An Interview with Boris Korsunsky
Tell me about your educational and career trajectory.
I grew up in Moscow, Russia. My last two years of high school were spent at one of the most selective Moscow math and science schools. I was a good student (although always a bit of a clown) and I especially enjoyed physics. My physics teacher was a part-timer; her main job was being a physics editor at Kvant, a magazine very similar to and the predecessor of the now defunct Quantum. By the time I graduated from high school, I knew I wanted to be a high-school physics teacher. At the insistence of my parents, I got an engineering degree but went straight into teaching afterward. I taught for a few years at the same school where I had been a student while getting another degree in Physics Education. I emigrated to the United States in 1992. I remember that I told all my friends and colleagues that I was going to remain a teacher in the US and everybody thought that I would switch to computer programming. That's what most immigrants with math/physics background did, but I wanted to keep doing what I really loved. After some part-time gigs, I finally got a full-time job at a boarding school in Western Massachusetts and then moved near Boston where I still live. In 2003, I completed my doctoral dissertation at Harvard School of Education and, unlike most of my fellow students, chose to remain a high-school teacher (although having a Harvard degree does help in finding consulting jobs). I have been at Weston High School for ten years now and I couldn't be happier with the community, the colleagues and the administration - truly, an enlightened and exciting place to work.
In addition to classroom teaching, I have always tried to be professionally active in as many ways as possible: I have written many articles for Quantum and The Physics Teacher, led workshops for teachers both in the US and abroad, served as a coach for the US Physics team, have been involved with the AP Physics program in different capacities and have done a lot of freelance writing for various publishing companies.
What are some differences between Russian and American high schools?
First of all, let me stress that the educational system in any country is part and parcel of the national culture, its political and economic system. In other words, one has to be careful about making "value comparisons." Second, the high-school system in Russia nowadays is in many ways different from the Soviet system of my time. (I graduated from high school in 1982.) However, I can still comment on some differences.
In Russia, like in many European countries, most academic subjects (including math and science) are studied over several years. For instance, I had five years of physics and four years of chemistry (starting in middle school). Also, in my days, there was a single national curriculum for all schools. These days, Russian schools are freer to choose their curriculum but every high-school graduate must pass a series of national exams in various subjects, including math, physics, chemistry, language, and history. The results of these exams, along with the student's GPA, are used for college admissions. No letters of recommendations, and no accomplishments in arts, athletics, or community service play a role in college admissions (at least not officially, although it still helps to have the right parents, know the right people, or be an international-level athlete).
Mathematics and science teachers in Russia get much more thorough "content training" than their American counterparts (perhaps, at the expense of pedagogy and psychology classes). A typical physics teacher graduates with training similar to that of a physics major. (Considering that a Russian college degree usually takes five years to obtain and the course load is very high, that would be the equivalent of getting both a B.S. and M.S.) In the classroom, teachers expect a no-nonsense atmosphere, with little patience for what here in the US would be considered "learning disabilities," "athletic commitments," and so on. If the students enjoy their classes, great, but that is not a teacher's primary concern. Overall, schoolwork in Russia is considered "the civic duty of the young generation" from a very early age. In the US, the pressure to perform academically often does not begin in earnest until high school. (The relatively recent proliferation of state-level competency testing is changing things, however.) In Russia, from the very first day of school, students are given homework and grades, and are scolded by both their parents and their teachers for poor performance. Every kid knows that, if their grades are bad, they'll be in trouble. The fear of punishment is definitely a factor in the overall academic achievement. In most families there is huge parental pressure to do well at school. From what I know, such pressure on students is also prevalent in many other countries. I believe that it is the culture of high expectations and of making education the highest priority—as opposed to some mysterious "innate ability"—that makes Asian and Eastern European immigrant children so academically successful here in the US.
Another factor that puts tremendous pressure on Russian male students is the possibility of being drafted. The Russian military, for many young men and their parents, is a nightmare: poor living conditions, rampant hazing, and many training accidents, often resulting in serious injuries and even death. Many colleges offer deferment from the service, and many male students work extra hard to earn a spot at one of those colleges.
Discuss some of the books you have written.
You are kind to call them "books" - they are all "supplements" of sorts. When I began my teaching career here in the US, I was surprised and frustrated by the lack of resources for interesting physics problems. There have always been plenty of such books in Russia, so I decided to write one to use with my AP Physics students. I had always enjoyed elegant physics problems, participated in physics and math competitions myself, and trained my students, some of whom made it to the Russian and the US national physics teams. The book, written two years after my arriving in the US, was published as a supplement of challenging, Olympiad-style problems for one of Raymond Serway's physics textbooks. Almost fifteen years later, that book has not been a huge commercial success. I am pretty sure it's out of print by now. Maybe, there is no market for such books in the US? Most of my own students find these problems too hard so I rarely use them in class, but some of them have been used in the column of Challenges that I have been editing for eight years for The Physics Teacher.
My second book was also a collection of problems. That was a "fun" project: each problem was based on a fact from the Guinness Book of Records or a similar source. My students do enjoy these problems and I use them in my classes on a regular basis.
I have also written (or, rather, reworked) an AP-preparatory book, which has since been updated again. Also, at the end of last year, I published a completely different, "un-serious" book: a collection of funny student quotes, named Trophy Wives Don't Need Advanced Physics. (The title is an actual quote from a student's test.) I had been collecting quotes for a number of years, from my own classroom and from other sources, and I was nudged to finally put together a book by several really funny (or sad?) lab reports collected from my freshman physics class last year. First, I wrote a short article for The Physics Teacher and then I decided to go a little further. The article and the book came out at about the same time. You can find out more about this effort at http://funstudentquotes.com.
I am still planning to write a book on the subject I have always been passionate about: The art of teaching problem-solving skills in the physics classroom. It was the topic of my dissertation, it has been one of the primary goals of my teaching, and the book on that subject remains a very important goal in my professional plans. Some day I'll get to it….
What else can you tell us about your Physics Challenges column in The Physics Teacher?
Well, as I mentioned, I have always been interested in competition-style physics problems—the ones that put to shame the artificial distinction between "conceptual" and "computational" problems. These problems can be called challenges, brainteasers, or puzzles. The point is that they require deep understanding and creative thinking, but no knowledge beyond a rigorous high-school physics course. I proposed the column twice. When Karl Mamola became the editor of The Physics Teacher, he kindly agreed to give the column a pilot run and it's now been eight years, I think. I get quite a few solutions each month, and many more teachers and students solve these problems without submitting, judging from the informal feedback I get and from the number of downloads the column gets each month. Teachers use them as "bonus" problems in class; some discuss these problems as part of the teaching process, to demonstrate the interplay of different concepts and ideas in the same situation. Many colleagues have thanked me for the column over the years and I am honored to provide this service to the community. I am pleased to see that solutions have been coming from all over the world but I am a little sad that the vast majority of student contributions tend to be from abroad. I would encourage my colleagues in the US to recommend these problems to their best students and to help them stretch themselves.
Boris Korsunsky is a physics teacher at Weston High School in MA.
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.