The following article appeared in the 10/2001 issue of The Physics Teacher.
It was written by CPS's own Sam Dyson at Payton Prep.


"Conceptual" Physics: Reflections of a First-Year Teacher

Samuel E. Dyson, Walter Payton College Prep High School, 1034 N. Wells,
Chicago, IL 60610; [EMAIL PROTECTED]

Making the connection between conceptual understanding and concrete
foundations in physics is a struggle every teacher faces. What follows is an
account of the experiences of a first year teacher taking a "conceptual"
approach to teaching physics. Sam Dyson shares with us some lessons learned.

The 2000-2001 academic year has provided me the great privilege of working
at Chicago's newest public school, Walter Payton College Prep, a math,
science, and world languages academy composed in its first year of an
all-freshman student body. Under the influence of Leon Lederman's American
Renaissance in Science Education (ARISE),' Payton's science department made
the decision to offer freshman physics along with biology, a decision that
has become common in public and private high schools throughout the country.

I was to design a first-year physics course that would serve as the
foundation to a meaningfully connected sequence of science courses -
physics, chemistry, and biology - taught in an order that matches the
conceptual progression of those disciplines. I should add that I was more or
less a first year teacher accepting this challenge with all of the
optimistic naiveté of someone fresh out of graduate school. Although I
brought to the job my previous experience as a one-year volunteer teacher in
South Africa, as a college physics and astronomy teaching assistant, and as
a student teacher, this new post at Payton was my first certified high
school teaching position. It was also my first time teaching physics to five
sections of 130 freshmen, most of whom were taking first-year algebra

As many people did, I often referred to the freshman physics course as
"conceptual physics." Why, even the text I had chosen for the course bore
that name. (2) I Must admit that I used this term somewhat carelessly
without truly having a sense of what the term "conceptual" was meant to
convey. The term "conceptual physics" was a handy tool for assuring parents
and other teachers that physics could be delivered to younger students
without all of the gory mathematical details by which some former physics
students and skeptical onlookers seemed to be haunted still. "You're
teaching physics to freshmen?" they would ask in disbelief, almost expecting
to jar me into reality with their question. "Its conceptual physics," I
would calmly assure them. "We focus on the ideas and concepts of physics
without all of the formulas." A wonderful proposal I was making, indeed; for
who would not want access to the fundamental concepts of the physical world
-- knowledge of the way things work -- without the labor and pain of
mastering mathematics? Such a course promised students an opportunity to
study physical poetry without the need for fluency in the mathematical
language in which the poems are written.

As my students and I delved into the first semester, I felt that it was
necessary to "level the playing field" for all of my students by giving a
thorough introduction to the nature of science before diving into mechanics.
As I introduced students to the nature of science, it was a real joy for me
to prompt student discussions and debates with questions like, "What makes a
question scientific?" and "Are there any nonscientific questions?" or "What
is a fact?" During this honeymoon period, students were able to openly
consider weighty concepts while bringing to the surface their many
preconceptions regarding the nature of science.

Then came kinematics and the honeymoon was over. As concrete as words like
distance, velocity, and acceleration might seem, I was not prepared for the
difficulty of teaching "conceptual" physics when the familiar-sounding
concepts were so unfamiliar and abstract for students. Following my own
preconception that "complicated" mathematics was to be avoided in favor of
more pictorial and hands-on encounters with mechanics, I looked to graphing
as a perfect tool for allowing students to visualize motion without being
overwhelmed by kinematic equations that could confuse new algebra students.
For the sake of mathematical simplicity and conceptual clarity, I even went
so far as to emphasize the physical meaning behind the shapes of the curves
on graphs of motion rather than the calculation of slopes and y-intercepts.
They were not to memorize the shapes of these curves, but to develop a more
intuitive "feel" for them with the help of computer-linked motion detectors
that they used to reproduce graphs of motion with their own bodily movements
toward and away from the motion detector. This graphical and kinesthetic
approach was to be uniquely suited to a conceptual physics course.

Unfortunately, students seemed to struggle with the abstraction of these
graphs, and to my amazement, more than once I was asked by students to
include more equations in our study. More math? The very same mathematical
formulae that I worked so hard to de-emphasize were the concrete 11 crutch"
for which several students were yearning. The coup de grace of my personal
conceptual revolution was the after-school comment from one of my students
who told me how much more accessible and concrete her math teacher had just
made the same material with which she was struggling in my class. And what
had that teacher done that I had not? Very simply, he had used basic
algebraic formulae as the concrete foundations that they are, rather than
replacing those foundations with more conceptual and consequently more
abstract representations of the same material. Weeks before this student's
comment, I had realized that I had hit the "kinematic wall."

Expecting students to obtain a conceptual understanding of physics without
the aid of its mathematical framework seemed somewhat like asking them to
see the elevated "big picture" from the top of a ladder that cannot be
climbed because it has no rungs. In many ways, learning physics is like
learning to climb a ladder: learning to lay your hands and feet on the next
rung in front of you, each rung representing a specific formula or
mathematical skill to be grasped. In reality, whether one actually sees the
big picture once at the top of the ladder often has little to do with
whether one is able to climb.

We hope that once at the top of the ladder, our students can have the
confidence to look up from their concentration on the individual rungs to
see the conceptual overview, the big picture. Yet such a view is not often
attained even by experienced ladder-climbers. As a conceptual physics
teacher, I felt as if I had asked students to see further than their more
mathematically equipped counterparts without allowing them to climb onto the
shoulders of giants, as it were, by standing on the mathematical foundation
that great physicists have provided. I wanted them to appreciate the
ladder-top vista without the skills to climb a ladder from rung to rung. To
teach a concept, however, we must teach an associate skill or set of skills.

Having established what conceptual physics is not -- it is not merely
minimally mathematical physics - what can be said to establish what
conceptual physics is to be? Given the challenge of abstract thinking for
most high school freshmen, first-year conceptual physics must certainly be
experiential. 'Whenever possible, students should be given an opportunity to
encounter scientific phenomena and processes by means of things they can see
and touch. Concepts must arise out of experiences. Such an approach demands
that conceptual physics be time-consuming, in the same way that all
thoughtful, concept-driven experiences are time consuming. And as mentioned
above, concepts to be taught in freshman physics should, as at all other
levels of instruction, be preceded by and rooted in specific skills that
serve as stepping-stones leading to the concepts to be taught.

The ultimate goals for what students take from such a conceptual physics
course include: habits of mind that extend beyond individual concepts;
memorable experiences that challenge preconceptions; and a confidence and
pride in one's ability to climb new intellectual ladders, from skill to
skill, even if not in the rather intuitive ability to see the big picture.

1. Leon M. Lederman, ARISE White Paper, Sept. 1998;
2. Paul Hewitt, Conceptual Physics: The High School Physics Program, 3rd ed.
(Scott Foresman-AddisonWesley, Menlo Park, CA, 1999).

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