Minds.On Physics: Redefining Physics Instruction
The Minds.On Physics (MOP) project started in 1989 with a proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop activities for high school physics instruction. The activities would be rooted in educational and cognitive research results, especially those from studies of expert-novice differences, formative vs. summative assessment, metacommunication, alternative conceptions, and cognitive overload. After 2 NSF grants and 15 years of development, the program is a full, one-year curriculum with more than 180 activities covering traditional topics such as motion, interactions, and conservation laws, and not so traditional topics such as entropy and relative motion. The activities are published in 6 volumes by Kendall/Hunt, each of which has an accompanying Teacher's Guide. Most of our time on the project is now spent doing implementation workshops.
The target audience for Minds.On Physics are juniors and seniors in high school taking college prep physics. The typical course is algebra based, with an emphasis on solving problems, lots of problems. The goal of MOP is to address one of the major shortcomings of traditional high school courses: Most students develop superficial, formula-driven approaches to solving problems and develop little or no conceptual understanding and no appreciation of the hierarchical nature of physics ideas and principles.
The best way to describe the Minds.On Physics materials is to look at the features that make it special.
Activities first! A typical lesson begins with an activity, with little or no reading or lecturing beforehand. Students struggle with ideas on their own, giving teachers lots of useful formative feedback about what students do and don't understand.
Minimal reading. After each activity or set of activities, there is some reading, usually about one or two pages per activity. The readings summarize, prioritize, and organize the ideas and issues students struggle with in the activities.
Retains the feel of calculus while being algebra based. Physics is intrinsically calculus based, and it can be difficult to make the transition to algebra based without resorting to assertions and superficial results. This, in turn, makes superficial and formula-driven approaches inevitable, because a student literally cannot understand where the formulas come from. MOP does not use calculus, per se, but it has the elements of calculus nonetheless. For instance, velocity (vs. time) is shown to be the slope of position vs. time, and displacement (during a time period) is shown to be equal to the area below velocity vs. time between two instants of time. Further, many common formulas, such as position as a function of time for constant acceleration, are not asserted, but derived, without using calculus.
Extensive teacher support materials. Rather than "Teacher's Editions" of the student activities books, each volume is accompanied by a Teacher's Guide. For each activity, this includes three or four pages of suggestions to help teachers prepare a lesson. Also included are answers with short explanations to every question, with commentary of what students' answers might mean. Answer sheets tailored to each activity further simplify implementation. In all, there are over 2000 pages of support materials.
Additional assessments included. New instructional methodologies require new ways of assessing students, so the Teacher's Guides include hundreds of questions that teachers can use during activities, on tests and quizzes, etc. As a result, teachers and students get even more feedback about what students do and don't understand.
Based on educational and cognitive research. MOP activities pull together multiple strands of research into how people learn. For instance, the materials address students' prior knowledge and conceptions, help students make the transition from novice to proficient problem solver, discourage formulaic approaches to solving problems, and encourage students to structure knowledge.
Shifts focus of instruction from problems to analysis of problem situations. Only about 20% of MOP activities specifically ask students to solve problems. The bulk of activities help students develop the conceptual foundation and array of reasoning skills needed to solve problems expertly, so students learn how to learn and they improve conceptual understanding, reasoning and analysis skills, while improving problem solving.
Stresses metacommunication (i.e., communicating about communication, learning issues, pitfalls, etc.). Talking to students about how to learn, the role of language in learning, and how to modify traditional roles for teachers and students are examples of way to increase student engagement, involvement, and motivation. These and other forms of metacommunication help students become reflective, self-evaluative learners, and makes students more responsible for their own learning.
Encourages new roles for teachers and students. The primary job of the teacher is no longer to be an authority and pass along information to students; it is to model students and help them overcome learning barriers. Lectures become focused and target issues raised during activities. Students are no longer sitting passively trying to decipher what the teacher saying; instead they are actively working with the language, concepts, and principles, and learning how to learn.
Effective when done in small-group format. When students are working together on an activity, language issues, prior conceptions, and reasoning are even more manifest, so communication is improved more quickly and more efficiently.
