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I was hesitant to change my approach to teaching physics. Here’s why I’m making a switch.

Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

This summer, a wine tasting made me change my philosophy of teaching.

You might assume that drinking wine actually clouded my thinking. But this epiphany about how my students need to learn happened before I even took a sip.

I began teaching in New York City 13 years ago as a second career, and I pride myself on the variety of strategies I employ in my classroom. As an eighth-grade algebra teacher, I’ve tried three-act math lessons, Socratic seminars, numerous hands-on activities, and — most dramatically — a flipped classroom, in which students learned new material at home and then practiced those concepts in class.

I later switched to high school physics, where I continued the flipped classroom model, creating informational videos for my students to watch as homework. In class, we would do a 10-minute summary of the video, I would model some questions, and the students would do a combination of individual and group work to practice the new material. Once a week, the students did a lab where they were able to collect data and analyze what they found. It seemed to work, and for a while I stuck with it, comfortable in my routine.

Yet every couple of professional development sessions, I would encounter someone touting discovery learning. Instead of simply giving students the definition of constant velocity, a presenter might suggest, the teacher could distribute battery-operated cars and ask students to design an experiment demonstrating that same concept.

Discovery learning proponents believe it encourages student engagement, autonomy, and motivation, and there is some evidence of its ability to improve academic achievement. Yet it’s not so easy to adopt. Teachers would generally respond: “This sounds great, but I have a test to teach to,” or, “How can I use discovery learning and still get through the content?” Usually, I would take a couple of the discovery lessons, squeeze them into my content, and be done with it.

A primary reason for my reluctance was that I loved the flipped classroom model. It allowed students to absorb information at their own pace, giving them all the information they needed to understand the concept. With discovery learning, students would need to do some inquiry on their own before I became involved. I’d need to make sure that students who thrived in a more structured learning process weren’t left out in the cold.

I wasn’t sure if I would make the switch — and then I went to that wine tasting.

I sat with five empty glasses in front of me as the instructor spoke about wine — its clarity, color, smoothness, and a variety of other characteristics. Several people responded to his questions. Meanwhile, I sat there thinking:

  1. I have no idea what he is saying.
  2. I am so much dumber than the other people here.
  3. When do I get to drink the wine?

And then I realized that I needed to get on board with discovery learning. How many of my students were thinking these same things in class? Just as I needed to actually try the wine myself — rather than hearing about it from an instructor — I had to let my students experience physics. They would gain a deeper understanding because of it.

I have spent the last month of summer revamping my curriculum, and I came up with a plan that I think will provide a balance of both discovery learning and the flipped classroom model. Each day in class, my students will experience physics with hands-on discovery learning. For homework, they’ll be treated to a short video of me recapping the key points from the lesson, modeling problems, and sometimes overhearing my dogs barking. Then, they will have a couple of questions to work out on their own. The next day, we’ll go over the homework and begin again.

I am looking forward to diving in this year. I am optimistic that my students will find a greater love of physics when they have an opportunity to take a taste. Fingers crossed that it will go down as smoothly as a good bottle of wine.

Robin Norwich is a physics teacher at Bayside High School in Queens. She is National Board certified and has been a master teacher with Math for America for the past six years.

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