Physics Math vs. Math Math

I had this interesting discussion today with one of the instructors from my summer course in physics.  She was a math major, then became a physics major (I’m not sure if she finished one before starting the other).  And she claimed very strongly that the things that you do with math in physics simply are not math.

Now I know that she was deliberately making a very broad statement simply to exclaim the difference, but I couldn’t let it go.

At the high school algebra-based level, there is no difference.  Especially as some schools move towards more reality-based math construction, the difference between physics and math is growing smaller.

But even the approximations and wacky things physicists do with derivatives and integrals make sense on a physical level.  It doesn’t fit the “rules” of math as they were taught to me by mathematicians, but it fits with the purpose and meaning of the math.  Isn’t that what makes math work?

Lost time

I’m taking a physics class over the summer.  It’s five weeks of monday – friday 9am – 4pm and largely unstructured.  We’re working through an inquiry curriculum at our own pace, or nearly our own pace.  We’re working either with a partner, or in groups of three.  I’ve been working with a toxic partner the entire time, and it’s definitely put a big damper on the experience.

Each section of the curriculum begins with a pre-test.  Throughout the sections, there are checkout points where you have a discussion with an instructor.

In the grand scheme of things, this is fantastic.  If you need more time to learn something, you take more time.  Easy learning means you can move as fast as your pen can write down the answers.

But if you come in with a large amount of physics knowledge, you still start off at square one in their curriculum.  Do not pass GO, do not collect $200.  So with the exception of a few scattered moments throughout the last 4 weeks, I’ve been bored out of my mind.  I find myself dragging out the parts where we run an experiment, simply because there is a bit more to think about with reducing experimental error.  Out of 20 pre-tests, there are only 2 where I was not confident in my answer.  One of those I was wrong.  The set-up is there, why can’t they actually look at the pre-tests, and use it to better choose a starting place?

It’s a shame to have everything in place for totally tailored instruction, and stop just short.

p.s.  No one, except the head instructor knows how our grades are calculated.  It does take the discussion of points and grubbing for A’s off the table, but it is also introducing a mild fear of the instructors.  Knowing that the grade won’t be lowered for personality conflicts would take a big edge off the stress of this class.

p.p.s.  As I am reading a book on project based learning, I am realizing that I have taken on a monumental task in trying to do project based learning correctly.

Educational perspective

I’m going to be working with a teaching candidate (student teacher) this coming year.  I’m already psyched, because the two conversations that we’ve had have left us both wondering where the time went.

As I automatically reflected on the second meeting, I realized that I’m already starting to, sort of…. groom him into my philosophy of education.  That sounds sort of sinister, but once I explain a bit more it might not.

Over the past two years of teaching and from psychology classes before that, I’ve come to a couple of tenets of dispositions that I think are essential to being a good teacher.

1)  Every student can get it, and getting it is only dependent on their previous experiences (inside and outside the classroom).

2)  People are logical creatures.  They may have false premises, or those premises may be simply emotions, but in the end what they are doing makes sense to them on some level.  I feel that this is critical for empathy.

3)  Every answer to any question is right on some level.  I mean even silence is an answer (it could be “I’m scared of you” or “I have two conflicting possibilities” or “I’m bored”)

3a)  People can tell when their incorrect answer doesn’t match up.  If they ask, point out what parts of their thinking are correct, and they will be able to identify the rest.  Let them know help is on offer, but do not help unless you are asked.  Respect them enough to let them think for themselves.

4)  I can control my behaviors.  Through these, and only through these can I do anything about my attitudes.  The same is true for everyone else in the world, so it’s pointless to talk about changing attitudes or intentions unless it is through changing behaviors.

5)  More important than relevance for getting students interested is success.  If they don’t feel successful on some level, then no amount of relevance is going to make them try your subject.

I know there are a few people already reading this blog.  What needs to be added to the list?  What needs to be clarified?  What are your fundamental dispositions?

thank you teaching for…

totally stolen from dan meyer.

Teaching has taught me when to be a leader, and to be extremely good at sussing out true motivations of behavior.

Outside of the classroom, I used to take charge simply for the sake of leading.  This has lead to some hostile situations.  Now I’m much better about hanging back, waiting until the moment when someone taking the lead is actually necessary, rather than simply what I want.  (not perfect, but much better)

Because of teaching education, I had a fairly deep theoretical background in adolescent psychology and counseling.  But in the classroom, I had to figure out something to do for the millions of times “i don’t know” comes up.  Now I’m pretty good at asking “is [blank] what’s really going on” without being a total dick about it.

There is plenty more, but time management definitely isn’t one of them yet.  Sorry teaching, but I’m good with the first two.

Treading water

“This year I feel like I’m not even treading water, just barely keeping my head above water lying on my back.”

“Well have you improved your teaching from the beginning of the year?”


“Then you’re swimming, because treading water means you’re not making any forward progress.”

This was a conversation I had around march in my 2nd year of teaching (yeah, that was just this year).  It was a conversation with another science teacher who has more than a decade on teaching than me.  He creates the impression that he’s jaded and stuck in his ways.  But this conversation pulled me right out of my funk, and over the past two years I’ve watched him quietly adapt and change his teaching style.

You could turn this into some cliche about seeing how much farther the shore is or whatever.  Cut the fluff – progress is measured from a fixed point.  If you’re moving from that point, you’re making progress.