I want to follow up, but I'm going to indulge my blogging privileges to respond in a series of uncoordinated, seemingly scattered thoughts. If I wait to coalesce them into a unified, well-crafted essay, I fear I'll lose some of them. The essay may be written someday. But not today. Apologies for the lack of polish.
General. The title of the previous modeling post was carefully considered and deliberate: "Why I am not a Modeler." That's the extent of the scope. As stated in the post, it was not an attack on Modeling Instruction. It was not titled, "Why modeling is awful and shouldn't ever be adopted by anyone anywhere." If you like it and it works for you, felicitations! I am glad you have found your path. I'm choosing to walk a different path. I hope we can still be friends.
I rejected "traditional" instruction long ago. We don't have lecture so much as we have guided discussions. We've never done a "Prove that g = 9.8 m/s^2" lab. Otherwise simple demonstrations may keep us occupied for a full period of discussion and debate. We tend to do something different every day of the week. I would hate for anyone to interpret my reservations about modeling as support of "traditional" instruction.
Modeling Instruction is a successful, well-organized program with hard-earned and well-deserved National Science Foundation support. But it's not for everybody. If my reservations resonate with others, these posts may be the only place they've seen doubts about modeling expressed in a public forum.
Mechanics. I am aware that there are some modeling units devoted to "second semester physics." (My attempts to see them have not been successful.) But I take anecdotal references to a teacher here or there who goes significantly beyond mechanics as evidence to support my thesis that modelers by and large stick to mechanics. Exceptions that prove the rule.
Sure, most modeling workshops focus on mechanics for legitimate logistical reasons. But I don't see compelling evidence of practicing modelers "in the wild," actively teaching physics in real, NCLB-era high schools, who get to heat and thermo, electricity and magnetism, sound and light, or blue skies and rainbows. If there are modelers who approach the level of coverage tested by the state of California, I'd like to hear about it.
Modeling instruction has been a going concern since the mid-nineties. Whenever I ask to see the modeling units on electricity and magnetism (especially magnetism), I'm told that such units are still under construction and, unlike the voluminous material in mechanics, aren't ready for distribution yet. So I'll ask: When will they be ready? It's now 2012. If magnetism couldn't be cracked in the first decade, will it be by the end of the second?
I'm repeatedly told that mechanics exceeds the limits of first semester is that modeling instruction is a slower, more deliberate process. Accepted. With that in mind, it seems the thing to do is to eliminate some topics in mechanics from the yearlong curriculum. Students don't need full mastery of algebraic and graphical kinematics to grasp Newton's laws of motion. How about ditching the reflexive (dare I say "traditional"?) impulse to devote a month to six weeks pounding 1-D and 2-D kinematics? Do I now appear to be someone who just grew a second head?
Cultishness. I might have been misunderstood here. And that's at least partially my fault. I would never accuse modelers of reclusiveness or trying to exclude others from the fold. In my experience, modelers are ever eager to encourage "converts." There's nothing wrong with that. But I go to a lot of meetings and conferences where enthusiastic modelers are keen to share the Good News. After the first decade, it takes its toll.
I worry that modelers feel entitled to reject the science standards adopted by their state in favor of what they learned to do in Arizona. The broad coverage required by states is dismissed as being "a mile wide and an inch deep." (Curiously, no one never dismisses a program for being "an inch wide and a mile deep." Though both would constitute the same area, only the "mile wide" is universally understood as derogative.)
In any case, I wonder if modelers feel justified in rejecting state mandates in favor of modeling mechanics because the approach, philosophy, and demonstrated FCI gains of modeling constitute a "Higher Authority" than state standards. (Can modeling physics teachers hope to make this argument while intelligent design biology teachers don't?)
I'm a physics teacher. I get it. Ours is very much a "cowboy culture." No one in statewide educational administrivia knows better than me what I should be teaching. I know what's best for my students, and that's what I'm gonna do—state education bureaucrats be damned. Add to that one's sense that I'm doing what professors would like me to do to prep students for their college course, and there's no looking back.
Except that we don't work for college professors. If you've worked to expand your physics enrollment, most of your students will never take physics at college. Your course is the one and only physics course they will ever take. I generally reject "they'll need it for their college physics course" as sole justification for anything I do in my high school physics course.
There is no consensus on what college physics professors would like high school physics teachers to teach. The answer I here most often is, "Just get them excited about science." Nothing wrong with that per se. But it can come across as, "Don't teach them any actual content; leave that to us." OK, except that content can be all kinds of fun. And...
I do work—in essence—for the state of California. And California has told me what content it expects my physics students to learn. California pays me to provide the instruction and California assesses my students' learning. While California and I don't see eye to eye on all the details, I have an aversion to telling California to stick it because me and my friends know better.
One sentiment often comes up when I express my reservations about modeling. "Keep an open mind." As a non-theist who grew up among theists, and as a skeptic who lives among the credulous, I have found that you will never be asked to keep an open mind by someone who actually has one. And the sentiment is directed only to outsiders. Upon arrival at the "right" conclusion, one is free to close one's mind. (Don't get me wrong: I treasure my close friendships with those who do not share in my beliefs/lack of belief. No one who knows me would characterize me as a bitter, curmudgeonly recluse!)
I would like to think my mind is very open, but that I reserve the right to question and probe, to evaluate and critique, and to accept or reject. I don't regard myself as a cynic, but I do confess some admiration for Diogenes.
As mentioned previously, I don't presume to have worked out the singular set of best practices that ensures mastery of physics by every student who enrolls in my class. I struggle each year to improve. Some part of my aversion to modeling is that enthusiasts appear (to me) to be saying that they have solved a puzzle that I'm not sure has a simple solution.
Exclusion. I'm a big fan of PhET simulations. I use them as much as I can. PhET publishes "best practices" guidelines for how their sims should be used. I don't always follow their guidelines. But they let me use their sims, anyway. They even let me publish my PhET activities to their site, whether or not they follow PhET's carefully delineated prescription.
A visit to the Modeling Curriculum page reveals that there is some content available to all who seek, but some content is available only to those who
I hope someone with access will explain why those of us without access are undeserving. While I try to presume a reasonable answer exists, I have misgivings. Can we (the non-workshopped) not be trusted with this curriculum? Will we misuse it and bring shame to the practice of modeling? The good people at PhET love their babies (sims) but allow unfettered access to everyone. I'm hard-pressed to imagine curriculum material that's so dangerous it must be password-protected from physics teachers.