Parents are the reason that students cannot hack the Math in Physics?

High school kids cannot use fractions.Another physics teacher told me that students cannot hack the math in physics,” says Stewart Brekke in his article entitled, “Urgent Math Crisis in our Nation: Basic Math Deficits Affect Student Performance in High School Physics and Chemistry“.  Is this an unusual observation for a Physics teacher?  Brekke estimates that the USA “may now have over 100,000 high-school students who do not know fractions and decimals well enough to do high-school physics and chemistry successfully, let alone go on to college and pass a physics or chemistry course.”

There is clearly a problem on our hands – many teens cannot do basic mathematics.  Where do we find the source of this problem?

Stewart Brekke speculates that part of the problem may be attributed to the elementary schools placing too much emphasis on reading skills and not nearly enough on basic arithmetic skills. Japanese elementary school students typically spend two to three times as much time on developing mathematical skills as their American counterparts. The result of this shift in priorities is evident.  Stewart also believes that the “lack of a proper foundation at home” is also a significant contributor to the poor arithmetic skills observed in high school students. Sadly, many children enter first grade without being able to count to ten, and their progress in arithmetic skill development is severely hampered.

It is not that parents do not care, for, on the whole, I have seen them show deep concern about their children’s education, but that many of these parents do not take the time to teach their children number facts nor reading skills. These parents must be informed early that their child’s success in school means that they must start educating their children before they enter kindergarten,” says Brekke.

Education systems all over the world invest vast sums of money into remediation of high school students struggling with poor basic skills. Yet high school Physics and Chemistry classes continue to shrink in size as teenagers avoid confronting the issues that stand in their way of understanding these subjects.  Are we trying to solve a problem instead of preventing it?  What would happen if more of the national or state education investment was used for programs aimed at educating the PARENTS of pre-school children, thus effectively equipping them to help their children develop the basic skills needed for future success at school? 

 Can parents make a difference at home?  All indications are that if parents do not participate in the education process BEFORE their child enters the school system, they may in fact be contributing to their child’s future scholastic failure.


Is kindergarten too young to study Physics?

Studying Physics in a kindergarten classMany parents of young children have vague (and sometimes not so pleasant) memories of studying Physics during their high school years.  These same parents with their somewhat patchy memories of what matter and energy are, and how these “Physics things” interact, would be astounded to learn that their kindergarten-age children are in fact ready to study Physics.  But isn’t Physics terribly complex with lots of formulae, obscure calculations, and plenty of abstract concepts to glue it all together?  How can a kindergarten-age child possibly study Physics?

 [1]Marxen in her article “Push, Pull, Toss, Tilt, Swing: Physics for Young Children”, explores the role of Physics in the learning process and problem-solving skill development of young children.  Marxen comments that there are “similarities between how children think and learn and how scientists work. Children, like scientists, are theory builders. When children are allowed to construct knowledge by acting on their environment, they expand their understanding, which in turn contributes to their intellectual development.”  So your children are little rocket scientists in disguise, how exactly are they learning and building these theories?

Marxen explains that young children’s Physics experiences usually involve the movement of objects.  For most parents and teachers, “movement of objects” is synonymous with play.  The action is primary and the observation is secondary. Children typically make discoveries about matter and energy through creative play and simple discovery activities in the classroom and at home. For example, something as simple and inexpensive as some small balls and a few sheets of cardboard (that can be folded into ramp-like structures of varying steepness) can invite children to explore concepts that will only be translated into detailed formulae and complex concepts many years down the road for them.  Playing and learning to ask the question “why does that happen” gives these children the opportunity to acquire valuable learning experience.  This experience can be built upon to create a practical knowledge base which will later provide a sturdy foundation to which more complex, abstract Physics knowledge can easily be added.

