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Res Sci Educ (2008) 38:435–462 DOI 10.


Views about Physics held by Physics Teachers with Differing Approaches to Teaching Physics
Pamela Mulhall & Richard Gunstone

Published online: 5 September 2007 # Springer Science + Business Media B.V. 2007

Abstract Physics teachers’ approaches to teaching physics are generally considered to be linked to their views about physics. In this qualitative study, the views about physics held by a group of physics teachers whose teaching practice was traditional were explored and compared with the views held by physics teachers who used conceptual change approaches. A particular focus of the study was teachers’ views about the role of mathematics in physics. The findings suggest the traditional teachers saw physics as discovered, close approximations of reality while the conceptual change teachers’ views about physics ranged from a social constructivist perspective to more realist views. However, most teachers did not appear to have given much thought to the nature of physics or physics knowledge, nor to the role of mathematics in physics. Keywords Physics teachers . Views about physics . Views about teaching physics . Mathematics in physics

Physics teachers have a tacit understanding, strongly shared by the students, that the important aspects of physics have to do with manipulation of mathematical symbols (de Souza Barros and Elia 1998, para. III(ii)). Physics has traditionally been regarded as one of the hard sciences, being seen to be, among other things, abstruse, objective and highly mathematical. Indeed its image is such that it is held in an almost reverent esteem by the public in general and by physicists in particular (Ford 1989). Part of the mystique of physics lies in its attempts to explain the behaviour of things from the very large to the very small, and its tackling of the ‘big’ questions (How did the universe begin? What keeps it going?). In fact, the science writer and commentator,
P. Mulhall (*) : R. Gunstone Faculty of Education, Monash University, Building 6, Clayton 3800, Victoria, Australia e-mail:


Res Sci Educ (2008) 38:435–462

Margaret Wertheim (1997), argues that physics has taken on the role of religion in determining our world view of how the universe works. Her analogy of physics as religion includes physicists as high priests and interpreters of ‘the Truth’ (or what others have called the ‘Book of Nature’). The task of the physicist is to ‘discover’ through observations the mathematical relationships that are assumed to govern all behaviour: [A] major psychological force behind the evolution of physics has been the a priori belief that the structure of the natural world is determined by a set of transcendent mathematical relations. (p. xv) The respected physicist and author of popular science books, Paul Davies (1991), agrees: [T]he belief that mathematical laws of some sort underpin the operation of the physical world is now a central tenet of the scientific faith. (p. 47) [T]he laws have taken on the status formerly reserved for God and are imbued with the same mystical properties: They are universal, eternal, absolute, transcendent, omnipotent .... (p. 48) That the laws of physics are expressed in mathematical form further adds to its mystique. Such is the importance of mathematics in representing physics relationships that it is often referred to as the ‘language of physics’. This, of course, implies that to be able to speak the language of physics, and hence to understand its ideas, one must be knowledgeable about, and good at, mathematics. Certainly many physics text books, particularly at the tertiary level, are incomprehensible without a suitable background in mathematics. Another consequence of the mathematical form of these laws is that they can be tested using measurements. This adds a sense that physics is what Chalmers (1982) calls “reliable knowledge” in which there is no room for “personal opinion or preferences and speculative imaginings” (p. 1). This view is reflected in the statement made by a famous physicist, William Thomson (later raised to the peerage as Lord Kelvin), that is quoted in a popular undergraduate physics textbook of the 1960s to 1980s: I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of Science, whatever the matter may be. (Halliday and Resnick 1966, p. 1) At the heart of the research reported in this paper is the question of whether, and how, these essentially philosophical ideas about physics impact on physics teachers’ thinking. Arguably, physics teachers who hold beliefs of the kind outlined above will, as true disciples of physics (to use the Wertheim analogy), attach more importance in their teaching to the mathematical representation of physics ideas than to other ways of representing them, for this captures the essence of what physics is about, viz. providing an objective, rigorous and proven description of an external world. Unfortunately, as Linder (1992) cogently argues, teaching which portrays physics this way is likely to be counter productive in terms of developing students’ understanding, for it encourages them to rote-learn; to believe that being able to solve physics problems demonstrates conceptual understanding; and to take an unreflective approach to learning about physics ideas.

147. McKittrick et al. The following description is particularly apt: [This teaching] attempts to transmit to learners concepts which are precise and unambiguous. We then explain the research context. Traditional Approaches to Teaching Physics It appears to be well accepted that traditional physics teaching emphasises facts. Finally we discuss the implications of the findings. observable truths which are unambiguously and accurately represented through mathematics. Rather. definitions and formulas are unimportant in physics. we provide theoretical perspectives of traditional and conceptual change approaches to teaching physics. definitions of physical concepts and use of formulas to solve physics problems (Linder 1992. using language capable of transferring ideas from expert to novice (teacher to student) with precision. Wildy and Wallace 1995). is unhelpful for promoting understanding. our argument is that these represent the endpoints of considerable intellectual efforts by physicists to understand phenomena. In this paper. 1998. In the light of the discussion earlier. 191–193). Conceptual Change Teaching The plethora of research over the past 25 years which has revealed that many students’ understandings of science ideas are at odds with scientists’ views (Osborne and Freyberg 1985. 1999. we note that our argument is not that facts. who all taught upper secondary school physics. much of this teaching seems to assume that students develop an understanding of the concepts of physics through successfully completing numerical problems and by doing practical work (pp. Scott and . The research was part of a larger qualitative study that explored the views about physics and learning and teaching physics amongst a group of physics teachers whose teaching approaches were traditional and compared them with the views of a group of teachers who used conceptual change teaching approaches (Mulhall 2005). Ways of improving students’ understandings that have been suggested by researchers are usually qualitative and involve student discussion (Hewson et al. In the following discussion. Osborne 1990. and summarise the results. emphasis in original) As an advance organiser. p. Pfundt and Duit 1994) suggests that traditional science teaching approaches are inadequate in terms of developing student conceptual understanding. As Osborne (1990) notes. as we elaborate below.and in-service physics teacher education programs. we focus on the views about physics held by the two groups of teachers.Res Sci Educ (2008) 38:435–462 437 The study sought to better understand why physics teaching is as it is. it would seem that traditional physics teaching is based on the view that learning physics is unproblematic because the ideas of physics are unproblematic in that they are discovered. (Carr et al. the aims of the study and method used. 1994. but also. and to help those who work in pre. and discuss relevant literature concerning research on teachers’ views in general and on physics teachers’ views in particular. The traditional teaching approach of using these as beginning points for learning not only fails to acknowledge the complex and discursive nature of physics ideas.

