Modeling Instruction is a big deal in high school physics. If there is a bigger movement afoot in high school physics pedagogy, I am unaware of it.
There is no shortage of praise for Modeling Instruction. It seems every article, post, or comment I see about Modeling promotes its virtues.
And don't get me wrong: I think there are important virtues to Modeling. I reserve the right to become a Modeler, myself, at some point in the future.
But I'm not there yet. And I'll tell you why.
1. Modeling Physics is really Modeling Mechanics. Whenever I see the yearlong breakdown of what Modelers do with their 180 days of instruction, it's nearly all about mechanics. I do not doubt that students of Modelers come away with a deep understanding of mechanics. But is their grasp of electricity, magnetism, heat, waves, and optics anywhere as firm? Modelers often dismiss the omission of these topics. I cannot. To me those topics are legitimate high school physics topics not to be marginalized. While physics learners may well harbor many misconceptions regarding mechanics, they tend to harbor no conceptions regarding electricity and magnetism.
If you visit the Modeling Instruction Summer 2011 Workshops page, you'll find as many mentions of "kinematics" as there are of "electricity" and "magnetism" combined. (And kinematics isn't even physics!) "Electricity" comes up three times, "magnetism" twice. "Mechanics" appears 28 times. The term, "light," comes up once and "waves" three times. Mechanics: 28.
I wonder if the performance gains claimed by Modelers are apples-to-apples comparisons in terms of instructional time. Modelers freely admit their methods are time-consuming. But the content-based performance gains are impressive. Are they comparing outcomes of one semester of traditional instruction to the two semesters of Modeling Instruction required to teach the equivalent amount of content? I ask because I do not know. I'll nourish the hope that someone will educate me via the comments.
2. The FCI is not the beacon from which all Truth radiates. The Force Concept Inventory (FCI) is ingenious. I love it! It shines light on the myriad flaws of "traditional" instruction. (Is there any term more derogatory than "traditional" in education?) There is some irony in that tradition-bucking Modelers use results from a multiple choice test to measure their success. There are some in education who find multiple choice tests to be incapable of measuring anything useful. I don't throw in with them, either. The FCI has excellent multiple choice questions. But I don't justify my curriculum by how various students have or haven't performed on a multiple choice mechanics test.
And if there is talk about CSEM (or equivalent) gains in Modeling Instruction, I haven't heard it.
3. The progression into any new topic seems a bit canned. Observe a prescribed phenomenon. Figure out how to make a graphical representation. Interpret the slope. Transpose axes; interpret. As an outsider, I could have it all wrong. But I prefer to let the content to be an important guide to instruction. My methodology for magnetism is different from that for motion.
4. As an "outsider," Modeling seems just a wee bit cultish. If this is my perception, alone, then it's my problem. But Modelers are the products of well-organized workshops in which they learn The Method. Once trained, they go forth and spread the good news. They tell joyful tales of how they used to be "traditional" but are now enthusiastic practitioners of The Method. The Method is not specific to physics, it can be applied to all sciences. Content is nice, but it's The Method that really matters.
Practitioners don't appear suffer much uncertainty regarding the superiority of The Method. Nor do they appear bothered by the physics content that is "left behind." A Modeling friend (great guy and great teacher) once assured me that Modeling teaches students how to think; physics is merely the delivery device. Me? I like physics! To me, physics is what we're painting, not just the canvas on which we paint.
In any case, I perceive an air of absolutism in the movement. And I find that disquieting. It's similar to the disquieting vibe I get from most Libertarians, who lace their certitude with impatience: "We've got it all figured out and why are you not already on board with us? Are you really that blind to the obvious?"
My fear in posting this note is that I will be labeled "anti-Modeling" and incur the wrath of the Modeling community. This post will be regarded as an attack. It's not. It is a list of my misgivings: the reasons I am not a Modeler. Maybe someday I will be a Modeler. And maybe I'll be happy when I am. (Then again, something chills me whenever I see "Number 12 Looks Just Like You." Scariest. Twilight Zone. Ever.) I may well make it to retirement never fully embracing Modeling.
If you think Modeling Instruction is the best use of the 180 days you get with physics students, I will make no attempt to take that away from you. I'm happy for you. I've decided on a different approach for my 180 days and hope not to be judged too harshly for that. I don't presume I've got it all figured out. If anything, I'm quite certain that I don't have it all figured out. I hope to do better next year than I did this year.
I've spent 25 years writing and rewriting and picking and choosing and polishing and smoothing. Much of what I do this year I will do again next year. But not everything. For what it's worth, a valued physics teaching colleague and enthusiastic proponent of Modeling, assured me that my curriculum and instruction—while not Modeling—bore little resemblance to the accursed "traditional" instruction that Modeling seeks to replace. So there's that.