Laws of Motion

I’ve been meaning to write on this subject for a while, but never quite found the right forum. I did a few searches on the internet, but didn’t find anything on the topic.

Physics students are taught that there are 3 laws of motion. In simplified form let’s list them as:

1. Inertia

2. F=ma

3. Action-reaction

What I’m proposing here is that there are only 2 laws of motion. I don’t want people to get too freaked out here, but it’s quite clear to me that there are only 2. The 2nd law and the 3rd law. The first law, what is that? The first law is simply an incomplete statement of the 2nd law. In no other equation do you get two for the price of one. I guess it’s just due to the respect owed Newton, but that’s no reason to keep superfluous laws floating about.

To illustrate, we have Hooke’s law, which states that F=-kx. Imagine if I said that was Hooke’s 2nd law, and  Hooke’s first law is thus:

“A spring with no force on it has no displacement, and a spring with a constant displacement must have a constant force on it.”

Any reasonable person would say, well that’s what the equation says, duh. They’re the same thing, except the equation expresses the relationship completely.

Now, I read somewhere that the first law actually details what an inertial frame of reference is, which essentially means a viewpoint from which there are no external forces. This seems rather tautological to me. Like saying:

“People who have more birthdays live longer.”

No kidding.



Course 5 Final Project

Say Wello and Wave Goodbye :)

Here is my final video project for the CEOTAIL course series. It has been an excellent experience interacting with so many dedicated educators to develop better tech skills to help improve student performance. Thank you to all of you who have commented and responded to me comments over the span of these courses. Your input has been of great benefit to me going through this process.

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Ruminations on Course 5 Final Project

I have spent a bit of time thinking about what to do for the course 5 project. Essentially, I will have to focus on my 9th grade Physics class, because in all likelihood the IB HL Physics will not run. The other option is my Conceptual Physics course, but because that course doesn’t require as much homework, it only makes sense to look at physics instead.

Of course, this year with my team we have already started working towards flipping the classroom to a large extent, and so my initial thought was to just take a unit the rest of the way. Personally, I am enjoying my 9th grade classes much more this year because our focus has been on activities, but it could be argued that we have made the course easier in terms of curriculum. On many tests we have simply tossed out a few bits to accommodate the fact that we haven’t spent quite as much time on teaching the lessons. In terms of the class, I’m fine with that because we have been doing a really good job of building lab skills. The cutting hasn’t been drastic at all. However, I really don’t know if knowledge of that from the admin or parents or our department head would cause problems.

The point being that I would like to try to keep the changes that we have made, while trying to cover the original curriculum more fully. As the year has worn on I have found myself making less of the instructional videos, for example. I would like to do a better job of consistently providing those videos to the students, even if they are simply for a reference. Additionally, I would like to put some pressure on our IT department to give us better support for OneNote. I’m confident that if I tell them it is a priority for me, they will act. In a certain sense I think that while they are very willing to help us, they need us to tell them what we want. They are leery about telling teachers what to do in the classroom, but if I told them what I want and follow through, I think they would be happy to see more tech being implemented and it might give a good example for other teachers to follow.

There are two reasonable options for which unit to flip. One would be to do a unit that we have not done this year, such as the Fluids Unit, so as to get a jump on it and have it ready for the other teachers in my team. The benefits of that are that it would help out my team and that it has not had any flipping at all yet. It’s like a raw lump of clay waiting to be molded. However, the timing of it and the due date of this project do not necessarily line up.

The other option would be to take a unit we have worked on this year already and see just how far I could flip it and apply what I have learned in these COETAIL classes. A good example might be the Projectile Unit, because it has a number of good activities built in that I think with some tech support could be made even better. Additionally, the framework for flipping it is already in place and I could focus more directly on the tech side.

It seems I will have to ruminate on the possibilities a bit longer. Both seem perfectly reasonable choices. The decision will have to wait until another day…

Devices as a Virtue

I was fortunate enough to finally join a school with a one-to-one laptop program after teacher at several international schools that did not. At TAS a decision was made several years before I arrived to require all students to have one of a limited number of computers, and to have the same basic software package. This ensured that every student would have any software that teachers needed, and the teachers were free to add software to the required software package if they could justify it. Unfortunately for us in the science department, however, the school allowed students to opt out of having a tablet or a touch screen, which would be very advantageous for solving equations and making diagrams.

