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Teaching Chris’ stuff without being Chris Meyer

Milica Rakic, Teacher at Walkerville Collegiate Institute, Windsor, ON

Have you ever had the feeling that your students can do so much more that what they have been showing you in class?

If you are looking for a change, you might find Chris Meyer’s material very helpful. I switched from traditional lecture-based teaching to using Chris’ resources for inquiry-based learning and my students are very happy that I have made that decision.

Chris has developed a whole handbook (all day-by-day lessons) for SPH3U and SPH4U classes. The lessons follow the Ontario curriculum and are designed for you to teach in inquiry-based way. His handouts often include a dialog where common misconceptions are presented which engages the students into deeper thinking about physics concepts. On his website, there are also videos of his lessons, presentations and many other resources to help you. Visit his website at www.meyercreations.com, jump in and pick your own pace. You don’t have to be Chris to teach this way.

Looking for a better way
At the time that I started using Chris’ resources, I had already been teaching for ten years. I was comfortable with the physics content and I had my show running smoothly. The students didn’t complain about the physics class and they even found it entertaining. However, I realized that my classroom was lacking the opportunity for students to be persistent in finding answers before giving up and waiting for my explanation.

After countless hours spent online reading and looking for something different, something better, I discovered Chris’ website. He had posted some impressive Force Concept Inventory scores for his classes. I remember thinking: “I want my students to understand forces (and everything else in the course) the same way his students do.” The methods he used seemed to be the change I was looking for.

I started using the inquiry-based approach in both of my classes, grade 11 and 12. At the beginning of each course I explained what we were going to do and why. Most of the grade 12 students were my old students from previous grades, while the grade 11 students were all new to me as I was new to them. This could have been one of the reasons for the different experiences in the two classes.

My experience with a 12U class
After the initial shock, the grade 12 students were mostly on board with the new idea of group work, collaboration and not giving up when they get “confused”. It was as challenging and interesting for them as it was for me. We were going slowly. Most of the time, one handout took us more than one period, but I was not concerned with that at the moment. As a teacher, I needed to learn how to go from leading the class and being the center of attention to me guiding the class and steering each group in the right direction. In time, I started to feel more comfortable in that role.

Since our progress through the curriculum was (intentionally) slow, towards the end I still had lots of material I wanted to cover in the class, so I decided to switch back to the old style – giving lectures for one unit. After four days of this we discussed this change. Most students said that they had initially enjoyed listening to lectures again and while they were still in class they felt that they understood everything. But when they tried the homework, they would get stuck more often than they did with the inquiry-based learning. The students agreed that they had found the group work a “bit frustrating” in the beginning, but now it seemed that that new method worked better.

My experience with an 11U class
My experience with the grade 11 class, with students I didn’t already know, involved a lot of resistance which lasted longer. They were not on board with the change. Parent-teacher interviews that year were interesting to say the least. Some parents came prepared with criticism, questioned my reasons and even my experience as a teacher. Expecting that, I was prepared to explain the details of the new methods and reasons why all of it was in the best interest of their kids.

I remember talking to Chris about this experience and he said that he also had some resistance the first time around, but never after that. The same happened to me: nobody ever complained after this. The next semester students were on board from the beginning and now, after a few years, the word is out: in physics class, you are going to collaborate, be active and responsible; you will be dared to think, you will learn from mistakes and be courageous to make them; you will be accomplishing things. Students now come prepared for a different class: they’ve heard from other kids that you feel good in this class, that it is challenging, but sense of accomplishment is great and the knowledge is long lasting.

How can you try this approach, without adopting it completely?
I used the whole handbook from Chris’ website, but if you are hesitant, I would recommend using the handbook for one whole unit, rather than a lesson here and there. You and the students need to invest some time in developing an environment that supports functional group work. The students need to think and feel comfortable sharing ideas within the group and with other groups. They need to accept that mistakes are inevitable and part of the learning process. This can’t be done within a single lesson.

Studies have shown that inquiry-based group work approach produces better results. Chris has developed a wonderful resource that is aligned with our curriculum and it is free to use! The videos on his website are extremely helpful. They make the transition to using his resources much easier. He is also very approachable and responds to email very promptly.

Editor’s Note: Chris would agree that good teaching depends more on the pedagogy than on the person doing the teaching. I recommend his article The Myth of a Great Teacher.
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