(1994) consider That: learning science involves being initiated into scientific ways of knowing . 6) Accordingly. often as results of considerable intellectual struggles” (p. the view that it is unlikely that a learner will discover the ideas of science through personal observation because the (disciplinary) knowledge of science is socially negotiated and validated and its ideas problematic. p. 1998. and view. Tobin and Tippins 1993). Driver et al. although it is now recognised that (1) learning tends to be more gradual than this terms suggests. as noted above.. and that when they enter the classroom. Crucially. learning occurs when new constructions are made and it is the role of the teacher to try to influence these so they are consistent with scientific thinking.. the implication for science teachers is that their role is to “mediate” this learning and help learners to make “personal sense” of science ideas and “the ways in which knowledge claims are generated and validated” (Driver et al. it is organized by ideas such as evolution and encompasses procedures of measurement and experiment. it is unrealistic to think that any individual would independently develop these same constructions.. Generally these approaches involve recognising that students construct their own understandings. As Driver et al.. . 1994. and is more often an accretion of information and instances that the learner uses to sort out contexts in which it is profitable to use one form of explanation or another. (1994) make the point that scientific knowledge is essentially “symbolic” (p. Hewson et al.. [It] involves being initiated into the ideas and practices of the scientific community and making these ideas and practices meaningful at an individual level. [Such entities. Underpinning this role is. (p. Thus learning is seen as a process of ‘conceptual change’. eventually becoming part of the public knowledge of science. 1994.. 5) but are “constructs that have been invented and imposed on phenomena in attempts to interpret and explain them.438 Res Sci Educ (2008) 38:435–462 Driver 1998). (Fensham et al. 6). From this perspective. these constructions are incorporated into the way scientists think about.g. 6) Consistent with the above view of scientific knowledge as being socially constructed and validated.. so too researchers have argued that conceptual change teaching approaches in science (and. (p. 6). the world. They note that science ideas do not develop in a “nonproblematic way from observations” or by “reading the ‘book of nature’” (p. (1994) put it: [T]he symbolic world of science is now populated with entities such as atoms. and that (2) ‘conceptual addition’ is probably a better term because it acknowledges that learning is only rarely a sharp exchange of one set of meanings for another. . a position with which there appears to be consensus among other academics (e. fields and fluxes. Hodson 1998. Instead. 5) and “socially constructed and validated” (p.. 6) Just as it was argued that traditional physics teaching suggests a particular view of physics.. 6). physics) imply a particular view of science (and hence physics). once accepted by the scientific community. Driver et al. by implication. p. . ideas and procedures] are unlikely to be discovered by individuals through their own observations of the natural world.. . However. students already have understandings about phenomena which they have developed to explain their everyday experiences. these scholars argue that “the objects of science are not the phenomena of nature” (p. 6).

1994). definitions and formulas in these forms of physics classrooms represent an endpoint of teaching..g. the social constructivist position is that problem solving should only be introduced after such understandings have been developed. Linder 1992. or unable or reluctant to express them. 721). Prawat 1989. values. As the fundamental focus of this paper is teachers’ views about physics. Scott and Driver 1998). perspectives . Teachers’ Views About Science A search of the literature suggests that there has been a greater abundance of research into teachers’ beliefs about science than about physics. opinions. However. In addition. easily fits into this list. perceptions. Tobin et al. Teacher facilitated discussion in which students consider their own and physics ideas about phenomena plays a central role in students’ meaning making and helps them understand why physicists hold these ideas (Leach and Scott 1999. Lederman et al. research into teachers’ views about the ‘nature of science’. research that others have conducted in this area is now discussed. In this study. explicit theories. and that the general view is that traditional teaching in both science and the science disciplines is linked to a belief that scientific knowledge is discovered and proven knowledge (e. but their capacity to provide insight into teachers’ views was limited because only a few lessons were able to be observed. . 316). . (p. 309) (‘Views’. has generally struggled to find clear links between teachers’ views and their classroom practice (Lederman 1992... Researching Teachers’ Views In his review of general research into teachers’ beliefs. conceptions. 420).. a method advocated by Kagan (1990) as being one of the better approaches for exploring teachers’ views because teachers may be unaware of the beliefs they hold. defined as “the values and assumptions inherent to the development of scientific knowledge” (Lederman and Zeidler 1987.. beginning with a brief consideration of some common issues relating to researching teachers’ views. intentions and behaviours must all be taken into account when making inferences about beliefs (p.. In comparison to the traditional teaching approach of assuming that understanding of formulas develops as students solve problems. 1998). Pajares (1992) notes That [Beliefs] travel in disguise and often under alias – attitudes. listed below. consistent with our argument earlier..Res Sci Educ (2008) 38:435–462 439 Applying these ideas to physics classrooms leads to the position that the role of teachers is to introduce students to the physics ‘way of knowing’. For . the expression used in this paper.. physics teachers’ views were inferred from their responses in extended interviews. . 1992. Tobin 1998. such an approach was neither practical nor appropriate given the nature of the research questions. Instead.) Pajares (1992) also asserts that comments. and have beliefs that are contextually dependent (p.. p. . Observations of classrooms were used to classify teachers’ teaching approach. Many research reports support these conclusions. implicit theories. These classroom observations also provided a check that the teachers’ practices were not inconsistent with their interview responses.. and consideration of how to best enable students to reach this endpoint (as opposed to just asserting the endpoint) is crucial. including of course its definitions and formulas.

that it is independent of individuals. Pomeroy (1993) found in her survey exploring beliefs about science and science education that secondary science teachers appeared to subscribe more strongly than elementary teachers to a traditional view of science that “the only valid way of gaining scientific knowledge [is] 1 In this paper. In another ethnographic study. They found that at the time of entering the program. teaching beliefs. In a later study of four science teachers. 124–127). which he labelled as “constructivist” and “empiricist”. (1990) explored the views of students entering a secondary science teacher education program using a questionnaire with open-ended questions and concluded that holding a “‘discovery’ view of science” may dispose student teachers towards a “‘knowledge intake’ view of learning” and a transmissive approach to teaching (p. 379). Tsai (2002) categorised a group (N=37) of science teachers’ beliefs about teaching science. learning and science. 1999b. The science teachers studied had “logical positivistic” views about science. an ethnographic study by Gallagher and his students found that a group of science teachers tended to think of scientific knowledge as objective. p. 777). Hashweh (1996) compared the teaching practices of two groups of science teachers with different epistemological views. p. 490–492). b) but employed a more extensive range of qualitative investigations. Some studies have compared the beliefs of different groups of teachers. They tended to use a lecture style teaching approach and focused on presenting detailed information for students to learn. are denoted by using inverted commas. including interviews about conceptions of science teaching (Hewson and Hewson 1989). The study found that about 40% of teachers held congruent traditional beliefs about teaching. Research amongst pre-service science teachers has produced similar findings. the study itself did not include observations of teachers’ actual practices but instead used self reports by teachers about their practices. Hewson and colleagues also explored pre-service biology teachers’ views during a teacher education program (Hewson et al. about 10% held congruent process beliefs and about 5% held congruent constructivist beliefs (p. 482–486). with most believing that “true knowledge exists. and that they focused on the so-called ‘scientific method’1 and on science content knowledge in their teaching. 378). “process” or “constructivist” (p.g. learning science and the nature of science as “traditional”. and instructional practices. 339). These teachers emphasised scientific propositional knowledge and processes. Duschl and Wright (1989) obtained similar results. 389). these prospective teachers had “positivist” views of science knowledge and transmissive teaching views (Hewson et al. but did little to help promote student understanding (Gallagher 1991. the ‘scientific method’ . and that it can be transmitted or passed on to another person by using good explanations and demonstrations of scientific principles” (p. Scholars have suggested varying reasons for teachers’ beliefs about science. e. and considered that ‘the scientific method’ was the approach used in science (pp. being based on observations and experiments. references to the stereo-typical scientific method commonly portrayed in textbooks (see for example McComas 1998. and focused on students’ acquisition of content knowledge in high ability classes and on developing students’ basic skills such as reading and writing in low ability classes (pp. pp. A case study of biology teachers by Benson (1989) found they considered that “all aspects studied in science exist in the real world” and that truth is determined by testing hypotheses using ‘the scientific method’ (p. Tsai (2007) found strong links between their science epistemological views. Aguirre et al. 773).440 Res Sci Educ (2008) 38:435–462 example. 1999a. 57). While he concluded that teachers’ epistemological beliefs influence their teaching.

