subject that well, and who have many of the misconceptions
that the students come in with. Even many new physics teachers have the
misconceptions. For evidence you can look at the papers on the Modeling
site I worked with 3 physical science teachers. One
had asked what would be the weight of Louis Armstrong when he stepped on the
moon if his mass were... Other than the name, the big misconception was
that the students were supposed to use g=9.8 m/s^2 rather than the correct
1.6. One of the other teachers noticed the Louis gaffe, but I was the only
one who noticed the g problem. So physics first will probably in the end be
poorly taught, misconcepted, memorized physics. After all in many states
physics is introduced in 9th or 8th grade as IPC, Integrated physics and
chemistry. This has not been show to be a success.

There are some physics first programs that use IE pedagogy, notably
Modeling, but they are the exception. So data drawn from them will show
good results. Data drawn from conventionally taught courses is likely to be
dismal, but the PER researchers have not looked at them, as far as I know.

In the end, just implementing spiraling without other important reforms is
very unlikely to produce good results. However changing the teaching
paradigm to use IE has been a huge success. But along with IE one must make
the curriculum leaner, more coherent, and more accurate. In the end one
thing alone will not produce the desired gain. And I submit that just
spiraling will not produce the sort of gains seen by PER.

John M. Clement
Houston, TX

Two comments come to mind:

1. About "spiraling": I agree that you have a better understanding the
second, third, nth time you study something. I remember how little I
understood during my first years TEACHING physics. To me, this also
relates to the question discussed a while back in this list, whether it
matters if a teacher is engaging/entertaining. The importance of that
factor may not show up in end of year testing. But if a teacher
communicates the excitement of learning physics, more students will want
to continue their studies. I am frequently impressed and aided by the
level of insight shown by the regulars on this list. But I don't think
any of you attained this understanding in one year.

2. About "Physics First": I teach in a "academic" high school in New
Jersey. My department met two years ago and agreed that there were many
benefits of phys then chem then bio. But then we started to work out the
logistics of the switch. Because of different certifications and
abilities of teachers, it would be necessary to phase this in over a 6 - 7
year period. It was tremendously complicated but not undo-able. Then, a
colleague asked: Before we commit to this, what evidence do we have that
it works better than what we are doing now? It is NOT a small change, and
once we start, it's just as hard to switch back. So we tabled it...

Now I see that the issues are related. The main reason in favor of the
switch is that with Bio then Chem then Physics, the bio teachers have to
introduce some basic chem and the chem teachers have to do a tiny bit of
physics. Then, the physics teachers also end up explaining what some of
the chem meant. It sounds inefficient, but isn't another example of

Phil Keller