I’m trying to put together a few thoughts about high school (HS) physics education research (PER): why it’s needed, why it’s difficult, and what kind of support it needs to take off. I come to the discussion after teaching high school for 10 years and near the end of a physics Ph.D. focused on PER, with research at the university level.
Why High School PER?
High school physics teachers have always been the most innovative, creative, and responsive educators teaching physics. They’ve been the first to work with standards-based grading, the first to adopt new pedagogies like Modeling, and so on. Over the past generation, in my opinion, dedicated high school physics teachers have developed a remarkable arsenal of instructional and assessment strategies, approaches to lab-work and improving classroom equity, and other pedagogical techniques. Blogs, twitter, and PLCs allow us to document some of this work, but the short life-span of these forms of records may make it difficult to share with the next generation of teachers. Research publications would allow expert teachers to provide durable and significant insight to future teachers, whether they are in teacher preparation programs or are reading about physics pedagogy on their own time.
While teaching is a rewarding vocation, I think that many of us feel the itch to take the “next step” — into a school leadership, as a department head, as a coach, contributing to curriculum review, or seeking to innovate instruction or assessment. For some educators, research can be a fulfilling part of reflective practice that helps to round out the job.
What are the barriers?
For physics teachers interested in getting involved with physics education research, there are some significant and substantial roadblocks. The first of these is time. PER scholars at the university level often include research in their 9-5, whether they are grad students or professors. For some high school teachers, PER can be a hobby, but I don’t know of any who have been able to negotiate research time into their employment contracts.
A second barrier is that PER exists at a sort of continental divide. I will use some organizations in the USA to make this point, but this issue is pervasive. K-12 science education research (such as the NARST community) rarely focuses on specific disciplines in high school, and tends to be centred on Schools of Education at big universities. The NSTA is more teacher-focused, but misses out on research, and high school disciplines don’t really have a home base there. The AAPT welcomes high school physics teachers, but there is a gap between many researchers (who tend toward PERC, anyway) and high school teachers. In short, high school PER scholars don’t have a home base.
A few years ago, while teaching high school physics and math, I tried to write an article for The Physics Teacher. I can see now that it was embarrassingly bad, and it was (rightly) rejected. In the past four years studying PER at grad school, I’ve learned how to write papers about PER, how to do a literature search, and a million other little things that help me to be a (hopefully successful) physics education researcher. On top of that, I also learned a ton about research methods, from statistics to qualitative methods. Most high school teachers can’t spend half a decade in grad school to learn how to do PER. But, more importantly than the expertise gap, there is a confidence gap. It was tough enough for me to build up the courage to write an article for a teaching-focused journal, there was no way I’d have the confidence to submit a technical article!
Another issue facing high school teachers is ethnical research practices. Some schools and school boards say a flat “no” to requests to conduct and publish research on students. Parental consent may be required in many other circumstances. At universities, ethics are codified into Institutional Review Boards which, while not easy, at least make it possible to conduct human subjects research. Negotiating permission to study and publish is another skills that high school teachers need to develop in order to practice PER in their classes.
Research follows money, and in the USA (and many other places) the current funding climate is set up to support college-level education research, graduate student training, and programs that increase the number of high school physics teachers. Even when small grants are available, it can be difficult for high school PER scholars to find out about them, find time to apply, and even build up the confidence to go for it. Another funding issue is that there are baseline costs associated with PER that are insignificant for many university researchers, but stumbling-blocks for high school teachers, including the cost of attending conferences, article processing charges for publications, and membership fees for professional organizations.
Finally, it is easy to overlook the importance of having access to a university library. Too often, as a high school teacher trying to do research, I would stumble across an amazing-sounding paper that I couldn’t access because of paywalls. Sci-hub and open-access publications (like PR:PER and the PERC proceedings) may be lessening this burden.
A Way Forward?
High school PER scholars need a home, community, support, and respect. I wonder if it would be possible to apply for some medium-sized grants (eg, $5k from PERLOC) to set up a community that would provide:
- A series of online night classes on PER-relevant methods
- Mentoring from experienced PER scholars on designing experiments and publishing results
- Connections with PER scholars who can consult on specific topics or methods
- Space for collaboration between researchers seeking to work on a single project
- Opportunities to talk about your research and get feedback from fellow high school PER scholars
- Financial support to attend conferences and publish papers
- A regular colloquium talk series to introduce current broad areas of interest in PER
Faculty at two-year colleges experience a lot of the same expertise and constraints as what I described above, and so I think they would be a valuable addition to this little proposal. Personally, I’m not sure where I’ll be in 6 months, but no matter in what context I end up teaching, I’d like to continue to support work like this. I love high school physics.
If you have opinions, are interested in making this happen, or want to poke me to ask why I haven’t done anything about this even though it’s been X months since I wrote this post, send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.