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17 April 2015

Lessons from a year of teaching AP Physics 1, part 2: Mindset

And now for a series of posts reflecting on a year of teaching AP Physics 1.  I've already posted a bunch of stuff that worked well; but a good scientist publishes the results of all experiments.  

Part 2: "Inquiry" only works if your students are in a mindset that allows them to inquire.

Last summer our faculty read a pop psychology book about "fixed" and "growth" mindsets.  In short, a student in a fixed mindset thinks of school as a set of tasks to be completed, some of which he's intrinsically good at, some of which he's not.  A student in a growth mindset considers school to be a series of challenges to be conquered, some of which will lead to success, some of which will not, but all of which will be valuable experiences.  I wasn't impressed with the text of the book itself, but the concept of the two mindsets -- and the common language that our faculty now have to describe our students and our work with them -- has been valuable to me.

If you read this blog, you know that I am as far from a fluffy educator as it is possible to be.  I'm a physics teacher -- I do what works, not what's popular. I evaluate my work not in reference to the buzzword of the month but in reference to physics learned, relationships built, attitudes toward science adjusted, and scientific misconceptions squashed.

Nevertheless, as I was preparing to teach AP Physics 1 last summer, I got excited about the opportunity to use some different approaches with my class.  I had significant success with my ninth graders the past couple of years moving away from the front of the classroom, letting them work through problems themselves rather than showing them directly what to do.  I saw that the new AP exam didn't cover as much material, leaving more time in class to allow for experimental investigation on the students' own.  And the AP Physics world was buzzing with ideas that sounded fun.  The quantitative demonstrations that I've done in lecture for years have proven effective; but I was excited to try new, adventurous things for a new course that seemed to require more active participation from students than quantitative demonstrations allowed for.

In other words, I pledged to have more of a "growth mindset" than ever this year.

But it's not about me.  I didn't take into account the mindset of my students.

One of the two main reasons that Woodberry teaches ninth-grade physics is, in fact, student mindset.  Freshmen in their first months at boarding school have a wonderful growth mindset.  It takes a huge step for them merely to commit to attending a difficult academic school away from home.  So when our 14 year olds are presented with a non-traditional class -- one with near-daily lab work, one where the teacher doesn't merely lecture in front of the room, one where they can't always just memorize the correct answer -- they adapt quickly and enthusiastically.  The ninth grade consistently names physics as one of their favorite courses, and I never lecture from the front of the room for more than five consecutive minutes.

Seniors work differently.  They expect a certain sort of class, in which attention to the teacher and completion of homework leads to academic success.  They are, for the most part, poster children for the fixed mindset.  After two years of teaching the puppy-like freshmen who adapted willingly to whatever I suggested, I didn't anticipate the hostile reaction I'd get from seniors when I made plans NOT to stand at the front of the room.

For example:  For freshmen, an amazingly successful approach has been to have them, individually in class, solve a problem step-by-step.  Each student shows me his work after each step, where I either say "correct -- move on" or I explain what's wrong, and have him do that part again.  Once all steps are completed, the situation described in the problem is set up experimentally in the back of the room.  The student does the experiment to verify (or not verify) the answer to the problem.  The ninth graders love this approach, because they don't have to sit still, because they get instant feedback, and because they get to manipulate equipment themselves, seeing viscerally the connection between abstract problem solving and physical reality.

The seniors hated this approach, for the most part.  In particular, they took it personally when they got part of a problem wrong.  I would explain politely where they had expressed a misconception... and they would get mad at me for one reason or another.  "You never told us that."  (Well, I did, just I didn't scream it from in front of the white board.)  "How was I supposed to figure that out?"  (By either having good insight, or by developing good insight trying some things that don't work)  "When are you going to let me move on?" (When you get this first part right... which you might very quickly if you'd quit arguing and whining and just try it again the way I suggested.)*

* I rarely articulated these responses.  One of my colleagues suggests that I should have been more aggressive about sharing my point of view with my seniors, in order to nip these complaints in the bud.  I'm still not sure.

