Physics is taught badly because teachers struggle with basic concepts

Technology can be integrated into effective teaching and learning of physics at secondary schools in Mauritius. Shutterstock

Kinematics describes the motion of objects through numbers, diagrams, words and equations and is taught in schools around the world as part of the physics curriculum.

But our ongoing research in Mauritius shows that the people who are meant to teach kinematics in the classroom – physics teachers – don’t understand the concepts that underpin it. This echoes research done elsewhere, which has explored how physics teachers struggle with a number of key concepts, like the seasons.

Our study contributes to a broader body of research about the importance of teachers’ knowledge for effective learning. If a teacher doesn’t understand key underlying concepts in her subject, her students will not learn well. A teacher may be able to define velocity, but if he doesn’t understand related concepts – like displacement and time – he will struggle to teach effectively.

It may sound like this research is stating the obvious. But gathering data and testing teachers’ knowledge allows researchers to develop scientifically-grounded advice for teacher education institutions. This is important because misconceptions about physics, or science more generally, will persist if teachers don’t adopt a totally different approach to their own professional development.

This is true both in terms of their own knowledge and their approach to teaching. Teachers have an obligation to be well versed in a subject’s content knowledge and ways of teaching. This will allow them to impart knowledge, skills and values to students during the teaching-learning process and beyond.

If teachers don’t grasp the concepts they need to teach, there’s a risk that more and more students will shy away from science, in particular physics.

Teachers’ conceptual understanding

Our study is part of a broader research project that examines how technology can be integrated into effective teaching and learning of physics at secondary schools in Mauritius.

We worked with 26 physics teachers from 26 of the country’s secondary schools. They had been teaching for an average of five years. Their students were between 16 and 17 years old.

The study consisted of a pre-test, three training workshops and a test after the workshops. The tests were conducted using a well-established questionnaire called the Test of Understanding of Graphs in Kinematics. It has been used extensively worldwide to test students’ knowledge about kinematics. But it’s rarely been applied to testing teachers’ knowledge of the physics content they share with students.

The standard improved questionnaire consists of 26 multiple choice questions. We added two additional items related to reasoning: an explanation of what approach was used to reach the answer and the teachers’ degree of confidence in their answers.

The pre-test results were extremely worrying. Not one teacher answered all the questions correctly. In most cases, their mistakes were caused by misconceptions. For instance, one question asked respondents to determine the greatest change in velocity from an acceleration-time graphical relationship. 38% of the teachers considered “time” as a constant physical quantity rather than an independent variable. That led them to the wrong conclusion.

When teachers do not understand the concepts that underpin any scientific theory, they cannot teach that theory effectively. That’s why our next step after the pre-test was to improve teachers’ knowledge.

Workshops to grow understanding

The 26 teachers were required to attend three professional development workshops – one a week over a period of three weeks – as part of our intervention.

The workshops, which focused on concepts in kinematics, were run by the lead investigator in collaboration with members of the research team. Multimedia was used, forcing the teachers to step away from traditional learning approaches. This allowed them to develop their conceptual understanding and a critical mindset.

After the workshops, the same questionnaire was administered – and the results showed marked improvement. The data shows a mean gain of around 22% in teachers’ responses from the pre-test to the post-test. This suggests a strong positive correlation between the workshops and the teachers’ post-test performances. Their ability to work through concepts and to solve problems was clearly strengthened.

Teachers performed significantly better in a test of their conceptual knowledge after attending workshops than they had before the extra training. Yashwant Ramma

Of course, a few workshops or a one-off professional development course won’t address all teachers’ misconceptions. Dislodging firmly held misconceptions is an ongoing process and will only happen through continuous, collaborative endeavours.

This is where teacher education institutions come in. They need to revisit how they train teachers to understand concepts, and ensure that they’re using the best possible approaches to prepare teachers for the physics classroom.