Teaching Methods

How I Teach… An Introduction

One positive aspect of working with other teachers nationwide is you are forced to think carefully and critically about precisely what you do and why. Arguably we are supposed to be doing this as part of our daily practices, but too often we get so lost in the day to day we lose sight of the art.

It is my hope in this next series of posts to reflect and share on how I (currently) teach various topics in physics, and how that has shifted from how I used to teach those ideas. Before we begin on this journey together, it is important to lay out my values and beliefs around teaching this course.

  1. Any student can learn physics, and curiosity about the physics world around us is an innate attribute of humanity. Look at any group of people from across the globe and you will find scientific curiosity and thinking. You will find ingenuity and creativity. Humans are constantly looking to explain nature and then use what is available to us to create, build and explore. This innate curiosity isn’t limited to rich, white men, it is literally a piece of our very humanity.
  2. Intuition can be a powerful tool to co-construct knowledge: I was educated in a physics room where we regularly engaged in what Eugina Etkina calls “expose and shame”. Students are given a scenario with no prior knowledge and asked to guess the outcome. The outcome is always the opposite of what students expect. The unexpected is supposed to “stick” in students minds. Not only does the result not stick in students minds, this creates a classroom culture where students avoid taking risks and making mistakes. What I’ve learned from the modeling curriculum and the ISLE method is that we can help set up specific experiments and demonstrations where we first let student intuition help construct an understanding about an idea. As that idea becomes more solidified we can begin to introduce scenarios where student intuition may not have previously led them to the correct answer, but they can get there using the knowledge they have built in the course.
  3. Order matters. Language matters. This idea is one that I have finally begun to fine-tune and refine just over the last few years. All of mechanics really comes down to 2 ideas: forces or conservation. When we boil physics down to the “big ideas” we can see what is truly important. The challenge, however, is that students tend to work in a very granular manner. They like to do things a particular way each time (algorithmic thinking) and they like to go equation hunting, thinking that thee “plug and chug” part of the problem is “the work” rather than all of the work that comes before the work. As a teacher I have two roles here: emphasize and make clear the big picture, and make all of the work before the work visible to my students. These ideas have shifted how I first present material to my students as well as where the emphasis lies within the classroom.
  4. Shut Up and Listen: Not them… YOU! Getting out of student conversations and letting them run the room is a big challenge. Actually listening really carefully to the conversations happening in the room is another challenge entirely. I cannot count the number of time’s I’ve wanted to bring everyone back in after a time limit, only to realize groups were just getting to the good stuff in their conversations. So much of their learning happens while engaging in conversation, so we need to the make space for it.
  5. EVERYTHING is an opportunity for an experiment: I learned this after working with Eugina Etkina’s ISLE curriculum and workshop and it finally solidified what I always believed to be true but struggled to put in a concrete way. I’ve never been one for showmanship, and I started my career around a lot of physics showmen. When I was in college it was the big “learn through inquiry” push, which was a step in the right direction but lacked structure. When I student taught I was supposed to do a day of thermo demos, but instead I turned it into stations. This is one part of my teaching style that has only grown over the years. “Demonstrations” are and should always be treated as observational experiments. If we want to treat our students as aspiring scientists, we should model our classroom on the scientific research structure.
  6. My primary responsibility is to ensure students learn. This can only be achieved if a certain culture exists in my classroom. My room must be a place that is culturally relevant and responsive. It must be a place where students can take risks, ask questions and be heard. It must be a place where failure is part of the process, but never the end result. Where students know I care about their well-being and mental health as much as “finishing” the content by the end of the year. My classroom must be a place where the grade students earn is a reflection of what they have accomplished and learned in a semester, not an average of mistakes and compliance. These norms are achieved in many different ways within and outside of the actual curriculum.

I imagine I will add to the list as I start formalizing my thoughts around how I teach each of the units and build my classroom culture. One of the beautiful parts of blogging is actually taking the time to reflect on practices and receive feedback!


3 thoughts on “How I Teach… An Introduction

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