Andrée Tiberghien, E. Leonard Jossem, Jorge Barojas
General Editors

A: Introduction

This book was undertaken on behalf of the International Commission on Physics Education (ICPE) of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) - with support from UNESCO - to make available the results of research in physics education world-wide to physics educators working with pre- or in-service physics teachers.

Contributors to the book have been drawn primarily from countries where research in physics education is most active, though, of course, considerations of size have prevented us from including more than a representative sample of the active workers in the field.

Organizing the book has been a challenge for several reasons. When a field of research is very recent, no more than 40 years in the case of physics education, there may be difficulty in finding many results which are directly useable in practice. Research in physics education is no exception. Moreover, we are currently in the process of differentiating among the practice of a discipline, the teaching of that discipline, and research on the teaching and learning of that discipline. This process of differentiation has reached different stages in different countries, and teacher educators play a central role since they have to utilize knowledge from each of the three domains: research in physics, research in physics education (didactics), and practical experience in teaching. Moreover, because of the relative newness of research in physics education, there is at present no strong world-wide consensus about a body of knowledge.

For all of these reasons, it is our intention to present different research approaches in order that teacher educators may become aware of the variety and richness of research in the field. To make these differences more explicit, we thought it useful and interesting to include in Sections C, D, and E, a commentary on each chapter written by the author of another chapter in that Section. It is our hope that this will provide a broader view of the state of current research.

The current state of affairs in research in science education tends to lead to the presentation of research results in a somewhat raw form, even with authors writing specifically for teacher educators. As it has already been noted about research results in any field, their transfer into practice is not necessarily straightforward. We consider this book as a starting point of an international cooperative effort to transfer the results of research in physics education to teacher educators and, at the end of this introduction, we discuss a proposal to develop this transfer process.

Organization of the book

In addition to this introduction the book comprises four other sections:

B. Perspectives on physics

C. Students' knowledge and learning

D. Teachers attitudes and practices

E. Curriculum development, assessment and teaching situations

In the well known didactic triangle, the three vertices: knowledge, students, and teachers interact in the framework
of an educational system (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Relations of the parts of the book to the didactic triangle.

This triangle is a way of structuring the field of education from the perspective of teaching and learning in a specific field, which in our case is physics. Three of the four sections of the book are directly related to a vertex of the triangle, although interactions with the other vertices are taken into account. One part: "Curriculum development, assessment and teaching situations" deals simultaneously with all three vertices. This is perhaps closest to the way in which non-specialists view research in education; however it appears as the more difficult aspect to grasp.

The Sections of the book and their links

We consider first the sections of the book dealing with each vertex.

Perspectives on physics

Physics teachers have a unique practice of physics. As teachers, they have to "engineer" knowledge in order to teach it, i.e. to make it learnable by their students. Usually, they do not directly use the knowledge created by the researcher, but, rather, an intermediate knowledge which has already been reformulated. This knowledge has been the object of transpositions made under various constraints, e.g. the conditions of teaching, and the objectives of teaching (which depend on the choices of the society in which they live). Another constraint is that a physics curriculum has to be legitimized by the physics community. In such transpositions, the ways of looking at physics knowledge can be very different - although these differences are not explicitly involved in teaching practice. It seemed to us useful for teachers to have an appreciation of this variety of ways of viewing physics and the three chapters of Section B present three different aspects of physics knowledge.

