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The Future of Physics Teaching

Chris Meyer, President, OAPT

This will be my 21st year of teaching. I still enjoy my work, but I definitely feel older, crustier, and ... somewhat stumped. Over this time, I have learned a lot about teaching and made many changes. But as I refine my practice, I feel like I am not going in the direction I ought. As I learn more, I discover compelling teaching ideas that conflict with my current teaching practice and strain against the structure of our educational system. I will share with you what perplexes me, in the hope that you will find solutions that I cannot. These are my thoughts about the future of physics teaching.

Who are our students?
I spent my first ten years teaching students who were essentially like me: not because I was teaching in a special program, because my teaching was only suitable for a small portion of the class. Sure, I tried to entertain the others who were along for the ride, but the way that I taught suited people like me: interested, academic, and internally driven. The reality of our student population is very different from this. Most of our students will not become scientists or engineers and that’s OK. I want students of all backgrounds and inclinations to discover how amazing physics is and that they can excel at it. However, this was not possible when I only taught them physics and did not teach them how to learn. Physics teaching really begins by understanding the learning needs of the struggling student who has yet to decide that physics is interesting. The most important lesson that I have learned about teaching is this: learning is a very personal and emotional experience, much more than the dutiful passing-on of information. The implications of this lesson are many and I need your help to find the next steps.

How should we prepare students for the future?
I am really enjoying writing this article! It allows me the opportunity to lean back in my chair and opine with an invisible, captive audience. In that spirit, let's think about the big picture. Our educational system is a mass production model that did a pretty good job of teaching basic skills to people headed to the working world of 70 years ago. In the meantime, automation and globalization have changed the nature of work, shifting society and the economy away from a basis in manufacturing to one in knowledge and services. Our educational system has yet to properly come to terms with this change*. What we have ended up with is a franken-system with new parts and initiatives crudely stitched on to an old, lumbering torso. And long before we can hope to fix our monster, the next major societal change will arrive: the era of cognitive machines.

  • Actually, our educational system has a long tradition of failing to adapt to technological change. One of the most difficult technologies to reconcile with our system is … the printing press! Yes indeed. Even since this marvelous invention appeared, students have been liberated from the drudgery of copying down lengthy notes because the material is already printed in their books! And teachers were freed from their soporific role of passing on information, able to give up their chalkboards, and work directly with students as they wrestle with their new learning. But in reality, the educational system has yet to successfully integrate the printed book into school learning. It’s telling.
In my lifetime we will see machines replace people performing many light cognitive tasks. It will become increasingly difficult for people to find jobs that sustain a middle-class lifestyle (just like with the previous shift away from manufacturing). How should teachers prepare people for life in this future world? How should we approach their education? I think the core skills and subjects are still essential, but people need to be taught within a new framework that emphasizes a genuine love of learning, creativity, and empathy: our most human characteristics. I am not sure how we do this, but I have come across many clues.

What is meaningful work for students?
Do you enjoy the fun tasks that your administrators come up with for staff meetings and PD days? You know, with the improvement plans and initiatives? It's fair too say that most teachers don't because little of it feels relevant to the daily task of teaching. We all engage in a kind of mental triage, dedicating little energy to these tasks, which is a pretty reasonable response regardless of the good intentions behind the task. There is a biological basis for this: our brains attention and memory systems are regulated by our emotional response to a situation. We shouldn’t be surprised that students are no different from us: some of our students will get their work done no matter the quality of the task we give them, but many others will not.

One of my toughest teaching experiences was teaching grade 9 math at an arts school. Students would routinely ask me, sometimes sincerely, “When am I ever going to use this?” I was embarrassed to have no convincing answer to this legitimate question*. To students who were like me, I could describe how fascinating and amazing math is, and how useful it is for scientists and engineers and … But for the rest of the class, that explanation rang very hollow. They only saw three more years of meaningless, grinding math work lying before them. How long do you persist with tasks that have to interest to you?

