Turning off kids with tough concepts… or not.

January 21, 2012 at 2:58 PM Leave a comment

I’m pretty steamed about sections in our textbook that deal with thermodynamics and with the buoyant force. Before getting going, you should know that I am a zoology major and I was rather hoping for an accurately simplified, conceptual explanation for latent heats at phase changes, and for why things float. In the state-adopted textbook used by millions of students and their teachers in our state. A reasonable expectation, wouldn’t you say?

Take the fact that the majority of middle school science teachers are not physical science specialists. Add to that, that 8th grade is likely to be when students decide if they will take more physical science at high school – a major gateway subject for engineering, medicine, the energy industry, high tech etc. So it’s pretty clear that an excellent text could make a huge difference for how students see the subject.

I wish it did. Instead our text presents complex ideas in a technically accurate way, but misses steps in the argument and does not give a simplified conceptual picture. It is difficult for me to understand and is useless as a review aid to my students, let alone a primary resource for them. If this were their major resource for physical science (which it is in many, many classrooms), I can’t imagine why they’d feel like confusing themselves more in high school physics. (While there is an upward trend, only 48% of our HS students earn credits in physics in 2009 (NSF Sci and Eng. Statistics)

What to do about the textbook issue? Well, number one is to read the chapter ahead of time and not just randomly assign homework because the chapter heading looks relevant. Duh, right?

I have to, have to re-read the concept ahead of instruction each year – love Paul Hewitt’s “Conceptual Physics” text. Wikipedia is decent too, although very high level.  Kahn Academy has 3 minute chalk and talk tutorials that are a help for me as a starting place, and for kids to review from. My colleagues and I then chat about it and it’s then my job and pleasure too, to translate the arcane into the accessible, with labs, lectures, video clips and a mental picture of what’s going on at the atomic level. Plus how it relates to their actual lives.

There’s a snobbery in physical sciences around making concepts accessible – I think that’s what I’m feeling as I read the text book and imagine the committee writing it, perhaps trying to make it look high level and rigorous to reviewing politicians.

The art of teaching is to accurate simplification that will intrigue children and light the way as they wander deeper into understanding. Maybe then, we’ll have droves clamoring to take physics, and well, that could take California back to being an engine of innovation.

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Entry filed under: Chemistry topics, Physics Topics, Policy, Reflections. Tags: , , , , .

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