AAPT.org - American Association of Physics Teachers
President's Commentary (Summer 2004)
By Jim Nelson
Announcer, Vol. 34, Iss. 2

A Model for the Ideal Physics Lesson

As a high school teacher, I have been interested in developing a model for the “Ideal Physics Lesson” (IPL). I hope you will allow me the same degree of latitude that might be afforded during a discussion of the Ideal Gas Law. We know that this Law is only a model that describes the properties of a real gas; nonetheless it is useful to help develop an understanding of those properties. Likewise the IPL is a useful guide as I think about my teaching. The IPL has at least three components: content, application, and process.

Content represents the first IPL component. It is important for students to acquire content as a result of studying physics. For example, when studying the refraction of light I hope my students learn about Snell’s law of refraction, the meaning of relative and absolute indexes of the refraction, as well as how different shapes of materials can be used to focus and control the path followed by light rays.

For every lesson, I remind myself—and point out to my students—the content component. Knowing content adds to the background knowledge for the individual. It makes additional learning easier since one has more “hooks” on which to attach future learning.

In my third year of teaching, I began using the then new PSSC1 curriculum. I loved this program and felt it helped me develop a deeper and more fundamental understanding of the content component of my lessons. In these early years of my teaching, I thought content was all I was responsible to provide for my students.

My first inclination that there was more developed as a result of teaching the Project Physics2 curriculum. This curriculum added a considerable emphasis on other areas of human efforts. I began to see that content could include more than science (e.g., historical context, societal implications, fine arts, etc…).

As I continued to mature as a teacher, application and process began to become more important to my IPL model. Application was the second component to make it into my IPL model. In addition to learning content, I wanted my students to learn how this content knowledge is used to help humans solve practical problems, advance science, and make human life better.

The “Man3 Made World” curriculum placed emphasis on the engineering value of content. This helped me develop a greater appreciation for application as part of the IPL. Some of the applications associated with the refraction of light include the development of vision-correcting lenses and problem-solving systems such as telescopes, microscopes, and cameras. In addition, an understanding of the refractive properties of the transparent parts of our eyes can help maintain our health. My experience with the “Principles of Technology” curriculum further expanded my concept of application to the idea that students who experience physics can become more competitive in the job market. Thus for every lesson, I remind myself—and point out to my students—the application.

Process was the last component to be added to my IPL model, but I now believe it is the most important. I find myself saying, “At the high school level, it is less important what the students learn than it is how the students learn.” It is important for my students to have an opportunity to play the role of junior scientists and to experience how a scientist makes sense of the world.

During the study of refraction, students should have an opportunity to observe and measure the behavior of light as it passes from one transparent medium into another. These measurements need to be organized and analyzed to investigate the underlying general principles involved in refraction. This may include doing laboratory activities, working collaboratively in groups, wrestling with problems, and then evaluating whether the solutions seem reasonable.

Because this component takes time to develop, I must continuously remind myself what it was like for me to learn when I was a student. The following quote by Thomas Young helps: “The most difficult thing for a teacher is to recollect how much it cost himself to learn, and to accommodate his instruction to the apprehension of the uninformed.”

In the long run this may be the most important IPL component. Here is where we help the student become the knowledgeable skeptic that is so important for a member of a democracy. Permit me another quote by Thomas Jefferson, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”4

More components may be added as the IPL model continues to mature. Today we are finding more students taking high school physics than ever before, and AAPT members are continually searching for ways to best meet their needs.

Three overlapping circles labeled content, application, and process can be used to represent the IPL. At the start of each day, as I think about my teaching, I aim for the region of overlap. I use it to evaluate myself as I reflect on my teaching at the end of the day. I have difficulty reaching the ideal, and many days I fall short, but having an ideal in mind clearly helps me do my best.

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