  • Our high school math curriculum is designed to prepare future students for a STEM career. It is not designed to prepare future adults for a numerically-informed life: a great topic for future discussions.
There are many complex skills that a STEM professional needs to develop. From the point of view of a teacher, the most efficient way of building these skills appears to be breaking them down into small parts or sub- skills, practising them, combining them with other skills, and repeating: skill after skill, year after year, and eventually you have a STEM professional. This makes total sense to you and me, but it does not to the average learner. In fact, it leads to a very unsatisfying learning experience for two reasons: the end goal is so far off that each new skill feels meaningless* and it does not reflect how STEM practitioners learn new things. All students (not just our struggling ones) need meaningful learning experiences.

  • This can be a challenging idea for teachers to accept. Most teachers understand the meaning and usefulness of each sub-skill because we can see how they fit into and help complete a conceptual picture or rich palette of skills. Our students don’t see this; their experience is very different from ours. Here is a related experience of mine. I always found studying mathematical proofs in high school and university very perplexing. I could often follow each step and understand mechanically how one leads to the next. But I had no idea how someone figured out that step in the first place without already knowing the proof. Each step was still a mystery to me. And this hardly scratches the surface: how do practitioners decide what needs to be proved or what strategy is most likely to yield a proof?
  • The encoding of memory and the operation of attention are really interesting topics. For a deep dive with lots of biology (a genuinely useful science!), check out Cortex and Mind by Joaquin Fuster.

Who wants problems?
Why does a scientist or engineer get up in the morning? What really turns their crank? Do they wake up thinking “I really want to do lots of algebra today” or “I’m dying to memorize some formulae”? Not most days, I suspect. A STEM professional is excited by the challenges of figuring stuff out or solving elusive problems and their learning occurs when they reach a limit of their skills or understanding. This provides a powerful internal motivation to learn, enough to carry STEM professional through the grunt work of the task: the reading, the reams of algebra, or the many failures. The best part is the emotional high they experience (a kick of dopamine) when their learning is finally reinforced by a direct and successful test. Our students need the same, compelling experiences.

When it comes time to learn, students should understand why new knowledge is needed. Traditional sales pitches like “this is one of the most important ideas in all of physics” only connect with a small portion of our students. Worse is “this will be on the exam (and therefore is important)”. We want to reproduce the powerful experiences of scientists for our students. Students need problems to focus on before they learn a necessary skill. These problems should be interesting to students, easy to relate to, and have an authenticity to them meaning that people in the “real world” out there tackle similar sorts of problems*. As students delve into a problem and begin to unpack it, they realize that their current understanding or skills lead to an impasse. This is an extremely valuable experience but needs to be structured very carefully so students do not feel frustrated or defeated. Done carefully, the iron of learning is now hot and ready to be struck: students are emotionally invested in the scenario and experience a genuine need to learn something new.

  • My favourite example of the violation of this idea was a textbook example from grade 9 math (one of our most important but problematic courses in high school). We were working on the slope-intercept representations of lines. One “real world” problem the text presented was comparing two cellphone plans. Sound familiar? To find the best plan, set up a linear equation for each, solve for the intersection point, and use that point to help choose the winning plan. Now, are there any normal, non-math-teacher people out there who would actually do this? This example highlights the faulty design and teaching approaches in our math curriculum. What most people would do is this: look at their monthly usage, find the cost according to each plan, and choose the cheapest — all without using a single variable! Whose approach is smarter here?
Problem-based learning is a very powerful educational approach that has the potential to both motivate students in their daily work and to dispel the notion that physics is just boxes sliding on inclines and spherical cows. Most students don’t know what physics is or who uses it in their careers. Each problem is a chance to address this. Problem-based learning presents many challenges for the teacher: a particular problem might motivate only a small amount of new learning, or a problem might require extensive skill-building before much progress can be made; learning framed within problems is time consuming; students can get frustrated or lost when dealing with the complexities of a novel problem; and not all problems are equally appealing to all students. Despite all this, I feel that the benefits greatly outweigh these challenges. I don’t know what a physics unit might look like that deeply embraces this idea. It would likely cover less content and provide more scaffolding and skill support, so students have a positive and successful learning experience. A full physics course might focus on a theme “surviving on Mars” or “the Lac Megantic train disaster” and explore the relevant physics topics necessary to examine these themes.

