- American Physical Society Sites
- Meetings & Events
- Policy & Advocacy
- Careers In Physics
- About APS
- Become a Member
by Dr. Cherrill Spencer
Report on an invited session at the 2010 “April” APS meeting held in Washington DC on 16th February, 2010. The session was organized and chaired by Dr. Cherrill Spencer, a member-at-large of the Executive Committee of the Forum on International Physics, who has written this detailed summary for the Forum on Education newsletter so that more people than the 30 who attended the session can learn about this topic. This session was co-sponsored by the Forum on International Physics and the Forum on Education.
The slides of the three speakers are posted on the Web.
Introduction by Dr. Cherrill Spencer, Chair of the session
High-school teachers are amongst the most important contributors to the development of the science and technology workforce of the future. Many of the more than 23,000 US high-school physics teachers are not adequately prepared to teach the subject. Only one-third of them, for example, majored in physics or physics education. Can inadequate teacher preparation be a factor in the poor performance of US students on international assessments of their achievements in science and physics? Since 1995 the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) has been administered four times to many hundreds of thousands of students in over 60 countries. TIMSS is used to measure trends in the mathematics and science knowledge and skills of fourth- and eighth-graders. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) has been administered three times since 2000, it focuses on 15-year-olds' capabilities in reading literacy, mathematics literacy, and science literacy. TIMSS Advanced (1995) assessed school-leaving students who have had special preparation in advanced mathematics and physics. In all these studies the US students, including the Advanced Placement physics students, scored below the international average, sometimes in the bottom third of countries! See the figure at right.
Three knowledgeable speakers were invited to talk about the physics K-12 education systems in other countries: one that consistently scores at the top of the PISA (Dr. Pekka Hirvonen, Finland) or score much higher than the USA on TIMSS (Dr. Jozefina Turlo, Poland, covering various Central European countries) and significantly better on recent bi-lateral comparisons (Dr. Lei Bao, covering China in comparison to the USA). This session was designed to find out what we can learn from the physics teaching systems in these high-scoring countries that might be pertinent to our efforts to improve the teaching of physics and science to 8th through 12th graders in the USA.
There are several differences in the design and purpose of the TIMSS and PISA assessments, for example the TIMSS focuses on the application of familiar skills and knowledge often emphasized in classrooms, whereas the PISA tests emphasize students’ abilities to apply skills and information learned in school to solve problems or make decisions they may face at work. PISA test questions tend to deemphasize factual recall and demand more complex reasoning and problem-solving skills than those on TIMSS, requiring students to apply logic, synthesize information, and communicate solutions clearly.
L to R. Pekka Hirvonen (Finland), Jozefina Turlo (Poland), Cherrill Spencer (SLAC, USA) and Lei Bao (Ohio State University)
“Physics teacher education in Finland and reasons underlying the top scores of Finnish students in international assessments”
“Physics teacher education in Finland and reasons underlying the top scores of Finnish students in international assessments” was the title of Dr. Pekka Hirvonen’s presentation. He is the head of the Education Unit in the Department of Physics and Mathematics at the University of Eastern Finland. He is Vice President of the Finnish mathematics and science education research association and board member of the Finnish graduate school of mathematics, physics, and chemistry education. Finnish 15 year olds, a nationally representative sample, scored the highest on the science PISA in both 2000 and 2006. In 2006 they scored 563 points (on a 0-1000 scale), the second highest was Hong Kong with 542, and the US was the 16th country with 489 points.
Dr. Hirvonen said that many people have tried to explain the good results of the Finnish children, the Finnish policymakers claim they have made wise decisions and that is the reason, on the other hand, teacher educators say they are educating such good teachers, while the teachers say they are teaching so well. Probably they are all partially right. His favorite explanation is that education is highly appreciated in Finland. Since the Second World War the Finnish society has developed quickly from an agricultural country to a high-tech and education-oriented country and this development has been brought about through an improved education system; a good education in Finland has always been a way to achieve a job in their society, no matter their family’s background.