Explicit. For example. on the other hand. She suggested these differences occurred because secondary teachers. about. possibly because of Darwinian ideas about natural selection (Ruse 1988). for example. Nott and Wellington (1996) argued that science teachers’ “(k)nowledge of the nature of science will be brought to the classroom and developed through classroom experience” (p. Chalmers (1982) considers that it is “misleading” to speak of ‘science’ as though it is “a single category” (p. and also by working for lengthy periods in schools that value teaching factual knowledge. they are quite common in biology. a view reflected by Lederman (1992) who observes that conceptions of science differ between the scientific disciplines. They concluded that such approaches are more likely to succeed when they include explicit teaching about the nature of science and provide opportunities for teachers to reflect on aspects of the nature of science. Comment An important issue that generally seems to be unacknowledged in much of the research into teachers’ views about science is that ‘science’ comprises a diversity of disciplines. what constitutes an acceptable causal explanation (p. biology. 286). Abd-El-Khalick and Lederman (2000a) reviewed studies of (generally unsuccessful) attempts to develop prospective and in-service teachers’ conceptions of the nature of science. Rosenberg 1985). has many theories. Bencze and Elshof 2003). There are other differences between the various science disciplines. are logicality and simplicity” and the ultimate goal is to understand the universe using smallest number of . unlike elementary teachers. 262).. In addition.. However.Res Sci Educ (2008) 38:435–462 441 through the application of inductive methods based upon observation and controlled experimentation” (p. reflective approach to teaching about the nature of science. noting the differences between the disciplines. 352). Abd-El-Khalick (2005) found a philosophy of science course to be relatively more effective than a science methods course when both used an explicit. however. Indeed. generally have a formal science training and have been initiated “into the norms of the scientific community”. emphasis in original) for they constantly face issues related to the nature of science. Whereas for the physicist “[t]he watch words . 166). Brickhouse (1989) suggested that secondary science teachers’ beliefs may be influenced by years of exposure to the idealised models of science presented by text books. On the other hand. but the relationship between these is relatively less well developed and they generally lack predictive capacity (Mayr 1988. 269). whose members generally espouse traditional views about science (p. a study of the effect of history of science courses on prospective teachers’ views about science failed to detect any significant influence (Abd-El-Khalick and Lederman 2000b). and these are highly interconnected with strong predictive power. reflective approaches to teaching about the nature of science that involved teachers participating in scientific inquiry have also been successful (Akerson and Hanuscin 2007. such as “practicals going wrong” and ethical problems related to the development of scientific knowledge (p. Physics has relatively few theories. teleological explanations are generally not acceptable in physics because they are seen to anthropomorphise physical objects. 286. Schwartz and Lederman’s (2002) study of two beginning teachers as they learned about the nature of science suggested that progression in their understanding about the nature of science was linked to the strength of their subject matter knowledge.

Interestingly. the biologist deals with living organisms that are inherently complex. There was a sense of “physics as being elusive and beyond the grasp of everyday common sense” (p.. Tobin et al..g. In addition. but that there somehow clings to chemistry the less formal odor (and odium) of the cook book. a specifically physics related view was noted in one of these teachers who said. In chemistry.. 502–503). Interestingly. a study by Koulaidis and Ogborn (1989) found science teachers from different disciplines had different views about the nature of science and recommended further research into teachers’ views about the various science disciplines. cited in Gallagher 1991. for common perceptions arise that are associated with this difference. 32). and did little to promote the development of student understanding of the associated concepts. . and a willingness on the part of both students and teacher to accept explanations as being correct or incorrect on the basis of the authority of physics as a discipline (pp. is seen as hard by students.442 Res Sci Educ (2008) 38:435–462 physical laws possible (Stuewer 1997. Section on ‘The physicist’s point of view’. Physics Teachers’ Views About Physics A study by Veal (1999) provides some insight into the possible physics related views of physics teachers.. Finally.We feel that physics is truly a science. (p. chemical behaviours are regarded as too complex to reduce to a few physical laws (e. in the model for PCK development proposed by Veal (1999). The pre-service physics teachers’ practice was influenced by beliefs that physics is “a mathematically oriented discipline”. 5). “Physics. pp. An interpretive study of two physics teachers concluded they held “positivistic” views about the nature of science despite their long experience with a high school physics course which promoted “a view of science as ‘invented’ or ‘constructed’” (Abu-Sneineh. The chemistry preservice teachers’ practice was influenced by different beliefs related to chemistry. for the greatest part is very objective” (AbuSneineh. we know that we are fast slipping down a slope away from science. 127). and evolution and the factors involved in the emergence of life are such that generalisations often need to be provisional (Keller 2007). as summed up by Bronowski and Mazlish (1960): Our confidence in any science is roughly proportional to the amount of mathematics it employs . His qualitative investigation of the development of pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) in two secondary chemistry and two secondary physics pre-service teachers found that this development was influenced by beliefs about their subject discipline. (1997) describe the teaching practices of a beginning physics teacher who espoused a constructivist view of learning but tended to focus on applying formulas. p. with beliefs informing the classroom practice of preservice teachers and this practice informing beliefs (p. which the present study aims to do. beliefs and PCK are “inextricably intertwined”. And as we proceed to biology . 126–127). cited in Gallagher 1991. para. An exception is a study by Tsai (2006) who found that Taiwanese students believe that biological knowledge is more tentative than physics knowledge.. 26–30). 2006). Baird et al. 218) It seems that research in science education has generally not explored specific features of the various science disciplines and acknowledged differences between them. 505). A fundamental difference from the perspective of this study is the extent to which mathematics is used in the various science disciplines. and uses a “macroscopic perspective” when explaining phenomena (pp.

these views were explored amongst a group of five teachers whose teaching is best described as traditional (hereafter called ‘the Traditional teachers’). Later. and partly because we had reason to believe (e. which centred on the teaching of a unit of work at the Year 11 level in which the content areas were motion and DC electricity. . at Years 11 and 12) that involved high stakes. solving problems). The Traditional teachers saw physics learning as the outcome of doing certain activities (e. These Traditional teachers were invited to participate in this study. Among these teachers. and were chosen partly on the basis of convenience. Lederman 1992). As noted earlier. and that physics ideas are problematic for learners for this reason. For both groups of physics teachers: 1. an assumption that was later verified as we discuss below. through conversations in physics teaching circles). physics concepts. and considered that physics is hard because most learners do not have the special attributes or skills needed to learn physics. externally set examinations during the second year. and about learning and teaching physics were explored during the conduct of the project. Hence the approach used was qualitative.e. there was a group of five whose practice was consistent with the approaches of conceptual change teaching (hereafter called ‘the Conceptual teachers’). They saw physics learning as involving cognitive engagement with. 2 Funded by the Australian Research Council. Research Questions The questions guiding the research were as follows. and discussion about. What are teachers’ perceptions of what physics is? 2. The Conceptual teachers had views about learning physics that were quite different to those of the Traditional teachers (Mulhall 2005). The Conceptual teachers considered students construct understandings in terms of their personal frameworks. What are teachers’ perceptions of the place of mathematics in physics? 3. the chief investigator was the second author. the Understanding Physics Project (UPP)2 which explored the consequences for student learning of teaching that focused on developing student conceptual understanding where ten volunteer secondary school physics teachers taught an externally prescribed 2 year physics course (i. (a) What are teachers’ perceptions of the way/s in which the body of physics knowledge is established? (b) What are teachers’ perceptions of the difficulty with which physics concepts have been developed? The Research Approach Qualitative methods have a greater capacity than quantitative approaches for providing insights into teachers’ views (Kagan 1990. These teachers’ views about physics.Res Sci Educ (2008) 38:435–462 443 The Context of the Research The study links with a separate 3 year research project. that their teaching practices were traditional.g.g. in this paper we focus on the views about physics in these two groups of teachers.

