Tag Archives: international

Social Justice in Physics

Moses Rifkin does a superb 6-day unit on social justice in his physics class. Here, by arguing against it, a Fox News correspondent makes it clear why social justice is needed:

I wanted to do something similar to Moses, but I had two constraints:

  1. Since I teach IB physics, and already don’t get enough contact hours, I couldn’t devote more than a class period to it.
  2. Since I teach at an international school in Northern Europe, the social justice issues experienced by my students and in our culture will not necessarily be racial in nature.

Thus, I tried to lift out my favourite parts from Moses’ curriculum, and recontextualize everything to be more universal in nature. Our discussions ended up primarily focusing on sexism, with class, religion and disabilities as other sources of examples and discussion.

We started with some ground rules, directly pilfered from Moses:


Second, I introduced the idea of stereotype threat. Two students had studied this in a psychology class, but had difficult explaining it. I gave an example (as a North American in Europe, I fear being seen as monolingual, and am disinclined to practice languages as I struggle to learn, thus learning less well). The students brainstormed examples in pairs, then shared out. This took about 15 minutes.

Third, I had students randomly select from a list of social groups. They used their computers to quickly find and research two physicists from that social group. In a circle, they shared who they found and I probed with questions like “how did you find this person?”, “how did you choose this physicist?”, “had you heard of this person before today?” and “was it hard to find physicists in this social group?” Our list of social groups (the last two were suggested by students during our discussions):

women, men, heterosexual, homosexual, black, white, young, old, disabled, able-bodied, Christian/Muslim/Jewish, Eastern religion, European/American, not European/American, upper class, lower class

This led fairly naturally to a discussion of why some of these social groups are under-represented among physicists. I asked the students to make hypotheses to explain the under-representation, and then to offer counter-examples for the hypotheses, if they could think of any. Our hypotheses were that the distribution of physicists:

  • represents the population
  • is determined by the geographical location of universities and research institutions
  • is determined by the populations access to education
  • is determined by social expectations
  • is determined by history/politics

These were all seen to be unsuccessful as a complete explanation. Next, we switched directions, and looked at the barriers for people of under-represented social groups. Some good arguments were presented here, including the effect of expensive tuition at university, the impact of stereotypes, and the role of religion. I was able to cap-off these arguments by labeling these effects as the essence of institutional sexism, racism, classism, ablism, agism, homophobia, etc.

We finished with the Implicit Association Test about gender and science. I told the students that they need not share their scores, but many were keen to talk about it, so I know that we got a variety of results that approximately conform to what one would expect from a mixed group.

Before we left, I tried to introduce the idea of privilege, and especially of white privilege, but I think this fell flat, like everything does when you’ve got two minutes until lunchtime.

Hobby School 2007-2011

‘Hobby’ School was founded in 1994 by D. Oyuntsetseg, mother of three, to educate the next generation of Mongolian intelligentsia. Establishing a private school in those times was difficult: the education authorities had no experience with the concept and every detail came under scrutiny. Today, the school occupies a 5-story building in the core of Ulaanbaatar, where it draws students from the rising middle and upper-middle classes.

The school’s name, despite lending an aura of leisure, is deeply meaningful. The inspiration for the school followed on Oyuntsetseg’s youngest son discovering and nursing to health an injured Eurasian Hobby (falcao subbuteo). Oyuntsetseg implemented, from the start, an immersion-based programme of English instruction, and “hobby” is an English word that lacks a good translation in Mongolian.


When I arrived in 2007, the school had an enrollment of about 350 students, in grades 1 to 11 (ages 5 to 16, approximately). Mongolia’s education system was extending from a mandatory 10-year programme to a 12-year course of study, to match the West, and the 12th grade wouldn’t be implemented until 2013-14. Entering students would frequently be dropped a grade level if their Mongolian or English language skills were weak. In the primary grades, we had (Mongolian-supported) English grammar, conversational English, and age-appropriate subjects such as Science and Math. The secondary grades studied English grammar without in-class first language support, and studied Science, Math, History, Geography, and Literature in English. These classes were in addition to their regular Mongolian-language courses.

To reduce the workload on our students, in 2008 we cut Math from grades 8-11. However, this still left the students with about 150% as many contact hours as their peers in other schools. Classes would regularly need to stay for an extra period (missing the bus service) to fit-in all the courses.


