HOW TO IMPROVE PHYSICS EDUCATION IN SCHOOLS? (REPORT ON A RESEARCH TRYING TO FIND THE WAY)

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1 HOW TO IMPROVE PHYSICS EDUCATION IN SCHOOLS? (REPORT ON A RESEARCH TRYING TO FIND THE WAY) Leos Dvorak, Ruzena Kolarova, Irena Koudelkova, Dana Mandikova, Emanuel Svoboda and Vojtech Zak ABSTRACT This article presents the preliminary report on a research project exploring why physics is not a very popular subject in Czech schools and whether or not it is possible to influence this state. Although the project is ongoing, some preliminary findings are presented, as well as the theoretical and practical goals of the project. KEYWORDS Physics education research, pupils attitudes, PISA, TIMSS, good teaching practice INTRODUCTION This article is a rather brief interim report on a project in the framework of the National Research Program II of the Czech Republic. It belongs to part E Human Resources, which partly explains the rather long title of the project: Physics Education for the Versatile Preparation and Development of Human Resources at the Elementary and Secondary School Level. The title is lengthy, but the main question and main purpose are simple. It is well known that physics is not a very popular school subject. This is the case in many countries, including the Czech Republic. From this several questions naturally arise: Is it really so bad? Why is this so? Can we identify some of the factors influencing pupils attitudes? And maybe the most important one: Can we do anything to change the situation? To be more specific: Can we improve physics education, to make physics more interesting, more comprehensible, and more appealing to students? At the same time, how can we preserve what has been good in physics education up to now? (It should be noted that Czech Republic students scored fairly well in international studies like PISSA and TIMSS in the past). Such general questions cannot, of course, be answered by any single research project. We do not claim to have solved these problems with a research project lasting just 2.5 years (from mid-2006 till the end of 2008). These questions serve as guidelines directing our aims and activities. In our case, they led us to divide the project into four interconnected parts. THE FOUR PARTS OF THE PROJECT The parts of the project correspond to the following goals: To identify and analyze several factors that influence the (un)attractiveness of physics as a school subject. 1

2 To analyze and interpret some results and opinions of Czech pupils in TIMSS and PISA studies. To find and analyze examples of good practice meaning very good physics teachers whose students do not perceive physics as a dull subject but rather are fascinated by it and by their teacher s approach. And, finally, to suggest how the findings of the above mentioned parts of research can be used to help teachers to improve their teaching of physics (in the scope of new Czech Framework Educational Programs ). Each part of the project has its own subgroup of people working on it. But, as stated above, all parts are interconnected and the same people often work on tasks in different parts of the project. Altogether the project team consists of nine people, including Ph.D. students. Several undergraduate students also help with specific tasks. We will not go into detailed specifics of the project; however, it is worth mentioning one positive experience. We are very satisfied with the simple system for sharing all project documents based on the Wiki system. It enables every member of the project team to load, save, and edit documents, as well as add comments and reports on Wiki pages of the project. In addition, it is relatively easy to administer. Now let us look briefly at the parts of the project. ANALYZING STUDENTS ATTITUDES TOWARD PHYSICS The first part of the research concerned identifying students attitudes toward physics as both a scientific discipline and school subject and also toward a career in science or technical disciplines. This large empiric research project collected data using questionnaires from more than 2000 students in upper secondary schools and almost 1900 students from lower secondary schools in the Czech Republic. The research and its preliminary results are described in greater details in other articles included in this volume (Kekule and Zak 2008, Zak 2008), so we mention it here briefly. The questionnaire contained about 200 items; respondents answered using a four-point scale (from strongly disagree to strongly agree ).There were also some open comments items. The data we collected will be the source of further analysis which certainly will continue after the formal end of the project. Until now the data were analysed using descriptive statistics. Some of the most interesting preliminary results include: The mean attitude of pupils toward physics is not as negative as we had expected. In fact, it is rather neutral. (Pupils chose their answers using a four point scale from 1 I like physics a lot to 4 I dislike physics a lot. The average was close to 2.5.) The main motivation factor for learning physics seems to be marks. (Students learn physics to have good marks either because they themselves want them or their parents want them to have good marks.) Unfortunately, the lowest motivation factor is I like physics. Students like topics connected to modern technology and the universe. Surprisingly they do not want to learn about the lives of scientists and the historical context of physics. Students like to do experiments (this activity scored best) and do not like to solve problems (this was the most unpopular). And one other positive finding: More than sixty percent of lower secondary school pupils think that physics will be needed in their future life. Another (smaller) research activity in this part of the project tried to find the attitudes of students by the method of semantic differential and compared the attitudes to physics and biology. ANALYZING TIMSS AND PISA DATA The international studies TIMSS 1995 and 1999 and PISA 2000 and 2003 provided valuable information for this study. The data concerning physics tasks and the results of Czech students and 2