and to compare different ideas and decide which of a range of explanations was ‘best’ there was less teacher talk and more student talk. the teacher’s role was to ask questions to promote student engagement with ideas. rather than give answers and information. to decide which teachers were ‘Conceptual’. As indicated earlier. were observed to focus on problem solving and explanations using algorithms with little or no consideration of development of students’ understanding of concepts. and their membership of the Conceptual and Traditional Groups being determined through observations of their teaching. Traditional teachers were those who. teaching profiles of each teacher were prepared and used to determine whether or not he belonged to the Traditional Group. All teachers in the original group of five were considered to be Traditional. and later generated a teaching profile that summarised the ways in which the teacher concerned did or did not support student understanding. to use approaches in which: & & & & they encouraged students to make their reasoning of a situation explicit they encouraged students to reason through conceptual conflicts. unlike in traditional classrooms where the reverse is the case. Again.) Background information about the teachers in both groups is given in Table 1. one of whom was the first author. The criteria for classifying a teacher’s practice were developed during UPP. with the former group comprising three females and two males and the latter comprising all males. The fundamental approach taken for this classification was that for a teacher to be considered as being a Conceptual or a Traditional teacher. Thus both Conceptual and Traditional Groups contained five (5) teachers. Central to this classification was the role of questions: Traditional teachers focused on seeking correct answers from students or providing these themselves. and. of the ten teachers who took part in UPP. about the . when teaching. five (5) were considered to be ‘Conceptual’. that teacher’s practice needed to demonstrate clearly that he/she belonged in the relevant group. the five Traditional teachers were observed twice during lessons ranging from 45–90 min by the first author. beyond that provided by ‘cook-book’ style laboratory work. The semi-structured interviews were complex and wide-ranging in design. who made notes in situ to describe what the teacher said and did during the lesson. and learning and teaching physics of all teachers being explored through extensive semi-structured interviews as discussed earlier. Any teacher whose practice did not clearly indicate that he/she clearly belonged in either of these groups was not included in the study. Pseudonyms are used for all the teachers in this study. the lessons ranging in length from 45 to 90 min. The Conceptual teachers were observed during UPP at least twice while they taught physics to Year 11.444 Res Sci Educ (2008) 38:435–462 the views about physics. These profiles were used by the UPP research team of four highly experienced physics education researchers (all former high school physics teachers). this time by the first and second authors. (Given that the very large majority of physics teachers in the context of this research are male. when teaching. and included questions about the interviewee’s perceptions of the nature of physics and of the purposes of experimentation and its relationship with the generation of physics knowledge. including both authors. often with the aid of peer input rather than teacher input. Similarly. The observers were either of two research assistants. Conceptual teachers were those who were observed. both members of the original UPP team. and how students responded. this is not in any way remarkable.

The first form of analysis focused on . An examination of these transcripts suggested that for the purposes of this research. the second author checked for confirming or disconfirming evidence in the data. Examples of questions that each interviewee was asked are provided in Appendix 1. and about the interviewee’s perceptions of student mis-/ understandings as revealed in some quotes from students. so this was the approach taken with the rest of the interviews. about why the interviewee was a physics teacher rather than a teacher of another subject. and differences were discussed until consensus was reached. summaries of each interviewee’s responses to interview questions that included important/interesting interviewee quotes would suffice. about teaching strategies valued by the interviewee. Two forms of analysis of teachers’ views were undertaken.Res Sci Educ (2008) 38:435–462 Table 1 Background information about conceptual and traditional teachers Teacher (C. Two were fully transcribed. T. Each summary or transcription was prepared by the research assistant who conducted the relevant interview. each with different purposes. The analysis for this study evolved through multiple readings of the data records and discussions between the two authors. The initial analysis was conducted by the first author. about the interviewee’s perception of which content areas of physics were more difficult to teach and which were easier. All interviews were audio-taped. traditional) Heather (C) Caitlin (C) School type Physics taught Other teaching areas 445 Private girls Private girls Year 11 and 12 Year 11 and 12 Charles (C) Robert (C) Government co-educational Private co-educational Private girls Year 11 and 12 Year 11 Dorothy (C) Year 11 Ross (T) Ryan (T) Joe (T) Private co-educational Private co-educational Academic boys Year 11 and 12 Year 11 and 12 Year 11 and 12 Pat (T) Chad (T) Academic boys Government co-educational Year 11 and 12 Year 11 and 12 Mathematics (year 7–12) General science (year 7–10) Chemistry (year 11 and 12) Mathematics (year 7–10) General science (year 7–10) Mathematics (year 7–10) General science (year 7–10) Biology (year 11) Mathematics (year 7–10) General science (year 7–10) Chemistry (year 11 and 12) Mathematics (year 7–10) General science (year 7–10) Mathematics (year 7–12) General science (year 7–10) Mathematics (year 7–12) General science (year 7–10) Information technology (year 11 and 12) Mathematics (year 11–12) Chemistry (year 11 and 12) General science (year 7–10) Mathematics (year 7–10) General science (year 7–10) Mathematics (year 7–12) General science (year 7–10) role of mathematics in physics. conceptual. and why. in order to explore the nature of the interviewee’s conceptual understanding.

where ‘typical’ is qualified to acknowledge that no single teacher actually had these views: rather. e. Views about learning physics or Views about teaching physics. while the second form focused on understanding the commonalities and differences of views of teachers within a group and between groups: only this second form of analysis is used in this paper. An inspection of the interview questions showed that each had the capacity to provide data for at least one research question. the ‘typical’ Conceptual/Traditional teacher is a construction which facilitates identification of the beliefs that best characterise the group of Conceptual/ Traditional teachers. and teaching physics were identified through multiple readings of interview summaries or transcripts.446 Res Sci Educ (2008) 38:435–462 understanding the detail and nature of each individual teacher’s views about physics and learning and teaching physics. and the names of the relevant teachers. The Trustworthiness of the Research A number of checks contributed to the validity and reliability of the data: 1. Where appropriate. the ‘most commonly held’ views were regarded as being those that appeared to be held by at least four teachers within the group. This list was used to generate a second list for each group that highlighted the most commonly held views by those teachers within the group. this included a crude ‘score’ out of 2 based on the extent to which teachers successfully identified student mis-/ understandings in one of the questions. A list was generated of all these aspects of teachers’ thinking. we acknowledge that some aspects of teachers’ thinking could have been listed under more than one heading. In addition. The practice of having a second researcher check the initial analysis for discrepancies helped to counter the effect of researcher bias. In some cases. In the second form of analysis. pauses before answering. learning physics. and is now briefly discussed. An audit trail was maintained. comments from all the teacher interviews that pertained to views about physics. 3. 7. While the classroom observations were not used to provide information about teachers’ views. 6.g. 2. This composite was treated as representative of the views of a ‘typical’ member of that group. It is important to recognise that this list was not intended to be a definitive representation of teachers’ views. for a given group. they were not inconsistent with the data from the interviews. apparent confidence or lack of confidence. and the links between them. The interview questions were examined to ensure that they concerned issues relevant to the aims of the physics course being taught by the physics teachers. 4. etc. instead its purpose was to enable comparisons between teachers and between the two teacher groups. the summaries/transcripts were annotated to capture as much as possible the general nature of the interviewee’s responses. . decisions about whether a teacher held a particular view were based on that teacher’s overall interview responses. while each of the various aspects of teachers’ thinking were categorised as Views about physics. 5. Some triangulation of data was possible because data for each research question was provided by more than one interview question. where this occurred. and. The second list was used to construct a composite of the most common views of each group. a particular teacher’s belief was implied rather than stated explicitly.