Nevertheless, other than the requirement to use Powerschool we were given no other obligatory classroom tech use. So it has been up to us as teachers to put in place what we feel is best for the students. Fortunately, the team that I teach physics with has a solid tech background and from the very beginning was not only helpful bringing me up to speed on what they were already doing, but also was very positive about creating curriculum that would support even more tech integration.

I would now like to do a bit of a tech audit on my classes, to describe what I myself and using and what the students are using for classroom activities. After exploring some of the software options available, including an interesting but ultimately frustrating workshop on using DyKnow, I eventually decided on the basic framework for my classes. Despite some drawbacks, I chose to use OneNote as the primary vehicle for delivering notes. The major advantage to using OneNote is the ability to keep a variety of notes, files, and other media organized in one place. For example, it gives me the ability to grade and return labs electronically and have the students keep them organized and readily available in the class notebook.

Of course, there are a few things which make the OneNote software less than ideal. For one, most of our students don’t have a tablet or a touchscreen, so that limits some of the basic function of the software. Also, the students don’t come into the class knowing how to use OneNote, so they have to be taught. Additionally, IT currently doesn’t have a system in place to simplify the process of getting the OneNote pages to the students smoothly, and that has caused a number of headaches. IT has plans to look into it when they have time, but they’re busy. Also, OneNote doesn’t integrate well with the Smart Board, it doesn’t have the bells and whistles of PowerPoint, and unfortunately the older students in the school haven’t had OneNote upgraded to the 2010 version. I could continue on the negatives, but I’ll spare you such detail.

As part of the 9th grade science curriculum the department has also decided to include a video project as part of the final grade for all 9th graders. Students are expected to learn the basics of video editing while exploring some aspect of physics that interests them. Furthermore, or most of the lab work that we do in physics, students use a piece of software called LoggerPro which connects to a number of probes and sensors and allows students to process data for their lab reports. It even includes some video analysis which we use to help support the video project that they are required to complete in the 2nd semester. In terms of content I use a significant amount of material directly from the internet, including pHet simulations, some games, and other supporting material. And while I don’t make extensive use of Google docs in my class due to the limitations on graphics and formulas, there have been times when we use Google docs to share data or review information and I have found that it is an effective method for doing so.

All in all, I’m pleased with the level of tech integration in my classes, even though I wouldn’t consider myself to be on the cutting edge. But every year things evolve and I have been willing to consider new ideas and programs. One of the problems with being at the vanguard of tech is that very often if you put a lot of energy and effort into one program, you soon find out that that program is obsolete or has been replaced by software, and much of the work you put in has been wasted or cut back dramatically. Hopefully, a lot of that is due to the internet being in its infancy and as things mature, this problem will diminish considerably. Time will tell.

The Playing Field

As much as I have enjoyed my vacation to Kenya and Uganda this winter, the experience has caused quite a significant evolution in my thinking about this continent I had never visited before, but had already built up so many impressions of from various sundry sources. More importantly, reflecting on the future of education has led me to some conclusions about the profound impact that technology can and ought to have for students who have historically had little access to schools, teachers, or the knowledge that many in the industrialized nations take for granted.

I suspect that Africa is a place that spawns significant reflection for a lot of visitors, from the failure of policy, governments, aid, and progress, to discussions of human need and the corruption of power. I had an intriguing discussion with a previous colleague about the systems of power and the building of more meritocratic social structures, and this got me thinking more broadly and hopefully about the future of education in the developing world as a driver of social equality.

Someone recently told me that their son had struggled with an online course in Algebra, in which the students had to work their way successfully through modules which taught and tested specific skills in math. And unlike being a kind of supplement for the course, this essentially was the course. This is, in its essence, a significant change in education that will occur over the next several decades: a push towards classes that rely heavily on tech and little to no teacher-student interaction. As much as many in the western world will complain, and in some measure with good reason, this is in fact an important and dramatic shift in educational thinking which will have reverberating consequences for learning worldwide. While I could focus on the negative aspects of this approach within the western world, I would like to instead focus on the amazing potential positive effect this will have on the developing world.

