Physics by fire-hose

On my last prac week, I had an interesting conversation with my mentor teacher about curriculum.  We discussed the silliness of the IB physics curriculum (the best analogy I can think of would be trying to drink physics from a fire-hose) but found we had differing ideas about the most fitting content for a secondary school physics class and really, the purpose of introductory physics altogether.  Coming from a physics research background, I have always tended to think that the most fitting content for an introductory class is mechanics and some basic electromagnetism with maybe a little thermodynamics thrown in.  It’s what you do at uni, and it teaches problem solving and critical thinking skills, not to mention a basic awareness of what’s going on around us in everyday life.  My mentor’s take is that you should try to cover a lot more content than that, including optics and a range of topics relevant to medical physics because students find it interesting and it’s also relevant to their lives.  This brings up the provocation: what will my students want and need from me?  I understand the point that students want to cover more content, to get to the more “interesting” stuff, I just wonder what cost it comes at.  Covering too much content is inevitably going to mean you don’t go into depth, and risk not addressing students’ non-scientific conceptions of physics.  It’s something I still find myself thinking about weeks later.  Maybe the best answer lies in having a true inquiry based classroom where the kids get to explore concepts and the curriculum emerges.  Problem is, the BSSS won’t ever sign off on that.  Will I be allowed to be the teacher I want to be?

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Pedagogy

For me, one teaching method in particular screams good pedagogy: inquiry.  When I say inquiry, I don’t mean giving the kids a demonstration before referring them to the textbook to do “word problems” or handing out a worksheet.  I’m talking full on, choose your own adventure inquiry.

I’ve been spending a lot of time reading the blogs of two giants of the inquiry based teaching blogosphere, Dan Meyer and Shawn Cornally.  I would love to implement something along the lines of what Shawn does in the physics classroom.  He has students write “grant” proposals to work on a project of their choosing, addressing the content they have been covering in class.  The kids then build their own experiment from the ground up and present their findings to the class.  Check this out, if you’re interested.

I’m both excited and scared about trying to carry this off.  Will I be allowed? (Provocation no. 2, for my fellow grad dippers.)  I’ve never been in that sort of classroom, so I have a lot to learn if I’m going to make it work.

Curriculum & Pedagogy: The big picture of curriculum

I’ve been thinking a lot about the “big picture” of curriculum in relation to my teaching areas of physics and maths, i.e. the notion in Kerrie’s lecture, due to Grumet (1981, p. 115) that “curriculum is the collective story we tell our children about our past, our present and our future.” What knowledge and skills do I want my students to take away from my classes? I know that 10 years down the line, unless they have had cause to use these skills, my students won’t remember how to do many of the calculations they learned in a high school algebra course. I believe that the most important elements of math and science at a high school level are to learn how to think (creative problem solving skills) and to gain a curiosity about the world and a desire to learn. My feeling is that the key to attaining this will be appealing to their natural curiosity about the world and things that matter to them.

Grumet, M. (1981) Restitution and reconstruction of educational experience: an auto-biographical method for curriculum theory (Ch. 4). In Lawn, M. and Barton, L. (Eds) Rethinking curriculum studies: a radical approach (pp. 115 – 130). New York: John Wiley & Sons