whose views are now presented. and as being concerned with finding useful models to explain the real world. The Traditional teacher is referred to as ‘he’ as all members of this group were male. in principle. Because of inadequacies in observations. those currently used in physics. or better than. he thinks that knowledge about the world is ‘out there’ to be discovered and that physics knowledge is discovered knowledge. and thinking about. He does not see the ideas of physics as problematic. through their ability to satisfactorily explain phenomena and to predict behaviours that have subsequently been verified. his view that one can see physics everywhere indicates that he does not see observation as theory dependent. but considers that the ideas of physics are essentially revealed in nature. Indeed the explanatory and predictive capacities of physics distinguish it from the other main sciences. . He considers that physics is mathematical and abstract. It should be noted that where an idea. arguably. and that its ideas are based on experimentation. seeing the following as being important aspects of physics models: & & & Models are developed through observation of. Indeed. physical phenomena. The views of the typical teacher are written in the present tense to give a sense of immediacy to the discussion. The Views of the Typical Conceptual Teacher The typical Conceptual teacher thinks of physics as a science. Currently accepted models have been subjected to critical review by the scientific community. the original list contained more than one variant on this idea. Models which are accepted have been tested in a range of ways. belief or insight is shown in bulleted point form. it is possible that other models or ways of thinking might explain the world as well as.Res Sci Educ (2008) 38:435–462 447 The Interviews A portion of the list of the most common views of the teachers in the Traditional group – that pertaining to Views about physics – is provided in Appendix 2 as an example of this form of data. He appears to see physics as superior to other disciplines and/or sciences. As just discussed. the lists of the most common views of the Traditional and Conceptual groups respectively were used to construct the views of a ‘typical’ teacher within each group. he/ she does not think ‘anything goes’ in physics. That is. He/she considers all models have their limitations and. However. The Views of the Typical Traditional Teacher The typical Traditional teacher considers that physics is a science concerned with explaining everything in the real world. He/she considers that the mathematics in physics functions as a language used to express physics ideas. often over a long period of time. this conclusion being supported by his view that physics research follows the ‘scientific method’ and the absence of any comments that suggest he thinks there may be alternative ways of viewing the world. these ideas are not exact descriptions of reality but further research will enable these ideas to get closer to the truth.

motion. . um. which is not being particularly helpful but. (CI3a 5) (Heather) C: But I think. and just give a few examples whether it’s er.. for physical phenomena. What are Teachers’ Perceptions of What Physics is? Both the typical Conceptual and Traditional teachers thought of physics as providing explanations and/or ideas about phenomena in the real world.. I think at least – or my thing is – that it is just a fabric to hang things on or. thinking about it. I s’pose. In the following discussion. this aspect of physics as being concerned with everything around us tended to be something that all the teachers emphasised when asked how they would explain what physics is... involved in engineering or it’s concerned with astronomy or.. or even quantify I suppose.” and that’s probably what I’d say to a parent . and examples of comments from individual teachers are given. that. for example. it’s a best model. ah.. looking at things that haven’t been done and.. while T denotes one from a Traditional teacher. they’re all physics. and. why do you get a rainbow? It’s physics explaining why those sort of things happen . I’d just say. I suppose. The typical Conceptual teacher’s thinking appeared framed by how well these explanations/ideas help us understand phenomena: C: Um. it has to do with . (Small laugh. But I think in physics. provide a means of comparing the views of the Conceptual and Traditional groups of teachers. so. Perhaps not surprisingly.) (TI 1) (Chad) However. astronomy . It’s concerned with everything in the universe” and er. ah. “It’s the science of everything.. (Slight pause. you know. wanting to explain what’s around us and also like coming from even having read something and analysing..448 Res Sci Educ (2008) 38:435–462 Discussion The views of the typical Conceptual and Traditional teachers. particularly. the way the typical Conceptual and Traditional teachers thought about the explanations/ideas of physics seemed to differ. why things happen the way they do. presented above. forces. electricity.. This is an interview code. um. does that make sense or maybe it should be this and so looking at things that have been done. ah.) I guess the underlying reasons why the whole universe operates. it’s about everything. Examples of responses from both teachers’ groups are given below: C3: I usually say [to Year 10 students who haven’t done much physics] . I don’t believe and I don’t believe that a lot of the 3 4 C denotes a comment from a Conceptual teacher. um. searching for an answer to it or searching to qualify it.. um. I think [the questions physicists explore come] from just. you know. it’s not.. optics... but I would just say . um.. you know. (CI1 6) (Caitlin) T4: Um. whether it’s fact or not – we teach it as fact unless questioned closely – but no. “[I]t’s explaining how things around you work and.. these views are considered in terms of the research questions that guided this study. or don’t happen . you name it.

ah. Importantly.. (TI 16(b)) (Pat. particularly when you talk about sub-atomic particles approaching the speed of light that seem to defy any laws that Newton would have even considered. The typical Conceptual teacher also valued physics but saw this value in terms of how satisfactorily the ideas of physics help us understand the world. (TI 9(a)) (Ryan) The above quotes from Traditional teachers illustrate the typical Traditional teacher’s position which seemed to be that physics provides objective. that are based on this. um.Res Sci Educ (2008) 38:435–462 449 stuff you really can prove at all..... We use can use the model and . um. um. set of ideas. ah. but a way. the typical Conceptual teacher was not a relativist (cf. (TI 3(a)) (Pat. they’re precise in what they say. Um. The model comes from the physical world.. There are peculiar things that happen out there.. as the following examples illustrate: C: [Physics is] all about modelling the real world.. vocabulary. for example... as to whether they’re correct in all conditions. Linked to this view. [physicists are] pedantic from the point of view that they demand a certain. this. um. and in the usefulness of its models for making predictions about phenomena. a way of reducing the physical world to a model that we can grasp and understand. um. and therefore understand more about the physical world. authors’ emphasis) T: Ah. a reductionist sort of way. this is not just a joke. (TI 9(b)) (Ryan) Underpinning much of the typical Traditional teacher’s comments seemed to be the view that physics is valuable because it discovers and represents truths about the world. that underpins what physics is all about – it’s that relationship between energy and mass and how fundamental that is to understanding everything about physics. It’s just the best explanation until somebody comes along with another one . Ah.. reverent silence to observe that .. But when [students] realise that it’s reality – that we have electron microscopes. so. (CI1 6) (Robert) .. Um. authors’ emphasis) T: [W]e know that we can apply Newton’s three laws to a large variety of. they need a certain measuring system. and then later in semester one when we do some nuclear physics . therefore we can’t say necessarily that they’re going to be true in all circumstances. if you’re drawing a force on a diagram it should be drawn on the right point where the force is acting rather than just generally. then they accept it and they can move with it . they may very well not be.. turn the model back on the physical world to understand things that we didn’t originally realise were there.. that’s consistent . Matthews 1992). (CI4) (Dorothy) On the other hand. naturally occurring phenomena and explain what is happening and the explanations we believe are correct. the typical Traditional teacher’s thinking seemed framed by perceptions of the truth value of these explanations/ideas: T: Some of the ideas [about light and matter] are a bit confronting. In a way ... we have a few seconds of. the typical Traditional teacher’s remarks about physics were sometimes tinged with comments suggesting that physics is superior to other disciplines: T: [E=mc2] is the first thing I write on the board when the kids come into the Year 11 class. um. It’s all about coming to understand the physical world in .. discovered information about reality.. this is something that’s quite revealing. It’s a way of understanding the physical world.

also shared the view of the typical Conceptual teacher that the ability to predict correctly is an important feature of physics models. Despite the above and following comments. ah.. That’s a very good woolly overview! (TI 1) (Joe) Joe. and make them better. ah. It’s more the explaining of why a car works or.... (CI4) (Charles... um.) It’s integral. in a physical sense in most cases .. ah. Sir Isaac Newton. (TI 3(b)) (Joe) 5 I denotes a comment or question from the interviewer.. so that it’s used sort of functionally . being able to mathematically model things. um. considered that “experimentation in physics is the truth of the matter”: it was therefore surprising that he did not refer to experiments in his remarks above about what he thought a science is. being able to predict the way things are going to work or if they’re not going to work.. the Traditional teacher who made the second of the above comments. engineering. internal values you’ve created over a long. . the majority of teachers – both Conceptual and Traditional – did not appear to have engaged in much philosophical thinking about physics. His above response. um. And also to make predictions and then to make something that you might use. The former thought of physics as essentially mathematical and abstract: I: [So] thinking about physics as a body of knowledge you think it is inextricably tied [to mathematics] T: (Interrupts. interviewee’s emphasis) Interestingly. why a building doesn’t fall down or why. work on your car without taking his toolkit with him. as the following interview extracts illustrate: C: I find these questions really hard to answer! (Laughing. systems intermesh and operate with each other.. a laser or whatever. reinforced the conclusion that he had not previously given much thought to this issue. It’s like asking a mechanic to go and. So science is a difficult concept... you know. and others.. ideas like electrons and fields] then to make predictions and build up models . one Traditional teacher (Joe).) (CI4) (Caitlin) I5: I’m .) I never think about these sort of things! (I feel??) really dumb! (Still laughing.. long time and to actually individualise the expression of those ideas is quite difficult. interested in the notion of what makes [physics] a science . A hard question! T: A very hard question in terms of .450 Res Sci Educ (2008) 38:435–462 C: [M]y understanding is that [physicists] use all those sorts of things [i.. What are Teachers’ Perceptions of the Place of Mathematics in Physics? Mathematics seemed to assume a more central role in the typical Traditional teacher’s conception of physics than it did for the typical Conceptual teacher. ah. I’m just trying to get at what you think a science is.. .e. he was a classic case: invented differential calculus so he could invent his physics problems .. So to me science is a mixture of.. [T]o me it’s the way the world works.. although he appeared to consider physics ideas in more realist terms than the typical Conceptual teacher.