3 pupils were taken from these studies, compiled, and analysed. Also, the data from Czech teachers, pupils and schools questionnaires in TIMSS 1995 and 1999 and pupils and schools questionnaires in PISA 2000 and 2003 concerning teaching methods and strategies were processed. This is the first time that the data from these international studies have been processed and analysed in the Czech Republic to such an extent. The data from PISA 2006, which were released at the end of 2007, will be processed and analysed subsequently during this year. In addition, this part of the project provided data for future analysis, which will continue after the formal end of the project. We plan to add data from future TIMSS and PISA studies to our database of selected data concerning Czech pupils, teachers and schools to enable continuing analysis. It will be interesting and useful to compare and relate results and analysis of Czech empirical research (like that described above) with analysis of data from international studies. Some preliminary results arising from the data from the international studies include the following: Czech teachers strongly declare that for the teaching of natural sciences it is necessary to like pupils and to understand them. Little time in class is devoted to experiments. Demonstrational experiments take 7% of the time, experiments done by pupils just 5%, which is below the average values in other countries. The most common teaching style in Czech schools was lecturing (explaining new topics etc.). 15 year old Czech pupils (in PISA 2000 study) stressed looking for connections between the topics in (school) science and information from other sources. The analysis of the data continues and surely it will bring other interesting results. EXAMPLES OF GOOD PRACTICE In order to identify not only the problems but also the teaching approaches that work, we decided to seek out examples of good teaching practice. This meant finding good physics teachers and asking them which methods, approaches, and strategies they use. But what is a good physics teacher? After discussions and a literature search we chose a set of 15 criteria in four areas by which superior teachers could be identified. These four areas included activities of the teacher, results and activities of pupils of the teacher, opinions given by pupils or former pupils, and cooperation with our department in various activities. Not all the criteria had the same weight; the recommendation from students was taken as most important. The students who were surveyed included those who had been either participants in summer math and physics camps for high school students or who had started to study physics at the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics of Charles University in Prague. So we used the opinions of those students who were motivated to study physics and those who chose their future career connected to physics. We identified an initial group of 80 teachers who satisfied more than one criterion. From this group we finally chose 31: ten from elementary schools (age group 12-15), 5 from secondary schools of technical field and 16 from grammar school (both lower and upper secondary schools). With these teachers we conducted structured interviews. This research does not imply that we have found all the good physics teachers. So not being on our list does not mean that a particular teacher is not good; in fact, he or she may be excellent. However, we have found a sample of good physics teachers from various types of schools. Interviews with these teachers can reveal their attitudes, preferences, teaching styles, etc. Thus, we may learn something from their experiences. Since this sample is not large, we do not use any elaborate statistical methods; rather, we take the interviews and their analysis as qualitative research. The structured interview consisted of six groups of rather general questions: What led him or her to teach physics 3

4 His or her main goals in teaching physics His/her preferences in content (topics taught in physics) Teaching methods and forms he/she uses and which ones are most motivating for pupils Conditions influencing the quality of teaching Continuing education and professional development of teachers (in-service training) Teachers could also add any other comments. In general, in all areas mentioned above teachers were quite free in answering these open ended questions. It should be noted that there were no multiple choice or yes/no type questions during the interviews. At this time all the interviews are finished, the sound recordings transcribed, and the analysis of the interviews has begun. It is too soon to have any final results. However, one preliminary result already seems to be clear. Although it is not surprising, it is still important to be aware of. The majority of teachers we interviewed expressed in the free final comment their strong belief that probably the most important factor for physics teaching is that the teacher must like teaching of his/her subject. This also seems to support some intuitive observation that a teacher s enthusiasm is one of most important factors in successful teaching. Of course, other results from further analysis of the interviews should follow. We also obtained data from the pupils and students of the interviewed teachers, about 1300 filled-in questionnaires in all. These data have also been processed and analysed. One early observation is that pupils of good teachers almost unanimously state that their teachers are keen on physics! SUGGESTIONS FOR SCHOOL PRACTICE This part of the project will build upon the three previous sections, so it will be done in the remaining time. However, we do not seek to prescribe any global conception of good physics teaching and by no means do we want to suggest that there is only one right way to teach. Rather, we would like to provide several suggestions, proposals, and hints that teachers can use for improvement of their teaching and perhaps for inspiration for further thinking and development of their teaching methods, and particular topics, etc. CONCLUSIONS This project has sparked research activities within our department which surely will exceed the project s original scope. The analysis and interpretation of data we obtained will continue in the future. And, though we would not like to exaggerate the meaning of our project (that we perceive just as one small stone in a mosaic), we hope that its impact to school practice will be non-zero and hopefully also, at least to some extent, long-lasting. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS This work was supported by research grant 2E06020 of the National Research Program II of the Czech Republic. REFERENCES Kekule M., Zak V. (2008) Students attitudes to physics and physics lessons in the Czech republic. In: this Proceedings. 4

5 Zak V. (2008) Connection between motivation towards physics learning and type of school, students sex, year of study and other factors. In: this Proceedings. Leos Dvorak Department of Physics Education Faculty of Mathematics and Physics Charles University in Prague V Holesovickach Prague 8 Czech Republic NOTE This article was really meant just as a brief preliminary report on the project. Many results were elaborated since it was written but we decided not to expand the original text apart from just a few sentences to clarify one or two points. Detailed findings and results will be published elsewhere in subsequent articles. 5

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