F O R U M O N P H Y S I C S & S O C I E T Y
of The American Physical Society 
July 2007 
Vol. 36, No. 3



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Successful High School Teaching of Modern Physics:
Overcoming Inherent Difficulties

Max George Doppke


During the few years that I have been teaching high school physics, complexities in the learning processes of students have surfaced in specific aggregate patterns that hindered their ability to participate and benefit fully from a study of modern physics.    Through careful analysis and documentation, I have been able to categorize these patterns into three basic areas – pragmatic, conceptual, and philosophical. The pragmatic area simply deals with making sure the individual students are a good fit for your class. Getting them to think, question, and visualize in a way that increases overall understanding lies with the conceptual framework. The philosophical area concerns the overall spirit of the student, and hence, their motivational core. The educator, by nature of his or her position, is connected to all of the students through each of these areas.  If the connection is poor, limited, or unidirectional, the system will break down. If, on the other hand, it is maintained and developed guardedly, maximizing each link and sacrificing none, a cohesive, balanced and dynamic class will result.

In modern physics we find a subject that is sufficiently esoteric, provocative, conflicted, complicated, unintuitive and emotional, so as to present an almost unique situation for high school students.  The likelihood of difficulties arising concurrently from the abovementioned areas, and in varying degrees, increases dramatically.  The results can be devastating — on one had, a person completely turned off to science. On the other, the development of ‘science schizophrenia’ — whereby an individual goes through the motions to pass the class, but the science stops there.  In either case, society is the loser, and recovery can be slow and painful. Fortunately, there are ways of addressing these difficulties in order to realize a more positive outcome.

The Pragmatic Area

Pragmatic area concerns are easy to spot.  Some students are just ‘out of sync’ with the rest of the class.  Delving deeper, we find a decided lack of mathematical skills and/or prior knowledge. Functionally, this shows up as an inability to do the required computations, or a lack of skills in analyzing data and translating it into functional equations. 

Since the point of a physics class is to do physics, remediation should not occupy more than a cursory role at any time. To this end, the instructor must be pro-active in limiting the class to those who can succeed.  This is not easily accomplished, and is often at odds with counselors who view your class as a ‘dump’ for previous failures, and with administrators who believe everyone should have a chance.  If prerequisites cannot be established, it is incumbent, via written communication, that counselors, parents, and students be informed, and in acknowledgement of, the complete scope of the class. If properly done, most uncommitted and otherwise lacking students will choose an alternate class.

Many students are simply flummoxed by word or data driven problems, even when the simplest equations are involved.  Time and time again, students will either submit work that does not vaguely relate to the problem, or turn in a blank paper.  Preventative measures can be implemented the first day of class in the form of a carefully worded syllabus highlighting: 

  1. frequent, graded home work.
  2. weekly quizzes.
  3. cooperative groups focused on problem solving.
  4. participatory review sessions.

To complement this, the instructor will make every effort to solve a variety of text-based problems in class.  Students can then be instructed to work in competitive groups on problem sets representative of those they will be required to solve on a quiz or exam.  This will provide immediate feedback, alert the instructor as to potential problem areas, and provide a lively and cooperative atmosphere. Reward systems can be agreed upon by students and teachers in advance.

The Conceptual Area

Conceptual difficulties arise when a student cannot find a way to mentally compartmentalize a new idea by relating it to something already cognitively labeled and filed. Not surprisingly, this is a common side effect of studying modern physics. Relativity, uncertainty, probability, wave-particle duality, quantization, virtual particles, anti-matter, and the like, all have their share of bugaboos that play havoc with the sanity of secondary school students.  The remedy herein lies with the marriage of imagination and technology, natural comrades of today’s students.

To lighten the load and ease the way, instructors should make ‘gedanken’, or thought, experiments a commonplace group activity for discourse and enlightenment — the goal being to increase the general comfort level among the students as their ability to conceptualize grows.  Within this framework, cross-curriculum, multi-cultural, and historical formats should be employed to add variety and connect with the most people.  The physics of Star Trek, archeological radioactive dating, musical instruments, saying ‘relativity’ in Spanish or Chinese are but a few examples of what can be used.  If coupled with technology, results can be stupendous.

Frequently overlooked, educational media offers substance with variety to aid students in concept acquisition.    Programs, such as those presented by Standard Deviants and Ztek Physics Classics, provide for an interactive format with immediate feedback and reinforcing quizzes. Entire experiments are performed and compiled on DVD format with multiple applications.