They then have to know something about each concept. turns people off. yeah (unintelligible words).. (TI 2(a)) (Pat. it’s so much easier to just think of the formula and then. um. um. fit it together in some way that makes some sort of sense. Like once I’ve tied the ideas down to a formula. That certainly has been the path of modern physics . um. And it’s hard because the thinking skills that are required to analyse situations. you know. Um. It is complex and that’s why people do think of it as a hard subject. I: And would you say generally one is looking for laws that are mathematical? T: Um. who did not see physics ideas in such absolute terms. If you. describe them in a simple way mathematically and then find what falls out of them. interviewee’s emphasis) The typical Conceptual teacher saw mathematics as a language used to express physics ideas (with two Conceptual teachers. While it could be argued that the typical Traditional teacher’s valuing of mathematics in physics reflected his philosophical position that the world is governed by mathematical laws. (TI 4) (Joe) The following Conceptual teacher appeared to have given some thought to the place of mathematics in physics.. (CI3a 2(a)) (Heather. are intricate to a deeper understanding of the concept and then they have to be able to take whatever it is in the scenario or the phenomena that they are presented with and see how that relates to the idea and the set of relationships. then it’s sort of easier to think about. ideas that pertain to physics concepts. are very complex.. it is unlikely that he had ever explicitly considered this question.. noting that it is not the only language used in physics. It’s playing with different models and seeing what comes out of . on top of that they’re generally aware that it requires some complex. Um. phenomena. interviewee’s emphasis) C: You can’t only do physics with equations. mathematical skills to help you along and that’s. Caitlin and Charles. and saw mathematics as enabling the development of models that could be tested: C: [The power of formulas is that they enable one to take] things that are fairly reasonably easily able to be worked out as self-evident. think of relationships within the formula. you know. um. giving the example of English): C: So the formula is sort of like a summary . scenarios. um. an abstract thing which. they have to be able to understand the relationships that. um. (CI3a 2(b)) (Charles) It appeared that the typical Traditional teacher was concerned with accurately depicting the knowledge about reality that he considered physics provides.. understand the way it’s been represented. . seemed more concerned with the essence of physics ideas and appropriate ways of communicating them. By contrast. and saw mathematics as providing the means of doing this. the following extract from the interview with one of the Traditional teachers is consistent with this conclusion. you know. we always seem to be looking at plotting graphs and to show relationships by looking at the way the graph is and then the next step’s to try and. create a mathematical equation that gives us that graph so that we can predict or extrapolate or interpolate within that graph.Res Sci Educ (2008) 38:435–462 451 T: Physics is hard. Um. um. (unintelligible words) generally. It’s not an easy thing to do. Students have to identify... the typical Conceptual teacher. Abstract ways of processing aren’t favourable to all people.

(CI3a 2(a)) (Robert. (CI4) (Charles) The other three Conceptual teachers appeared to have not given much thought to the nature of physics and to the ways in which physics knowledge develops: however. we really have... difficult because of the lens of the viewer. These assertions are now further elaborated. to give some validity to the models – most of the hard work is in the developing of the models and of trying to make concrete predictions from models . It’s the old constructivist view. we’ve got a set of things that actually seem to work but that may not.. C: So as ideas develop. I’d. the models are mathematical and so you can’t get away from that side of it. don’t we.. until the ideas get. the third (Caitlin) had much in common with the typical Traditional teacher in that she was quite explicit that physics tells us about reality: I: Do you essentially see science as . they may not be anything like that! It’s just. well. Some Conceptual teachers thought of physics knowledge as constructed while others either did not or were less explicit about this. yeah. (CI4) (Heather) C: But. So it’s sort of like an evolving – well. um. mirroring what the real world is? . (CI3a 7(a)) (Dorothy) Interestingly. What are Teachers’ Perceptions of the Way/s in Which the Body of Physics Knowledge is Established? The views about the nature of physics knowledge were more variable amongst the Conceptual teachers than they were amongst the Traditional teachers. and all that sort of business. I suppose – are almost the fashion in a lot of ways – and it becomes popular at the time and then until something else comes along to change it a little bit more. That can be supported or refuted so it’s an evolving thing. it’s very hard to put into words actually that. only two of the five Conceptual teachers in this research explicitly indicated that this was their considered view: C: [R]eally physics – while there’s a lot in physics – is really nothing more than people’s attempts to try and understand or model in their head a[n] internally consistent world view that maps as well as it can the physical world that we interact with. (CI4) (Robert) C: We have to construct an explanation of the whole universe. in terms of my own thoughts. I construct it through my experience. the typical Conceptual teacher’s views about physics were consistent with the position that physics knowledge is socially constructed and mediated. they can change. none of the teachers seemed to have considered why mathematics has a place in physics.452 Res Sci Educ (2008) 38:435–462 them. to see if we can test them in the real world.. and my tinted vision. it’s very hard to... most ideas are pretty much evolving ideas that are changing all the time. in terms of. and tinted hearing. interviewee’s emphasis) However. in principle. [of] the whole of our experience. not just in science . apart from the above Conceptual teacher. two of these seemed to understand that establishing the nature of reality is. As summarised earlier. However.

No matter what we try and do. a view which most of the . A pure law is a mind experiment because the reality is that we can’t create closed systems. Nevertheless. the typical Traditional teacher. apply to closed systems as such and we can’t really create a closed system but we can make [an] approximation [to test them] . One of the Traditional teachers in this research seemed to have more extreme views than the rest and to consider physics knowledge provides an exact description of reality: I: [What would you do if a student asked. it’s proven .. can apply . Because the ideas that are being pushed forward recently are that maybe the laws change over time. did not appear to have given much thought to the nature of physics knowledge. um. There’s a time component and we are here for an instant in time. ‘It works in these cases.. a lot of science is trying to explain how things happen in the real world or they happen the way they do or whatever. We don’t know whether the laws worked the same way at the beginning of the universe. see how closely that. be proved. There’s a time component and we are here for an instant in time. I always try to look at things from a practical sense. So you look at a tiny fraction of them and you say. as the following quotes illustrate. with three being quite explicit that physics ideas could not... there is always some external influence to it. this seemed to be because of the problems of proving these ideas are true in all cases and/or of achieving the ideal conditions necessary for these ideas to be proved. I’m not too clear and I’m not too strong on what is a rule and what’s a law and . ‘How do we know that Newton’s laws are true?’] T: With a situation like this I would attempt to do..) Yeah.. T: (Interrupts.) Yes. yep. ah.Res Sci Educ (2008) 38:435–462 453 C: Yeah.. so that’s kind of what you meant [by proving] T: (Interrupts. I guess you’d have to look at every single possible situation in the universe.. because to prove that F=ma. all of these things . I: So as long as it keeps working. (CI4) (Caitlin) Like these latter three Conceptual teachers. in principle. The ideas that are being pushed forward recently are that maybe the laws change over time. he appeared to think of physics knowledge as knowledge about the real world that has been discovered using ‘the scientific method’. and .. show that the relations are in actual fact correct. I’m going to assume that it works in other cases. whose views were summarised above.’ I: OK.... (TI 9(a)) (Joe) None of the Traditional teachers indicated that they considered that the interpretation of observations depends on the framework of the observer. T: I don’t know if you can prove anything. (TI 9(b)) (Chad) T: Newton’s laws . We don’t know whether the laws worked the same way at the beginning of the universe. I think it’s trying to explain. and I’m going to keep using it until I’m shown to be wrong. ah. yeah. um.. some demonstrations... that. and you can’t do that. (TI 9) (Ross) The other Traditional teachers appeared to consider that physics knowledge closely approximates reality.