Furthermore, because the Finnish population is quite homogeneous it is easy to teach the children the basic skills quickly. He contrasted this with classes (such as we have in USA schools) with children from 10 different countries who are trying to learn to read and write English first, this is a difficult environment for the teacher. Another typical feature of the Finnish school system is that it is organized so that even the weakest children learn basic skills; this system may not be best for the smartest children.
Dr. Hirvonen talked about the influences on teacher education in Finland. Their physics teachers are trained in universities and each university has much freedom in deciding the content of their teacher education program. These programs cover both the acquisition of the physics knowledge and learning how to teach (the pedagogy). The structure of their teacher training has been influenced by how it is done in other European countries, but they have some unique aspects too. One is that there is a school within the university where the student teachers teach real children well before they get their degrees; this is an expensive strategy but it produces good teachers. The pedagogical studies and training school are organized by the faculties of education. The Finnish national school curriculum is not completely defined, its aims and content are given in a general sense and the teachers are trusted to be competent enough to make good decisions, so the teacher education is taken seriously.
Dr Hirvonen described the physics teacher education program at his university. Student teachers can apply to the teacher education program straight out of high school; they must have good final’s scores and pass a suitability test that consists of an interview and a group session. During the first three years the prospective teachers learn just the same physics as the prospective physicists, in addition there are two laboratory courses just for the student teachers. One is basic laboratory practise for teachers; they work in groups of 3 and carry out well-defined hands-on activities. A tutor talks to them during the labs about taking observations and the concepts, and afterwards all topics are discussed in interactive lectures. The second special course is called laboratory practise for physics teachers, their responsibility is much bigger, they have 9 hours of lab time to create a teaching sequence lasting about one hour, with a clear learning goal. Then everyone’s sequence is tried out with the other students working as a school-student.
At the beginning of their second year the student teachers begin their pedagogical studies in the department of applied education and start student teaching in the university training school. To become a licensed physics teacher in Finland one must have taken a Master’s degree, i.e. two more years of study beyond the bachelor’s degree. There are special courses for student teachers during their 4th and 5th years, some involve repetition of basic physics concepts to ensure they have a profound understanding of physics and some concentrate on students’ pre-knowledge and learning problems. Other courses give them historical, philosophical or structural perspectives on physics, they see that it is not an isolated domain of knowledge. The Finnish idea is that teacher students should get a multi-dimensional picture about physics. It is not only learning formulas and doing problem solving but much more. They should be prepared to know what to teach, why to teach and how to teach in many different circumstances.
Dr. Hirvonen’s final points were that their graduating teachers are still just beginners, they have been given a driving license and with much practice they will develop into skillful drivers. The co-operation between the three partners: subject department, department of applied education and university training school, is crucial to the success of the teachers they produce; they have a common goal- a good physics teacher.
More information about physics and teacher education research that is carried out in Dr Hirvonen’s university can be found here: http://www.uef.fi/fysmat/fysiikan-opetuksen-tutkimus (in English) and he can be reached at this e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org
“Teaching to Learn and Learning to Teach”
Our second invited speaker was Dr. Lei Bao, associate professor in the Physics Department at Ohio State University. He was educated through his undergraduate degree in China and obtained his Ph.D in Physics at the University of Maryland in 1999. His current research focusses on the large-scale quantitative assessment of learning in science and scientific reasoning in the international context. He is chair of the International Education Committee of the AAPT and holds guest professorships at 3 Chinese universities. His presentation was titled : “Teaching to Learn and Learning to Teach”.
Dr. Bao noted that the TIMSS and PISA assessments offered a global view of K-12 science education and their data enables comparisons of education systems in different countries. Researchers such as he make the comparisons not in a competitive sense, but to learn about various systems. To experimentally prove that some way of teaching caused some better scores than another would need a totally randomized test (like a double blind experiment in medicine) and running such tests in real education settings is very difficult. Nevertheless, Dr. Bao is part of a physics education research community that is developing new research methodology and running comparison studies of Chinese and US physics high school and college students.
