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Faculty Learning Community: Agenda and Notes (March 18, 2010)

Anne Dalke's picture

TOPIC: Coherently Implementing Model-based Inquiry
Learning Across High School Chemistry and Physics Classes

Jane Jackson, Larry Dukerich, David Hestenes, "Modeling Instruction: An Effective Model for Science Education." Science Education 17, 1 (Spring 2008): 10-17.

Snacks will be served in Campus Center 200 from 2:30-4pm.

Please invite other interested people to join these conversations. Those of you who hope to join via conference call should contact Howard Glasser before Thursday to work out arrangements.

Doug Valette from Unionville High School, in Kennett Square, PA will facilitate a conversation on modeling in physics and chemistry. He writes, "Unionville Chadds Ford School District was recently recognized for our excellence in science PSSA scores. While this is an impressive recognition, I believe that there is much that this result does not tell us.  For some time, we have been investigating ways to improve our students' science inquiry skills, especially in the non-honors (but college prep) courses.  I will discuss recent steps that have been taken to address this goal while meeting the requests of school board and community.  The primary professional development tool that we have used recently was in sending several teachers to modeling institutes, for training in inquiry-based instruction in chemistry and physics. The attached document gives an overview of modeling, and I will provide some details at the PLC of what we are doing in science at our own district."


Doug Vallette's picture

Thanks, and a thought-provoking discussion. What is a model?

Paul, thank you for the challenging questions. I asked you in a reply to your email about a relevant article that could put these ideas in the context of educational research, and I'm repeating it here. Perhaps someone else here might have a suggestion, as well.

One question that I think needs to be fleshed out for me is what does it mean to use a model in the sciences? I like your idea of re-titling a model to be a 'story.' But I think for a physics model, this is only part of it. Physicists learn to tell stories with model equations, graphical relationships, or geometrical constructs. Students aren't ready for that when they are just entering a field. So I find that much of my work as a physics teacher is to help students to understand how to read the model and turn it into a story they can understand. Until they can do that, I don't think they're ready to grasp the limitations of the models we are using, let alone create a robust model of their own.

One other thought... David Hestenes, Emeritus professor at ASU has delved deeply into the cognitive aspect of model-building. I would encourage you to look into some of his work, since he is so close to physics modeling. Unfortunately, I've never really explored these points beyond what I know from his talks and modeling papers, or I would give you more direct insight.

Thanks for your energy, interest, and time.



Paul Grobstein's picture

models and stories in physics and beyond

I'd be interesting in developing some greater familiarity with what is/isn't know about the role that modeling can play in what I call below "open-ended transactional inquiry," so will certainly look into Hestenes work.  Probably also relevant is work by Uri Wilensky at the Center for Connected Learning and Computer Modelling at Northwestern (

The issue of what is a "model" and how it relates to a "story" is an interesting/important one.  Yes, of course, a "model" as physicist conceive it is a particular kind of story, one told, as you say, with "equations, graphical relationships, or geometrical constructs."  And so part of the problem for physics instruction, as that is currently understood, is how to get students familiar with this particular set of story telling tools.  I certainly agree that without that students "aren't ready to grasp the limitations of the models we are using, let alone create a robust model of their own." 

An interesting question is the extent to which it does or doesn't make sense to try and get students to understand the story of physics using the tools that physicists use as opposed to other story telling tools, but that's a question for you and other physics teachers.  The more general question is what are the advantages of physics type modelling in relation to other kinds of stories, and whether one can keep those advantages without the mathematical particulars.  In equating models and stories I had something of this sort in mind.  What seems to me important about models isn't the particular tools one uses to make them but rather that they are stories with well-defined components and well-defined relations among the components, so one can easily manipulate either and see what the consequences are.  These are, it seems to me, the features that make them good devices for constructing understanding, testing understanding, and creating new constructions.  So, for general purposes, I would call anything with these characteristics a "model" or empirically derived/useful "story."  And I think it would be valuable for educators to help students develop model making, story telling skills along these lines, irrespective of the particular tools used or needed in particular cases.

Paul Grobstein's picture

modelling, story telling, inquiry: trying to get to where?

Thanks, Doug, for a presentation triggering a rich exchange, and all for the resulting conversation.  I like the modeling approach a lot, not so much because of the math emphasis as because of the more general "open-ended transactional inquiry" approach, one that incorporates the making of observations, the creation of ways to make sense of observations ("stories"), the sharing of stories to take advantage of conflicts, and the resulting (and continuing) revision of stories.  This, it seems to me, is easily and desireably transferrable to other subjects than physics (not only other sciences but all teaching contexts), if we are willing/able to commit ourselves to the objective of encouraging the development of "autonomous thinkers" ("inquirers").

Concerns about performance on standardized exams and about parents/school boards/kids wanting "the answers" are one set of barriers, but our conversation (and a recent one in an interdisciplinary group on evolving systems) suggests that an additional barrier is within ourselves.  To one degree or another, we all tend to feel beholden to our own disciplinary background/experience/expertise.  And that in turn, if nothing else, creates a tension between encouraging the development of peoples' ability to think for themselves and our own sense that there is some particular model/story that students need to acquire in order to better think for themselves.  The problem with our thinking there is a "right" model/story is its contribution to students/parents/school boards thinking of education in those terms as well.  Maybe we need to do a little more soul-seaching on our own deep conceptions of inquiry and education?  Could we give up the idea that there is a particular place students need to get to, and be content with their getting from where they started to any of a number of possible ("valid") new places?  For more along these lines, see "Bagging placement at both beginning and end." 

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