Consider the situation in Africa. Many children have practically no access to decent educational opportunities. There are not enough schools, and not enough teachers, and more importantly, not enough money for them to even attend those schools. Children who otherwise have all of the intellect, curiosity, and motivation to become teachers,  artists, lawyers, leaders, or anything else that they are inclined to become, are relegated to crushing poverty and hopelessness because of their lack of resources. Now, with the advent of the internet and the slow progress toward effective programs that do not require significant input from teachers, the possibility for self-motivated individuals to satiate their personal interest in a subject will only become only more and more accessible.

But what will these future lessons look like? I once had a discussion with several people who thought that I was crazy to think that teachers could be mostly replaced in the learning process. But I think they were seeing the future much too narrowly. I can’t predict the timeframe of this vision, but I can see a not too distant future when students step into a pod surrounded by screens, or perhaps wearing virtual glasses, and the computer says into his headphones “Welcome, Jimmy, it’s been 3.4 hours since your last lesson. Would you like to continue where we left off, or are you interested in something else right now?” and Jimmy could literally have coherent conversations with his private computer tutor. I’m not just talking about robotic scripted dialogue. I’m talking about whole conversations where the computer literally remembers what Jimmy has said previously and speaks to him just like a human adult.

After a while the computer might say, “You look a bit tired. Would you like to play a game for a few minutes?” Or maybe the computer would say, “Remember we had that conversation about the domestication of maiz by the Aztecs. Do you remember the Aztec word for aiz?” and then when Jimmy responds “No, I don’t remember.” ZAAAAAPPPPPPP!!! As an electric shock runs up Jimmy’s spine. “Jimmy, do you remember now?”

I’m kidding, but the point is that every student on planet earth could have this software available to them for free. And granted it might not be the best way for all students to learn, nevertheless, it would be an effective way for any student to learn, whether child or adult. And this would be an unheralded step towards leveling the playing field for everyone, for giving access to learning to everyone, particularly to those who have been left out of consideration for far too long.

I am looking at a timeframe of 50 years here. Not at these primitive first steps we are currently seeing. I see a future where the computer is actually a better teacher than a human, because the computer has infinite patience and reacts to meet the needs of every individual student. And perhaps my vision is too revolutionary to be accomplished in 50 years, but when I look at photos of Shanghai just 20 years ago, or when I consider what Taipei must have looked like 50 years ago, I can look at Africa now and despite all of the pitfalls see the potential for a positive future.

Of course from a socio-political standpoint, there are still many questions to address. Practically everyone I know says we want to give every child an opportunity to learn and be successful, but when a software developer in the US hears that an engineer in India will work 16 hours a day for 1/5th the pay, they start to get squeamish about equal opportunity for all. It is still to be seen how the current power brokers will react to this threat to their influence, and whether they can devise new artifices to maintain their hold on power by continuing to marginalize large blocks of people, as they have always done, or whether a much more truly meritocratic society will emerge.

All Forward Reverse

This year in physics my team teachers and I have made a significant push towards a more flipped classroom. Still, we haven’t completely made the switch. Our thinking was that we would gradually shift and build up materials over the course of several years mostly to help smooth our own transition as teachers to this new style of instruction. Also, we weren’t completely sure how much work would be required to make the change and didn’t want to overwhelm ourselves with expectations that might ultimately be set too high.

Overall my assessment of our efforts has been very positive, although there have certainly been some difficulties which needed to be addressed to make the team more comfortable and confident in the product we were delivering in the classroom. My central goals of the change have been met, which essentially was to make the class more engaging and interesting for the students and to improve the effectiveness of class time. I am confident that the students have enjoyed the class much more than in previous years due to the focus on classroom activities, and their understanding of the material appears to have remained steady. Additionally, for my part I have enjoyed the class more than in previous years due to the fact that I don’t have to stand and deliver as much information, which let’s face it, is tedious for both teachers and students.

