Forum on Education of The American Physical Society
Summer 2005 Newsletter



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Preparing K-12 teachers to teach physics and physical science

Lillian C. McDermott, Paula R.L. Heron and Peter S. Shaffer

The task of preparing K-12 teachers to teach science is an important (though often unacknowledged) responsibility of science faculty. In recent years, a steadily increasing number of physics departments have begun to recognize the need to take a more active role in the professional development of K-12 teachers of physics and physical science. The APS and AAPT, together with the AIP, have endorsed this trend with supportive statements and with a proposal to NSF that led to the creation of PhysTEC. However, if these developments are to lead to a long-lasting positive impact, it is necessary to recognize the inadequacy of the preparation usually offered in physics departments and to reflect on the characteristics of instruction that has been shown to be more effective.

I. Inadequacy of current preparation in physics departments

Most physics departments do little for prospective elementary and middle school teachers. The only courses generally available are almost entirely descriptive. A great deal of material is presented, for which these students have neither the background nor the time to absorb. The net effect is to reinforce a tendency to perceive physics as an inert body of information to be memorized, not as an active process of inquiry. The addition of "hands-on" activities is not enough to prepare elementary school teachers to teach basic physical science in a way that is meaningful to their students.

Most high school physics courses are taught by teachers who have not majored in the subject. Often they are not much better prepared than university students who have taken a standard introductory course. Although this course covers the content of high school physics, it is not adequate preparation for teaching the same material. The breadth of topics allows little time for acquiring a sound grasp of the underlying concepts. The routine problem solving that characterizes most introductory courses does not develop the reasoning ability necessary for handling the unanticipated questions that may arise in a classroom. The accompanying laboratory courses generally do not address the needs of teachers. Often the equipment is not available in high schools and no provision is made for laboratory experiences that utilize simple apparatus. A more serious shortcoming is that experiments are mostly limited to verification of known principles. Students have little opportunity to start from their observations and go through the reasoning involved in formulating these principles. It is possible to complete a laboratory course without confronting critical conceptual issues or having experience with the scientific process.

The relatively few students who decide early that they want to teach physics in high school may major in physics (perhaps with fewer course requirements). However, the abstract formalism that characterizes upper division courses is not of immediate use in the precollege classroom. Courses on "cutting-edge" topics may be motivational but do not help teachers distinguish between memorization and substantive understanding.

It is tempting to believe that enriching the standard introductory physics course with innovative, research-based materials will adequately prepare future high school teachers. Such "reformed" courses may be more engaging than standard courses but they fail to address many of the intellectual issues that confront high school teachers of physics. Moreover, most physics courses have a major shortcoming. Many teachers cannot, on their own, separate the physics they have learned from the way in which it was presented. If taught by lecture, they are likely to lecture, even if it is inappropriate for their students.

II. Need for special physics courses for teachers

Neither a modified descriptive course for elementary teachers nor a reformed introductory course for high school teachers offers the right type of preparation. There is a need for special physics courses for teachers from the elementary through high school grades. These courses should be laboratory based and have intellectual objectives and an instructional approach that are mutually reinforcing. The topics should be relevant to the K-12 curriculum and taught in a manner that is consistent with how teachers are expected to teach. This perspective on teacher preparation results from a distillation of what the Physics Education Group at the University of Washington has learned from more than 30 years of experience in preparing preservice (future) and inservice (practicing) teachers to teach physics and physical science at the elementary, middle, and high school grades.[i]

A. Intellectual objectives

Teachers should be given the time and guidance necessary to develop concepts in depth and to construct a coherent conceptual framework. They need to be able to formulate and apply operational definitions so that they can recognize precisely and unambiguously how concepts differ from one another and how they are related. Such conceptual clarity is not the outcome of a typical introductory course but is vitally important for teachers.