Dr. Bao observed that the competition to get into a Chinese university is fierce and he showed some math questions on the Chinese university entrance test for prospective science undergraduates. Everyone in the room gasped at the difficulty of the questions, then he showed some physics questions on the same entrance exam and we gasped again, especially as there were about 20 such difficult questions to be answered in two hours. The Chinese physics undergraduate must be able to really understand physics concepts and so their high school teachers must be able to teach them these concepts. High school teachers are trained in so-called “Normal” universities; it is their dedicated goal to produce teachers. Dr. Bao showed lists of mandatory and elective courses in the physics department at Huazhong Normal University, one can see the similarity to a US BS in physics in the mandatory courses (65 credits), and on top of those the physics teachers in training have to do 16 credits of professional education courses and 24 credits of elective courses:
The required courses in the physics department of Huazhong Normal University are listed as following.
But the Chinese Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education system over-emphasizes the learning of content to the detriment of learning how to solve real world problems, so their graduates do not have good problem solving skills. Another concern in China is that the STEM students lose interest once they arrive at university, they have had to work so hard for many years to get into university and while they are there they do not try to do well anymore. The main concerns about science and engineering education in the USA is that the students are, on average, below the expected performance level (as shown in the TIMSS) and there is a widespread “fear” of science and mathematics. Dr Bao noted that in both countries physics teachers are “teaching to the test” and this is not the best way for students to learn.
Both countries are engaged in STEM education reform and they have common goals: to balance the STEM content learning with the development of problem solving abilities, so that the new generation has the right mix of knowledge, skills and attitudes so that they become not only effective problem solvers but also good ”problem creators”. In Dr. Bao’s opinion, currently both countries seem to be moving towards each other. The best solution is probably midway.
What are Physics Education Researchers (PER) doing to understand science education and science teacher preparation so that they can move forward the reform? Dr. Bao described how, currently in PER, we often emphasize research on the study of specific student difficulties in various contexts and on the development of new instructions. There hasn’t been much research on developing a consistent theory and methodology that can be used to model student’s conceptual learning and to provide guidance for developing effective assessment technologies and instruments. Research is often conducted without the benefit of a strong theoretical foundation. Therefore, it is urgent to develop a coherent theory for research in physics education. Without a unified theory, different researchers don’t have a common language to talk about their research work. In order to make physics education a strong field in physics, it is important to integrate different pieces of research together under a consistent research framework. Such a theory doesn’t exist in education research. Dr. Bao said physics education researchers need to develop a theory for physicists with appropriate mathematical tools.
Dr. Bao is studying how students acquire scientific reasoning skills and whether the amount of STEM content knowledge they are learning has any effect on their domain-general skills, such as the abilities to systematically explore a problem, formulate and test hypotheses, manipulate and isolate variables, and observe and evaluate the consequences. He is using well-known physics concepts’ tests and a scientific reasoning test as his measures and the variables are the K-12 science education systems in China and the USA, represented by thousands of Chinese 1st year college students (have taken 5~6 years of physics courses, mandatory, at complex level) and thousands of US 1st year college students (have taken 1~2 semesters' of physics, elective, at basic level).
To test their content knowledge the students all took (in their own language) the same FCI – force concept inventory test (mechanics, 30 questions, multiple choice) and same BEMA – brief electronic and magnetism assessment (E&M, 31 Questions, multiple choice). To test their scientific reasoning they all took a “Lawson” test with 24 multiple choice questions which tested abilities such as proportional reasoning , probabilistic reasoning and hypothesis deductive reasoning. Dr. Bao showed the three test scores of the Chinese and US students graphically. In the FCI the highest percentage of the Chinese students scored 28 correct answers and the highest percentage of the US students scored 12 correct answers; in the BEMA most of the Chinese students scored 22 correct answers, the US: 9 correct answers. So the Chinese students obviously knew/understood a lot more physics concepts than the US students. But the shape of their scores’ histograms on the scientific reasoning test were statistically the same, leading to the same mean score of 17.9 correct answers out of 24.