The one major hiccup we encountered in our approach to the change was in how we addressed the distribution of labor amongst the teaching team. Our decision, which in retrospect seems a bit absurd, was to separate the different parts of the unit between the teachers. Meaning one teaching would hand the assessments, one teacher would handle the homework, and one teacher would handle the in-class activities. It seemed logical at the time, but problems quickly emerged.

There were two significant problems. One was that unless the assessments were drafted very early for the unit, the other two teachers were left somewhat in limbo, and we found that we were confused a bit how to proceed with changes, even though we all had the lesson plans from previous years to fall back on. Essentially we had left the teacher doing assessments to decide what changes were to be made without giving them input about what we wanted changed, nor giving them feedback about what interesting lessons we had might have planned. In the end, it just couldn’t effectively be separated in that way and either we needed to change our approach or we had to meet to discuss the units frequently. The second problem was that in the end, one of the teachers just wasn’t comfortable proceeding into a unit that wasn’t completely hashed out and that meant a decision had to be made.

In the end, we decided to stop attempting to separate the units and to allow them to come together somewhat more organically. We couldn’t justify the added meeting time that would be necessary to keep the planning separate. Teachers who had ideas about lessons presented them to the team and we incorporated them as needed or appropriate, and discussed changes to the assessments as we moved forward. In the end, our planning was somewhat more chaotic, but because we already had a curriculum to fall back on, no real problems ensued. Our main focus became what we were doing in the classroom as far as activities, and in the end if our assessments from previous years were not appropriate or incomplete, we made the changes necessary as the unit came to a close.

From a purely didactic perspective, we recognize this as not being ideal in terms of backward planning. However, we had the confidence in the planning of our previous curriculum to let it serve as our framework and try to mitigate any problems by making fair changes to the unit assessments. While not a perfect solution, the improvement in our class time more than made up for the slight confusion on assessments, and now we will have a clear focal point for improvement in the curriculum for next year.

Essentially, our efforts at flipping the classroom have been a success, although the work is not finished. But hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

The Tech Crunch

In addressing the tech needs of students in my own classroom, using the TIM framework as an evaluation, I can see some general strengths of my own approach and I can also see some areas for improvement.

In general, although my school is one-to-one and has a fairly high tech presence, heavy tech integration at the curricular level isn’t being pushed very hard. In my own classroom, for example, I rarely hand anything out on paper. All of my notes are given electronically and kept on the students’ computer. And this, in and of itself, is considered to be rather avaunt-guard for the school.

My point is that the integration at the highest levels being advanced by the TIMs, in terms of transformation and goal directed learning, are not only not being encouraged by our admin, but are quite literally discouraged in most classes. As I have mentioned previously, when our math department went to a more modern approach to teaching, they were summarily sent home with their tails between their legs. Our English department has been directed from the highest levels that there should be no group work or posters or any of that ‘new-agey’ stuff. One teacher was called in for doing a project on Facebook, which I personally thought could be an interesting assignment for the students, and was told it was not appropriate. My point being that we have a very traditional learning environment here that is not only supported by the admin, but also by the parents in the community.

On the other hand, in the science department we have had a little more leeway to move things forward. For one thing, we have an excellent reputation. For another the nature of science is hands-on and practical, and labs are a necessary component. Additionally, admin has given a lot of encouragement to teachers to create new classes that would fit much more nicely into the TIM model, and I recently had a lengthy discussion with another teacher about the possibility of a class built around students designing and carrying out projects related to renewable energy, which in the end I think is the type of class where the TIM can form the basis for the curriculum, rather than the other way around.

The problem of course, is that it takes risk. At the point where innovation, parents, admin, teachers, and students all collide, in my professional teaching experience,  that’s where the real tech crunch lies.

Whose responsibility is it?

Over the course of the COATAIL program we have explored many aspects of technology and I have mentioned before that while I think a lot of the teachers at my school are doing an excellent job of trying to meet the technology needs of students, the more I become familiar with the NETS, the TIMs, and the 21st Century Skills, the more I recognize that our school lacks aa overall plan for implementation of these skills.

