In my reading of physics teacher blogs, one pedagogic buzzword comes up over and over “Modeling Instruction”. I got some pointers to papers in a comment by Jane Jackson, when I asked for references about peer instruction (a somewhat broader buzzword).
Unfortunately, I’ve found most of the papers on modeling instruction to be rather long, wordy, and not very useful for telling me what the technique was. (They are heavy on measuring that the technique is useful, without actually saying what the technique is.) I found Hake’s comments on the ap-physics mailing list and his web pages so aggressive and unhelpful that I could not bring myself to read more than one of his papers. I got some useful information (about a page or two worth) out of the 32-page
Malcolm Wells, David Hestenes, and Gregg Swackhamer
A Modeling Method for high school physics instruction
Am. J. Phys. 63 (7), July 1995, 606-619.
The content can be pretty well summarized by their “box 2”:
BOX 2: MODELING METHOD Synopsis
The Modeling Method aims to correct many weaknesses of the traditional lecture-demonstration method, including the fragmentation of knowledge, student passivity, and the persistence of naive beliefs about the physical world.
Coherent instructional objectives
- To engage students in understanding the physical world by constructing and using scientific models to describe, to explain, to predict, to design and control physical phenomena.
- To provide students with basic conceptual tools for modeling physical objects and processes, especially mathematical, graphical and diagrammatic representations.
- To familiarize students with a small set of basic models as the content core of physics.
- To develop insight into the structure of scientific knowledge by examining how models fit into theories.
- To show how scientific knowledge is validated by engaging students in evaluating scientific models through comparison with empirical data.
- To develop skill in all aspects of modeling as the procedural core of scientific knowledge.
Student-centered instructional design
- Instruction is organized into modeling cycles which engage students in all phases of model development, evaluation and application in concrete situations—thus promoting an integrated understanding of modeling processes and acquisition of coordinated modeling skills.
- The teacher sets the stage for student activities, typically with a demonstration and class discussion to establish common understanding of a question to be asked of nature. Then, in small groups, students collaborate in planning and conducting experiments to answer or clarify the question.
- Students are required to present and justify their conclusions in oral and/or written form, including a formulation of models for the phenomena in question and evaluation of the models by comparison with data.
- Technical terms and representational tools are introduced by the teacher as they are needed to sharpen models, facilitate modeling activities and improve the quality of discourse.
- The teacher is prepared with a definite agenda for student progress and guides student inquiry and discussion in that direction with “Socratic” questioning and remarks.
- The teacher is equipped with a taxonomy of typical student misconceptions to be addressed as students are induced to articulate, analyze and justify their personal beliefs.
That was all very well, but still rather vague. There was an example running for several pages, but it didn’t help me much in seeing what characterized “modeling instruction”. Perhaps others would find it more informative.
I finally got a more satisfying answer from the ap-physics mailing list where I was directed to a series of blog posts: Salt The Oats: FIU Modeling Workshop. These posts by Scott Thomas are reflections on a workshop that he took in June and July of 2011. He offers the disclaimer
… if this interests you, please go to the workshop, don’t just rely on me. Even after only one day I can tell that my recount will mean nothing for you without you attending.
Since I’m only planning on teaching physics once (and am almost halfway through), I’m unlikely to attend a two-week workshop, so reading Scott’s notes are about as close as I’m going to get. His descriptions are fairly detailed, and I think I have a better idea of what modeling instruction involves from his description than from any of the more formal papers I’ve been pointed to. (I’m not knocking the papers—they provide the evidence that the technique works—they just don’t provide enough information about the technique to come close to duplicating it.)
It is already too late for me to use some of the “modeling instruction” principles. The students I have do read the book and understand the math, so much of the effort of getting the students to develop their own models would not be productive—they’d jump immediately to the “right” model and just verify that their data fits it well enough.
I am trying (now) to get the two students to work together to set up and solve problems and to design labs (rather than my designing the labs)—we’ll see how that goes. And I am trying to get them to use a more standardized layout for problem setup: drawing the free-body diagram, listing the initial and final state, writing out the appropriate fundamental equations. I don’t know how much it is helping, as the students were already pretty high performing and good at setting up the right model without much fumbling around. As we get to more complex problems, though, they may need a more disciplined approach, so I’ll try to provide the appropriate framework of generic questions and general-purpose tools (like free-body diagrams).
At least I was, from the beginning, using an approach that minimized memorization and re-derived things as much as possible from a few key formulas. I’ve always hated memorization (which is part of why I was a math major as an undergrad—almost no memory work). The textbook I’m using, Matter and Interactions, supports that approach pretty well—I believe that the authors were trying to get a bit of the modeling instruction flavor into their text (though the videos of Ruth Chabay’s lectures are very much a traditional lecture-demo style).
I am thinking about how much of the “modeling instruction” approach could be adapted for teaching introductory programming to biologists (my most challenging pedagogic task for next year). High-school and first-year college physics has only a few key concepts (the “models” of modeling instruction), and most of the effort in physics classes is in getting students to learn to do problem solving using that handful of models. Are there equivalent key concepts in introductory programming? Or are the problems beginning programmers have more like those of beginning biologists: too many unrelated factoids? I think that programming is more like physics than like biology, with relatively few key concepts, applied to solve a wide range of problems, but that might be an unfamiliar way of thinking for the biology students who will be in the class. So if I can find an approach that has the strengths of modeling instruction but applied to programming rather than physics, I’ll have a chance at getting most of the students to an acceptable level of programming skill.