There is ample evidence by now from research that success on numerical problems is not a reliable indicator of functional understanding, (i.e., the ability to do the reasoning underlying the development and application of concepts).[ii] Although high school teachers should be able to solve the types of problems found in typical introductory texts, the emphasis in courses for K-12 teachers should not be on mathematical manipulation. The development of quantitative reasoning ability, which should be a goal at all grade levels, does not automatically occur before or after enrollment in college. For example, it has been shown that students in university physics courses often cannot reason with ratios and proportions.[iii] The ability to do proportional reasoning and interpret the meaning of a ratio in terms of physical quantities (e.g., g/cm3) is a critically important skill for all who teach science from elementary through high school. Teachers should also be able to use and interpret formal representations (such as graphs, diagrams, and equations) that are appropriate to the grades that they teach. They should be able to relate representations to one another, to physical concepts, and to real world phenomena.

An understanding of the nature of science should be an important objective for all teachers. They must be able to distinguish observations from inferences and to do the reasoning necessary to proceed from observations and assumptions to logically valid conclusions. They need to recognize what is considered evidence in science and what is meant by an explanation. They should understand what is meant by a scientific model - how it is constructed and used and what its limitations are. Teachers need to be given the opportunity to examine the nature of the subject matter, to understand not only what we know, but on what evidence and through what lines of reasoning we have come to this knowledge. The scientific process is most effectively taught through direct experience.

The objectives above are appropriate for all students but expectations for teachers should be greater. They need to have a deeper conceptual understanding than their students are expected to achieve. They must be able to set learning objectives that are intellectually meaningful and developmentally appropriate for their students. They need to be able to recognize and learn how to help students overcome difficulties that research has shown to be common. They must develop the judgment necessary to evaluate instructional materials (e.g., science kits, textbooks, laboratory equipment, and computer-based tools). This type of pedagogical content knowledge is not developed in standard physics courses, nor in science methods courses offered by departments of education.

B. Instructional approach

If the ability to teach by inquiry is a goal of instruction, teachers need to work through a substantial amount of content in a way that reflects this spirit. A useful instructional approach for this purpose can be summarized as guided inquiry. Teaching is not by telling but by asking carefully structured questions to help students do the reasoning required to develop a functional understanding.

Science instruction for young students is known to be more effective when concrete experience establishes the basis for the construction of scientific concepts.[iv] We and others have found that the same is true for adults, especially when they encounter a new topic or a different treatment of a familiar topic. Therefore, instruction for prospective and practicing teachers should be laboratory-based. However, "hands-on" is not enough. Unstructured activities do not help students construct a coherent conceptual framework. Carefully sequenced questions are needed to help them think critically about what they observe and what they can infer. When students work together in small groups, guided by well-organized instructional materials, they can also learn from one another.

The instructional materials in a course for teachers should be consistent with those used in K-12 science programs, but the curriculum should not be identical. As mentioned earlier, a course for teachers should develop an awareness of common student difficulties. Some are at such a fundamental level that, unless they are effectively addressed, meaningful learning of related content is not possible. Serious difficulties cannot be overcome through listening to lectures, reading textbooks, participating in class discussions, or consulting references. Like all students, teachers need to work through the material and have the opportunity to make their own mistakes. When difficulties are described in words, teachers may perceive them as trivial. Yet we know that often these same teachers, when confronted with unanticipated situations, will make the same errors as students. As the opportunity arises during the course, the instructor should illustrate instructional strategies that have proved effective in addressing specific difficulties. Without specific illustrations, it is difficult for teachers to envision how to translate a general pedagogical approach into a specific strategy that they can use in the classroom.

Because it is critical that teachers be able to communicate clearly, group discussions and writing assignments should play an important role in a physics course for teachers. Providing multiple opportunities for teachers to reflect upon and to describe their own conceptual development can enhance both their knowledge of physics and their ability to formulate the kinds of questions that can help their students deepen their understanding.

