Constructivist Approach in Physics

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Applying a Constructivist Approach in Introductory Physics Doug Smith ETEC530

A CONSTRUCTIVIST APPROACH TO PHYSICS Introduction Physics has a long history of being taught from a traditional methodology. In introductory secondary and undergraduate courses, classes may focus on formulas and application to trivial word problems as presented in mainstream textbooks, where word decoding provides enough clues for solutions. In contrast to this, I argue for applying constructivist pedagogy to physics curricula as a means to provide deeper, meaningful learning, leading to stronger conceptual understandings.


Pedagogical Context Introductory physics is perhaps an ideal example of how transmission teaching is at times used in secondary schools. Along with mathematics, physics is seen as a subject that affords itself to drill and kill problems. As Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989) point out, these common types of textbook word problems are not part of authentic learning, and lack context which would result in enriched learning. There is a strong desire for a shift in the way that physics is taught, as educators become more accustomed to constructivist pedagogy and applying a more active-learning model to the classroom. Mazurs research into Peer Instruction (Crouch & Mazur, 2001) highlights the improvements that can be realized through student-centric instruction based on constructivist ideas. While research appears to show positive outcomes from constructivism in the physics classroom, it is likely that the traditional classroom is still seen as the standard model. There are many reasons for why this may be. Pre-service teacher training and lack of pedagogical knowledge (Nashon, Anderson, & Nielsen, 2009), perceived time constraints, numerous and

A CONSTRUCTIVIST APPROACH TO PHYSICS highly detailed learning objectives, may all play a part in the slow shift towards a more constructivist approach to physics education. The reasons for applying a constructivist model to physics education can be rationalized by examining the expansive body of knowledge in terms of misconceptions in physics (Aufschnaiter & Rogge, 2010; Duit, 2003; Posner, Hewson, & Gertzog, 1982). Clearly transmission teaching can result in maintaining misconceptions, as emphasized by Mazur (Mazur, 1997). Newtons Third Law, as an example, is particularly difficult to grasp, and the following quote could be considered typical for physics students (Suppapittayaporn, Emarat, & Arayathanitkul, 2010): You said that no matter the object is at rest or moving with a constant speed or with an acceleration, the magnitude of the force the object exerts on the floor is always equal to the magnitude of the force the floor exerts on the object. This does not make sense to me at all! How could this be possible? (page 77) Several pedagogical models aid teaching within a constructivist environment. In


particular, conceptual change models (CCM) figure prominently in the literature on dealing with misconceptions in science. CCM can be seen as part of the Knowledge-As-Theory tradition (zdemir & Clark, 2007, p. 352), which traces back to the work of Piaget, Posner and others (zdemir & Clark, 2007), and can be considered to be the basis of trivial constructivism (Dougiamas, 1998). However, a CCM learning cycle can be further enhanced with other schools of constructivism to provide wider approach to problem solving in physics education. Examples of using social constructivist ideas include the above mentioned peer instruction (Mazur, 1997) along with Mullers research (Muller, Bewes, Sharma, & Reimann, 2007) on the importance of dialogue in conceptual remediation.

A CONSTRUCTIVIST APPROACH TO PHYSICS Current Explorations My own experience with using constructivism in my classroom is varied with a few unproven successes. I have read extensively about modeling techniques, peer instruction, and CCM. As well, I have tried to identify other teachers in my local educational community who try to apply constructivism in their physics classroom. In this regard I have not found many practitioners of constructivism.


