Teaching and learning physics as inquiry—Similarities with transformative action research


The importance of inquiry

As an undergraduate at the University of Colorado (1963-67), I majored in physics. Although I became more interested in a career as an innovative educator in my last months as an undergraduate, I greatly benefited from my experience as a student of the physical sciences. In particular, I came to appreciate the value and possibility of creative insights emerging out of the practice of science, and I also became aware of the limitations of “science” when it is all too often practiced as merely a series of procedural steps. Without an awareness of the bigger picture of the scientific enterprise, and without an ever-present curiosity to question and to learn more, “science” can be much less than its valuable potential for creating new knowledge.

Over the years, in practicing action research, I’ve tried to make use of what I learned as a physics student about some of the strengths and limitations of the various ways in which science may be practiced. About 30 years ago, with my long-time friend and colleague, Milly Henry, I embarked on a study of the qualities associated with being designated “an outstanding college teacher” by one’s students. Specifically, Milly and I were interested in drawing on my experiences as a physics student, and then interviewing professors in physics who were seen by many of their students as outstanding teachers.

We never wrote up the results of our research on this topic, and fortunately this book is a welcome occasion for me to share some of our insights, even if belatedly, after all these years. The insights from this research on teaching physics as inquiry rather than merely as facts, theories and formulas is very much related to what distinguishes transformative action research from those research methods, action-oriented or not, that focus on research primarily as a collection of methods. With regards to transformative action research, as well as with some of the best traditions of liberal education, “physics as inquiry” gives great attention to the importance of each individual learning how to think critically, and imaginatively, and also to be curious about the meaning and larger significance of what one is studying. These are extremely important qualities to cultivate.

Milly Henry and I began our study with a mutually shared and strong interest in scientific approaches to inquiry as important ways of learning and knowing. I entered our study with a sense that my undergraduate education in physics was an important contribution to my learning during the college years and to my learning since then. Milly had a good experience with physics in high school where the physics teacher allowed students to first experiment with incline planes, pendula, and the like, and then develop general principles inductively from this activity. However, she had a bad experience with physics in college. The college physics course was a lecture course with little laborator}' work. The pace was fast and there was no opportunity to play with and understand the attributes of the basic phenomena which the formulas and laws sought to express through generalized statements. This one physics course was enough to convince Milly, who had previously been quite interested in physics, that physics was not just difficult, but boring and meaningless. For her, the fun and romance of physics was extinguished.

We also began our study by being acutely aware that there are different versions of “scientific inquiry.” Indeed, faculty may or may not teach the versions they practice. Further, we entered the study believing that scientific inquiry, however conceived, can and should form bridges to other modes of learning, such as those in the social sciences, humanities, and arts. We pursued these concerns by conducting interviews with four physics educators’ who were known for their strong and thoughtful commitments to teaching.

During our conversations, it became apparent that we, and the four physics professors, all agreed that teaching and learning of physics has an importance that goes far beyond learning specific content—facts, theories, and methods of problem-solving. For example, how can involvement in the learning of physics increase students’ interests in inquiry and develop their abilities in various modes of inquiry? How can students learn physics in a way that is not formula-bound or so narrowly focused that somehow the student misses completely both the fun and complexity of physics as a mode of seeing the world and as a discipline with fascinating historical roots and critical philosophical assumptions? Further, how can physics contribute to the development of people who will become conscious of their social responsibilities, not just as scientists but also as citizens, and who will be able to engage in careful and ethically-based thought to guide their actions? All of us agreed that these matters have relevance both to the liberal education of non-science majors, and also to the specialized education of physics majors (and those in related fields of science and engineering), and to graduate level education as well.

For instance, we asked the physics professors about the teaching and learning of inductive “vs.” deductive approaches to reasoning. Their comments confirmed our sense that while the conceptual distinction between inductive and deductive reasoning is one useful way of thinking about scientific methods, this distinction of reasoning modes is often overdrawn. Our interviews and discussions then led to a different set of related distinctions, which may be best characterized as the inquiring vs. the puzzle-solving aspects of science. These two emphases have been discussed in detail by many philosophers and historians of science, perhaps most notably in Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn, 1970; as well as Chapter 3 of Bilorusky, 2021).

Those we interviewed noted that contemporary physics education does not give sufficient emphasis to the inquiring qualities of physics. There is not an emphasis on helping students learn how to think, how to pose good questions, and how to evaluate the validity and relevance of their answers. Instead, physics education is often only a means to a rather narrow end. Most of physics education seems designed solely to teach students how to solve a traditional set of problems, as for example, in the way that engineers need to know a certain amount of physics to address the practical problems of their profession. So, regrettably, these instructional emphases do not apply to doing physics in areas of study where no guidelines exist, where problems have not been pre-defined, or at least not well-defined.

These conversations brought out that the common failure to teach physics as a way of inquiring is well evidenced by the difficulty that most students encounter when asked to give an overview of what they did in the laboratory. They will usually give procedural descriptions of what they did, without reference to the underlying thinking, relationships, and principles which guide and give meaning to the procedures. Consequently, it is important to teach students both higher conceptual and concrete skills. Further, most students are not going to remember much of the specific content they have learned. One professor observed that only 3 out of 25 students could solve a simple problem one quarter later. Although they could go back and learn rather quickly how to “solve a problem,” they still would rarely know how to move beyond problem-solving into inquiry, and how to search for understanding where none exists.

So, there is a tendency for students to learn “normal science” (i.e., routinized science) without understanding the inquiring side of science, without understanding how to ask questions, but only the prevailing theories, facts, and formulaic methods of problem-solving. Yet, the pursuit of questions could give greater meaning to the endeavor of inquiry. Instead, students strive merely to learn straightforward methods of problem-solving. Seldom do most professors challenge students to question “facts” and theories. Students are not encouraged to explore paradoxes and discrepancies in data, or between theories and data, as stimuli for inquiry. Generally, students learn to strive for a simplified conceptual order, using “deductive” or “inductive” processes, or some combination of these two processes, in highly limited ways. In many cases, for example, faculty encourage students to use their observations only to illustrate those theories which have already been acknowledged and proven by the scientific community. This is not science as inquiry, but science as verification—an important process, but only one part of what we, and those whom we interviewed, consider to be the rich, varied, and complex domain of “science” as a whole.

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