I wanted to reduce the workload for the eldest students while also bringing in some international ‘cred’, and settled on the AP programme (the IB and IGCSE being incompatible with our needs). We decided to offer an all-or-nothing option for students to pursue three AP courses in their 10th and 11th years. The courses were World History, Environmental Science, and English Language; and Calculus AB, Psychology, and English Literature. We debuted these courses in the 2010-11 academic year. For many students (particular the 10th grade, but with notable exceptions), the AP courses were too much. They lacked the language fluency, self-driven work ethic, and study skills. However, for a small handful, the courses were appropriate, and 4’s and 5’s were obtained (one student even earned the little-known AP International Diploma).

My teaching area was science, and I taught grades 4-11. I also did the small-school juggle, and covered classes in geography and literature. In the AP programme, I instructed the Environmental Science and Calculus AB courses. After a mid-year departure, I added the two AP English courses to my teaching load as well.


Extracurricular activities can be powerful tools for the development of young people. The school’s regularly-scheduled-program includes a drama festival, an series of athletics competitions, and a song/dance day. Joe McIntyre, the teacher who handed me the proverbial torch, led a suite of activities that included weekend hiking trips, soccer, and a few others. In addition to these, I got a group of students interested in debate through the now-defunct ‘Global Debates’, through which we won a trip to New York in 2009. The interest in debate grew, and I ended up coaching a Mongolian delegation at the world championships in 2010, hosting a debating show on national television, and convening a now-annual debate competition called the UB Open.


Many of the students saw University as a chance to escape Mongolia’s backwater provincialism, and so I offered SAT preparation classes, wrote reams of reference letters, and gave enough advice to become a de facto guidance counselor. We soon figured out the formula for successful applications to top US-style universities. High SAT scores, some focused extracurricular involvement, and a powerful personal statement – added to the novelty of being from one of the world’s most exotic locales – meant that our top students eventually made it to very good colleges. Some of these students went through two (or even three!) application cycles before their application packages were sufficiently attractive.


Graph 1 demonstrates the universities eventually attended by ‘Hobby’ graduates. All students eventually pursued some sort of post-secondary education, and all at accounted for. Two trends are worth mentioning. First is the increase in students attending non-local universities; that is, colleges outside of Mongolia. Second, note the appearance of “Elite” university admissions starting in 2010. For this case, “Elite” means a full or nearly-full scholarship to study at a top 50 undergraduate institution in the USA (the perceived golden standard).


Graph 2 shows a clear trend toward increasing enrollment in foreign universities for the graduating classes of 2008 to 2011. This increase can probably be attributed to (a) a snowball effect of inspiration provided by the previous year’s class, and (b) increased motivation and support for foreign university applications. From Graph 1, note that foreign enrollment in 2012 decreased significantly: this is due in large part to unsuccessful applications, which might be rooted in a removal of institutional support (ie: I was no longer at the school).


Graph 3 shows the academic destinations of the five classes in this study. Note the rise of enrollments in USA (including Canada), Asian (primarily China & Japan), and European (including the excellent AAICU network) universities. The 2010 class was the most diverse; later classes were counselled to strongly consider the USA because of the freer availability of financial aid.

In order to put students onto the trajectory of international education, a number of factors needed to come together. First, the students needed inspiration, both in the sense of having peers who had done it before and in the more mundane day-to-day sense of having an encouraging coach. Second, infrastructure such as SAT prep classes, good reference-writers, personal statement sounding-boards, and available extracurricular and volunteer opportunities needed to be available. Finally, some flavour of internationally-minded (perhaps English-language) instruction should be provided

After I left ‘Hobby’ in the summer of 2011, the graduating class continued to push forward. However, I fear because I took away their day-to-day support, the applications were disappointing. I don’t yet have the data for the 2013 graduating class, but I understand the situation is similar.

Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention ecosystem concerns. Although ‘Hobby’ was a leading institution for almost two decades, Mongolia’s mining-spurred development over the past few years has led to a great deal of (private) investment and foreign influx, including the construction of a plethora of new schools, some of which have budgets to match their high aspirations. ‘Hobby’, it is perceived, is slipping from the leading edge.