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15 March 2011

Physics First Discussions: Reveal the Agendas

No, not the FIRST robotics competition, PHYSICS-FIRST.
I’m in the middle of a two-week spring break right now. Since I’m incapable of relaxing and ignoring physics teaching for that long – just ask Burrito Girl, my wife and sidekick – I’ve been working on a major redesign of my school’s overall physics curriculum. In the process of this revision, I’ve had occasion to reflect on all of the physics-first conversations I’ve had over the years. In tomorrow’s post, I will address some of the major arguments for and against a physics-first approach.

One of the most important realizations I’ve come to about a physics-first discussion is that the discussion itself is pointless until agendas are revealed and acknowledged. The decision about an overall school curriculum should be made on the merits of the proposed courses, and how well a curriculum does or doesn’t suit the school’s particular constituency of students and teachers. Too often, participants in the conversation steer consensus toward their own predetermined outcomes without listening to or acknowledging reasonable arguments.

The physics first supporters with agendas whom I’ve encountered generally fall into two categories: (1) Evangelical types, generally disciples of Leon Lederman, who are on a mission to grant physics its rightful place as the first, best, and most important of the three major sciences.* (2) Administrators who want change for the sake of self-promotion, so they can say “Look what I did, I ushered in a physics first curriculum! Now give me a promotion.”

* A line about physics first from Lederman’s Wikipedia entry, emphasis mine: “Also known as “Right-Side Up Science” and “Biology Last,” this movement seeks to rearrange the current high school science curriculum…” That’s, without question, evangelism.

The physics first detractors with an agenda whom I’ve known generally have a very simple point of view: “I don’t want to change, because I’m happy teaching whatever I’m teaching.  Doing something different would require a lot of work, and I might lose my monopoly on my special course or special students.”

Is a physics-first approach right? There can be no general yes-or-no answer. The question is ill-posed without substantial context. The better questions are, how can a physics-first program be successful at our school, what about physics first could define its success for us, and why use physics-first rather than a standard alternative.  Answering these questions neutrally, without promoting an agenda, is the way toward designing physics course offerings appropriate for your school.

Tomorrow, I’ll address some common physics-first pro- and con- arguments.


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