What is MOP?

A description of the intent and nature of the Minds-On Physics curriculum

During the past two decades, study after study has pointed out the shortcomings of high school physics courses: (a) The vast majority of students who take high school physics emerge with only a shallow understanding of miscellaneous facts and formulas; (b) What knowledge students do acquire is usually plagued with misconceptions, many of which persist despite instruction; and (c) With rare exception, students are unable to apply what they learn to explain, or to reason about, the world around them or to solve interesting, nontrivial problems. These unintended outcomes of physics instruction are the result of a mismatch between the way physics is typically taught and the way students go about the business of learning physics.

The Minds•On Physics (MOP) curriculum materials were specifically written to address this situation. In developing MOP, we have endeavored to take account of research on the teaching and learning of physics, which has grown steadily during the past twenty years. This research has brought to light many of the cognitive difficulties students face in trying to learn physics (see Supplement B in the Teacher's Guide to accompany MOP: Motion). It has also demonstrated the value of an active learning environment and cooperative group work for improving student learning and maintaining student interest (see Supplements A and B in the Motion Teacher's Guide). MOP is designed to be consonant with findings from many different strands of educational and cognitive research - prior conceptions, expert vs. novice differences, the cognitive load associated with different styles of questions, problem solving vs. conceptual understanding, active learning, cooperative group learning, and the effects of meta-communication on the learning process. We believe that MOP will provide teachers with an approach to physics instruction that is better matched to the learning needs of students, and thereby improve the quality of the educational experience for both students and teachers.

MOP is an activity-based, full-year curriculum for high school physics. It is intended to be an excellent preparation for college-level science, and is well matched with the National Research Council's National Science Education Standards. (See Supplement C in the Motion Teacher's Guide for a comparison with the 1996 standards.) The MOP activities were designed to help students learn to use physics concepts to analyze and solve problems, and to curb students' natural tendency to learn by rote and to engage in formula manipulation. Most of the activities are well suited for use in cooperative group settings. Through careful construction and sequencing, MOP activities encourage students (a) to explore their existing understanding of physics-like concepts, (b) to refine their understanding of formal physics concepts and to investigate connections among related concepts, (c) to use physics concepts and principles to analyze and reason about physical situations without recourse to equation pushing, (d) to develop problem-solving skills that are anchored in an understanding of fundamental concepts and principles, and (e) to put together seemingly isolated pieces of physics knowledge into a unified, meaningful whole. Our goal is to enable students to obtain a deeper understanding of physics concepts and a greater facility for applying them to novel situations - or at the very least to point them in the right direction.

Although the MOP activities place a premium on conceptual development, the MOP curriculum should not be viewed as a traditional conceptual-physics curriculum. Many MOP activities require a fairly high level of analytical reasoning and mathematical skill, more comparable to traditional problem-solving physics courses than to conceptual-physics courses. Similarly, MOP engages students in conceptual reasoning at a much deeper level than is typically the case in a conceptual-physics course - for that matter in any type of high school physics course. MOP is a challenging and rigorous course!

Nevertheless MOP is flexible enough to be used with a wide range of students. For example, MOP activities have been used in 8th and 9th grade physical science courses, and they have been used in graduate-level teacher preparation courses. This is possible because of the way MOP activities are sequenced. Initial activities focus on the students' understanding of concepts. Later activities help students build and refine a scientific understanding of physics concepts. Only then are students asked to do the more challenging activities that require complex analysis and reasoning skills. The quantitative/mathematical development of a topic only occurs after students have had sufficient opportunity to develop a thorough conceptual understanding. We believe that MOP can provide all students with the skills needed to succeed in physics, and that the materials help create a classroom environment that is active and inclusive.

Another reason many different levels and types of classes can use MOP is that the depth of coverage is determined by the teacher and the students, not the activity. This is the beauty of having questions at the core of the curriculum. Students at different stages of development will necessarily interpret them differently, and their answers will always reveal the depth and breadth of their understanding. And teachers can probe as much or as little as they desire into their students' thought processes.