I think part of why we have not addressed this issue on a school wide level is because our teachers and students have done  such a good job of taking responsibility for teaching and learning these skills, that it has made it easy to overlook and put off this area of concern. The biggest problem at this juncture, however, is that of course teachers have a wide range of tech skills. I dare say that in some ways this is an even bigger issue at our school because we have a higher number of veteran teachers than many international schools, and they tend to have less developed tech experience. Additionally, this adds complexity to the issue because not only are the skills not as good, they are often resistant to taking on a new challenge without clear goals and making support available.

Another complication is that when you have a strong staff and are offering what has thus far been a strong program for the students, it is difficult to make major updates to a learning program. And I don’t want to imply that teachers are neglecting tech in the classroom. In my department in particular, I think we take our tech integration very seriously. But there is the potential for gaps and while is a vague way we as a school accept the vision of the 21 century learner, there isn’t anyone checking on what is happen in the curriculum, and there isn’t anyone ensuring that there is a standard that all students are expected to reach.

In one of my classes, for example, 9th grade science has decided that all of our students will be involved in a video project using Corel Videostudio Pro that will be due towards the end of the year, and we have put in place instructional time and supporting labs to build the skills to be able to complete this video project. But we planned and implemented this on our own, with no apparent input from anyone outside the science department. And it deserves mention that this is a group project, so it would be quite easy for students to rely on one member of the group to do all of the video work and therefore not learn any editing skills. I also know that the social studies department is also doing a tech project, but I really can’t remember what it is. That’s part of the problem. Nobody knows what anybody else is doing.

So while we as a school recognize and are trying to meet the needs for tech skills, questions begin to loom large. How do we know what skills the students have? What skills do we even expect the students to have? Who is checking to see that these expectations are met? And of course, who is going to take on the challenge of  actually putting together a coherent program for tech integration across all levels and subject areas in the curriculum.

Photos for Physics

I decided to look for a few pictures to help with an upcoming unit on light for my physics class. Here are a few images that I will give in the notes for the students. You can see the attribution if you mouse over the photos.

This one is a fabulous depiction of refraction. Historically speaking, people who noticed this effect may have been inspired to look for better ways of manipulating transparent materials, which eventually led to the creation of lenses, telescopes, and glasses. Although simple, it shows how light bends as it enters and exits a material, and also gives that clue that the manipulation of light is possible.

Enough bugs- some dewdrop refractions #7
The second is a very nice demonstration of the change that a polarizing filter can have on images. Essentially, when light reflects off of surfaces, it has a tendency for its wave motion to be ‘flattened’, such that it can be blocked by a polarizing filter, which acts a lot like a picket fence. This is the reason that polarizing filters can be used to reduce glare.

I Think I Need a Polarizing Filter (Explored)



The topic of remixes reminded me of an activity that I have been doing for years in my science classes that I have always thought gives a good analogy of human inventiveness and culture. I usually do it on one of the first days of school as a fun activity to get the students thinking about how science and progress work.

Their task is this: to use a single sheet of paper and 30 cm of tape to build the tallest possible structure. I usually give them some kind of prize for being the winner and then I let them start without any direction.

There are many approaches that the different groups have taken to this task, and it is quite clear that they are drawing on previous experience and knowledge to put their ideas together, because practically every group will start  by doing things I have seen before. Sometimes the group will argue among the members either for ideas or leadership or about their vision, but eventually the  lack of time will force them to act.

But one of the most interesting features of the assignment is the fact that groups can see the work of the other groups. And they can steal their ideas. As a teacher that puts me in a bit of a predicament about whether I discourage them from using other people’s ideas, or allow it to happen. The reality of the situation is that whether I tell them it is cheating or not, the clever students will immediately notice whether the ideas of another group are good or not, and they will copy, whether I like it or not.

This brings up some very interesting parallels to how real life actually works. In the sense that companies try to block other companies from taking their work, as well as the fact that most companies are directly taking apart other products so that they can copy/adapt/modify their designs. Most people have some vague sense that it isn’t proper to claim credit for those ideas, but this is how our world operates.

And students operate the same way. And so do teachers. And so will the companies that they work for. In one very palpable sense I’m happy to be in the field of science, where there is a very deliberate and obvious intention to make knowledge available to everybody, and perhaps that has shaped my own personal worldview regarding issues of copyright.

In my opinion there is just no way of denying that all human knowledge is a remix.