The SAIL Teaching Framework

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February 3, 2013

Teaching or Filtering?

I have taught physics to children of all ages, from 3rd graders to high-school seniors.  Some people find this improbable - of course, whatever is being taught to, say, middle-schoolers in the name of physics must not be real physics.  Why not? I ask.  Well real physics is complicated and requires advanced math, like calculus, they say.

But aren't there concepts in physics that can be conveyed to younger students?

Concepts are fine, but physics isn't real without the math.

But math taught to middle-schoolers is real math, isn't it?

Yes, but that's different.  These students will take math for many years, getting better and better at it.

So there is no point in introducing students to the basic ideas of physics?

Well, why bother?  You won't be able to say that they really KNOW physics.

But I'm not trying to claim that they will become professional physicists through my class.  I just want them to have experienced how physicists see and think about the world.

Unless they plan on pursuing science in college, there isn't any point.  And if your students get good grades in your class, you will, in fact, be claiming that they KNOW physics.

I'll be claiming that they know what I've asked them to learn, basic physics concepts.

And that will be a misleading claim.  Everyone knows that only the smartest students can really learn physics.

That last notion is a back-handed compliment, I guess.  I certainly did learn physics in high school and college, so apparently I numbered among the "smartest" students.  As a teacher, though, I reject the notion, and if I'm so smart, why is my assertion about the ability to teach physics to everyone not accepted?

The answer lies in deeply-held but foggy notions about "smartness," and what it means to know something, about the capacity to both teach and learn.  Ultimately, the question needs to be asked; what are we doing in our schools, are we teaching or are we filtering?  Which function does our society most want from its schools?

As a high school physics student, I was the product of filtering.  Physics was a high-school course that only the brightest students were allowed to take.  The filtering process began in middle-school with students being grouped into divisions based on academic ability.  From that point on, expectations both low and high became reality.  In high school we were separated into tracks that were to guide us to the appropriate socio-economic outcome.  The requirements for taking physics were steep - we were the final filtrate, the ultimate refinement.

I completely understand my interlocutor above.  There exists a sense that physics is an elite study.  I had a friend who insisted that I must understand the whole universe if I understand physics.  But is it elite only because the bar to entry is set so high?  Is physics, or anything else for that matter, so fundamentally difficult to understand that a teacher can only throw his hands in the air in despair?  If so, then we are left with filtering - separating the wheat from the chaff, the elite from the common, the deserving from the disqualified, the good from the bad, the smart from the stupid.  Filtering may be an understandable, even natural, practice, but imagine what good, effective teaching could do.

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