About Modeling Instruction

Modeling instruction is one of the most successful reforms to the teaching of physics in the last 50 years. It is predicated on the notion that it is the nature of humans to think using “models”—conceptual representations of real things.  Firmly grounded in cognitive science and based upon the belief that science content cannot be separated from pedagogy, modeling instruction uses an iterative cycle of model construction, model testing and elaboration and model application to help students learn physics deeply and coherently. Even more important, it helps them learn to think like a scientist.

In 1983, high school physics teacher Malcolm Wells was a graduate student of theoretical physicist David Hestenes.  Ibrahim Halloun, who was also Hestenes’ student at the time, was working on an assessment he called the Mechanics Diagnostic, the pre-cursor of the Force Concept Inventory (FCI).(Halloun & Hestenes, 1985a, 1985b)

The results of Halloun’s research utilizing this test revealed that student misconceptions about force are surprisingly robust, and  that these naïve beliefs often persist despite instruction–regardless of the teaching method or the instructor’s qualifications (Halloun & Hestenes, 1985b). Wells, an excellent teacher had already adopted a student-centered inquiry approach based on Learning Cycles (Lawson, 1986, 1994, 2010). When he administered Halloun’s simple measure of student beliefs he was shocked by how poorly his students performed.

In an effort to address this problem, Wells designed a classroom teaching experiment for his dissertation research project, redesigning the mechanics portion of his physics course to focus on  the eight fundamental conceptual models of mechanics described by Hestenes.(1979; David Hestenes, 1983) Adding his newly acquired understanding of the structure of models and the stages that characterized the activity of modeling to his existing instructional design based on Robert Karplus’ learning cycles, (Karplus, 1980) Wells developed a two-stage Modeling Cycle: 1) model development,consisting of description, formulation, ramification and validation and 2) model deployment, in which the model developed in stage 1 was applied to a variety of novel physical situations (Wells, Hestenes, & Swackhamer, 1995). It is this cycle that forms the basis for Modeling Instruction as it is currently practiced by over 6000 teachers around the world.

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