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Global Physics Department Update: the power of virtual coaching

January 22, 2012

The Global Physics Department is almost 1 year old. If you go and search the archives, you’ll find an absolute treasure trove of physics teaching goodness. A few weeks ago, grad student Alex Alemi delivered an incredible talk on computational thinking in physics, where he tied the study of zombies, darts and battleship into physics, and presented this brilliant mission statement for physics teachers:

Physics is awesome.
The goal of physics education is to convince students just how awesome physics is.

Last week Sam McKagan showed us the Physics Education Research (PER) user’s guide, which is basically the encyclopedia of all things Physics Education Research. Wonder how Peer Instruction (PI) compares to Just in Time Teaching (JiTT), Sam’s is loaded with information on every conceivable PER-based teaching method, and even includes an outstanding FAQ on Physics Education Research.

But I think the real value of the Global Physics Department to improve day-to-day physics teaching is just beginning to emerge as we explore the idea of virtual coaching. Wheaton College Physics professor Heather Whitney, describes just how powerful virtual coaching can be in a recent blog post, Show me the physics, not just the math. I strongly encourage you to take a moment to read this very thoughtful post.

In this post, Heather explains how little feedback a typical college professor gets on teaching—likely one visit per semester. I’d say this isn’t all that different in high schools, either. Remembering that it is also the case that most physics teachers in high schools are the only physics teacher in their departments, it’s can often be the case that the person visiting your class can’t really offer content or pedagogical suggestions based focused on physics teaching. Of course, these visits are helpful for assessing classroom dynamics, which any well trained teacher can comment on. But in general, I find these observations aren’t a great tool for the sustained, focused improvements I want to make as a teacher. As Heather said, I find these visits and the feedback we tend to get as teachers more helpful for making sure that I’m avoiding “terrible classroom habits” rather than developing nuances of my craft as a teacher.

So what is one to do? I think the Global Physics Department offers a solution. Heather’s post describes the incredible benefit she gained from sharing just 5 minutes of one her classes with the 15 or so attendees (both college and high school physics teachers) at the Global Physics Department. I venture to say that very, very, few, if any physics teachers are ever lucky enough to get feedback from 15 other colleagues, each with a deep understanding of physics and physics pedagogy.

Based on the value participants found from sharing 5 minute clips, we’ve decided to expand our virtual coaching sessions and are now going to try monthly coaching sessions where two physics teachers volunteer and submit 30 minute recordings of their teaching fro review.

The cost of this amazing professional development? Zero dollars. You can attend the global physics department from the connivence of your own couch, and you don’t need to get a sub, or make any travel arrangements. Best of all, this is a purely elective exercise, and consequently the energy and camaraderie of the GPD are very strong. I attend the Global Physics Department not because I’m checking off some sort of professional development requirement, but because I find the sessions genuinely helpful, and geekily, enjoy hanging out with some very cool physics teachers who I consider friends, even if we many not yet have met in real life.

So I hope you will join us this Wednesday at 9:30 for our 2nd coaching session, featuring Heather Whitney again and Frank Noschese. Both of them have submitted 30 minute clips of their teaching, and we should have a very invigorating discussion about physics teaching. If you want to join us, simply leave a comment below, and I’ll forward you the link to the videos we’ll be watching.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Frank Lock permalink
    January 22, 2012 8:52 pm

    Hi John – please send me the link for the Global Physics meeting Wednesday night. I hope to finally participate.

  2. Simon Lorimer permalink
    January 23, 2012 6:56 am


    I would be interested in following this conversation and seeing the videos, though time zones may make full participation difficult.

    Simon Lorimer

  3. January 23, 2012 12:16 pm

    Hi John,

    At my school , I feel like a sub-department of the science department… a mini-Physics department of one. I have only begun to troll the resources, tweets and blogs in the webiverse. But, I already feel like a part of a much bigger community. Thank you.

    Please send me the link for these videos.

  4. January 23, 2012 2:03 pm

    My calendar is clear this week. Can’t wait 🙂

  5. January 24, 2012 3:54 am

    I’d like to see the clips, though I may have a conflict at the time of the GPD.

  6. January 24, 2012 3:22 pm

    Soccer is unfortunately over, so I’m back in the game. It’ll be great to “see” you all again!


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