Table of Contents
Eric Mazur, Harvard University, USA
For the past eight years, I have been teaching an introductory physics course for engineering and science concentrators at Harvard University. Teaching this class, which does not include any physics majors, is a challenging experience because the students take this course as a concentration requirement, not because of a genuine interest in physics. At the same time, it can be a very rewarding experience when, at the end of the semester, students show much more appreciation for the subject matter.
I used to teach a fairly traditional course in an equally traditional lecture-type presentation, enlivened by classroom demonstrations. I was generally satisfied with my teaching during these years--my students did well on what I considered pretty difficult problems and the feedback I received from them was positive.
But about a year ago, I came across a series of articles by David Hestenes of Arizona State University(1) that completely and permanently changed my views on teaching. In these articles, Hestenes shows that students enter their first physics course possessing strong beliefs and intuitions about common physical phenomena. These notions are derived from personal experiences and color students' interpretations of material presented in the introductory course. Instruction does very little to change these "common-sense" beliefs.
For example, after a couple of months of physics instruction, all students will be able to recite Newton's third law--"action is reaction" and most of them can apply this law in problems. But a little probing beneath the surface quickly shows that the students lack any fundamental understanding of this law. Hestenes provides many examples in which the students are asked to compare the forces of different objects on one another. When asked, for instance, to compare the forces in a collision between a heavy truck and a light car, a large fraction of the class firmly believes the heavy truck exerts a larger force on the light car than vice versa. My first reaction was "Not my students!" I was intrigued, however. To test my own students' conceptual understanding I developed a computer program based on the tests developed by Hestenes.
The first warning came when I gave the test to my class and a student asked, "Professor Mazur, how should I answer these questions? According to what you taught us, or by the way I think about these things?" While baffled, I did not get the message quite yet. The results of the test, however, were undeniably eye-opening: the students fared hardly better on the Hestenes test than on their mid-term examination on rotational dynamics. Yet, I think the Hestenes test is simple; yes, probably too simple to be considered seriously for a test by many of my colleagues-- while material covered by the examination (rotational dynamics, moments of inertia) was, in my opinion, of far greater difficulty.
I spent many, many hours discussing the results of this test with my students one-on-one. The old feeling of satisfaction turned more and more into a feeling of sadness and frustration. How could these undoubtedly bright students, capable of solving complicated problems, fail on these ostensibly "simple" questions?
On the following examinations, I paired "simple," qualitative questions with more "difficult," quantitative problems on the same physical concept. Much to my surprise, some 40% of the students did better on the quantitative problems than on the conceptual ones. Slowly, the underlying problem revealed itself: many students concentrate on learning "recipes," or "problem solving strategies" as they are called in textbooks, without bothering to be attentive to the underlying concepts. Many pieces of the puzzle suddenly fell into place. The continuing requests by students to do more and more problems and less and less lecturing -- doesn't the traditional lecture overemphasize problem-solving over conceptual understanding? The unexplained blunders I had seen from apparently "bright" students -- problem-solving strategies work on some, but surely not all problems. Students' frustration(2) with physics -- how boring must physics be when it is reduced to a set of mechanical recipes without any apparent logic. And yes, Newton's third law is second nature to me -- it's obviously right, but how do I convince my students? Certainly not by just reciting the law and then blindly using it in problems.
Just a year ago, I was entirely oblivious to this problem. I now wonder how I could be fooled into thinking I did a credible job teaching introductory physics. While several leading physicists have written on this problem(3), I believe many teachers, like myself just a year ago, are still unaware of it. A first step in remedying this situation is to expose the problem in one's own class. The key, I believe, is to ask simple questions that focus on single concepts. The result is guaranteed to be an eye-opener even for seasoned teachers.
ERIC MAZUR is Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics and Professor of Physics at Harvard University. He divides his time between research in laser physics and teaching.
(c) PHOTONICS NEWS February 1992
reprinted with permission
Other relevant references:
Paul Black, King's College, London, UK
I have just completed work on an international project studying change in science mathematics and technology education through case studies of twenty-three innovations in thirteen countries.* Two of the many different issues raised in these studies stand out particularly-- the future of science curriculum and the professional role of teachers in charge.
To take the future of science curriculum first, it is notable that in many countries, for example, Japan, Australia, Germany and Spain, a change in the nature and aims of school science education is taking place which, while it is not novel, will have far reaching consequences. It is a move towards the practical and the everyday as the contexts in which to learn science. The traditional route -- to teach deep concepts and then show how they lead to applications -- is being inverted. The applications now come first, so the work is based on topics which are chosen for their interest and relevance to young people-- to their daily lives and to their future as citizens. Typical examples are pollution, conservation, global warming, and genetic engineering. The task of curriculum design is then more complex. What has to be achieved is to articulate the way such topics are pursued, so that the studies will lead to acquisition of the profound concepts and stringent methodologies of science. Students need these both to penetrate further into the issues than the TV sound-bites allow, and to acquire an authentic and useful basis for their future interest in science.
However, this movement has two important consequences for those committed to physics education. One is that the changes are accompanied by a move away from the teaching of the separate sciences in secondary schools, towards having a single course in which these are taught in a coordinated and integrated way. How is physics education to move forward in such a scenario? I personally do not believe in so-called "integrated" science, because I think that there are important and deep differences between the philosophies and methodologies used (say) by those studying fundamental particle interactions and those studying the social life of chimpanzees. But I strongly believe in coordination: for example-- in how many countries do young students learn about energy concepts in three different ways from a physics teacher, a chemistry teacher and a biology teacher, when those three teachers do not work closely together to prepare a single coherent sequence of learning for students? More generally, how far should we now go in studying and conferencing about physics education without involving our colleagues in the neighboring sciences?
The other important consequence is about authority and ownership. The shift described above is bound to worry those in higher education, because it will mean that the preparation of their students will be, at least, very different. But there is a broader implication. In the past it is the academics in (say) physics who have had the right to decide the curriculum for school physics. In some countries, academics consult school teachers in such work. In other countries now, our innovations show that teachers are taking over-- so that they are deciding what their students need. who should decide? Do politicians, or citizen groups concerned about the uses and misuses of science, or those in business and industry where the majority of scientists actually work, have a right to share in curriculum decisions? And if so, how are such rights to be exercised? And if such voices did have power, what might happen to physics education?
This last point connects with my second main issue-- how the average teacher copes with change. The question raised above is whether teachers have the right to wrest control over new aims for science teaching from the academics. However, whether new ideas are formulated by academics or by leading teachers of by other alliances, all such ideas face the problem of achieving effective implementation in all classrooms in a country or state. Where the ideas require a work on new topics, or a capacity to think about familiar topics in a quite new way, those with weak qualifications might not even try. Even with teachers who are very well qualified, it takes substantial time and effort to change one's practice. The reason is obvious-- success, or even survival, in the complex world of the classroom is hard to achieve, and to change one's work in any important aspect is to put that hard-won success at risk. As a teacher in one of the case studies put it, "it's pretty scary."
All of this would be true even if those planning a change knew exactly how it would best work across the majority of classrooms. Usually they do not-- it is only through an iteration between the harsh constraints of daily practice and reformulation of the ideals that a workable implementation can be fashioned. And the prospect is even more daunting-- classrooms differ across any region, and teachers' own styles differ, so that a personal adaptation has to be forged by every teacher for herself or himself.
Thus a reform cannot work by a hasty top-down imposition. It has to be achieved slowly through the gradual involvement of teachers who are given time, support, and flexibility to make the reform ideas their own. Almost all of the reforms of the past thirty years failed because they did not take these requirements seriously. In many cases they tried to move teachers too far and too fast from their present practices and expertise. So perhaps we ought to approach change rather differently-- by starting from consideration of the present strengths of those teaching physics and fashioning modest changes which can best build upon these.
* Changing the Subject: Innovation and Change in Science, Mathematics and Technology Education. Edited by P.J. Black and M.A. Atkin. New York and London: Routledge for OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) ISBM 0415 146 232.
In questions of science the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)
A man does not gain the status of Galileo merely because he is persecuted; he must also be right.
Stephen Jay Gould -- Ever Since Darwin 1977
As reported in Europhysics News 26 (19995) 69, the Scientific Committee of the Thematic Evaluation Conference - Physics Studies for Tomorrow's Europe (Ghent, 7-8 April 1995) created a European Physics Education Network (EUPEN). A Steering Committee was formed and it has prepared a proposal for a Thematic Network in the framework of the SOCRATES program of the European Union (EU). Organizations throughout Europe, including all university-level physics faculties/departments, have been invited to join the initiative by completing a preliminary partnership agreement. Each participating institution is free to chose the level of involvement and the (related) willingness to supply complementary funding.
Societies and associations concerned with physics education will be invited to join the network as Associate Members.
The main initiatives envisioned are:
EUPEN will promote specific activities linked to these subjects, according to a predetermined schedule and a list of priorities. The actions needed to carry out the project will be organized by means of conferences and/or by a peer review.
Organizational details will be optimized once the level of involvement of each partner institution is known. The coordinator would be the University of Ghent, and a Steering Committee, grown out of the Scientific Committee of the Thematic Evaluation Conference on Physics will set up the necessary administrative structures (e.g., sub-networks specialized in one or more subjects of the project) as well as a convention for member institutions outlining quality and good practice.
The main outcome would be:
Reprinted from Europhysics News 27(1) 96. With permission.
College Park, Maryland, USA
31 July - 3 August 1996
Changing economic, political, social, and technological factors are having a dramatic effect on physics education in all nations. This conference will be an opportunity for individuals who are rethinking university-level physics education to get together to share ideas, compare approaches, and discuss where we are going.
The undergraduate physics major is becoming an end in itself as students
enter the workplace with their baccalaureate degrees. What is an appropriate
curriculum for these students?
Most physics departments depend on high-enrollment introductory courses
to support intermediate and advanced physics courses. Can the introductory
physics course serve these constituencies more effectively?
We educate the teachers whose job it is to produce a population that understands science and technology. What is important for these teachers to know?