So the conclusion of this series of tests is that under current education settings the learning of content knowledge doesn’t seem to have an obvious effect on the development of general scientific reasoning abilities. But what methods are effective in developing scientific reasoning abilities? Dr. Bao’s PER group did some further experiments: they administered the Lawson test twice and in between they taught some students some regular introductory physics courses, their scores did not change on the 2nd Lawson test; another group of students took some inquiry-based physics courses between the 2 Lawson tests and their 2nd test scores were significantly better. So Dr. Bao reported “It is not what we teach but how we teach that matters!”
Dr. Bao’s team continues its research into how best to teach physics and they are evaluating the effectiveness of several education programs and developing a large scale national and international quantitative assessment database. They collaborate with researchers in 8 other countries and their work is reported in this journal: “Research in Education Assessment and Learning”, which can be found at this website: www.iperc.org/REAL .
“Are the Competencies of Science Teachers and the Scientific Literacy of Society Essential for the Success of Physics Students?”
Our third invited speaker was Dr. Jozefina Turlo who was the head of the Physics Education Laboratory at the Institute of Physics, the Nicolaus Copernicus University, Toruń, Poland for 26 years. She graduated as a Ph.D in Physics from the same university and has been employed there since then as a researcher in solid state physics and in physics education. She is a member of the International Research Group on Physics Teaching- GIREP. She is the Polish Ministry of Education’s referee on Teacher Training, Physics Textbooks and Educational Aids. Dr. Turlo is Vice-President of the Polish Association of Science Teachers, partner in many European Union (EU) education projects and independent expert of a European Commission on Framework Project #7: “Science in Society”. Her presentation was titled: “Are the Competencies of Science Teachers and the Scientific Literacy of Society Essential for the Success of Physics Students?”
Dr. Turlo reminded us what are the main features of our time: globalisation, economic development based on knowledge, social transformations and dramatically accelerating progress in new technologies [such as new communication methods based on a merging of information and communications technologies: ICT] which is leading to many new jobs. She described what these features imply for science education: that science must now be learnt by all, not just some, affecting the curricula and aiming for general scientific literacy; that science education must teach how to be innovative, best taught through inquiry teaching methods; and that the competency of science teachers and their enthusiasm affect the overall success of science education.
How does the science education community measure success, such that different countries can compare their education systems with others? There are several international studies that compare students in different countries and Dr. Turlo described the more important ones and their recent results.
Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)
TIMSS is a series of assessments designed for fourth and eighth grade students to address concerns about the quantity, quality, and content of instruction. It is designed to identify progress or decline in student achievements. 50 countries from all over the world participated in the years 1995 – 2007. The best results were usually achieved by Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, Estonia, Japan, Hungary and the Netherlands (China has never participated in TIMSS).
Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)
The PISA tests emphasize students’ abilities to apply skills and information learned in school to solve problems or make decisions they may face at work, i.e. it measures their scientific literacy. Finland, with an average of 563 score points, was the highest performing country on the PISA 2006 science scale (as addressed by our first speaker Dr. Hirvonen). Six other high-scoring countries had mean scores of 530 to 542 points: Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Hong Kong-China, Taiwan and Estonia. Australia, the Netherlands, Korea, Germany, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Slovenia and Macao-China also scored above the OECD [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development] average of 500 score points.
On average across OECD countries, 1.3% of 15-year-olds reached Level 6 of the PISA 2006 science scale, the highest proficiency level. These students could consistently identify, explain and apply scientific knowledge, and knowledge about science, in a variety of complex life situations. The number of students at Level 6 cannot be reliably predicted from a country’s overall performance. Korea was among the highest-performing countries on the PISA science scale, with an average of 522 score points, while the United States performed below the OECD average, with a score of 489. Nevertheless, the United States and Korea had similar percentages of students at Level 6.
The number of students at very low proficiency is also an important indicator in terms of citizens’ ability to participate fully in society and in the labour market. At Level 2, students start to demonstrate the science competencies that will enable them to participate actively in life situations related to science and technology. Across the OECD, on average 19.2% were classified as below Level 2, including 5.2% below Level 1. Males and females showed no difference in average science performance in the majority of countries, including 22 of the 30 OECD countries. However, similarities in average performance mask certain gender differences: In most countries, females were stronger in identifying scientific issues (using academic knowledge), while males were stronger at explaining phenomena scientifically.