a sceptical view of the world . (CI3a 6) (Heather) C: Physics is more than just the content . so. what you see. It’s . you know.) That’s probably why it’s not quite so linear. while other examples include the following.. or equally as well as.. you know it’s hypothetical constructs in our mind. you can do it more than [in] some other sciences. (Slowly. as a way of trying to explain the physical world which we interact with and so it’s not a product as such that you can hold in your hand.. So it’s got to have been arrived [at] through something that . well I guess [physics knowledge is] not a tangible thing... And it’s all tentative anyway.. T: Yep.. C: I think serious thought needs to go into [good physics research] – it .. one of the Conceptual teachers was exceptionally eloquent: C: Um. has credibility. Some of the quotes given earlier support this conclusion. and considered that it is possible that other ways of thinking might explain the world better than.454 Res Sci Educ (2008) 38:435–462 Conceptual teachers held. The typical Conceptual teacher saw physicists’ thinking about phenomena as being important in the development of physics ideas. and chemistry too a bit . (CI1 6) (Charles) Robert.. um. so. What I really like about physics ... can easily be sort of seen from a different viewpoint and that’s the challenge – to . I: There’s always the question of how do you know what to observe though. (CI3a 3(c)) (Robert) What are Teachers’ Perceptions of the Difficulty with Which Physics Concepts Have Been Developed? Both the typical Conceptual and Traditional teachers acknowledged the importance of experiments and observation in developing physics explanations/ideas..... or whether . [although] I think biology is perhaps catching up. what you notice occurring around you. It’s. you know. whether it’s discussion. a proven scientific process. so I don’t know that they are much closer to concrete reality [than thought experiments]. doing very thorough research so that the whole lot would be happening.. in our imagination. [it’s] testing hypotheses. There is always the eye of the viewer. um. is the social implications . those used in physics.. well a good scientist would be filming and taping everything as well. (TI 5(a)) (Pat)) C: [Even] physical experiments are an interpretation of what you’ve seen . Well. can’t just sort of be something plucked out of nowhere and not substantiated.. The two examples below are suggestive of these differing positions: T: [Students] seem to have not as much appreciation as I would like anyway that [when doing a laboratory investigation] there’s other things that you should record [apart from obvious variables] like what you hear. yeah. what real science is. but the former was inclined to see this development in more complex terms.. it’s something.... um. I mean they did that when they built the first stack for the atomic reactor – they filmed it as well. um. using equipment if you like for some.. um. And someone can come along tomorrow and wipe out a whole area of it and [then] suddenly we’ve got this whole new field to examine . the interpretation of the viewer in both. um.. recognised that there are contextual influences on this thinking.

.. But in doing so. um. and. through that process to try and get better data to more accurately confirm or ascertain a value or a rule. and. If they went beyond that. We extrapolate it beyond the original observations. model. has been a belief that the universe is governed by intrinsically understandable and probably ultimately elegant principles. long way to. investigation compared with something which is specifically aimed or targeted at confirming an idea.. you know. I mean the observable phenomena strike the question. a good theory is one that make predictions that we can then turn to the observable world and test whether that theory does actually hold out. I guess. um. and really physics – while there’s a lot in physics – is really nothing more than people’s attempts to try and understand or model in their head a[n] internally consistent world view that maps as well as it can the physical world that we interact with. um. um. in our culture of scientific investigation. And in. . Ultimately it comes about because human beings have this passion to try and understand and explain the world that they are interacting with.. then they come up with different explanations. strike that chord in people’s hearts – ultimately in their hearts – to want to know. information is revealed like data that’s not consistent with what you’re expecting and then that prompts further investigation which is purely to try and focus on what is causing that particular glitch in the data.. So that can be a very openended. So there is also that sort of attempt – reductionism I guess – reductionism to an elegant. (TI 5(a) (Pat) One Conceptual teacher (Caitlin) also seemed to share this view. um. um. um.. um. people’s theories.see the theory coming first and then the observables or the other way around or it’s a mixture of everything? C: I think it’s very much a mixture of the two. they’d fall over the edge.. if they were on the sea. sometimes. um. that a particular view or model or construct is consistent . or. guess the heritage of our society that has inherited the scientific worldview is that observable phenomena are the ultimate arbiter. what we call physics knowledge implies that . and so there’s been a real desire to find those principles. So they both – it’s sort of one and the other – you know.. (CI4) (Robert) The typical Traditional teacher tended to think of physics knowledge as ‘out there’ to be discovered. one time it’s an observation that leads you and another time it’s the theory that then comes. I guess.. complete..Res Sci Educ (2008) 38:435–462 455 relook at everything . and that the difficulty of developing physics explanations and ideas amounts mainly to technical difficulties such as the accuracy of measurements: T: [I]f we go way back a long. and then the theories come.. um. see that happening? C: Um.. and then you look for observations that support or discredit that theory. unforeseen. if that is possible. where they figured that. explorers.. I: So do you . internally consistent world view. There is also the Occam’s Razor thing there too – that we tend to sort of go for what is the simplest.. um. is why it’s produced and how it’s produced – but it’s the same sort of thing. and it’s not until you actually experiment and go out in a boat and realise that it doesn’t finish. I: Talking about the constructs in the head . or possibly also trying to disprove.. (TI 4) (Ross) T: [Physicists do experiments] confirming.. um. So probably driving all that I think. rather than the eloquence of the person that holds that viewpoint. the constructs in the various physicists’ heads are the same about that particular piece of information or whatever – so how do you . So that. there was a horizon there.. So there is in each instance a definite attempt to demonstrate from observable phenomena alone. . well I . and certainly over history..

um. as discussed earlier. However. That there was some overlap in the present study between the Traditional group and the Conceptual group of physics teachers in terms of the range of views about physics suggests assumptions about teachers’ views about physics on the basis of their teaching approach may be invalid. the range of views about physics held by the Conceptual teachers overlapped those held by the Traditional group. The challenge then is to find ways of promoting teacher change. Um. things been proposed down through the ages that turned out to be wrong. Nevertheless. nor to have considered the place of mathematics in physics. the Conceptual teachers’ views about physics ranged from a social constructivist perspective to the more realist views of the Traditional teachers. is that most of the physics teachers (both Conceptual and Traditional) appeared to have given little thought to the nature of physics and physics knowledge prior to being interviewed. the Conceptual teachers as a group tended to have more complex views about physics than the Traditional teachers. Interestingly though. Conclusion This paper began by suggesting that particular physics teaching approaches may be linked to particular views about physics. I s’pose. and that a given teacher’s teaching approach may be linked to other “weightier beliefs” (Munby 1982. the traditional approaches used often fail to promote adequate student understanding of physics ideas. traditional approaches to teaching in all subjects seem to persist – old beliefs die hard. perhaps. perhaps the most significant finding of this study. who tended to see physics as discovered. such a link seemed to apply to the Traditional group but not to the Conceptual group. Implications Contemporary pre. and one consistent with that by Lakin and Wellington (1994) in their research of science teachers’ views. Thus it could be argued that if the goal of physics teacher education is to . of helping physics teachers understand and implement ways of teaching that lead to better student learning. and take the view that learning to teach is a lifelong process. as already noted. This is a problem in physics teaching because. In this study. Instead. close approximations of reality. p. but not actually be really right. they do something that proves that the way they’ve predicted doesn’t happen that way or something. I mean there’ve been different things over time that have been decided.456 Res Sci Educ (2008) 38:435–462 C: [S]sometimes [physicists] get it wrong and things are re-thought. until.and in-service teacher education programs tend to promote reflective practice and constructivist ideas. (CI4) (Caitlin) Interestingly. further research (Mulhall 2005) suggests that the teaching practices of these two groups were more strongly linked to their views about the nature of physics learning than to their view about physics. That is. which compared the views of physics teachers whose practice was traditional with those who used conceptual change teaching approaches. however. Indeed. 216). similar to the above teachers’ views that over time physics knowledge becomes an increasingly more accurate representation of reality. the study by Mulhall (2005) found stronger links between teachers’ views about learning physics and their teaching practice. you know. So I think that people can get things wrong. Indeed. Roth and Roychoudhury (1994) found that secondary physics students believed that “scientists would increasingly approximate truth” (p. sometimes it might [be] accepted for a while as being true. Um. 27).

