My Acquaintance with Arnold Arons

Jon Anderson, Centennial High School, Circle Pines, MN

I first “met” Arnold Arons in 1992 in a course that I was taking while working on my M.Ed. in Physics Education. I was assigned two readings from his book, A Guide to Introductory Physics Teaching,1 and I was immediately struck by two things. First, I was impressed (and frankly, a bit amazed) at how deeply he thought about the teaching of topics in physics. Second, as I explored other parts of the book, I was impressed by how many topics he thought so deeply about. As a physics teacher myself, I too had thought about these topics and, of course, about the teaching of them. However, until these readings, my thought process had never been given the type of structure and voice that I immediately found from reading the sections that were assigned for my M.Ed. course.

I was also struck by the discussion that these readings generated in subsequent meetings of that course. As I recall, the majority of the students in the course were practicing physics teachers with a wide range of experience. I remember thinking that these readings engaged each member of the class and provided the basis for some of the most meaningful and lively discussions that we had. In fact, in many future discussions about non-Arons readings, we (class members) often cited and referred back to the Arons readings we had done, as well as what we had learned from these readings. As both an undergraduate and a graduate student, I had read many authors and many papers. I can say that no author had more significantly impacted me than Arnold Arons.

Now, fast forward 17 years. During this period, in addition to working full-time as a physics teacher, I was raising two daughters, filling various leadership roles in my school district, working with extra-curricular activities and athletics, and putting in countless hours working on curriculum, labs, experiments, and evaluations for the courses that I teach. Additionally, during these years, I took a sabbatical leave and spent a year doing particle physics research at the Fermilab, began working as a QuarkNet Lead Teacher, took a leave to spend two years working as the Teacher-in- Residence at the University of Minnesota, and continued to take graduate courses. Throughout this time, I often thought of the Arons articles but seldom referenced them or sought out additional readings.

Then, in 2009, I took a Mechanics Modeling workshop at Florida International University and I was reintroduced to Arnold Arons. I was pleased to get reacquainted! A significant component of this workshop involved discussions of assigned readings from Teaching Introductory Physics.1 These readings reminded me of what struck me the first time I had read Arons 17 years earlier, namely the depth of thought about teaching topics in physics and the breadth of those topics about which he thought and wrote. Furthermore, I was impressed with how well these readings complemented the content we were covering in the workshop. When we were working on the constant motion unit in the Mechanics Modeling workshop, we read what Arons wrote about constant motion. When we were working on accelerated motion, we read what Arons had to say about that topic. This alignment between the workshop activity and the directly related reading continued for the entire three weeks of the workshop, and I continued to be impressed. I felt that the combination of the Arons readings and the modeling curriculum gave a structure and voice, of sorts, to the approach and pedagogy that I had been using in my courses for many years.

The Arons readings also highlighted the many things that I had been doing incorrectly as a teacher. For example, when students are collecting data in constant motion and accelerated motion labs, I had always discussed their data and results in terms of position and time. Arons uses position and “clock reading”. Not only is “clock reading” a more accurate description, I find that it helps students understand that this is a snapshot of the object at the instant they took the data point rather than something happening with the passage of time. Arons also emphasizes the use of multiple representations of topics in physics. I found that this was something I didn’t do well when teaching energy. Since taking the “Arons approach” to teaching energy—emphasizing “energy transfer and storage,” focusing on internal energy, and using multiple representations—my students learn the topic both quicker and more thoroughly.

The readings also reminded me of the many concepts that most physics students seem to struggle with. Concepts such as speed vs. velocity, acceleration, forces, circular motion, energy, etc. all pose varying degrees of difficulty/confusion for introductory physics students. I found that the readings addressed these issues and provided both the basis for rich discussions among the workshop participants and a better understanding of how best to teach these topics.

Since 2010, I have been fortunate to lead many mechanics workshops at several different locations around the country. I assign the same readings to these workshop participants that I was assigned when I was in their position and they continue to generate engaging, insightful, stimulating, and intellectually satisfying discussions. I feel fortunate to be able to continue to learn from these discussions. The readings also continue to impress the participants with how deeply and thoroughly Arons thought and wrote about the profession of physics teaching. These workshops are wonderful opportunities to spread the gospel of Arons to other physics teachers and allow them to benefit from his writings as well.

Because of the reading assignments in my graduate course, Teaching Introductory Physics had an impact on my teaching early in my career. Then, thanks to my participation in mechanics modeling workshops as a participant and a leader, Arons’ work continues to influence my teaching. But it is only in hindsight that I have realized that the insight and writings of Arnold Arons had an impact on my teaching during the 17 years between my graduate course and the first mechanics modeling workshop. In a sense, the Arnold Arons influence on my career has come full circle. However, a more accurate description is that the influence was always there, I just needed to get reacquainted with it.

Jon Anderson has taught physics at Centennial High School near Minneapolis since 1988. He was the Teacher-in- Residence at the University of MN PhysTEC site from 2007-2009, continues to work as a consultant for the PhysTEC project, and has been a QuarkNet Lead Teacher since 2002.


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

Mechanics modeling workshop at Florida International University

A mechanics modeling workshop at Florida International University demonstrates that physics experiments can't be confined to a lab/classroom.

Modeling workshop at Cal Poly

Teachers combine experimental data gathering, data analysis, and discussion at a Cal Poly modeling workshop. Note that Arons' text is on the table!