Carefully sequenced. Prior knowledge is provided in prior activities. Further, a progression of goals takes students from naïve beginners to efficient and proficient problem solvers as they: (1) confront their own conceptions; (2) relate concepts to other concepts; (3) apply concepts and principles to problem situations; (4) organize and prioritize concepts and principles; and (5) solve problems without using formulaic approaches.
Suitable for multiple contexts. Although the materials are designed for college-prep level high school physics (i.e., juniors and seniors), many activities have been used at other levels, including 8th and 9th grade physical science, as supplements to college physics, and in graduate level teacher preparation courses. This is possible primarily because the materials are fundamentally a set of questions, and thus, the teachers decide the depth of answers and discussion appropriate to the context. The program has also been used in bridging programs in South Africa , to help underprepared black University students get ready for college.
With its emphasis on inquiry and process skills, MOP aligns well with the National Research Council's National Science Education Standards (1996). However, at the level of states and large school districts, where standards tend to be the union of traditional content standards and the new process standards, MOP often falls short. One reason is that MOP has pared down its content to accommodate the development of process skills, while state and local standards have not done so. Another reason is that when the national standards were put into practice at the state and local levels, "activity" often became synonymous with "lab", and MOP has no formal lab activities. If you are a University faculty member, you might think, So what, but meeting state and local standards is a huge hurdle for instructional programs below the college level, in part because schools are usually not allowed to buy materials with public funds unless they meet the standards. The end result is that while many teachers love the program, few districts have adopted MOP. The most notable exceptions are Grand Rapids , MI , Chicago , IL , and Fairfield County , VA. In the first of these, adoption was possible because the local content standards were minimal; in the other two, MOP was adopted alongside a traditional text. Thus, until local standards fully align with the national standards, especially in terms of content coverage and what is meant by activity, it is unlikely that any inquiry-based curriculum will be able to compete on a national scale with more traditional textbooks, at least in the college-prep (high school) physics market.
Of course, there are no formal standards for undergraduate and graduate level physics instruction. Many of the pedagogic principles and findings gleaned from K-12 instructional revision are indeed applicable above the high school level. Thus, the national standards would apply as well. However, the context is different enough that it is highly debatable exactly what college physics instruction should look like. While the prevailing instructional method - lecture - has been slow to evolve and most available texts remain in a traditional style, there has been some progress. Several recent texts have made efforts to incorporate researched instructional methods, use a more student-centered approach, and include metacommunication and metacognitive elements. Furthermore, classroom response systems make it possible to engage in meaningful and productive formative assessment practices, even in large assembly situations. The primary impediments to educational reform at the university level are exactly the same impediments as at every other level, namely, instructor and administrative inertia. Change is hard, and it requires time, money, and will. Written curricular materials, classroom technology, and instructional strategies are just tools to be used by an interested instructor. As with carpentry or any other profession, materials and tools can be well or poorly used. Giving instructors at all levels the time, motivation, and mental space to first realistically assess their own skills and then improve them remains the greatest challenge to educational reform.
The bottom line is that while exemplary materials such as Minds.On Physics are necessary to stimulate improvements in science instruction, they are not sufficient. Reform will remain slow in coming until instructors and institutions desire change. The MOP approach has shown that we can radically change the form of materials and the roles of students and teachers without sacrificing learning. It is an existence proof that the traditional approach is not the only approach. We look forward to ever increasing adoption of MOP as more people become dissatisfied with the traditional approach, and we are here to help them implement it.
Acknowledgments. Minds.On Physics was developed in part with support from National Science Foundation grants MDR-9050213 and ESI-9255713. The materials were developed by Bill Leonard, Robert Dufresne, Bill Gerace, and Jose Mestre. This article was written with support from NSF grant ESI-0456124.
For more information about Minds.On Physics, please contact Bill Leonard at 413.545.0442 or firstname.lastname@example.org . Information is also available at http://umperg.physics.umass.edu/projects/mop and http://umperg.physics.umass.edu/resources/mop .
Bill Leonard is Research Associate Professor of Physics, a member of the Scientific Reasoning Research Institute, and Lecturer in Electrical and Computer Engineering, all at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.