  • To learn more about the role of dopamine in cognition, read Zull’s second popularization of neuroscience for educators: From Brain to Mind.

A cognitive apprenticeship
I like to tease academic-types by contrasting how people learned to make shoes in the olden days with how they might be taught shoe making in a university today. Back in the day, you would start off as an apprentice cobbler in the workshop of a master. Your first few tasks would be very simple: clean the workshop, organize the materials, observe the more senior apprentices, and maybe tap in the last couple tacks in the sole of a shoe. Now imagine you went to a large public university to study shoe making. Your first class (with 200 other students) might involve a lecture titled The Philosophy of the Shoe or maybe The Three-Thousand Year History of the Shoe. Your midterm might have an essay asking you to contrast the tacking techniques of the different schools of shoe thought (I have managed to insult one university professor with my little satire).

Imagine a spectrum of teaching styles with the exaggerated university model at one end and the apprenticeship model at the other. I think that most high school teaching would lie closer to the university end. The problem is this: we shouldn’t teach our students as if they were simply receptacles of scientific knowledge that might be useful at some distant point later in life. We should be training them as scientific apprentices in our classrooms that become simulated scientific workshops. STEM practitioners do: they always use their understanding and skills with a clear purpose, just like the cobblers. To be properly trained, our student apprentices must do science. The challenge for teachers is that our products, unlike shoes, are often not tangible: they are ideas. That is why we must give our students a cognitive apprenticeship: training in the thinking habits and behaviours of STEM professionals*.

  • A while back I had the chance to discuss some teaching challenges with the chair of an Ontario university physics department. The university’s upper-year physics students were having a lot of difficulty in self-directed research courses and more open-ended lab courses. Students would not know how to start, or would hit an obstacle, grind to a halt, and wait helplessly until a life-line was thrown (sound familiar?). The chair was concerned that the skills of researching a question or planning an new experiment were too difficult for upper-year students, so perhaps this should be reserved for graduate school. I asked when their students were explicitly trained in research and experimental skills prior to these courses. They were not. They were never apprenticed and taught to do science. It was assumed they would pick it up along the way, just like the professors had done when they were students. My advice was to begin teaching these skills earlier rather than later in grad school, but I don’t know how things turned out!
There are many benefits of the cognitive apprenticeship model. The first is the nature of the learning tasks. The apprentice cobbler’s first tasks (perhaps sweeping, organizing, observing, tacking) are things that masters also do in the process of making a shoe. Over time, the tasks progress in difficulty, but it is a long while before the student attempts to make a full shoe. This allows the apprentice time to refine her skills on small tasks before moving on. This is important because some of the apprentice’s work needs to be useful to the master, or the financial model for the workshop will collapse. Our science classrooms need to simulate this workshop experience. We need to provide students with small, meaningful tasks that help tackle scientific challenges and problems right away, rather than loading them up with information that they never actually use for a scientific purpose (and tests don’t count).

Another benefit of a cognitive apprenticeship is that students receive a rich variety of feedback on their work. Students routinely evaluation their own work: they can test their tacking work for themselves by walking in the shoe, they can compare their piece of cut leather with the model, and they know their work is decent because it is useful. Also, the apprentice is not alone. There are other apprentices of different abilities to observe and talk with. And finally, there is direct help from the master. Our science workshop should train students to evaluate their own work on small, well-defined tasks. I have been trying this with rubrics for basic physics skills like drawing a force diagram and writing component equations for Newton’s second law.