Students’ socio-economic differences accounted for a significant part of between school differences in some countries. This factor contributed most to between-school performance variation in the United States, the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Slovak Republic, Germany, Greece, New Zealand, Bulgaria, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.
There is no relationship between the size of countries and the average performance of 15- year-olds in PISA. There is also no cross-country relationship between the proportion of foreign-born students in countries and the average performance of countries.
International Physics Olympiads
The International Physics Olympiads were started in 1965 and around 70 countries have sent students to compete these last 5 years. Chinese students consistently appear in the top three highest scores in these Olympiads, this fits in with the data that Dr. Bao our second speaker presented.
The “First Step to Nobel Prize” competition is not as well-known as the Olympiads and Dr Turlo showed the rankings for 2005 to 2007 and in this arena of the brightest students the USA students came in the top 3 positions.
The ROSE study– the Relevance of Science Education, looks at children’s attitudes towards studying science.
Children from 36 different countries, including many in Africa who don’t take part in the above studies, were asked how much they agreed with this statement:“I like school science better than most other school subjects”. Their responses were plotted to show the percentage answering “Agree plus strongly agree” and they tracked female and male answers separately. At the top of the list with the highest percentage of children agreeing, and hardly any difference between girls and boys, is Bangladesh (~83%), with Uganda second (~80%); 5 other African countries: Ghana, Lethoso, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Botswana all have agreement over 50%. Austria is the only European country where more than 50% of both girls and boys agree with the statement. The Scandinavian countries all cluster at the bottom of the plot with well under 40% agreeing with the statement, and Finland, who does so well in the PISA assessment has just 30% of boys and 21% of girls agreeing with the statement “I like school science better than most other school subjects”. This is a fascinating set of results and during the discussion period after the speakers, Dr. Turlo told us how the researchers explained the wide range of country responses [Chinese children were not included in this study], see the description of the discussion period below.
There are many factors that influence the effectiveness of teaching, e.g. fiscal and other resources, the student’s family background, the overall school quality, the curriculum quality, and, of course “quality of the teachers”. Next Dr. Turlo discussed what competencies a science teacher needs to be an effective and good quality teacher:
To ensure that teachers gain these competencies they must be included in teacher training standards, but the enthusiasm and motivation of a teacher are characteristics that are difficult to imbue through training, they have to come from within the person!
Much of Europe is engaged in K-12 science education reform, like the USA and China are; there are shortcomings in curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and teacher quality, but the deeper problem is one of a fundamental nature. School science education has never provided a satisfactory education for the majority. Now the evidence is that it is failing in its original purpose, to provide a route into science for future scientists. To help develop a plan for science education reform across Europe a committee of 19 experts (including our speaker Dr Turlo) was convened by the UK-based Nuffield Foundation and in 2008 they produced a report called “Science Education in Europe: Critical Reflections”, the two main authors being J. Osborne and J. Dillon. This important report was addressed to the Ministries of Education of all European countries.
This report makes 7 recommendations which are reproduced here because they set a framework for improving science education, and are applicable to the teaching of physics and the training of physics teachers in any country, the subject of the Forum of International Physics’ invited session which this newsletter article is summarizing.
The primary goal of science education across the European Union (EU) should be to educate students both about the major explanations of the material world that science offers and about the way science works. Science courses whose basic aim is to provide a foundational education for future scientists and engineers should be optional.
Whilst science and technology are often seen as interesting to young people, such interest is not reflected in students’ engagement with school science that fails to appeal to too many students. Girls, in particular, are less interested in school science and only a minority of girls select careers in physical science and engineering. The reasons for this state of affairs are complex but need to be addressed.
Let’s exemplify the interest in science for boys and girls by listing the top 5 items boys would like to learn about in science and the top 5 for girls.
Top 5 items boys would like to learn about in science
Top 5 items girls would like to learn about in science
More attempts at innovative curricula and ways of organising the teaching of science that address the issue of low student motivation are required. These innovations need to be evaluated. In particular, a physical science curriculum that specifically focuses on developing an understanding of science in contexts that are known to interest girls should be developed and trialled within the European Union.
