Teaching and Learning of Physics in New Zealand High Schools
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
The main aim of this study was to gain insight into physics education in the New Zealand education system. The study sought insight into policies and practices that might promote excellence in physics teaching practices and also improve the number of students, and possibly teachers, involved. It also investigated how approaches to teaching high school physics in New Zealand influence students’ perceptions of physics and their consequent desire to continue with physics studies beyond high school level. The study also investigated whether tertiary study adequately prepared and allowed pre-service teachers to become effective in their job. The overarching research question formulated to guide the study was: What are the current practices for teaching physics in New Zealand high schools and how might they be improved if they are not effective? The study was underpinned by the constructivist theory and cognitive apprenticeship model. The reason is that students must be active participants and engaged in their own learning in order for meaningful learning to occur. Constructivism as a theory, has evolved from not only learning about declarative knowledge (knowing what) but also knowing “how and when” to learn in different ways. Accordingly, the teacher acts as a facilitator or mediator of learning rather than someone who only takes on the role of imparting knowledge. The cognitive apprenticeship model also presumes that learners should be exposed to the teaching methods that give students the chance to observe, engage in, invent, and discover expert strategies in context. Accordingly, the teaching methods should systematically encourage student exploration and independence. The convergent parallel design (Creswell & Clark, 2011) of this study used mixed methods, including a national survey of physics teachers throughout New Zealand, a student survey, as well as classroom observations and interviews with high school physics teachers, high school students and initial teacher educators who were coordinating the physics education programmes. The sample size for the study comprised 104 high school physics teachers across New Zealand; 85 high school physics students from selected schools in Christchurch; and three physics teacher educators in three selected universities. Data from teachers and students’ survey questionnaires were analysed using descriptive statistical methods (including percentages, means, standard deviations and graphs where appropriate) and inferential statistics – independent samples test and multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA). Audio recordings from interviews were transcribed and coded into nodes which provided easy retrieval of the themes that emerged. Detailed descriptions of classroom observations/practices were also recorded as a reference for indicating what actually occurred. The cases were compared for similarities and differences. The research findings indicate that generally, physics classroom dialogue tended not to support constructivist epistemology or inquiry based teaching and learning. Student-centred instructional approaches were not common in many physics classes. The use of more traditional teaching approaches for physics contributed to students thinking that physics is a difficult subject and not something they want to participate in further. Some students in this study took physics because it is a requirement for future qualifications such as for engineering or medicine. The findings of the study also indicated that there was a lack of alignment between the aspirations of the New Zealand Curriculum (NZC), which promotes inquiry-based approaches to teaching and learning, and how physics is actually being taught. The teachers who participated in the research however, believed that several factors hindered the quality teaching and learning of physics at high school. The teachers believed that physics teaching in New Zealand is driven by assessment, not by student interests, and that schools place too much emphasis on performance and grades. The teachers felt that their ability to focus on improving teaching and learning was compromised by the time spent addressing assessment requirements. Findings from the study also provided insight about physics teachers’ preparation and indicated that the physics education programmes for would-be physics teachers generally do not cover content knowledge for the subject. That is, the would-be physics teacher education programmes are primarily about pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). The teachers perceived that their initial teacher qualification did not adequately prepare them to teach some of the content areas now in the curriculum. Also, there is no national teacher education curriculum and teacher education providers have the freedom to design their own courses. Among other things, the findings from the research lead to a conclusion that the emphasis on high stakes assessment has led teachers to concentrate more on the assessment tasks for senior physics students rather than on preparing inquiry-based lessons that would facilitate conceptual change and stimulate students’ interest in the subject. The teachers considered that limited time to work with students and assessment demands, with its heavy workload, had worsened the problem of finding time to prepare interesting physics lessons. Based on the findings from the research, seven recommendations were made. Teachers’ ability to focus on improving teaching and learning, through innovative approaches, was compromised by the time spent addressing assessment requirements. Current assessment practices and high teacher workloads need to change so that teachers can spend more time to prepare interesting lessons and to explore topics in greater depth, thereby, helping to develop students’ interest to learn physics more. The subject could be made less demanding by reducing the number of topics/concepts covered in the senior levels. After all, the NZC stresses that schools should keep assessment to levels that are manageable for both students and teachers.