Ask, and you shall receive; knock, and the door shall be answered 9

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.

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9 thoughts on “Ask, and you shall receive; knock, and the door shall be answered

  1. Reply Bob Tinker Dec 10,2006 7:53 pm

    Tell us more about your experience with physics first. Do you colleagues in biology and chemistry make any changes as a result of your kids’ physics understanding? Would it help to focus more on atoms and molecules? We have some great simulations that can help.

  2. Reply wheatdogg Dec 10,2006 9:01 pm

    This is the first year we’ve done the physics-chem-bio science sequence,so it’s too soon to tell what changes the chem and bio teachers will have to make. I am focusing in mechanics in the fall (Newton’s laws and energy/work concepts) and gravity, E&M and atoms in the spring. I’ve been checking with the chem teacher to see what he wants the kids to know.

  3. Reply coturnix Dec 17,2006 1:18 pm

    Back in Yugoslavia, growing up, the subject called “Natural Science” I had up till 4th grade, split into disciplines in the 5th grade. So, from the 5th grade till the 12th grade, I continuously and simultaenously had physics, chemistry, biology and geography/geology, plus additional biology courses in the 11th and 12th grades since my High School major was in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (so I had botany, zoology, microbiology, ecology, biochemistry, etc.).

  4. Reply wheatdogg Dec 18,2006 1:13 am

    In the younger grades, did you have special science teachers, or did you have a generalist “homeroom” teacher as we have here?

    Most grade school teachers in the States have abysmal science backgrounds, since these subjects are delegated to specialist teachers. Contact time in science class is generally pretty limited, too.

  5. Reply inel Jan 16,2007 3:58 pm

    Hello Wheat-dogg,

    Good for you! Tenacity and seriousness of purpose may be the most useful of traits to encourage in students.

    Subject knowledge and supportive attitude towards students may be the most useful attributes in teachers. Sadly, many teachers, especially in elementary and middle schools, do not appear to have a good (i.e. more than sufficient) grounding in maths and science subjects to be able to support the kids who have difficulty understanding those subjects the way the teacher teaches them.

    I was one of the rare girls who loved Physics and Maths at school and then studied Engineering. Now I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to work as an engineer on both sides of the Atlantic. Along the way, I had had so many people telling me that I was taking the “hard” subjects, and trying to dissuade me from even choosing engineering as a career (because “females don’t do that kind of thing”). What they never realised was those were the topics that fascinated, challenged and satisfied me, even though I achieved lower grades in Physics than in all my other subjects! So, you can tell your students it is worth sticking at, even during the tough times.

    Just because a subject is not a cinch that does not mean students should give up completely. One problem with education today is that students are not allowed to make mistakes. We were. I learned a lot from all my mistakes. Physics and Maths are good for showing up people’s mistakes! But that does not mean that only the best students who sail through should be encouraged. Better that more people would be supported in struggling to understand some useful points than being allowed to give up entirely.

    I have mentioned you and your blog in a comment over on tamino’s site. You might like to read what he has to say in “Calling All Science Teachers”. He does get targeted by global warming gainsayers on many of his posts, but I am sure you can make your way through those distractions, which simply reflect a general lack of science understanding in the population at large.

  6. Reply wheatdogg Jan 16,2007 8:54 pm

    inel —
    Thanks for the comments, and the reference. Lately, I’ve been musing whether the problem with American education is that students do not see the need for hard work. Present them with a difficult subject, and their typical response is to shut down. A few of course live up to the challenge, but many just do not want to be bothered. Add to that the negative images many have of scientists and engineers and it’s no wonder that our kids shun science and math.

    I am hoping that early exposure to physics (with attendant lab work) will encourage some of my 9th graders that science is not as hard or as boring as they think it is. Time will tell …

  7. Reply inel Jan 17,2007 5:21 pm

    Do students generally consider science hard because they are meant to think, and boring because they don’t? Or is it that scientists are hard to understand and boring to be with, I wonder?! In other words, is it the subjects or the people who are role models for those subjects that students base their opinions on? Hmmm …

  8. Reply wheatdogg Jan 20,2007 1:44 am

    All of the above, I’d say. Middle school science teaching is generally rote learning, with many dull fill-in-the-blank assignments. At least, that’s what my own kids experienced in their public middle school. The teaching process pretty much kills any interest, IMHO.

    Then there’s the public perception that science is hard (or worse, inherently evil or anti-Christian), which might turn some kids off, too.

    Bill Nye and Carl Sagan were great spokesmen when they were on TV. There are too few such entertaining science types now, though Al Gore has certainly made a splash in the global-warming arena.

  9. Reply private schools Jun 15,2007 12:49 am

    I think science taught from a text book can be difficult for kids because of the need to conceptualise things they might not have experienced before.

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