How can we adapt our courses so as to best prepare our students for
the world they will have to work in?
Students often take very different ideas away from a classroom than
we expect. Can we reconcile how we teach with how studnets learn?
How can we use information technology such as computers and networks most effectively to improve student learning?
The registration fee is US$290. Late registration (postmarked after 10 May 1996) is US$350.
Register early. Due to space limitations, participation will be limited.
Dan Campbell Dept of Physics University of Maryland College Park, MD 20740 USA Phone: 301-405-6184 fax: 301-314-9525 email: firstname.lastname@example.org internet: http://www.physics.umd.edu/~inted/
21 - 27 August 1996
Rapid development of information technology in the modern world has also made its impact upon physics teaching. Interactive teaching, multimedia, sensors for measuring different physical quantities, computer interfacing in school experiments, computer networks as means for direct communication for teachers and students around the world, world-wide organized lab and school investigations are only some of the possibilities brought about by the new technology. Science hands-on museums, TV networks and information networks represent an alternative to school education and students should be encouraged to take the new media as a source of life-long scientific education.
Also, the function of physics education is redefined by the necessities of the modern world and by the findings of the education researchers, so new approaches to physics teaching are sought, proposed and critically evaluated. All this represents an everlasting challenge for physics teachers, and also new demands for their pre-service and inservice education.
The conference will bring together scientists, researchers in education, teachers from schools and universities, and creators of didactic computer software and computer-based laboratories in a common effort to get an overview of the new technology and to discuss its use in school, to learn and discuss new didactic approaches, etc. In the mornings, plenary lectures will be held and in the afternoons, workshops, show & tell sessions, panel discussions, and poster sessions will enable participants to take part in topics which interest them most. Workshops of two hours will run in parallel sessions and will be prepared so that the participants will have opportunity to investigate the experiments, software, hyperware, etc. The organizers call for contributions to workshops in the following topics:
Seta Oblak, Secretary of GIREP Board of Education Poljanska 28 61000 Ljubljana Slovenia phone: 386 61 1333 266 fax: 386 61 310 267 email: email@example.com internet: http://www.pef.uni-lj.si/~girep
16-21 December 1996
Contribued papers highlighting news and recent development in the areas covered by the conference are invited. The closing date for receipt of titles and abstracts (not to exceed one A4 page) is 31 August 96. Abstracts should be camera-ready on A4-size paper with the author's name underlined. Computer disks (IBM) and email will also be accepted. The full paper must be submitted by 15 October 96. Instructions can be obtained from the secretary of the organizing committee.
There will be a keynote address, plenary lectures, paper presentations, workshops, posters, and exhibits.
The conference language will be English. See your local Royal Thai embassy or consulate for visa information. Registration fee is US$100 per participant. For accommodation information, contact the secretary.
Dr. Janchai Yingprayoon IPST 924 Sukhumvit Road Ekamai Bangkok 10110 Thailand
Quezon City, Phillippines
22-27 October 1996
The explosion of computer and communications technologies will affect every aspect of modern living. The meeting will explore these technologies and their innovative applications to Asian physics education.
Foreign participants US$250
Dr. Minella C. Alarcon Department of Physics Ateneo de Manila University Loyola Heights, Quezon City Philippines 1108 fax: +63 2 924 4690 email: firstname.lastname@example.org internet: http://polgas.ps.admu.edu.ph/aspen/aspen.shtml
The 3rd Seminar of the SEFI Working Group on Physcs will concentrate on the role of physics and its position in engineering education.
The seminar will be held from 6 - 8 June 1996 in an ancient mansion (owned by the STU) in Kocovce near Nove Mesto nad Vahom, located about 100 km North of Bratislava. There are good bus/train connections between Bratislava and Vienna (airport as well). Transportation from Bratislava to Kocovce on Thursday morning will be provided by the organizers.
The seminar will include invited and submitted papers. The time allocated for submitted papers is 20 minutes including discussion.
The conference language is in English.
The seminar registration fee is 100 DEM. It will cover the costs of printed material, refreshments, social program and organizational expenses.
Accommodation and full board (40 DEM per day) will be paid on the seminar site.
Accommodation can be provided at additional costs for Wednesday/Thursday night in a student hotel in Bratislava and for Saturday/Sunday night at the mansion in Kocovce, respectively.
Organizers would appreciate registration before 15 March 1996.
Registration is limited to 50.
Dr. Elconora Adlerova Department of Physics, FEI STU Ilkovicova 3 SK 812 19 Bratislava Slovakia Phone & fax: +42-7-727 427 email: email@example.com
24-25 January 1997
The aim of the conference is to discuss innovation in physics experiments for developing students' understanding.
Prof. G. Pozdeev Pervomayskaja 25 427600 Udmrtia fax: 3414171726 email: firstname.lastname@example.org
To know and not to act is not yet to know.
Wang Shou-Jen (1472-1528)
Contact with strange civilizations brings new standards of value, with which the native culture is re-examined and re-evaluated, and conscious reformation and regeneration are the natural outcome.
Hu Shih (1891-1962)
last updated 7/25/96