I was teaching Physics in North Carolina when the state first implemented End of Course Testing. The test results revealed that my students had performed quite poorly on the unit pertaining to light and diffraction. It was a humbling and eye-opening experience for me, a new teacher. I remember reflecting on the fact that I had “covered” the unit rather quickly and admitted that I had done so because I lacked self-confidence in teaching the material. I understood the material but did not know how to effectively teach it.
Fortunately for me, North Carolina State University offered an on-campus course the summer following my students’ poor performance. It was designed to help physics teachers sharply focus on particular topics using an instructional strategy called “the station approach.” Basically, the strategy suggested that students rotate through various classroom “stations” in order to experience and interact with a given topic in a variety of ways. I needed help and decided to attend. My group set out to design stations that would help students gain mastery of light and diffraction using the technologies that were available in 1995. We designed an experiment using lasers which allowed students to actively measure first and second order diffraction. Another station design utilized a ripple tank so students could study waves in a tangible, hands-on way.
Shelby City Schools was one of the first systems to purchase IBM computers for classrooms. The one in my classroom became an exploration station loaded with real-world trial and error simulations. I would serve as a facilitator rather than a lecturer as my students worked through stations where they encountered a variety of interactive, problem solving experiences. To my delight, my students engaged and began to enjoy the challenges the material presented to them. They were motivated. They were learning.
I eventually began to use this model with other physics units. My goal was to present difficult material in ways my students could understand and internalize. I built an air track out of PVC pipe and a vacuum cleaner. We used gliders to create frictionless collisions. I used data collection probes, built a “bed of nails” to demonstrate physics principles. Our class became the place to be!
Not surprisingly, my students scored extremely well on the light and diffraction unit the next year (as well as the other areas!) In fact, they did so well I was asked to write questions for the End of Course test.
After all these years, much of what I learned in 1995 still holds true. When students are given meaningful problems to solve, are allowed to think for themselves, are allowed to work collaboratively through a variety of experiences, are allowed to experiment, to touch, to feel, and are allowed the time to reflect – learning and retention increase.
The idea was formalized in 2006 with the introduction of the TPACK model of instruction (Mishra and Koehler.) It involves combining technology, pedagogy (teaching strategy) and content knowledge to reach that sweet spot of instruction which fosters learning.
The world has changed, our students have changed, and college and workplace expectations have changed. One thing holds true. When teachers use available tools, resources, and creativity in classroom environments where students are allowed to engage, experiment and problem solve – learning happens.