Science of Learning

The Science of Learning Physics: Active Learning part 1 – The Power of a Story

This post is part of a series on the Science of Learning Physics

Story-telling as a primary means for learning and passing on information is ancient. In his book Why Don’t Student’s Like School, Daniel Willingham suggests that lesson plans are carefully constructed to tell a story.

This may seem obvious, lessons have a beginning middle and end, and perhaps some sort of conflict that students wrestle with, however in order to truly engage in effective story-telling we must be even more intentional. Willingham suggests the structure of the four C’s: Causality (the connection between information), Conflict (what challenges the student’s thinking), Complications (additional conflicts that arise en route to the goal) and Character (the players in the story and their interactions). The benefits of using storytelling is that they are digestible, since they follow a common framework, interesting and easily remembered. When we frame our lessons as creating and telling a story, we offer the opportunity for our content to be better embedded into our students’ minds.

When implementing story-telling as a lesson plan structure, Willingham advises several considerations:

  • Consider what part of the lesson students are most likely to think about
  • Think carefully about your attention-grabber so that it not only inspires, but engages your students with the intended learning
  • Use discovery learning with care
  • Design the lesson so students must engage with developing meaning
  • Organize the lesson around conflict.

Eugenia Etkina’s Investigative Science Learning Environment (ISLE) cycle of active learning (similar in some ways to the American Modeling Association curriculum) is one of the most powerful tools to turn physics units and lessons into stories. While that this is also a fundamental feature of the NGSS story-line model, as well as Problem-based Learning cycles. In this post I am explicitly using Etkina’s cycles due to their research-proved efficacy in the classroom.

Each of Etkina’s cycles begins with the “attention-grabber” which she calls the “need to know” Take for example, this Pepsi ad:

It’s fascinating to discuss that not only is this possible, but that it’s not even particularly incredulous: his speed at the top isn’t insanely fast. This video as an attention grabber is also particularly valuable because the entire premise of “can it be done” lies in the understanding of physics. Students can picture themselves trying to run the loop and can consider what that would feel like and what challenges might be presented. In contrast, doing a bunch of demos to “wow” students, such as whipping a penny around on a hanger, might be cool but are much more challenging for students to engage in the how and the way.

Etkina’s cycles rely on a fundamental and critical shift in how we approach the teaching and learning of physics. Specifically, that everything we do is framed in a similar context to how scientists work; everything is an experiment. (She recently published some research that highlights the cycles and I strongly suggest it for further reading). This relates to Willingham’s second point of designing discovery (we know it as inquiry) learning with care. As wonderful as inquiry is, it can be all too easy for students to head down inefficient paths if left entirely to their own devices. By framing the learning as a series of experiments with specific end-goals in mind, the teacher acts as facilitator to guide student learning down the path of interest without stifling their own creative thought.

Uniform circular motion comes at some point after forces where students have learned that a force is an interaction between objects and that when there are unbalanced forces, that results in a net force which causes an acceleration. The acceleration is in the same direction as the net force. Circular motion is often very challenging for students because so much of it is counterintuitive to students: enter the conflict. But rather than trying to explain to students (which is totally ineffective, see chapter 2 in Dr. Mestre’s book), students are engaged in a cycle of experiments to construct their understanding.

One of the first observational experiments that can be done is to ask students to get an object moving in a circle. I have seen this done in many ways, from giving students straws and a marble, to getting a students to come up with a broom and move a bowling ball in a circle. (Side-note: I overwhelmingly prefer the bowling ball example because it is much more obvious to the students what is happening) In this observational experiment students should notice two facts: first, that a force needs to constantly be applied, and second that the force is directed in towards the center of the circle. Similar, but different observational experiments allow students to confirm and refine their hypothesis (bucket of water, rollerblader holding a rope). As the cycle continues students eventual construct mathematical models and then begin to test and apply those models to a variety of situations. Here, we see Willingham’s final two points: making and discovering meaning is completely unavoidable through this model and conflict is central to the story as students continuously refine their understandings.

Students construct mathematical models from quantitative testing experiments through Pivot Ineractives

There is a great wealth to learn and discuss about active learning, but what I want to bring your attention to at this moment is how this structure creates a story. This story is not just some instructor-invented story, nor is it some obscure hypothetical problem that may be defined in a PBL lesson plan, but rather it is a story where the student is the main protagonist, and all learning and model development is directly related to the experiments performed in class and their outcomes.

Eugina Etkina is a physics professor at Rutgers and author of the book College Physics: Exploring and Apply. She has a facebook group for teachers to discuss the text as well as her cycles which all all shared to members in the group!

Questions for Consideration

  1. Pick a lesson that starts off “today we’re going to learn about ___” that is then followed by the definition or equation for ____. Can you identify the conflict for students? Can you think of something for a “need to know” attention-grabber that would get students thinking about the conflict before you dive into your lesson? Share it in the comments.
  2. What are your biggest fears or concerns with implementing active learning every single day in your classroom?
  3. Have you used an NGSS storyline or PBL cycle? Talk about the four C’s as they apply (or are missing) from that lesson. Discuss Willingham’s considerations for story-telling learning and how they are or are not addressed.

One of my first posts on this blog was about modeling vs intentional modeling. If you’re new to this idea, this post might resonate with you


3 thoughts on “The Science of Learning Physics: Active Learning part 1 – The Power of a Story

    1. Ah! Yes! Of course! Eugina Etkina is the author of College Physics: Explore and Apply, designed for AP Physics 1. She developed a facebook page for teachers using the book, but in light of the pandemic. opened the group to anyone interested and has posted files of all of the cycles for teacher use! See here to join:


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