To this end. how accurately does a formula like this portray what physics is? . 37). programs that explore issues attached to the nature of physics may help physics teachers to be sensitive to their students’ perceptions and inform their approach to teaching physics. Lederman 1992) but also an important factor in promoting students’ meaningful learning of science in ways that will help them as future citizens to make sense of scientific debates that have social implications (Driver et al. Finally. Years 11 &12]. In addition. 1996). In the context of teaching physics then. While changing students’ views about physics may in itself be problematic. albeit in a limited way. Appendix 1 Examples of interview questions 1. a view which. the use of mathematics to describe relationships between concepts may lead students to believe that physics describes the way the world is (Roth and Bowen 1994. than those that use implicit process skills inquiry or based approaches (Abd-El-Khalick and Lederman 2000a). p. there is a need for such courses to include a consideration of the role of mathematics in physics. programs for improving practising and pre-service teachers’ nature of science conceptions that have explicitly considered aspects of the history and philosophy of science have been more successful.e. physics teachers need to reflect on the implications of the history and philosophy of physics for learning and teaching physics. the physics teachers in both groups did not appear to have given much thought to the nature of physics and how physics knowledge develops.g.Res Sci Educ (2008) 38:435–462 457 develop teachers who use conceptual change teaching approaches. physics teachers need to have well considered and informed views about physics to achieve these outcomes. as noted earlier. focussing on helping teachers to understand physics learning from a constructivist perspective may be more effective than trying to promote social constructivist views about the nature of physics. 314). drawing physics teachers’ attention to the difficulty with which physics ideas have been developed and constructed by physicists may help physics teachers understand the difficulty that learners have in understanding these ideas. which is not only a common curriculum goal (e. Your friend is uncertain about what subjects their child should do and asks you “What is physics?” What would you say? (a) Many people have seen the formula E ¼ mc2 ðshow formula on a cardÞ: 3. as noted earlier. For example. Ultimately. there are important counter arguments to this position which we now discuss. A friend’s daughter/son is choosing their subjects for VCE [i. There is a general recognition that science teachers need to be knowledgeable about the nature of science if they are to help their students develop adequate understandings about the nature of science. promotes poor student learning behaviours and outcomes (Linder 1992. However. Firstly. A second reason why physics teachers need to have informed views about physics arises from studies which suggest that activities that are common in physics classrooms may influence students’ perceptions about physics in ways that negatively impact on their physics learning. The present study suggests that for physics teachers. Osborne 1990). In your opinion. research by Abd-El-Khalick (2005) indicates that pre-service science teachers were more reflective about implicit messages in their teaching practices after participating in a philosophy of science course that was designed to engage them in thinking about various issues concerning the nature of science (p.

‘research’ etc.458 Res Sci Educ (2008) 38:435–462 4. ‘prove’. particularly in terms of the understanding of physics the student/students seem to have (show cards with each of the comments below). what would you tell them? (b) Do you think this is what the average Year 11 student does? I want to show you a number of things I’ve heard students say during physics classes I’ve been in either as a teacher or as an observer over the past 20 years. “But if a car crashes into a tree then there was momentum with the car and now there isn’t any momentum. (a) In a Year 12 class discussion on momentum. 17. a student said. if possible. ‘theory’. 10. if possible. I’d like you to comment on each one. explore mechanics and electricity specifically)? (a) What is the easiest thing for you in teaching physics (probe to explore. explore mechanics and electricity specifically)? (a) What sort of teaching strategies do you value using most with your physics class? Why? (b) What. But why a teacher of physics? (Important issues to attempt to follow here: –Why teach physics rather than maths? How do you see physics and maths as differing? –Why teach physics rather than other science(s)? How do you see physics and other sciences as differing?) (a) What is the hardest thing for you in teaching physics (probe to explore. 11. ways their views of the nature of physics and understanding of physics are part of this)? (b) Is this ‘hardest thing’ constant across all content areas of physics (if no. ways their views of the nature of physics and understanding of physics are part of this)? (b) Is this ‘easiest thing’ constant across all content areas of physics (if no. 13.” . So momentum isn’t conserved there. “But you have to also consider what happened to the tree – it will be a real mess after the collision. if any. are the strengths of these strategies? (c) You’ve mentioned the strengths. 12. 5. are there any weaknesses in these strategies? (d) Do you use these strategies only with physics classes or can they be used for other subjects as well? (a) If a Year 11 physics student asked you for advice on how to learn physics. 16. if mentioned)? (b) If not obvious from (a) How are experiments and research related? (c) If not obvious from (a) and/or (b) Is it possible to do physics research without doing experiments? You are a teacher. (b) If necessary What do you consider to be the relationship between mathematics and physics? How is physics knowledge produced? (a) Why do physicists do experiments (explore what interviewee means by ‘experiments’.” Another student replied.

Je.. Je. two teams having a tug of war must always pull equally hard on one another. Cd. Pt Rn.. Pt Cd. Pt Rn. Je. Je. Rn and Rs respectively . Cd. Cd. Pt Rs. Cd. Pt Cd. Rn. Je. Je. push their way through the connecting wires. Pt Rs. Rs. “. Je. Cd. the electrons leave the battery. Je. it would be impossible for either team to win.Res Sci Educ (2008) 38:435–462 459 (b) In a Year 11 electricity class. Pt Rn.” (c) In a small group discussion in a Year 11 electricity class. Pt Rn. Pt Rn Rs Pt Rn Je The traditional teachers’ names were coded Cd. Je Rn. Rs. Rn. Rn. Cd. "According to Newton’s third law of motion. the light globe and back to the battery . Pt Rn. Je. Rs. Rn. Pt. a student said. If this were true." Appendix 2 Table 2 Common aspects of traditional teachers’ views about physics Views about physics Physics is mathematical Physics is a science Physics is hard to understand Physics can be hard to understand Physics is abstract Physics is about explaining the real world & and is a close approximation of this & and is an exact description of this Physics is how the universe operates Physics is everywhere around us Most physics knowledge is based on experimentation Good physics research follows the ‘scientific method’ Physicists decide what to investigate on basis of things other than ‘blue sky curiosity’: & Funding & Boss/faculty’s decision/political agendas Comments expressing a valuing of physics and suggestive of ways in which it is ‘better’ than other disciplines: & Physics has an inner beauty & Physicists are pedantic & Physicists are practical & References to ‘reverent silence’ about E=mc2 and ‘power of maths’ revealing ideas & All other sciences developed from physics & Physics is the ‘father’ of all subjects a Teacher codea Cd. Rs Cd. Pt Cd. Cd. “But a brighter globe means a larger current.” (d) In a class discussion a Year 11 student said. a student said. Rs. Je. Je. Pt Rn. Rn. Je. Pt Cd. Rn. Rs. Rs.. Pt Rs. Je. Cd Rn.

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