Activities are the heart and soul of the MOP curriculum materials, but the MOP program is more than a set of student activities and associated materials. It is an approach to learning physics. Underlying the approach is a set of four basic principles:

  • Knowledge is constructed by each learner, not transmitted to him or her by someone else.
  • The construction of knowledge is an effortful process requiring significant time and engagement by the learner.
  • The construction of knowledge often takes place within the context of social interaction.
  • The construction of knowledge is greatly influenced by the knowledge the learner already possesses.

In recognition of these principles, MOP advocates an action-oriented approach to learning physics. This means that MOP encourages little (if any) lecturing by the teacher, and requires minimal reading by the student prior to working on an activity. Instead, after a brief introduction to a new topic, students are quickly engaged in activities that require them to interact with other students and the teacher. Working in groups students use concepts to analyze problem situations and answer open-ended questions, explore the meaning of concepts through inquiry and hands-on activities, and share personal reflections on prior experiences. The approach treats students as sentient individuals, each one having a unique way of looking at a situation or solving a problem. The MOP approach builds on what students know, and it emphasizes processes, such as analyzing, reasoning, explaining and strategizing, over coverage of "physics facts."

Content of MOP. The MOP materials are contained in six volumes of student activities and six corresponding Teacher's Guides. The first three volumes of activities are the core of the MOP curriculum and can be covered in 1/2 to 3/4 of the school year. The first volume contains activities covering Motion. The second volume is on Interactions. The third treats Conservation Laws & Concept-Based Problem Solving. Taken together, we refer to these three volumes as mechanics.

The remaining three volumes constitute supplemental activities, which can be done for the final 1/4 to 1/2 of the school year. They are Fundamental Forces & Fields, Complex Systems, and Advanced Topics in Mechanics. The goal of each is to show how the concepts in mechanics can be applied to many other topics.

The materials require very little specialized or sophisticated equipment. In mechanics, most of the manipulatives that might be needed are common household items, such as balls, string, washers, marbles, and bathroom scales. However, it is helpful if teachers have access to basic equipment, such as dynamics carts, air tracks, and spring scales. Within the supplemental activities, some of the equipment needed is a little more specialized, but it should still be simple and familiar, such as batteries, magnets, wire, and nails.

Assessment. Traditional ways of testing students do little to uncover conceptual difficulties or to measure understanding of physical laws and principles. New ways of assessing students' progress must necessarily be developed alongside new approaches to teaching physics. New assessments need to encourage students to focus on those features that are important for deep understanding. In the Instructional Aids for Teachers, we provide a wealth of examples showing how to probe students' conceptual understanding and measure their progress with the new approach.

Role of Teachers. The MOP approach requires a different role for teachers. No longer are teachers dispensers of information. A teacher who uses the MOP approach spends less time preparing lectures and more time structuring experiences for students. Many activity questions actually have two or more justifiable answers, each of which depends on the assumptions made by the students answering the questions. Thus, emphasis should be shifted from answers and whether they are right or wrong, and placed on intelligent discussion of the questions and whether the answers are consistent with the assumptions and reasoning used. In this mode, a teacher serves as a facilitator, counselor, or coach, rather than a lecturer, turning students' attention toward those ideas that will eventually help them reach a satisfactory conclusion.

Materials and Support for Teachers. We have worked with teachers for many years. We are well aware of the difficulties teachers face in adopting a new curriculum, particularly if it is radically different from what they have used in the past. Realistically, it could take a teacher two to three years to become completely familiar with the MOP curriculum, and to make it their own. We have included with the MOP curriculum considerable support materials to make the transition easier and more manageable for teachers.

We hope that MOP will enrich your physics teaching and will help your students not only to learn more physics and to learn it better, but also to improve their thinking and learning skills. If we had to pick one word to emphasize, it would be communication. Two-way communication between the teacher and students is critical to the success of the educational endeavor. No set of fixed materials can ever be the total solution to an educational problem. Only teachers can act flexibly enough to meet all the needs of their students, and only through open dialogue between teachers and students can teachers determine fully the needs of their students, and students receive the feedback they need to remain constructively engaged in the learning process.

Development of the Minds•On Physics curriculum materials was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), under grants MDR-9050213 and ESI-9255713.