Ninth graders can learn physics.
Let me say that again. Ninth graders can learn physics. In fact, I bet sixth, seventh and eighth graders can, too. So why do we numb their brains in middle school with rote learning and endless fill-in-blank worksheets? Because many “educators” think middle school students cannot learn “hard stuff” like physics, algebra and chemistry, because they do not have the right developmental skills.
If that were true, how is it that students in Europe, Japan, the Middle East and elsewhere manage these subjects from the sixth grade on? They cannot all be on the college track.
This school year, our school chucked out its science sequence of courses for the newly encouraged “physics first” sequence: conceptually based physics, then chemistry, then biology (P-C-B). After teaching physics to 10th, 11th and 12th graders for two decades, I have to admit that I began this school year with considerable trepidation. My plan was to hold essentially to the same conceptually based approach I had been using for years, with some modifications. It is not an easy syllabus. I don’t spoonfeed the material. Our school’s mission is to prepare students for college — all of our students — so we expect them right from the get-go to take an active part in their education. They have to work!
My kids are doing a terrific job. Not all are getting A’s and B’s, but they are all tackling this most difficult of subjects with tenacity and seriousness of purpose. I am really proud of them, and really glad we decided to make the curriculum change.
From my cursory review of the literature, our experience has been shared with other schools and districts that are trying the “physics first” strategy. Correctly done, the course can breath new life into the science experiences of ninth graders.
Here’s a few general comments, none of which are particularly original. If you challenge a student and give him or her the support he or she needs to succeed, they will take on those challenges and not turn away. Have high expectations, and they will live up to them as best they can.
If you instead assume students cannot learn a subject, because they are too young or ill-prepared, and “dumb down” the teaching, they will be bored, especially if you teach them the same old thing over and over again. Low expectations result in low performance. You reap what you sow.
Granted, I teach in a college prep, private school, so our kids are generally motivated, either of their own volition or by their parents’ pressure. Our kids are not all brainiacs, nor are they all from well-to-do families, however. Some are workaholics, and others far from it. They can all learn tough subjects if you give them the chance, and the support.
I just came back from a recognition dinner for a local educational program, Youth Alive!, here in Louisville. Its founder, a former teenage drug dealer, dropout and homeless man, Kenny Boyd, takes kids from the poorest sections of town and steers them toward dignity, self-respect and academic achievement. A few of these kids are and have been my students. And they are making it at our school, with its high expectations and tough curriculum.
You reap what you sow.