EU countries need to invest in improving the human and physical resources available to schools for informing students, both about careers in science – where the emphasis should be on why working in science is an important cultural and humanitarian activity – and careers from science, where the emphasis should beon the extensive range of potential careers that the study of science affords.
Student engagement or interest in science is largely formed by the age of 14. This situation has implications both for the formal curriculum and for opportunities to engage with science outside the classroom.
EU countries should ensure that:
Developing and extending the ways in which science is taught is essential for improving student engagement. Transforming good teaching practice across the EU is a long-term project and will require significant and sustained investment in continuous professional development.
EU governments should invest significantly in research and development work on assessment in science education. The aim should be to develop items and methods that assess the skills, knowledge and competencies expected of a scientifically literate citizen.
Good quality teachers, with up-to-date knowledge and skills, are the foundation of any system of formal science education. Systems to ensure the recruitment, retention and continuous professional training of such individuals must be a policy priority in Europe.
Dr. Turlo brought her presentation to a close with a reminder that research physicists also have responsibilities in physics education. She told us that two-time Nobel Prize winning physicist, Maria Sklodowska – Curie, had created the Society of Scientists for Experimental Teaching in 1907, and had been a physics teacher for a class of 12 year olds. Here are the features of the active teaching methods this Society used 100 years ago:
Features of Active Teaching Methods Used by Marie Curie and other famous scientists in 1907:
Dr. Turlo’s final remark was to quote a Chinese proverb:
“If you think that education is not important or too expensive you didn’t try ignorance yet.”
Following the 3 presentations there was time for comments from the audience and a few questions to the speakers. Here are some of those comments, questions and the answers. Considering the amount of time spent on studying by high school students in different countries it seems that US kids spend much less than most as they do so many extra-curricular activities. Teachers have to find what motivates children to learn science and use those things in their teaching. Teacher- assistants were effective in helping lower performing children. Does a country with high Physics scores on the international assessments turn out more physicists? – no. Why do so many Chinese science students come to the USA for graduate school? - because the quality of US graduate school quality is better than that of Chinese graduate school and it is still hard to do basic science research in China. Is the USA draining the Chinese scientist population? - no.
There were many questions asked concerning not only the ways of training of pre-service teachers, but also methods for their in-service training, organization of schools, investment in education, teaching methods (student motivation), etc.
Furthermore, someone asked: Why do pupils in the less developed countries express more interest to learn about science topics as reported by the ROSE project? One can really notice a strong negative correlation between the average interest score and the level of development of particular country (HDI- human development index). The correlation between overall interest and HDI is - 0.85.
However, care should be taken when interpreting this overall result. One should not assert that children become less interested in science the more developed the country is. A better explanation for these data is rather to suggest that for children in (mainly) developing countries, going to school after the age of 15 is “luxury” or a “privilege”. Hence, they are, in principle, happy to learn about nearly everything the school may offer. Kids in rich countries (with low rates of unemployment) can “afford” to see school more as a duty and an obligation more than as a privilege. Many students also think that school should be fun and entertaining. Therefore, they are more likely to express what they like and what they dislike. One might say that they are more “selective” in their choices. Additionally – A clear pattern is that topics that are close to what is often found in science curricula and textbooks have low scores on the rating of interest among young learners from Europe and other well developed countries – they have in the modern society much more interesting things around as : automobiles, TV, films, internet and computer games, etc.
The lively discussion period continued with many questions concerning not only the methods for training pre-service teachers, but also methods for their in-service training; organization of schools; investment in education; teaching methods and student motivation.
What can we learn from physics teachers in high scoring countries on the TIMSS and PISA international assessments? : Final words of advice from the three speakers.
Here is the final advice from our 3 expert speakers on what we can learn from the physics education systems in their countries:
Cherrill Spencer was a member-at-large of the Executive Committee of the Forum on International Physics when she organized this invited session. While she served on the APS's Committee on Education from 1992 to 1994 she was a member of the first nominating committee for the Forum on Education. Spencer is a magnet engineer at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.
Disclaimer- The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.