Chapter B1, by A.P. French, presents physics as a structured body of knowledge: "how the consistent aim of physics is to relate our knowledge of phenomena to a minimal number of general principles".
In chapter B2, M.H. Krieger takes the point of view of a professional researcher in physics, a point of view which generally is not familiar to teachers. We know that it is difficult to establish communication between people of different professions - communication between academic research and industry is a frequently mentioned example - and that between teaching and research is no exception, unless they are practiced by the same person. It is in the interests of improving mutual understanding that this chapter has been introduced.
Chapter B3, by R.H. Stuewer, is devoted to the relations between the history of physics as viewed by physicists and as viewed by historians. These relations again show the difference between the presentation of a body of knowledge as it is usually done in a teaching process, and the process by which this knowledge was, in fact, created. The first case is based on a logical presentation of the material, while in the second case the complexities of human nature and human societies are in play. We hope that teacher educators and teachers themselves will become aware of these differences and question the apparent link between a logical presentation of physics and its effectiveness for learning.
Learning processes do involve human complexity, so in the didactic triangle the vertex "knowledge" refers not so much to a beautiful logical body of physics knowledge, as to a diversity of types of knowledge which play diverse roles in the teaching and learning processes.

Students' knowledge and learning

Section C is specifically devoted to studies of students' knowledge and learning. This domain of investigation is the oldest in physics education research, and the development of innovations in the sixties and seventies has produced as a side effect well developed research on students' difficulties with the conceptual aspects of physics, variously called "students' conceptions" or "alternate conceptions". The results of this research constitute an important body of available knowledge. The chapters in this section deal with mechanics (C1 by L.C. McDermott), electricity (C2 by R. Duit and C.von Rhöneck), and thermodynamics (C3 by L. Viennot), areas which are well developed and which are presented from recent points of view. Another chapter (C4 by R. Millar) addresses aspects of student understanding of procedures of crucial importance in physics, i.e. methods of scientific inquiry.

The results of these studies can be used directly in teacher education as Chapter C5 by P.H.Scott, H.M. Asoko, and R. Driver has shown. This is why this paper is included in this Section. This body of knowledge also plays an important role in research on curriculum, assessment and teaching situations.

Teachers attitudes and practices

Teachers, and, more generally, teaching activity, are rather recent subjects of physics education research. As a result of the work of researchers with different approaches to the subject we are beginning to comprehend the relations between teachers' beliefs about physics and about teaching and learning on the one hand, and the effectiveness of their teaching activities on the other hand, a domain of research which is of great interest to teacher educators.

In Section D Chapter D1, by R. Gunstone and R. White, is devoted to the links among teachers' attitudes, classroom practice, and students' attitudes. They show that teachers' attitudes, to be effective, have to be compatible with the aims of teaching established by the society, with the ways of assessment, and with students' attitudes. It is important to take into account that relations between teachers' attitudes and their effectiveness in teaching are complex.
Chapter D2, by S. de Sousa Barros and M.F. Elia, is concerned with establishing how physics teacher's attitudes affect the reality of the classroom.
The third chapter, D3, "About the epistemological posture of science teachers" by J. Désautles and M. Larochelle, is mainly centered on the teacher's relation to the science s/he has to teach. In Chapter D4, D. Gil Perez and A.M. Pessoa de Carvalho write directly on teacher education, the principal focus of this book.

Curriculum development, assessment and teaching situations

This Section which deals simultaneously with the three vertices illustrates how complex these objects of study can be. Perhaps it is for this reason that curriculum development has been object of many innovative projects. Instead of taking a detour through research, innovations aim to improve education directly; they are seen as direct answers to the difficulties in physics education.

As discussed in Chapter E1, by P. Lijnse, the innovations of the sixties and seventies in the USA and in several European countries are now being called into question; thirty years later the effect appears as quite small. Nowadays a variety of research programs are appearing which, considering the complexity of the subject, augurs well. However, it may seem surprising that this domain of research is not usually integrated as such into teacher education programs. For the most part we still are in a state of lack of clear differentiation between a professional activity - teaching, and another professional activity - research on the phenomena of teaching and learning. This lack of differentiation is heightened to the extent that teachers are the main actors in the process of modification of teaching situations. The activity of teaching is just starting to be the object of explicit knowledge, and so it can hardly, as yet, be an object of teaching in teacher education. We are at the very beginning of the process of an elaboration of such knowledge. In their papers in Section C, P. Lijnse, and P.H.Scott, H.M. Asoko, and R. Driver give some elements in this direction, making explicit the role of teachers.
M. Méheut in Chapter E3 and D. Psillos in Chapter E4 present good examples of research dealing simultaneously with the three vertices, and we see that we are moving in the direction of creating a body of knowledge very important for physics education.

