Curriculum, Research, School Community, Teaching

The Problem with Physics

How action research changed everything

Each year, frustration with my Senior Physics students’ expectations grew. Students entered my classroom expecting to encounter contrived problems, watch me solve sample problems using rigorous mathematics, and reproduce repetitive steps to solve similar problems on an exam. While many of my students excelled in these mathematics-based problems, they struggled with physics. They were unable to apply or explain physical principles to the world, despite being able to mathematically calculate the result. At some point, scientific learning had lost its exploration-based roots for these students.

My pedagogical philosophy has always centered on exploration, but it was not met with such enthusiasm from students. For years, I attempted to implement various activities designed to have students think about physics beyond basic word problems, including inquiry-based lab experiments, brainteasers, and student-led discussion. Unfortunately, students were resistant to this change in learning styles to say the least; they had grown accustomed to a certain type of science instruction and were not easily dissuaded.

Given the demands of content, time and testing, I had reluctantly conformed to the desired, lecture-based classroom, but I grew increasingly unfulfilled. Science seeks to explain and predict the world around us; why were we focusing on pencil-and-paper problem solving in class when we could be using physics to explore our world? My physics classroom no longer focused on explaining and predicting, but simply applied mathematics to artificial problems. This lack of true science went unrecognized and students understood physics as merely mathematically challenging problems.

This tension between my beliefs and practice sparked a semester-long action research project investigating exploration-based physics. The process of action research drove immense change within my pedagogy, helping me decipher this problem and paving the way for immeasurable growth.

The action research path

Action research forces the investigator to be an active participant throughout action implementation, the analysis of academic resources, and the interpretation of data as well as experience. Action research is extremely conducive to education, since it connects knowledge, observation, and reflection.1 All teachers have educational experiences; action research allows these experiences to be considered when reflecting on new data. Action research allows collected evidence to move beyond the empirical into a realm unifying academic knowledge, classroom practice, and experience.

To solve the disconnect between my classroom practice and desired experiences, I needed action research. I began by reflecting on my experiences leading to this tension, which then led me to academic research. Ultimately, this reconnaissance resulted in an intensive action research project involving two major actions.

First, students were removed from the traditional, mathematics-based physics classroom they expected. Science is much more than doctrine and facts and it needs to be presented as such.2 I developed reflection problems to encourage my students to ponder physics away from mathematics. Students reflected on questions such as “What would happen if the moon were larger than the earth?” and “How would our world be different if the sun were blue?” While these thought-provoking questions were first met with resistance and uncertainty, soon students began asking their own questions about the universe, deviating from assigned questions, such as “Why do we need glasses?” and “What is the fate of the universe?” Many of these questions were based on information encountered in students’ daily lives. Physics was starting to become more than calculation.

Scientific reflection requires viewing physics from new angles, exposing and revising students’ conditioned expectations. This first action gave students a glimpse of physics beyond mathematics, but I wanted to take them further. Several students shared that exploring physics was easier in this class since they felt more confident after thinking within their reflections. Over time, students recognized physics as an exploration-based, not lecture-based, subject. This type of thinking had been integral to our daily learning right from the start of the semester, and this made it easier to drive my students further into exploratory science.

Action research forced me to evolve beyond my direct-instruction based methods. Students flourished when given ownership of their learning.

After reflecting on data collected through interviews, surveys, written work, and personal experiences, it was clear my students craved more than simply word-problem-based physics. Through further academic reading and consideration, I decided my next action should involve physics-based investigation. What better way to achieve this than solving a real-world problem?

My second action evolved into problem-based learning projects designed to utilize real-world physics. Students developed common areas of interest through surveys and three projects were created: crime scene investigation, building an off-ramp, and investigating food irradiation. Students were placed into interest-based groups and asked to develop a solution to one of these problems using research, their experiences, and a connection to an expert in their field. Finally, we were investigating real-world physics. While I had anticipated this change in my classroom, I did not expect the immense amount of personal and professional growth action research would provide me.

How action research changed everything

Action research was meant to create a classroom fitting my desired practice; however, I neglected to realize the self-transformation this required. Action research helps teachers become the educator they aspire to be by facilitating change.3 The integral role of the educator as researcher enables personal and professional evolution along with the immense classroom changes. This holistic involvement paves the way for growth.