Also encouraging is the trend, pioneered by CPO Science, to deliver educational units rather than stand alone textbooks and peripherals.  These units are based upon core lab activities to which equipment is provided.  The lessons, text, assessments, assignments, and peripherals all revolve around and relate to the labs. 

And don’t forget the fieldtrips! A 300GW nuclear power plant makes quite a real-world impression.

Philosophical Area

Of all issues, the ones of a philosophical nature are by far the most complex primarily due to their varied nature and intangible qualities. Additionally, the instructor, coming with his or her own baggage, is assigned a role closer to interactive participant than of facilitator and teacher.  The two most problematic issues of this area confronting education today are the belief systems of the students and the compartmentalization of science learning.

A belief system is a philosophical and/or religious framework through which an individual relates his or her existence to his or her experiences.  I became aware that a potential problem exists through common dialog with students, where many of my open-ended questions were answered from this base.  For example, when a group of physics students was asked why they thought most life on earth was sensitive (as in perceptive) only to a narrow range of electromagnetic radiation.  The most common answer was that God had created life to best survive on this planet.  If my response had something to do with leaving religion out of science, I lost more than half the class.  When my response was positive or receptive, the interest level reflected it and remained high. Even a simple “AND… SO…” or “BECAUSE…” on my part indicated that I wanted more information, yet was not dismissing the student’s comment as irrelevant. Could it be that teachers are unwittingly placing science in an adversarial role? Just one more reason for people to distrust science, and something I wanted to avoid. 

Curious to discover what my classes thought and how they felt about certain issues, I devised a simple, anonymous questionnaire in which students responded to statements about personal beliefs, attitudes, and orientations that might relate somehow to the study of science.  The sample size consisted of fifty current high school physics students.  They were given a set of statements to which they had three choices:  agree, disagree, and not sure. The results were truly enlightening, as depicted in the chart below:

Traditional Beliefs of Physics Students graph (by  M. Duppke, 2007)

It is clear that traditional beliefs are held by the vast majority of students in my classes.    To add to this, students are more vocal and less ashamed about having these belief systems, often bringing them into conflict with science teachers who trivialize and marginalize them.  Therein lies the real danger. 

When a fundamentalist says that God created the world in six days, say that God also made time relative, and go on from there.  This may not be politically correct, but to me, as a teacher, it makes perfect sense.  The goal is to have students learn modern physics.  If by making the weirdness and strangeness miraculous, or by giving humanity a special purpose, the subject stirs some feelings of connectedness in any student, I’m all for it. Discussions that can center on multiple universes and vibrating strings in eleven dimensions can easily entertain anthropism, deism, creationism, or any other ‘ism’ for that matter – not as science but as to why we need science.  Science is a tool for the acquisition of knowledge. It is not a competitor of religion.  Asking our youth to choose between them is a losing proposition.

A direct consequence of a teaching style that refuses to validate the student’s belief system is the compartmentalization of science learning.  It is a case of “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”  In this scenario, students come to science class, go through the motions, do the labs, take the tests, pass the tests, pass the class, and move on, knowing all along that they aren’t really Romans and actually despising everything the Romans stand for!  Why?  Because the Romans either refuse to accept them for whom they are and/or fail in showing them any value in being Roman.  Of course, Rome in this case is the scientific community, and science teachers are the ambassadors. 

Curious about my own students, I analyzed their responses as they related to some commonly held, mainstream scientific thoughts or theories. 

Mainstream Scientific Thought graph (by M. Doppke, 2007)

Less than twenty percent of my students actually believe that there was a Big Bang, or that the universe is about fifteen billion years old.  Less than half feel that anti-matter exists, or that light has wave and particle properties.  Yet these selfsame students will repeatedly come to class and pass exams on subjects such as beta decay and electromagnetic fields.  Why, they even solve their problems on solar calculators! 

What this indicates is a major disconnect in science education and the scientific community.  These young people walk through classes like zombies — dead to the fact that what they are learning actually has meaning; actually has value. The less value something has, the less people want it.  The gap gets wider and wider, until eventually you establish scientific elite, separated by a gulf of knowledge and experience, and speaking a language no one can understand. 

To ameliorate this situation, bridges must be built; bridges that link students and educators and scientists and academicians and industry — bridges that link the mind and the heart and the soul of today’s youth — bridges that connect with the future, for all of us.


A successful teacher is one who can create a situation whereby the most students can have the best experience learning with excitement and challenge at minimal stress to the psyche.  Modern physics carries with it its own unique set of difficulties.  These are by no means insurmountable.  The insights and suggestions I have provided are a way to address the difficulties, and bring teachers closer to success.

Max George Doppke
Detroit Public Schools Physics Textbook Committee (2007)