III. Implementation of special physics courses for teachers

There are a number of challenges that must be met in implementing a teacher preparation program in a physics department, especially at a large, research-oriented university. The argument may have to be made to the department and higher administrative units that the proposed courses are at an intellectual level worthy of the credit offered. It is necessary to show that the demands on the students match, or exceed, those of other physics courses at comparable levels. There are also other complications. Laboratory-based instruction is necessary and classes must be small enough to foster interaction among the students and between the students and instructor. Such classes are more expensive than large lectures but are a worthwhile investment for teachers whose potential influence is much greater that that of other students. Another problem may be low class enrollment. In particular, it is often difficult to identify future elementary school teachers. They are unlikely to decide, on their own, to take physics. This problem may be alleviated by encouraging the participation of non-science majors, for whom the course could satisfy a science requirement.

It is also unlikely that it will be possible to fill a class for prospective high school teachers with physics majors who plan to teach. Most high school physics teachers were not physics majors and, at best, may have majored in chemistry or mathematics. The situation among prospective teachers is similar. It is both practical and highly desirable that participation in the course by students majoring in other sciences and in mathematics be strongly encouraged. The course can be open to all students who have taken the standard introductory physics course. For science majors who may not be ready to make a commitment to high school teaching, it may be useful to add the course to the list of electives in their major. The range of preparation can vary broadly because the emphasis is not on quantitative problem solving but on concept development and reasoning. The presence of non-majors may help make the entire class more willing to forego a reliance on formulas and to think more deeply about the physics involved.

IV. Conclusion

The separation of instruction in science (which takes place in science courses) from instruction in methodology (which takes place in education courses) decreases the value of both for teachers. Even detailed directions cannot prevent misuse of excellent instructional materials when teachers do not understand either the content or intended method of presentation. Since the type of preparation that teachers need is not available through the standard physics curriculum, a practical alternative is to offer special courses for teachers. The instructors in such courses must have a sound understanding of the subject matter, of the difficulties that it presents to students, and of effective instructional strategies for addressing these difficulties. Unless faculty are prepared to devote a great deal of effort over an extended period to develop their own inquiry-oriented curriculum, they should take advantage of already existing instructional materials that have been carefully designed and thoroughly tested with teachers. Special courses may require additional resources but it is vitally important (and in their long-term interest) that physics departments make this investment in K-12 education.


The views expressed above are based on the work of many past and present members of the Physics Education Group, including K-12 teachers. Our comprehensive program in research, curriculum development and instruction has been supported by the University of Washington Physics Department and the National Science Foundation.


[i] This paper builds on others by the Physics Education Group. In particular, see L.C. McDermott, "A perspective on teacher preparation in physics and other sciences: The need for special courses for teachers," Am. J. Phys. 58, 734-742 (1990).

[ii] See L.C. McDermott and E.F. Redish, "Resource Letter PER-1: Physics Education Research," Am. J. Phys. 67, 755-767 (1999). Although most of the studies cited refer to students at the university level, similar difficulties have been identified among younger students.

[iii] See A.B. Arons, A Guide to Introductory Physics Teaching (Wiley, New York, 1990), pp. 3-6.

[iv] See for example, J. Griffith and P. Morrison, "Reflections on a decade of grade-school science," Phys. Today 25 (6), 29-34 (1972); R. Karplus, "Physics for beginners," Phys. Today 25 (6), 36-47 (1972); and J.W. Renner, D.G. Stafford, W.J. Coffia, D.H. Kellogg, and M.C. Weber, "An evaluation of the Science Curriculum Improvement Study," School Science and Mathematics 73, 291-318 (1973).

Lillian C. McDermott, Peter S. Shaffer, and Paula R.L. Heron are faculty members in the Physics Education Group in the Physics Department at the University of Washington. The group consists of physics graduate students, postdocs, faculty and K-12 teachers who conduct a coordinated program of research, curriculum development, and instruction to improve student learning in physics (K-20). The group is engaged in ongoing research on the learning and teaching of physics that has resulted in more than 50 research articles. For more than 30 years, they have been deeply involved in the preparation of prospective and practicing teachers to teach physics and physical science by inquiry. The group has also published research-based tutorials to improve the effectiveness of instruction in introductory university physics.



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