Redesigning the High School Physics Classroom

I spend my afternoons and evenings working as a tutor in New York. I work with students from some of the most prestigious schools in New York and the country (Collegiate, Trinity, Riverdale,etc). Yet, even though these students attend the “best” high schools, I feel that their physics education is lacking, and more importantly,  the opportunity to teach so much more that just physics is being missed.

The Problem

There is an obsession with preparing students for college and that is a great target. Unfortunately that obsession is usually manifested in courses that are essentially miniature versions of college courses. In physics courses, concepts are covered very quickly or not at all. At some schools, students are expected to do a large portion of learning on their own. The problem I notice with this approach is that most students have no framework for physics, no basic understanding of the general concepts, which makes it extremely difficult to succeed at self-guided learning. It is ridiculous to expect students to truly understand a concept or equation after learning it once. We’re talking about discoveries made by brilliant teams of scientists that took many years. 

There is also a large trend of teaching for the test by assigning tedious problems sets. Many students simply learn the mechanics of how to do the problems, remember them long enough to do well on a test, and then forget how or why the equations worked. If they are asked questions that require them to build on the concepts, or are asked about it later, they struggle. This might be a great way to teach students how to do repetitive, boring tasks, but I don’t think it does much for teaching physics or preparing students for college or adult life.

The Opportunity

I think physics is a fascinating subject. That being said, I am not obsessed with physics. I don’t look at everything through the lens of a physicist, though I do often, especially when I’m watching people fly around on the subway. The main reason I am fascinated with physics is because of its ability to teach so many different things. It lies at a unique place that combines raw mathematical skills, critical reasoning, problem solving, creative thinking, exploration, inquiry and experimentation. Because of this, I feel that physics is uniquely positioned to teach so much more than just content.

I don’t believe that every student should come out of a physics course with a perfect understanding of every concept, especially since not every student will become a physicist. But, I do think that they should come out having grappled with difficult problems for days, weeks, maybe even the whole semester, and that they need challenges that push them to ask better questions and explain their reasoning well. There has been a lot of discussion about how to teach ‘character’ to students, as that is what helps them succeed (see Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed).Well, I think physics provides the opportunity to do that in a honest, non-gimmicky way. However, this cannot happen in the current problem set after problem set, test after test model. 

I attended graduate school in physics and spent most of my time shooting lasers at molecules.  Though I had just completed an undergraduate physics education and had some familiarity with lasers, my graduate research was in a completely new area for me and I felt like I knew nothing at first. What really helped me make progress wasn’t an encyclopedic knowledge of equations and exam problems, but the ability to learn about new things, ask good questions, observe, experiment and play around. The content knowledge came in bits and pieces over time, often prompted by necessity, rather than trying to learn everything about coherent control at once. My point, essentially, is that high school physics education should focus on the problem solving, question asking and critical reasoning above outright content knowledge. The ability to work through problems and use equations is of course valuable, but I don’t think it should be at the forefront or be allowed to get in the way of learning something more valuable. 

My Solution

Here is a brief description of my vision. A learning lab filled with an abundance of equipment, from ramps, pendulums and springs to circuits, electronics and lasers… lots of lasers. Things like littleBits and circuit scribe would be on hand at all times. Students would be encouraged to pursue their own lines of inquiry or, if they didn’t have a burning question, they would be given questions to try to answer (like is this really possible?). There would be a focus on experimentation and discovery, rather than coming up with “the right answer”. There would be a variety of project time scales, from small one-day experiments, to larger group projects and possibly even a semester long individual project to promote both short-term and long-term thinking as well as collaboration. 

My classroom would make no assumption of prior knowledge. The focus would be on asking the questions that get you closer to an explanation. The curriculum would be adaptable to the interests of the class (most people find lasers and electronics more interesting than doing projectile motion problems over and over and over). Labs would not be done in traditional lab report style, save that for college physics. The scientific method is important, but curiosity, creativity and play should triumph at this age. Topics such as the scientific method, error and uncertainty, and even developing a hypothesis would enter the discussion in regards to a students project, making it relevant and easier to digest. 

Again, the focus would be on explanation and reasoning with tasks like: can you explain your results to another group who didn’t do the project? If not, then we would keep working on developing the understanding to be able to produce that explanation. Evaluation would be based on factors such as participation, perseverance, development over time (in quality of questions asked etc), collaboration and reasoning rather than just on homework and test grades. Even though I have little desire to teach in the classroom, this sounds like a class I would love to teach and one that students would look forward to coming to. 

Final Thoughts

When I think back to my science education and the things I remember the most, they all revolve around challenges. In high school chemistry we had to design a fire extinguisher that used a chemical reaction to put out the flames (candles) distributed around a model house. The faster we put out the fire, the more points we got. In college physics, we had to build a small motor out of two paper clips, some wire and a couple magnets. The faster your motor went, the more extra credit you got. Challenges like this are motivating and hardly feel like learning. They also tend to do a better job of teaching the trial and error approach that is so important in life. I also remember not enjoying problems sets and simply studying practice problems to do well on exams, then forgetting everything. My senior year of high school, I didn’t even attend physics class because I took a class at the community college at the same time. However, I still did well on the exams because I just studied the review sheets. I guess I learned how to wing it and prepare quickly, but I definitely did not retain much of the physics that was taught that year.

I am definitely not the first person to propose a project based learning structure, and this has many similarities to the model Sal Khan proposed in The One World Schoolhouse, but I feel like it isn’t being tried as much as it should be. High school physics should focus on questions, not answers, and on attacking difficult problems with creativity and critical reasoning rather than memorizing procedures for an exam. Above all, it should be a ton of fun.


A little about me and my physics background: I received my undergraduate degree in Math and Physics from Hamilton College and then completed a Masters degree at the University of British Columbia where I shot lasers at stuff. I currently work in New York as a math and science tutor.