Arnold Arons and Changing the Way to Learn to Learn the Way to Teach

Tiffani Kolozian and Richard N. Steinberg, City College of New York

My name is Tiffani and I study physics with a focus in secondary education at The City College of New York (CCNY). I have been involved as an apprentice teacher in various middle and high schools around the city. By the end of this year, I will be certified to teach high school physics in New York.

During my time at CCNY, I’ve had the opportunity to take a few physics courses specifically for teachers. These courses, known as “Development of Knowledge in Physics,” have transformed my understanding of the learning and teaching of physics. In the midst of our study of astronomy during the first of these courses, I was given the assignment to read an article titled Cultivating the capacity for formal reasoning: Objectives and procedures in an introductory physical science course by Arnold Arons.1 I also recognized that this enlightening course was a manifestation of Arons’ approaches to science and education. I continued to read Arons’ works and I realized that he was perfectly articulating the goals I had for my future physics students—preparing them to be true scientific thinkers as opposed to becoming skilled at plugging values into formulas that they barely understand.

As I continued through these courses, I was convinced that everyone should have the opportunity to learn science in this way and that it is my obligation to provide this for my future students. However, it would be quite a challenge as most of my experiences in physics classes were in contrast to the methods I now understood to be fundamental in achieving genuine scientific literacy. This includes understanding the process of science, knowing how to operationally define terms, being able to distinguish an observation from an inference, and knowing how to develop and test a scientific theory.

As I look back at my first experiences with learning physics, I can see how much my awareness of scientific literacy has progressed. Throughout two years of high school physics, I thought, “I know so many fancy terms and formulas—I’m learning so much!” Looking back now, I realize that the pace and volume of these classes were illogical. “The relativistic model of instruction is based on the premise that, if one starts with an enormous breadth of subject matter but passes it by the student at sufficiently high velocity, the Lorentz contraction will shorten it to the point at which it drops into the hole which is the student mind.”2

I eventually figured out that this relativistic model of instruction does not work. I had forgotten much of the physics I had learned because I never truly understood the concepts. While I was taking my physics courses at CCNY, I noticed that I was becoming very skilled in solving complex problems, but was lacking a deep understanding of some basic concepts. For example, I could easily manipulate and solve a Lagrangian, but often did not have enough understanding of the basic physics concepts to simply set up the Lagrangian. I can now look back and understand what my learning of physics was lacking, especially in relation to what I learned about scientific literacy from Arons. For instance, it did not register that the “fancy words” I was using were just names given to ideas that we needed to use often. We were presented with definitions and applied these terms to various situations but we needed to be involved in the shared experience of coming across the idea (and only then assigning it a technical term) for these concepts not to seem as though they were random “acts of human imagination and intelligence.”3 Along with this, we needed to be given the chance to discuss and investigate the questions “How do we know…? Why do we believe…? What is the evidence for…?”1 This would have supported us in developing operative or procedural knowledge as opposed to simply taking the end results on faith. End results were typically spelled out for me and, therefore, I rarely had the chance to discriminate between observation and inference. Even if we did make observations during demonstrations, many times the concept had already been explained and we were simply verifying the end result. We could have been given the chance to explore a phenomenon before it was explained, so that we could experience the chain of thoughts leading from “I observe this…” to “This must mean that…”

However, once I began learning through Arons’ strategies and reading about Arons’ methods, the way I approached my physics classes completely changed. I was taking modern physics alongside the first of these “Arons-like” courses. Instead of doing a variety of practice problems to get used to the procedure and trying to adapt it to the problems on the exams, I found myself searching for a deeper comprehension of the concepts and then being able to apply this to any problem I was given. This supported my transition in learning because it had more emphasis on “How do we know” questions and “forwards science.”1 When we shine light below a certain frequency, there is no current regardless of light intensity. What can we infer about the nature of light? Through this approach, I have the opportunity to “relive some of the intellectual experience” of great scientists.3

Since I am finally grasping how I learn physics, I have begun to develop my perspective on how I would teach physics. During my first year as an apprentice teacher, I would often give a student the answer to their question without giving them the opportunity to think. I, therefore, gave the student the impression that there was an a priori reason for the question they asked me. How can I lead them to the answer through Socratic questioning? I am now always reminding myself to “shut up and listen carefully to the response.”3 Of course, it was a challenge devising a follow-up question when I was not listening to the response of the student or even giving them the opportunity to respond to their fullest capacity.

As I begin to develop my own lessons, my first focus has been on allowing the students to engage in exploratory activities and discussions with their peers through guided questions. I will use an example to illuminate how I am beginning to learn how to implement Arons’ approaches in my instruction. I set up various surfaces (wax paper, sand paper, etc.), various objects on top of those surfaces (plastic containers, paper plates, etc.), and bags of coins. The students first explored the different surfaces and discussed with their peers how they could figure out which had more friction. Then, I asked them to figure out if friction depends on the surfaces involved, whether the object was moving or not, the weight of the object, and the surface area of the object. This gave the students the chance to discriminate between observation and inference and to construct their own ideas about friction. It also led the students to postulate about how we can investigate friction more quantitatively. We then built on the same activities and they found the coefficient of static and kinetic friction for different surfaces in contact. My students are responding positively to these types of activities and I have noticed an improvement in their overall discourse.

I will continue to learn from Arons’ methods and continue to enhance how I implement them in my teaching. I will always strive to have all of my students engaged in the process of science and to have them attain more formal operations than that with which they started.

Tiffani Kolozian is a Noycve Fellow, Physics Major and Teacher Education candidate in the Macaulay Honors College at City College of New York. Richard N. Steinberg is her advisor.

1 A. B. Arons, “Cultivating the capacity for formal reasoning: Objectives and procedures in an introductory physical science course” Am. J. Physics. 44(9), 834-838 (1976).

2 A. B. Arons, “Conceptual Difficulties in Science,” in Undergraduate Education in Chemistry and Physics: Proceedings of the Chicago Conferences on Liberal Education,” No. 1, edited by M.R. Rice. Univ. of Chicago.

3 A. B. Arons, A guide to introductory physics teaching (Wiley, NY, 1990).

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.