In this section also, the aspect of assessment and evaluation has been included, since it is a crucial "regulator" of any teaching activity. This domain has been an object of research for a long time, and Chapter E2 by P. Black has caught the essential educational aspects of assessment, the variety of the roles they play, and their importance to the functioning of educational systems in our societies. It shows, also, the importance of teachers being aware of the need for enlarging the range of assessment methods used. This last aspect is crucial if educational systems are to keep pace with the rapid evolution of living styles in our societies.

Links between the Sections

One of the three vertices, physics knowledge, is involved in all of the presentations whereas the other vertices are not systematically considered explicitly, even if strong links exist.

However, knowledge is present in very different forms. In Section B, as we have already emphasized, the diversity of physics knowledge is involved. In Section C the analysis of students' conceptions leads us back to physics knowledge in order to understand what specific aspects are not only difficult but crucial for constructing physics meaning. Section D deals with teachers' views on physics knowledge and with the interplay between these views and their teaching practice. A teaching situation is a place of teacher-student interactions where physics knowledge and understanding is at stake. In Section E, physics knowledge is again involved in curriculum development, assessment and teaching situations i.e. in a social context. In the assessment perspective it is strongly emphasized that "public examinations have particular power over the future of physics".

These chapters show the variety of ways in which physics knowledge is taken into account in a teaching perspective. In the innovations of the sixties the physicist's view of the logical structure of physics were emphasized (cf. Steuwer, Chapter B3). In the research on teaching sequences, this logical structure of physics is not taken for granted. The "engineering" of knowledge to match students' learning capabilities and the essential aspects of the physics involved, is the result of compromises; it leads to choosing and organizing different aspects of physics in specific ways to match the needs of teaching at a specific level.

Physics knowledge is one of the main links between the sections, not as such, but as involved in interaction processes, either between persons - i.e. students, students-teachers - or between institutions - physics community, educational system, civil society. These interaction processes constrain the forms taken by the knowledge. Therefore it appears that interactions between persons and between institutions are also a crucial aspect of all chapters. Physics education is in its essence an interaction process which implies complex objects of study and complex professional practices; so we are involved in a difficult but fascinating area.


Nowadays, the evolution of our societies will probably lead to a considerable increase in the variety of educational situations, resulting in particular from new technologies of communication. This may pose a conflict between the long time-scale of achieving research results and the rapid evolution of teaching/learning situations. Do the research results remain relevant when the society evolves?  Yes, if the research orientation takes into account, on the one hand the relevant aspects of human behavior, and, on the other hand, an analysis of teaching situations in terms of parameters which can influence students' activities. In other words, the aim is to establish relevant possible components of teaching situations which play a role in the activities of the students. In that case, the results may be transposable among different teaching situations, or may provide a good hypothesis for designing new situations. We believe that relevant research in such a social context requires the development of relations between research and practice, relations which will be all the more productive as these two activities are distinguished. This is why we consider this book as a starting point of a continuing discussion between teacher educators and researchers. The links between research in physics education and teacher education are crucial for both the relevance of research and the effectiveness of education.

It is for these reasons, also, that we are establishing an Internet site for a discussion group in three languages : English, French, Spanish. The main aim of this group discussion is to exchange ideas, research results and practices in physics education. We consider it as a tool to improve physics education both from the research point of view and from the professional point of view. Interactions between them are crucial to developing research and to improving teaching practice.

Finally, the editors wish to express their appreciation and thanks to the contributing authors of this book, and to all of those whose assistance and encouragement have helped to make it possible.


Introduction from: Connecting Research in Physics Education with Teacher Education
An I.C.P.E. Book © International Commission on Physics Education 1997,1998
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions

Return to the Table of Contents