“Are engineers better placed to learn to become physics teachers than physicists?”

Asks our author Nicola Jones in this thoughtful blogpost. So get your cuppa and enjoy the read! 

Learning to become a teacher is a challenging and daunting task for many but for those with backgrounds in physics and maths, learning to become a physics teacher may be harder than for those from engineering backgrounds.

To be successful in initial teacher education courses all students will need to adapt to the teaching approaches, feedback mechanisms and assessment practices of the discipline of education which are likely very different from those that they are used to in their previous disciplines. Even the structure of the knowledge itself to be developed in this new discipline of education is very different. Knowledge within the discipline of Physics is usually arranged in a vertical structure, new more complex and abstract ideas are built on simpler more concrete ones. For example, gravity causes objects to fall, leads to gravitation explains the orbit of the Earth around the sun, and onto Einstein’s curved space-time explanation of gravitational lensing. This hierarchy of complexity or traditional order of knowledge is not necessarily reflected in the knowledge structures within education. For example, the physics teaching pedagogical approach of scientific inquiry can be taught within initial teacher education before or after the pedagogical approach of predict, observe, explain. One knowledge does not subsume the other but sits alongside. Within the discipline of education, knowledge can be considered to have a more horizontal than vertical structure.

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Underlying these differences in knowledge structures is how knowledge and reality itself are fundamentally viewed within these disciplines. The view of reality taken by the majority of Physicists is an objectivist one in which facts are in existence in the universe ready to be discovered. This leads to a positivist view of knowledge in which, on the whole, these facts are fixed and unchangeable such as, the fundamental law of gravitation discovered by Sir Isaac Newton.  Often however, those within the discipline of education take a very different standpoint on this ontology and epistemology. Within the discipline of education an ontological perspective of constructivism and an epistemological stance of interpretivism pervades. There are no fixed facts, reality is changed by society, different people interpret things differently and the answers to questions such as ‘What makes good Physics teaching?’ changes over time. This is a lot to handle for a student brought up on the unchangeable, predictable, and testable laws of the universe.

Let us first consider the differences in the cognitive dimensions of epistemology to which prospective physics teachers must adapt. Education by its nature is a very applied discipline with Physics being less so, although arguably an application of the purer mathematics. There is a continuum of application within disciplines here, if we visualise this continuum with education at the left-hand end then maths would be placed at the right with physics slightly to the left of maths. This gives us one way to visualise one shift in epistemology to be undertaken by prospective physics teachers. However, this is only one aspect of the cognitive epistemological shift required. There is also the spectrum of ‘softness’ of knowledge to be considered, with education at one extreme and ‘hard’ physics and the even harder maths at the other. Students with a background within the disciplines of physics and maths need to find a way to modify their view of knowledge from hard-pure disciplines (HP) focussed on discoveries and explanations to that of soft-applied (SA) disciplines which tend to focus on process and procedure protocols. It is in changing this cognitive view of knowledge that engineers may have their first advantage. Engineering as a hard-applied (HA) discipline with a traditional focus on products and techniques is already somewhat along the application continuum toward education in comparison to physics and maths.

Prospective physics teachers need not only adapt to the cognitive differences in epistemological stances between the disciplines but also to social epistemological differences. The social dimension of epistemology gives us two further continua to consider: convergent-divergent and urban-rural. Physics as a general field is considered by many to be elitist with a stable body of agreed knowledge, with the occasional exception such as particle physics. This convergent view of knowledge is at one extreme of the convergent-divergent continuum with education at the other. Within the field of education there is much more intellectual divergence with standards of knowledge changing over time reflecting differences across the world. Each day over a billion children and young people attend school however, there are proportionally few researchers in the field of education. This puts education at the rural end of our final continua with Physics firmly at the urban end. Physics has a much higher person to problem ratio than education. For example, in particle physics numerous researchers across the world work together to solve the same problem. Within these continua of the social dimensions of epistemology engineers may once again find themselves closer to the discipline of education than physicists do.  Working in teams of various sizes to solve problems, on average the discipline of engineering has a smaller person to problem ratio than physics and there is greater divergence in the knowledge within the discipline. Although engineering is widely considered a convergent-urban (CU) discipline it sits someway between the social epistemological extremes of education as a divergent-rural (DR) discipline and the convergent-urban discipline of physics.

These differences in epistemologies lead to differences in the purpose of education within disciplines and subsequent pedagogical and assessment approaches. Social science, where education situates, focusses on students becoming ethical and engaged citizens resulting in assessment practices which frequently include open book essays and portfolios. Sciences, technologies, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects on the other hand focus on addressing real world issues analytically and with criticality with modes of assessment such as closed book exams. Unlike physicists and mathematicians however, engineers are often also familiar with work-based learning through industrial placements, learning through action research and the need to work towards external standards related to professional recognition. These are aspects also contained within many initial teacher education courses. Therefore, there is arguably a greater overlap between the pedagogical approaches of education and engineering than of physics or maths with education. All STEM students moving into education will need to adapt their pedagogical identities however, students with backgrounds in engineering may have less adapting to do than students with backgrounds in physics and maths.

An obvious question however remains: What can be done to support these students to adapt to what is for many a challenging, daunting but exciting new discipline?  

Author

Nicola Jones, Lecturer in Education (science), School of education.
Acknowledgement: With thanks to Michael.Mcewan@glasgow.ac.uk for discussions around this topic.

References:

Abbas, A. (2016) Teaching Excellence in the disciplines. Available at: https://s3.eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/assets.creode.advancehe-document-manager/documents/hea/private/resources/teaching_excellence_in_the_disciplines_1568037354.pdf (Accessed February 2022).

Bianchini, J. (2012) ‘Teaching while still learning to teach: Beginning science teachers’ views, experiences and classroom practices.’, in Fraser, B. et al. (eds.) Second international handbook of science education. New York: Springer pp. 389-399.

Becher, T. and Trowler, P. (2001) Academic tribes and territories. 2nd edn. Buckingham: The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

Carter, C. (2018) Successful dissertations: the complete guide for education, childhood and early childhood studies students.2nd edn. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Harlen, W. (ed.) (2015) Working with big ideas of science education. Trieste: Science Education Programme (SEP) of IAP.

Trowler, P. (2009) ‘Beyond epistemological essentialism: academic tribes in the Twenty-First Century.’, in Kreber, C. (ed.) The Universiyu and its disciplines: teaching and learning within and beyond disciplinary boundaries. London: Routledge.

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