Are kindergarten children too young to study Physics?  Absolutely not!  Teachers and parents alike can introduce young children to Physics discovery and learning with play-based activities without fear that the children may be overwhelmed or turned off Physics.  Plan playtime or classroom activities that focus on getting the children to experiment and make observations about the world they live in, and you will be well on your way to stimulating a life-long interest in, and appreciation for Physics.

[1]        Carol E. Marxen; Childhood Education, Vol. 71, 1995.


Where is the gap in my education?

As a teacher of Physics, I have spent years searching for ways to make complex concepts simple to grasp. I have looked for ways to make the learning process easier. And I have studied my students, listened to them, watched them, and experimented with different ideas to see which will enhance their understanding. In this process, one thing has never ceased to amaze me. In speaking to colleagues in similar study fields, I discovered that I was not the only one to notice this strange “phenomenon”. What astounded me was the gaping hole in the education of my students, and the frightening thing about it was that most parents and students didn’t seem the least bit concerned about it. What was missing? Common sense. Common sense? Surely I am mistaken? Everyone has common sense – it comes with the being human, right?


Obviously not obvious…

I spent years watching how students dealt with problem solving challenges. The majority of students were confident in the beginning, especially after spending time with the theory until it made sense to them. With the theories studied, they would move on to tackle complex problems with their new toolbox of Physics laws and mathematical formulae. But, in their haste to engage the challenge, they would leave behind all the simple, everyday skills that they would need to create the rock solid foundation for using the formulae and laws.

Imagine being summoned to a battle at the top of a mountain. You decide you are going to order some fierce “big guns”. You have them delivered at the foot of the mountain. In preparation for the battle you study those big, heavy monster guns, getting to know everything there is to know about them. You walk around them, you touch them, you knock on the metal, you sniff it, and you even practice pulling the trigger. On the day of the battle, you wake up knowing you are ready to use your weapons to defeat the enemy. Just as you do every morning, you use your bicycle to ride to the foot of the mountain. You and your guns are ready for battle, right? So, let’s go do battle at the top of the mountain. Oh, wait. That’s a problem, isn’t it?

Apparently there is no problem. What don’t the students see? The students will happily report for battle without realizing that they will not be able to use their “big, heavy guns”. Why? They didn’t organize any trucks to transport the guns to the mountain top for the battle. If you are thinking, “who would be so empty headed as to omit that very important step in the process of winning the battle?” you would be joining many other teachers who suffer this frustration daily. Isn’t it obvious to everyone that no matter how big your guns are, they will be useless to you unless you can carry them into battle with you? How can something so obvious be left out of the process? Perhaps the answer lies in the conclusion that it isn’t obvious at all.

This oblivion to the obvious happens constantly, and the result is that many young people drop out of science and mathematics classes, feeling “stupid”, disillusioned, and defeated. They have all the scientific and mathematical tools they need to solve the problems assigned to them, yet somehow none of the tools seem to work. The students stand on the mountain top, crushed, their faces ashen with their sense of betrayal, shamelessly whining about the useless guns that couldn’t be trusted in the heat of the battle. Can this disappointing end to the story be avoided? One of the objectives of this blog is to help students and parents of students find ways to “bridge the gap” on their journey towards successfully studying mathematics and science.


Where it all begins…

Welcome to my blog.  You are invited to journey with me as we explore learning.  Before you decide that this topic has no relevance to you, let me present evidence to the contrary.  You are, after all, able to read this paragraph right now because you learned to read at some earlier time.  You can also tell me how many letters are in the first word of this paragraph, because once upon a time you learned to count.  Just like me, you are an experienced learner.  Learning is something we all do, and have done since we were infants.  As both a scientist and an educator, I derive great pleasure from seeking truth, acquiring knowledge, experimenting with it, and then sharing that knowledge and experience with others. This blog is my way to share what I have learned, and am still learning, with you. Join me as we ask questions, seek answers, digest old angles to the learning debate, explore new ideas that make learning exciting for children and adults alike, and take down the intimidating monsters that have guarded the gates to learning for too long.