As far back as the late 1800s, U.S. physics teachers expressed many of the same ideas about physicseducation reform that are advocated today. However, several popular reform efforts eventually failed to have wide impact, despite strong and enthusiastic support within the physics education community. Broad-scale implementation of improved instructional models today may be just as elusive as it has been in the past, and for similar reasons. Although excellent instructional models exist and have been available for decades, effective and scalable plans for transforming practice on a national basis have yet to be developed and implemented. Present-day teachers, education researchers, and policy makers can find much to learn from past efforts, both in their successes and their failures. To this end, we present a brief outline of some key ideas in U.S. physics education during the past 130 years. We address three core questions that are prominent in the literature: (a) Why and how should physics be taught? (b) What physicsshould be taught? (c) To whom should physics be taught? Related issues include the role of the laboratory and attempts to make physics relevant to everyday life. We provide here only a brief summary of the issues and debates found in primary-source literature; an extensive collection of historical resources on physics education is available at https://sites.google.com/site/physicseducationhistory/home.
Why and how should physics be taught?
When courses in physics (then called “natural philosophy”) were introduced as part of the curriculum in the early academies and very first high schools in the early 1800s, the justification was explicitly practical: knowledge of physical phenomena was taught so people could put it to use in their everyday lives. By the early 1880s, however, high school physics teachers would express a multitude of reasons for teaching the subject, including that of training the mind “to habits of accurate observation and of precise and clear reasoning.” Hands-on laboratory activities came to be seen as necessary, so that physics students could learn “how to observe, compare, and draw conclusions of themselves,” or, in short, “to catch the spirit of inquiry.
Around this time the so-called “inductive method” was widely favored, referring to experimentation that led to student-generated models and explanations for observed phenomena: “[W]e first observe the phenomena sharply and then seek for a cause or for the law according to which the forces act….if the guess is a definite one, definite conclusions (deductions) can be drawn from it which will lead to new observations or experiments….we…continue until one explanation remains that is consistent with all our knowledge and stands all the tests we are able to apply.
Laboratory-based instruction spread rapidly among both high schools and colleges. The well-known “Harvard Descriptive List,” a laboratory guide written by E. H. Hall, incorporated many questions, specifically designed to lead physics students to develop models and explanations to account for their observations: “[I]t has been thought best…to put the student, so far as is practicable, into the attitude of an investigator seeking for things unforetold….He should not be told what he is expected to see, but he must usually be told in what direction to look. He should be required to draw inferences from his experiments.
A generation later, these themes were revisited by research physicists such as the University of Chicago’s R. A. Millikan, who had a special interest in improving both high school and college physics instruction. Millikan succinctly expressed the views of many physics educators regarding the value of physics, saying that:
“[T]he material with which it deals is almost wholly available to the student at first hand, so that in it he can be taught to observe, and to begin to interpret for himself the world in which he lives, instead of merely memorizing text-book facts, and someone else’s formulations of so-called laws….The main object of the course in physics is to teach the student to begin to think for himself, to begin to construct for himself…an orderly world out of the chaotic jumble of phenomena which observation presents to him” [emphasis in original].
As these various quotes indicate, early instructional ideals were often envisioned as being based on the inductive method. However, around the turn of the century, an increased emphasis on college preparation along with a growing number of topics to be covered led high school physics to focus excessively on abstract principles and mathematical computations having little physical context, and to a decreasing emphasis on scientific investigation. Cookbook-style laboratory activities took the form of step-by-step procedures, encouraging rote practice and mindless manipulations of laboratory apparatus, rather than inductive reasoning. By 1906, many physics educators had concluded that instruction in physics had gone seriously astray, departing from its original objectives, and they argued strongly for a return to those objectives. For example, physicist C. R. Mann advocated laboratory-based investigations that would engage students’ intuitive thinking, promote inductive reasoning, and help students experience the “spirit of science,” which he defined as a belief that “the world is a harmonious and well-coordinated organism and that it is possible…to find harmony and coordination.” The “New Movement Among Physics Teachers” attempted to gather support for reforms aimed at goals such as this. Later, the increasingly popular “project method” saw students engaged in practical investigations of topics that might arise from their everyday lives and experiences.
To read the full article : http://scitation.aip.org/content/aapt/journal/tpt/54/9/10.1119/1.4967888
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