Action research forced me to evolve beyond my direct-instruction-based methods, which were discouraging the successful implementation of non-traditional activities. For years, I watched students despair while attempting non-traditional learning and immediately reverted to lecturing to help students learn the concepts they were meant to explore. Distaste is a normal symptom of problem-based learning,4 but that made it no less difficult to handle. However, this project forced me to allow students to explore without teacher-centered instruction. Students flourished when given ownership of their learning.

Changing a previously used exploration activity on waves showed me the true impact of giving up control. Although this activity was not part of my action research project, I decided to alter it to focus on student exploration, with guided questions similar to those in our reflections. At first, students experienced the same frustrations as classes before them; I maintained my role as guide and avoided jumping in to “save” my students. As a result, new and better explanations of wave motion emerged. For example, one student easily compared wave refraction to the entire school attempting to pass through one door at the same time. She clearly identified that wave refraction occurs because of a necessary change in speed when a new medium is encountered. Given the freedom to explore, these students came to brilliant physics-based conclusions. It was obvious that action research had altered my teaching, even beyond my project.

Once I had removed my need for material management, I began fully involving students in my pedagogy. Previously, I had neglected to realize the teacher-centered nature of my pedagogical decisions, even the exploratory activities I deployed sporadically. Action research taught me to keenly watch my students and analyze their enjoyment, interest, thoughts and discussions. I found more time to collect both formal and informal data using individual conversation, surveys, focus groups, and written work. For the first time, I was confident I had an understanding of how each of my 30 students felt in class.

Action research gave me the tools to recognize student comprehension beyond percentages. Many high school teachers will relate to “losing a few students” each year because of the vast number of learners we teach each day; action research enabled me to spend time reviewing each students’ grasp of (and comfort with) the material on a consistent basis. As the course progressed, students were more likely to share their ideas on how they would like to learn. I received emails from shy students and had many students drop in with ideas throughout the school day. Since students were comfortable expressing how they would like to learn, we were able to develop a better environment for everyone. My role grew to be a guide for learning; no longer was I simply the person in charge of the classroom.

Concluding thoughts

Action researched eternally changed me. I wish this experience for every educator. Not only did I gain knowledge of problem-based learning, but was able to see its impact on my students and the classroom environment. Consequently, problem-based learning has permeated into several of my other courses. Secondly, action research forced me to guide learning rather than control content. No longer the educational dictator, I allow my students to discover science in its natural context. Finally, I am a far more reflective educator. I am constantly reflecting on my classroom experiences, my students, and academia to revise my educational tactics. This allows me to differentiate each classroom environment to best suit that particular group of students. Action research gave me the skills to effectively change, experience, and reflect on my classroom, while honing my pedagogical intuition to be keener than ever.


EN BREF – Cet article examine l’emploi de principes de conception comme méthodologie de réforme scolaire, en se basant sur l’expérience de la Lakeshore School Division à Interlake, au Manitoba. Cette division utilise des principes de conception pour guider son processus d’amélioration scolaire. L’article explique les cinq étapes du processus de conception (comprendre, poser le problème, proposer des idées, expérimenter et modéliser) et en décrit l’instauration avec des enseignants de toute la division. Il porte aussi sur les répercussions du processus de conception, sur le travail de la division et sur la culture d’apprentissage professionnel dans les écoles.

Photo: Dave Donald

First published in Education Canada, November 2014


1 J. Arhar, M. Holly, and W. Kasten, Action Research for Teachers: Traveling the yellow brick road (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2009).

2 J. McPeck, “Stalking Beasts, but Swatting Flies: The teaching of critical thinking,” Canadian Journal of Education 9, no. 1 (1984): 28-44.

3 J. Launius and W. Saul, “Making the Case for Action Research,” Science Scope 34, no.1 (2010): 24-29.

4 W. Hung, “The 9-step Problem Design Process for Problem-based Learning: Application of the 3C3R model,” Educational Research Review 4 (2009): 118-141.

Meet the Expert(s)

Ellen Fritz

Ellen Fritz taught Senior Mathematics and Physics in Lloydminster, Alta. Currently, she is undertaking her Doctorate of Philosophy in Secondary Education with a focus on physics education at the University of Alberta.

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