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Class Notes
Accelerating toward better teaching
(Published April 7, 2003)


"You know the world's gone mad," declared an e-mail I received recently, "when the best rapper is a white guy, the best golfer is a black guy, the tallest guy in the NBA is Chinese, the Swiss hold the America's Cup, France is accusing the USA of arrogance and the Germans don't want to go to war!"

A sense of humor can buoy our spirits these days, even as we are barraged by frightening reports of virus epidemics, civilian casualties, and worldwide hostilities. The world is changing in unpredictable ways, and it is hard to know whether to anticipate or dread what lies in the future.

As alarmed as I am by the state of world affairs, my spirits are lifted by the adaptability I see in my students. Children show a remarkable ability to adjust in the face of a changing environment.

During chemistry class this week, one of my students was reading the comics page when she should have been drawing Rutherford diagrams of atoms. When I confiscated the newspaper and told her she would be assigned to detention, she acted astonished that I had so rudely invaded her "privacy." Quickly becoming hysterical, she told me that she didn't understand what was going on, and that this assignment didn't make any sense. "What's the point of doing something if I don't get it? Just let me read my newspaper!"

I suggested that maybe she was confused by the material because she was paying more attention to the funnies than she was to the periodic table. "If you give it a shot, I'll bet you are smart enough to figure it out," I told her. Exasperated, she finally assented, and began sketching the diagrams - at first reluctantly, and then at a quickening pace.

After the bell rang, she came to show me her diagrams, and I confirmed that she was right on track. "Jeez, Mr. Wulsin, this stuff is easy. Why didn't you just explain it that way the first time?" Children, quick to adapt to changing circumstances, may be stubborn and defiant one minute, and the next minute humbly seeking teacher approval.

Compared with human emotions, physical systems are much simpler to understand. In physics, we learn that Newton's Laws of Motion describe how objects move. We learn that to accelerate - that is, to change an object's speed or direction - a net force must be applied to an object, and the more massive an object, the more force will be required.

The reason a cyclist has to keep pedaling to maintain his speed is not, as Aristotle reasoned, that a force is needed to keep an object from its naturally-preferred state of rest. Rather, the forward force of pedaling counteracts the backward force of friction, resulting in a zero net force and no acceleration - speed stays the same. In outer space, where friction is absent, the earth hurls around the sun at 19 miles per second, impelled forward by no force at all.

Just as massive objects continue in their state of motion, the inertia of large institutions makes them difficult to change. Schools, like all institutions, are often slow to respond to dynamic societal pressures and social conditions.

As a science teacher, a particularly urgent area of concern for me is the science curriculum adopted by most American high schools. Typically students take biology, then chemistry, and finally - if tough enough - physics. This order is a tradition dating back to a time before many ground-breaking discoveries were made in the biological and physical sciences in the 20th century.

Biology was once seen as primarily the study of taxonomy - learning the names and structures of different organisms - but today it is impossible to study life science without an understanding of chemical reactions proceeding at the cellular and molecular level. Similarly, to learn chemistry requires a grasp of concepts from physics, such as energy, heat, work, waves, and mass.

These considerations suggest that a better science curriculum would proceed in the reverse order: students would start with physics in the 9th or 10th grade, continue to chemistry and then biology. Hundreds of schools across the country have converted to a "Physics First" curriculum with astonishing success, most of them finding that their science enrollment numbers have spiked up, and that students - especially girls - are scoring higher on tests.

Lying in opposition to this new curriculum is the antiquated view that physics is supposed to be hard. When I tell people that I teach physics, they often shudder at painful memories of that class. But if talk of Newton's Laws, acceleration and inertia is mystifying, then you are not alone - two out of three adults in our country never took physics in high school (according to Physics Today, published by the American Institute of Physics). But the average freshman can certainly comprehend fundamental physics principles, such as why a sunset is red, how a motor works, or why laundry loses water during the spin cycle. Certainly there are many mathematically challenging problems that can be solved in physics, but those can be postponed to an AP or college course.

Instead of using physics as a sieve to sift out slower students, we ought to use it as a stepping stool that helps every student succeed in science. A physics-first curriculum would aid chemistry and biology teachers by developing important prerequisite concepts, and it would bring physics to a much larger proportion of the population. But to change the direction of such a long-seated tradition may require considerable efforts. Still, to be the best, teachers have to work against inertia, striving always to find the optimum strategies in the face of an ever-changing student population.


Wulsin is a second-year chemistry and physics teacher at the H.D. Woodson Academy of Finance and Business. Please send stories, comments, or questions to

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator