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How would you structure high school physics?

  1. Apr 23, 2013 #1
    If you were the mister of education or whatever, how would you structure high school physics?

    Would you make it more math heavy, would you put an emphasis on critical thinking and understanding or would you increase rote-learning or decrease it?

    Would you make it so that it prepares students for undergrad physics? But that may not be suitable for students who have an interest in physics but not in doing physics at uni.

    What else would you do?

    I spoke to my physics teacher about this and he was like "If we make high school physics difficult and remove rote-learning, students would be scared away and not do it". Do you think this is an excuse to make high school physics 'The History of Physics'?
    Last edited: Apr 24, 2013
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 24, 2013 #2


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    High school education is a lot trickier than university education.

    There is a lot more involved particularly politically in addition to other things like academic and other matters.

    The political side is that high school rankings and other similar "performance" metrics make choosing what to teach difficult if not impossible. There is pressure to get students to graduate even if the level is not that high.

    I had some practicum at a good selective public school in my state (in Australia) and the teacher kept harassing me for challenging the students too much. I thought what I was doing was standard but he directly told me that the point was to "make the students feel good" and not "destroy their confidence".

    I had no intention of destroying confidence and I thought that the students were a lot more capable than the stuff they were given.

    You also have the teachers unions which is another matter.

    But here is the real crux of the matter apart from the political issues: a lot of kids in school don't want to be there.

    You go to most of the public schools and the students there don't want to be there and they make every effort to let you know it. They will try and push you to the limit finding a weakness and exploiting that weakness to try and control the class.

    As a result of this, a lot of the lesson is not spent on teaching: it is spent on babysitting and getting the class under your control so that you can have some kind of pre-requisite for mass (i.e. non-individual) teaching to be effective.

    The kids that want to learn are rare and the easiest to deal with: all you have to do is recommend a few books, websites, and notes and they will do the rest. The majority though are either professional arse-holes (usually with a PhD) or they are struggling students (or maybe both).

    Couple this with the whole experience of being a teenager (a lot of which are living in a world where they literally don't give a stuff about others, themselves, or their own future) makes teaching in many high schools a real pain.

    Something to leave you with: imagine that you give a program to high school students that is geared for understanding that is a bit more advanced and have the principal, student parents, and other executive administrators breathing down your necks after finding out the majority of the children complain to their parents for one reason or another.

    Being a teacher can be a legal, academic, political, and an otherwise nightmare and those who do it really must get something out of it (because I can't imagine why they would do it otherwise).
  4. Apr 24, 2013 #3
    If I could change the school curriculum, I would make math taught at an accelerated rate so that students know basic calculus before their first physics course.
  5. Apr 24, 2013 #4
    I don't think it's worth trying to teach physics to everyone. Schools should have tiered programs where classes are offered at different levels to students with different abilities. There should be a "sub-standard", "standard" and "advanced" curriculum in my opinion, which each being a subset of the previous. A teacher should be able to teach at any level of these.
  6. Apr 25, 2013 #5
    In Australia there are 5 maths levels; applied, general, advanced, extension 1 and extension 2 but only one physics level and it is basically the history of physics and has almost no maths except substituting into formulas given to you in the exam.
  7. Apr 25, 2013 #6


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    Math and science go hand in hand. Some elementary concepts in physcis can be taught by Grade 8 (or Year 8), which I believe was Form 2, when I lived in Australia. At the same time, one is learning some basic algebra, and possibly some basic trigonometry and even basic matrix algebra.

    Basic statics and kinematics could be introduced by Year 9, and some basic optics and electrical (EM) theory. In the US, I took biology in Year 10, then two years of chemistry in Year 11 and 12 (Y11 and 12 were at a different high school). In Year 12, I took the formal Physics course.

    Mathwise, I took Algebra I in Year 9, Geometry/Trigonometry in Year 10, Algebra II (and more trig with some analytical geometry and series) in Year 11, and Calculus in Year 12. The calculus started with limits and the definition of a derivative, then differential calculus, integral calculus and multivariable calculus. Year 11 and 12 were at a high school that did a trimester system, rather than a more conventional semester system.

    All my math and science courses were honors level. I would have preferred more physics classes, and more training in math and science earlier, but the system was rather inflexible.
  8. Apr 25, 2013 #7


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    There should be a plan to teach physics over the course of the entire student's time in school. A teacher isn't going to have much flexibility in what they do for a single class, since that single class has to fit into the overall plan if the overall plan is going to work.

    One example (but not the only possible example) of how to establish a good plan for student's entire school career: http://groups.physics.umn.edu/physed/Talks/standards document 10_5_2010.pdf

    You would hope some elementary knowledge would have been learned before high school and that a high school physics class would be a little more in depth. But if it hasn't been, then a teacher isn't going to be able to correct that on their own. Fixing an entire physics education program in a single year is probably just beyond the capability of a single teacher.

    In general, whatever standards have been established, a teacher should:

    1. Make sure they know what a student has to learn to meet those standards.

    2. Determine how they're going to measure whether the student met those standards (i.e. - create the tests, labs, etc)

    3. Then develop a plan for those standards to be achieved. In essence, the teacher teaches the test. Not literally, since you'd use different examples on the test, but any student that completes all of the homework and other assignments on their own should pass the tests. If they can't complete the homework, they'd better ask for help, because the problems they couldn't solve aren't going away as soon as the homework assignment has passed. If they don't even try to complete the homework on their own, then they'll get what they deserve.

    4. Then, if there's time left over (which there probably isn't), a physics teacher can teach some things that are above and beyond just meeting the objectives.
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