I was flabbergasted by the seniors' resistance.  Why were they reacting so differently than I had expected?  In retrospect, it was clearly because I had underestimated the fixed-ness of their mindset.  They came to me ready to be told what to learn, with a low tolerance for failure.  I had spent most of my career adapting my AP-level course to students who need careful guidance along the path to true inquiry.  And then I threw all those adaptations out the window in the name of trying new approaches that had worked with freshmen.  Oops.  It sounds utterly stupid now that I articulate that statement.

Every single new idea that I tried for AP Physics 1 was met with hostility from my seniors.  They didn't begin to settle down until late October, when I went straight back to teaching from the front of the room.  Now that we're at the end of the year, now that I've done a good amount of lecturing, I have been able to bring out some "open-inquiry" style activities with success.  My mistake wasn't in adapting new ideas to my course; my mistake was expecting that my seniors would have enough of a growth mindset to try those new activities right away.

How am I going to change what I do?  Well, for one, I'm teaching all freshmen next year.  One of my colleagues, who is far better than I at dealing with seniors, will teach the upperclass AP-equivalent course.

But were I teaching the seniors again, I'd go back to what worked -- quantitative demonstrations, presented from the front of the room while the class listens and asks questions.  That atmosphere is what seniors know and expect.  I would, as I have for decades, gradually introduce crazier elements of physics inquiry... but I've learned my lesson that the upperclassmen aren't ready to inquire at the beginning of the year.

Is it evidence of a growth mindset to structure a course to match students' (initially) fixed mindset?

And, is that Zen, or just gobbledygook?


  1. Hi, long time reader, first time commenter:) I think you're having a common experience with the seniors. In my particular neck of the woods, I teach two different physics courses. An algebra-based non-AP regular physics and then a hybrid AP Physics 1/AP C Mechanics course (giving it a whirl this year, at least, after having exclusively done AP-C for the past four years). I have found that if I take time at the beginning of the year to explain my rationale for running the course in a non-traditional fashion, I'm able to have a little more success with getting the seniors to play ball. Explain is probably not the right word, we do a couple of Nature of Science based activities that do a nice job of bringing out the need for collaboration, the need for evidence to support claims, and insufficiency of regurgitated science facts. I also share with them data that I have collected over the past eight years, and establish that evidence as the motivation for me to make the changes to the course structure. This evidence-based appeal has worked well with the AP students, but not as well with the regular physicists. I drink the Modeling Kool-aid, so a lot of the evidence is based on the measurement tools from that realm (FCI, MBT, TUG-K, Lawson CTSR, I give them vague names when sharing data with new students), but I also seek out first hand accounts from alums. I send out a google survey to my alums during their freshman year of college seeking honest, anonymous feedback on how well prepared they were for college level physics. Most of the feedback is positive, at least from the ones that go on to take college physics/engineering coursework. There are some very (very!) negative responses, as well, and they seem to come from students that pursue courses of study outside of the sciences. I share both the good and the bad with my current students so they get some idea of what they've gotten themselves into. Long story long, kids have been observing teachers for years, they know how the game is structured. If you're going to deviate from that structure, there is some benefit to directly addressing the issues that you can now anticipate, prior to sparking full on peasant revolts. Vincent Coletta's new-ish book Thinking in Physics includes in the appendix his 'Guide to Learning Physics' that he gives to his students each term. I'm planning to use a similar approach with my regular physicists next fall.
    Thanks for taking the time to write this blog. I've gleaned a lot from your posts this year, and it's helped me navigate my first year of "sort of" teaching AP Physics 1.

  2. Harding, you make a great point about sharing the method behind your madness up front. The next post will be about how the physics culture of the school matters -- if you teach a course in the same way for multiple years, students and colleagues know that the end result is worth buying into your class structure, and they can share their experience with current students. I hadn't taught upperclassmen for four years, and I hadn't taught anyone in this year's senior class at all. I didn't anticipate the front-end work I needed to do to get the buy-in that happened naturally for a decade. If I were teaching seniors next year, I'd do exactly what you suggest whenever I do anything non-traditional.