To date I have not successfully implemented a complete CCM cycle in science or physics teaching, mostly due to the fact that this is my first year of full time teaching. I have completed a unit plan on the Science 8 topic of Water Systems which incorporates three distinct 5e CCM cycles (zdemir & Clark, 2007), but have not taught this course since designing it. I hope to incorporate the 5e model in a more concrete fashion in the future, as I now have a basis of several unit plans for courses. Modeling I have managed to incorporate some social constructivism features in teaching, with perhaps the most efforts being placed in Modeling Instruction (Jackson, Dukerich, & Hestenes, 2008) and whiteboarding. Modeling relies heavily upon small group activity and cooperative learning, and has aspects of situated cognition. The modeling cycle is broken into two primary groupings: model development and model deployment. Model development is where groups of students observe a phenomenon, such as an object moving at constant velocity, and discuss the aspects of what they see and observe. Groups then are prompted to initiate their own lab investigation to explore and test ideas around what theyve seen. The class then returns together for a post-lab discussion. Model deployment is where guided work such as worksheets and formative assessments are used to expand upon the ideas and models that the students developed.



As a methodology, modeling is a type of situated cognition in that the cognitive understanding of the physics topic is not separated from the discovery and understanding of the topic. The modeling cycling does not necessarily contain an authentic learning environment; however, this is not a restriction of modeling instruction in itself. The level of authenticity is primarily controlled by the resources available to the instructor and students. While learning new concepts in physics, there are many benefits to keeping the scenario in a controlled manner so that topics can be viewed concrete and explicitly with minimal confounding issues. Whiteboarding is strongly tied to modeling, where groups of students conduct much of their work, including brainstorming, calculations and presentations, on whiteboards. The whiteboards offer affordances for collective work and shared exposition and cognition in knowledge and understandings (Henry, Henry, & Riddoch, 2006). I personally have followed through three distinct modeling cycles in my practice in Physics 11. In my opinion it helped the students visualize physics phenomena and strengthen their observation abilities. Most importantly, it allowed the students a level of discovery learning and thinking about a phenomenon without first resorting to a formula. This process was likely aided by the fact that our school does not have a textbook for Physics 11, which allows me to introduce concepts without the students reading ahead and supplanting formulaic understandings ahead of conceptual understandings. I do not have data that shows the effectiveness in my modeling instruction, but I believe the methodology is sound and rationalized in literature (Cabot, 2008; Jackson et al., 2008).

A CONSTRUCTIVIST APPROACH TO PHYSICS Peer Instruction In conjunction with modeling instruction, I have used peer instruction throughout my


teaching. The formative aspect of peer instruction reveals the effectiveness of peer instruction to some degree. First of all, the feedback from the students gives a very good indication on the current level of their understanding. Secondly, the students conceptual remediation through dialogue and social learning is exposed as I monitor the discussions. The students are clearly using their own ideas, experiences, explanations and scaffolded knowledge in order to explain, debate and convince others of their ideas. Despite the success of modeling and peer instruction, they still have limitations. Peer instruction is better known for its implementation in post-secondary education, with only a small amount of research done on it in at the secondary school level (Kay & Knaack, 2009). Perhaps this is partly due to the perceived notion that younger students are not as adept to discovery learning in physics because the perceived nature of higher academic rigor and mathematical requirements (Nashon & Nielsen, 2007). In terms of modeling instruction, I had some trouble with extending the model paradigm to certain topics such as momentum. Furthermore, it is very difficult to develop models for some topics, such as thermal energy.

Future Explorations I am extremely interested in implementing some Problem Based Learning scenarios in my physics classes, as a response to the question of authenticity and capturing the engagement of my students. Furthermore, I would really like to promote critical thinking and PBL with an appropriate problem that should provide ample opportunity for inquiry. By using PBL as a specific manifestation of situated cognition, I hope to further promote the students not as

A CONSTRUCTIVIST APPROACH TO PHYSICS receivers of information, but as learners that can construct their knowledge within their own collaborative groups and agreed upon understanding of the problem (Savery & Duffy, 1995). My first attempt at PBL will be conducted for a unit on Thermal Energy. This unit has a small set of prescribed learning objectives, which like other topics in physics may seem a bit disconnected from authentic science. The problem itself is quite authentic and proposes to answer the following question, When does cycling cost more in fuel


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