Cognitive apprenticeship is one of the most exciting ideas I have come across over the last while. It provided a clarifying framework to better understand why pedagogical change is necessary and must continue. The sequence of tasks we might give a physics apprentice is likely very different from the A-Z encyclopedic presentation of physics content from a traditional unit on forces, for example. Perhaps it might look much more like spiraling approach that involves a simple introduction to motion, force, and energy, followed by a “spiralling back” a few weeks later for the next level of understanding and skills, and so on with successive spirals rather than discrete units. It might connect well with problem-based learning if the apprentices are assigned tasks that help the master (the class) assemble the solution to a novel problem.

Mastery learning and the power of success
Do we like to do what we are good at or are we good at what we like to do? This might be a tricky question to answer carefully, but one part is clear to me: most people don’t like to do what they are bad at. Learning is a complex, emotional process with motivation at its core. Those emotions are immediately clouded due to our discipline’s reputation for being hard and highly mathematical. How do we sustain our students’ interest and encourage their perseverance if they regularly receive messages that they aren’t good at physics, or not nearly as good as other students? How do we persuade them to at least try for the first time? The answer comes from the experience of success.

Most students don’t understand what physics is and have not decided that learning physics is worth the struggle and effort. These students need to experience success right away in their physics course. Begin with small, doable tasks (just like cognitive apprenticeship) that they can quickly pull off and take some simple pride in doing. However, as class after class goes by this often becomes more difficult. New learning is built upon prior learning and if that prior learning was incomplete, everything becomes more difficult and unmanageable for the student. This happens because they were not able to master the prerequisite material before moving on.

Mastery learning is a pedagogical idea that addresses a fundamental fact: learning is a very human process and all humans learn at different rates. Mastery learning gives students time to refine skills before heaping new ones on top. If we taught students one-on-one, doing otherwise would be farcical and obviously unprofessional. Unfortunately, our education system is still based on an assembly-line model: each topic rolls past the students who must get their work done before it rolls on and the next topic one arrives. This might work if students were identical cogs, but they turn out to be surprisingly different from one another. The assembly-line model is especially damaging to disciplines whose new ideas are built on ones learned exclusively in school and depend very sensitively on their sound preparation. This is very much the case with mathematics, upon which physics relies so heavily.

I have experimented with mastery learning ideas in assessment by creating a structured process for students to rewrite tests and quizzes. However, I haven’t figured out how to use this idea in the regular learning of my students where it is most important. If time is devoted in class for mastery learning, does that mean the whole class waits for everyone’s skills to improve, or do students move through the course content out of synchronization with one another? What effect would that have on group learning, the basis of my own teaching? My hunch is that the whole class should move together to allow for good, collaborative activities and discussions, but my suspicion is that the amount of content covered would need to be cut to half what it currently is. That might be a good thing if it genuinely reflects the time needed for most people to learn something well. Since learning is a very emotional experience, the feeling of success is crucial. And it can’t be a pat on the head, thanks for trying, everyone gets a ribbon, kind of fake success. It needs to be internal, where the student recognizes that they can now do things well that they didn’t think they were even capable of.

The power of choice
Many of the ideas I have mentioned so far relate to motivation: having authentic tasks, understanding why new learning is necessary, and the experience of success. Our brain is hard-wired to reinforce memories that are emotionally significant and to quickly forget the others. If students are emotionally connected to their work, learning happens much more quickly and reliably. Allowing choice is a great way to connect students emotionally to their learning and increase their motivation. You have likely seen this in action when a student gets an independent study assignment and chooses a topic that really fires them up; it can be a night and day difference. Choice can also help dispel the assembly-line feeling of our education system. Can choice work in our regular teaching?

For starters, I am not referring to anything related to “learning styles”. This pedagogical fad has no scientific basis and is likely counterproductive to classroom teaching. The science of learning suggests that the most effective learning strategies work well for most students: matching learning strategies to supposed “learning styles” of individual students saddles those students with strategies that are less effective for those very students. But learning and education are complex with many confounding factors. What likely attracted teachers to this theory, aside from its appealing story of “learning styles”, is the motivational power of choice. Let’s extract that factor and discard the rest.

