In my last post, I suggested that one of the ways to approach the subject of curricular and pedagogical change with colleagues, especially as it pertains to modeling instruction, is to share one’s own personal story of transformation. So here’s mine.
I used to be an awesome teacher. Seriously, that’s what everyone used to tell me and I had started to believe them. For the first six years of my career, I did my very best to make my classes dynamic and engaging by incorporating various types of activities. During lecture, I was enthusiastic and worked hard to distill an idea down to its essence when explaining it. My reviews from students were always glowing and the administration loved what I was doing. And the awards! In those six years, I taught at a rural public school, was a TA at a state university and spent the final year of the first six at my current school. In that time, I won three teaching awards and was nominated for two others. By every measure I had available, I was a great teacher. And then, the FCI came along.
The FCI (or Force Concept Inventory) is 30-question, conceptual multiple choice test meant to determine how well the students in your class understand the Newtonian concept of forces and the results of their application. No calculations are involved. The FCI came to me through Dr. Kathy Harper at OSU. She had presented a short, one-day workshop on modeling instruction locally and had followed up with flyers inviting the participants to the summer workshop. I signed up and as part of the process, I was asked to give my students the FCI before coming to the workshop. Looking over the test, I thought my students would make short work of it. After all, we were ending the year on magnetic induction, so surely they understood Newton’s laws of motion. We’d been using them all year. With the first year at my new school ending, I administered the FCI to my students. When I reached the summer workshop, I eagerly sought out the results.
College Prep Physics – Mean = 6/30 (20%)
Honors Physics – Mean = 9/30 (30%)
AP Physics C:Mechanics – Mean = 13/30 (43%)
WTF?! How were those scores possible? I spent a year teaching those students physics. The FCI covers some of the most fundamental ideas I told them about. They got As and Bs! The AP scores were all 4s and 5s! While I didn’t expect perfect scores, I did expect results significantly better than guessing. Those FCI scores were like a swift, spiritual kick to the head that altered my reality forever. I had to figure out what was going on. I began by doing what every normal person would do in this case – I blamed the test.
When I started the workshop, my skepticism for modeling instruction was high – very high. Of course, kids taught with modeling do better on the FCI – it’s written by the people that developed modeling! How does it relate to other measures of physics learning? (It correlates very strongly.) How many students do we have data on? (At this point, n> 10,000.) Students still learn by lecture. Why bother changing? (Because more of your students will learn more material using modeling.) All of my questions had answers. The research on modeling instruction and the tools used to evaluate it is extensive. (Here’s a start.) As a science teacher, if I’m going to talk the talk, I need to walk the walk. Having been confronted with what I found to be convincing evidence, I was obligated to investigate this pedagogy and see if it had an effect on how well my students understood physics. After the workshop, I returned home, prepared for the coming year and did my best to implement modeling in the following months.
It was difficult. I felt like a first year teacher again. Rushing home to review and prepare for the coming day, I was forced to truly change the way students engaged with the material and forego much of what I had developed over the past six years. Too many times, I’d start to revert to simply explaining some idea rather than forcing the students to provide the explanation. As the year progressed, it became even more difficult as we started covering content that the workshop never got to. I’d never been good at writing assessments and my old ones weren’t addressing the things I was now asking about. It was a mess. But there was a noticeable shift in how my students were acting in class. They began to enjoy the content rather than the show I used to put on. Their confidence in their knowledge was much greater than it had been in the past. But, to my critical eye, those things, while very important, were not measures of how much physics they’d learned. Was this admittedly chaotic year more productive than the way things had been in the past? For that comparison, I needed the FCI.
At the end of that first year of modeling, I only gave it to my honors physics class. I hadn’t taught college prep that year and hadn’t used modeling in AP. Nervously, I scored the tests and tabulated the results:
Honors Physics – Mean = 18/30 (60%)
I stared at that result for a long time. Even in the face of the frankly terrible job I felt I had done that year, my students had shown incredible learning gains. The next two years showed even greater improvements on the FCI as I refined and adapted modeling instruction to my own style of teaching. The pre- and post- scores remained consistent with the national averages. Additionally, enrollment in the 2nd year AP Physics class has grown from 4 to 13. AP scores remained high. And the unmeasureable qualities I mentioned earlier continued to grow in both intensity and frequency. From those results, I had to conclude that modeling instruction was more effective than lectures at producing lasting learning and getting students to adopt a Newtonian view of the universe. That seems like the only logical conclusion to draw. It would be irresponsible of me to continue to teach the way I had been when confronted with this information. So, I started using modeling and have not gone back. That’s my story.
I’ll leave you with this analogy. Newton’s law of universal gravitation works. We used it to discover Neptune and Pluto, both invisible to the naked eye. It predicts the paths of comets and dates of eclipses. We could continue to use it, but then we’d miss out on solving the mystery of Mercury’s perihelion, the bending of starlight, GPS, black holes, the origin of the universe and more. If you know about general relativity, but refuse to use it, then all of those problems remain unsolved. I refuse to leave any tool unused that will demonstrably improve the knowledge and experience of my students.