What we’re NOT doing to train future physics teachers

by Stephanie Chasteen on October 14, 2010

Yesterday, we had a fascinating, but sobering, presentation from a group of physics educators charged with giving the nation a snapshot of how well we’re doing in training the next generation of physics educators.  It’s a pretty grim picture.  “Students who are becoming physics teachers are doing it on their own,” said David Meltzer, “and once they get into teaching, they’re very isolated in their job.”  Physics teachers, he said are being trained in the “back alley” – in the offices of faculty members, in ad-hoc programs, fitting in around the cracks of limited institutional support for physics teacher preparation.

The task force is the National Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics.  You can download their report synopsis from that website.  A lot of people were involved in the effort, but we heard from Monica Pilsch (APS), Stamitas Vokos (Seattle Pacific), David Meltzer  (Arizona State), and Valerie Otero (CU-Boulder).

The task force (from their website). Pictured left to right: David Meltzer, Larry Coleman (Association of Public and Land-grant Universities), Jack Hehn, Warren Hein, Nicole Gillespie (Knowles Science Teaching Foundation), Cathy O'Riordan, Ted Hodapp, Monica Plisch, J. D. Garcia, Stamatis Vokos, Jim Stith, Valerie Otero, Drew Isola, David Haase

This was a fairly extensive effort.  They surveyed all 754 physics departments in the country (77% responded), did phone interviews with a subset of those, and completed site visits with those with particularly stellar programs.

The findings are depressing, but hardly surprising.   Below is a snapshot.

There are few physics teacher graduates

Most  institutions (42%) had no physics teacher education program.  Another 22% had a program at the institution but it wasn’t connected with physics department.  In fact, so many institutions graduated fewer than 2 physics teachers per year, that it was hard to justify the dedication of resources to the program.

It takes a champion who cares

This was the single most clear-cut finding in their work – and something I’ve heard before.  Successful  programs were le by a champion who was personally committed to physics teacher education.  These individuals generally had very little institutional support.  I wonder, does the lack of institutional support galvanize that championship – the sort of “survival of the underdog” kind of phenomenon?

Little collaboration with school of education

Usually students get their physics prep, and then are “handed off” to the school of education, with very little connection between the two.

Little focus on physics pedagogy

Students aren’t getting pedagogical content knowledge that they need in order to successfully teach physics. This is in contrast to what happens in other countries; most other countries have focused courses or sequences on physics specific pedagogy. “Biology and physics don’t just differ in subject matter,” said Stamitas Vokos.  “It’s not that biology is steaching about things that are living and physics is teaching about things that are dead.”  It’s not just knowing about Newton’s Laws or plate tectonics.  There is a specific disciplinary perspective that forms the approach of each individual subject area.  It’s crucial that teachers are trained in how to teach the content and pedagogical approach of physics.

Little support for new teachers

Physics teachers are incredibly isolated — 70% of physics teachers are the only physics teacher in the building


We can learn, however, from the exemplary programs that are out there (CU-Boulder was one of the ones that they cited, yay for us!).  Some of the features of these strong programs were:

  • A dedicated champion
  • Collaboration between physics and education departments
  • Courses specifically focused on physics pedagogy
  • Early teaching experiences
  • Individual advising and mentoring of teacher candidates by physics educators
  • A community among the teacher candidates

Of course, a lot of the solutions to these problems depend on individual institutions and departments and their structures.   Who is this report geared towards?  The committed leaders of existing programs?  Yes.  Department chairs in physics departments and schools of education?  Sure.  There is a great variety of stakeholders who this task force is trying to reach, and I’m greatly impressed with how they’ve managed to condense some complex material into concrete, actionable items.

Some of their recommendations include:

  • Increased collaboration and joint responsibility on the part of physics departments and schools of education
  • Greater coherence in teacher preparation and the vision for teacher preparation within institutions and on the part of national societies.
  • Physics teaching preparation should be guided by the findings of physics education research
  • Education researchers should work to better define physics teaching quality
  • Physics departments, colleges of education, and school systems should present teaching as an intellectually complex career

Recommendations like this require a great amount of resources on the part of any individual institution.  If you’re graduating one or two students, how can you create a high quality program like this?  So, they also recommend that national centers of physics teacher education be created, in order to create a critical mass.  I think this is the most interesting — and exciting — idea to come out of this report.

How do these recommendations relate to other disciplines?   If you remove the word “physics” from the report, the main message remains – pay attention to the discipline-specific pedagogical issues for each particular subject area.  These findings are broadly applicable.  Quality teaching is an issue in all disciplines, even if the number of teacher candidates isn’t (as in, for example, biology).

Again, to see the report for yourself,  go to http://www.ptec.org/webdocs/TaskForce.cfm


Meissa King October 15, 2010 at 5:23 pm

Ouch…. we haven’t made much progress in this area in the past couple decades. Getting more females in the field of physics and physics education is incredibly important, but we haven’t cracked the nut yet. And, if there’s not much focus on physics pedagogy it might be due to lack of clarity or agreement on how best to teach these concepts and how perspectives differ for various areas of science.

One thing we might all agree on, and that’s the importance of role models. Who are the really fantastic female physics teachers and leaders in the field? Have we made highlighted them and their accomplishments? Can anyone name one of these individuals?

It really is time to step up to the plate and make this a national priority.

sciencegeekgirl October 19, 2010 at 3:49 am

Agreed. A national priority. I liked the idea of regional training centers for teachers a lot — in part because it leverages so many resource, and it would also require (and be a sign of) that national commitment to teacher prep.

Look for a post coming on Wednesday about American Radio Works’ podcast series about what makes a great teacher. I think you’ll find that this will speak to what it is that you’re talking about!

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