What does choice look like in a physics classroom? I don’t really know, but that doesn’t change its importance. It could be a choice of framing problems or apprenticeship-style tasks. For example, my grade 11 motion unit is framed around analyzing Penny Oleksiak’s gold medal-winning swim race. This might be interesting to me and some of my students, but perhaps not to others. I chose it because it was better than what I had before (i.e. nothing). But maybe students could follow a similar learning sequence but focusing on sports cars or space travel. Or choice might affect the structure of daily lessons, students’ flow of work, break times, sequence of activities, choice of readiness to move on, and so forth. It is only limited by our imagination and willingness to try new things with our students.

  • In his second book From Brain to Mind, Zull discusses the development of a love for learning and the value of choice.

Standard based grading and the role of evaluation
One of the most problematic behaviours I observe in my class is how students compare themselves with one another. Humans are very quick to notice who is good at something and who is not, quickly affecting students’ motivation and commitment to learning. The “who is good” hierarchy is reinforced by the rigid pacing of lessons, as students begin to fall behind, and the use of marks to rate and compare the performance of students. Our educational system rewards students who are quick learners (often memorizers) and who buy into the game of the educational system. It does not reward good learning behaviours such as making mistakes and learning from them, monitoring your learning and proceeding only when ready, and developing your own questions about a topic and exploring answers. These are the characteristics of independent or life-long learners and these characteristics represent educational gold. In the world outside of school, these are the people we want to hire and have as leaders. Our educational system pays lip service to this but does not understand the real barrier to developing these skills: marks.

It is interesting how many features of our educational system seem quaint, silly, or counterproductive compared with the apprenticeship model. Marks is one of these features; levels are only slightly better. What we really want to know after a student has completed a sequence of training is whether they can reliably use their new skills and knowledge. My daughter’s swimming lesson “report card” is like this: a series of checks showing that she can do each of these things - not drown, the criteria for “reliable”. This is the idea behind standards-based grading. Develop a list of demonstrable skills and behaviours and check students off once they have reached a reasonable level of ability. The checkmarks could later be transformed into a traditional mark, but not necessarily. All a student needs is a sufficient quantity of checks in the right categories and they are ready for the next level of study or for accreditation.

I like this model for many reasons. First, it works well with a mastery-learning approach when students have multiple opportunities to practice a skill and have it assessed and checked off. Second, it changes students’ focus from the mark to the skill. They are not obsessing about why they lost one mark here or there, they focus on feedback to raise the standard of their skill and pass the next check. This can potentially get rid of number (or letter or level) grades entirely. Third, if the performance standard is reasonably high (perhaps the equivalent of a traditional 80%), it can eliminate the educational reward for sloppy, careless work: passing. It drives me crazy how our educational system rewards poor quality work with a pass. Nobody enjoys doing crappy work, it is not gratifying for the student or anyone else; nevertheless, students become habituated to producing it because the system absolves them from the responsibility to learn and work in a thoughtful manner. Is there any wonder that there is a disconnect between how we educate students and the working world? If we create educational tokens or credentials, they should be awarded for a level of skill that is reliable in the working world or is genuinely useful for further study in the educational world. If the educational system was more flexible and better able to motivate students, this would not seem like a fantasy; it would be quite reasonable.

We really have an addiction to grades that harms student learning and I haven’t been able to shake my own. On tests I make using standards-based categories, so there are no specific marks per question. Based on all the work I see on the test, I decide how well students have demonstrated each skill and give each a mark out of 10. I also give regular percentage mark updates for my students. But I am left marvelling at the amount of my time and energy that goes into generating a percentage mark and how little educational benefit comes from it. Luckily, there is a better way through a more holistic embrace of standards-based grading, however the rigidness of our educational system is a real obstacle here. Students, parents, and universities expect teachers to produce grades to help them rank students. Deep down, I feel like this is not my job – it is not my responsibility to serve as a gatekeeper for the universities. My job is to help my students learn as much as possible and enjoy their experience learning.


Group work verses individual work
Good ol’ Feynman remarked that the first principle of doing science is that you must not fool yourself — and that you are the easiest person to fool. Cooperative group learning is a powerful approach for this reason. When we articulate our own ideas and “hash them out” with other people, we discover what we do and don’t know, often for the first time. Very few people can do this on their own, in an internal monologue; most of us need conversations with other people to help make our own thinking clear. This is because our brains store knowledge differently than a computer. Instead of a reliable digital representation that can be reproduced perfectly each time we access it, our brains store knowledge in vast neural webs with interconnections of varying strengths. When we recall or form a thought, we activate portions of these webs differently each time. In a real sense, we don’t know what we know until we try activating these webs and seeing what comes out! Often, it’s surprising!

Group work or active learning in general has a large body of evidence to support its efficacy compared with traditional, passive or individual modes of learning. In fact, in a landmark meta-study from 2014, the authors concluded that active learning should no longer be compared with traditional learning in educational research - it is no longer ethical since the benefits of active learning are so clear. The evidence is in: group work should be a vital component of STEM teaching. Full stop. But that doesn’t mean group learning comes without challenges.

I often notice very different levels of participation among the members of a single group. There can be a strong personality who dominates discussions; there can be students struggling with the content who hardly engage. Some students work very quickly through the material, pushing ahead; others much more slowly. These characteristics can introduce a lot of tension into a group’s dynamics and limit the amount of good discussion that takes place. To learn well, each individual student needs to personally grapple with the material, which is hard to do in a challenging group dynamic. The force concept inventory data I have collected from my classes shows good gains in conceptual understanding with the bottom quartile of students (the bottom 25% of the class). This leads me to believe that the group work process is more helpful for less-engaged students than traditional lecturing. The challenge is finding ways to encourage these students to engage more in their group discussions.

I am experimenting with different strategies to help even out the participation levels in a group. In some places, I have individual thinking time structured into the group-led investigations. I try to help students understand that working at a moderate, steady pace is much better than rushing through the material. I really like this video for that purpose.

I am also trying out using improv activities in our first class together to help teach students to communicate more freely and share ideas without worrying about being right or wrong.

In the end, this is a tough nut to crack. Good group discussions depend a lot on students’ personalities. I usually ask students to provide input about who they would like to work with in their groups. I use this input and my understanding of their personalities to create groups that will likely have good discussions. Sometimes that results in groups with students of very different ability levels where a natural tutoring can take place. Other times I create groups of fairly equal abilities where there will be a better balance of idea generation. In a small study I ran with the U of T, we found no significant different in gains on the force concept inventory when students were in homogeneous or heterogeneous ability groups.


Usually I find students amenable to work with whoever is in their group, but they still prefer to work with people who are like themselves. To help with this, I have experimented with a week or so of daily randomized groupings. This allows students to practice working with a greater variety of people and to meet more of their classmates. I wish I had one nice formula to follow for creating productive groups, but I guess that’s just not the reality of working with human beings!

The future of physics teaching
If you have managed to read this far, there is a good chance you are the person I have been looking for! Our physics teaching community needs your help. The next big push in improved physics teaching is not likely to come from me. Something interesting happens when you work on one teaching program for so long (10 years to develop my current program): you become deeply invested in it and more reluctant to make significant changes. This is where I find myself and this I why I am writing this article. I feel that I need to make significant changes to my own teaching, but I don’t know what to do and feel a resistance to significant change.

As teachers, we must share with each other as much as much as we can to quickly raise the pedagogical standards of our community. Physics education research overwhelmingly supports cooperative, conceptually driven learning where students do most of the talking. I want to challenge you to learn more: follow the leads from this article, read widely, question everything about how you structure learning, and experiment with your classroom teaching. I hope a new group of teachers with a deep understanding of learning will take the next steps. Our students deserve this. Our future students deserve this. Governments, ministries, faculties and boards of education will not take the lead in this. We must. Share, learn, and enjoy the ride!
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