Why I’m a Modeler: Nick Cabot

Today’s guest post is from Nick Cabot. It is the second post in a series which shares the stories of teachers using Modeling Instruction.

My journey as a Modeler began 2 years after I completed my master’s in physics which was also how long I’d been teaching physics at Nathan Hale High School in Seattle.  I attended the first series of Modeling Leadership Workshops way back in 1995 through 1997 (yes, three summers), which were held at ASU and UI Chicago – I think I saw an ad for the Workshops in The Physics Teacher.  I was at the Chicago workshops, which were led by Gregg Swackhamer – a wonderful teacher – and it wasn’t five minutes into the first day when, like so many other teachers, I thought to myself, “Why hadn’t I been taught this way!?”  Despite my recent master’s degree, the Workshop really was the first time I’d seen Newtonian mechanics presented as a coherent whole, rather than as a series of, relatively speaking, disjointed formulas and problems.  I suppose the conceptual framework was always there, but it seemed to me that, not unlike mathematics instruction, we just turned the page and moved on.  As Larry Dukerich, another wonderful teacher and Workshop leader, is so fond of saying (and me of quoting him), “Textbooks maybe logical, but they are not psycho-logical,” by which he means that textbook authors and most teachers never consider for whom the textbooks or instruction are for.  Anyway, my whole conception of physics and physics teaching were completely overturned in favor of the Modeling paradigm.  On the strength of NSF support for the Workshop, I called in a political favor and got the school board to outfit my classroom with computers, ULIs, and probeware – and I was off and running.

Well, to make a long story somewhat shorter, based, in part, on my modest successes as Modeler, in 2001 I was awarded an Einstein Fellowship to the NSF where I had the opportunity to work in the Division of Undergraduate Education with the folks who manage their science teacher preparation portfolio.  I very much enjoyed the perspective afforded me by seeing the initiatives and proposals universities all over the country were submitting to reform undergraduate education and teacher preparation so as to take into account the years of research in science teaching and learning – finally!  Building off that experience I decided to get a Ph.D. and in 2008 (I continued to teach full time except for one year), I successfully defended my dissertation on the impact of Modeling Instruction on physics teachers.  Since then I’ve been at UNC Chapel Hill as a clinical assistant professor mostly teaching math and science methods and math content classes to pre-service, graduate, and post-baccalaureate elementary and secondary teachers.  And by virtue of being clinical faculty (as opposed to tenure-track, trapped in the publish-or-perish grind), I’ve also been able to work with math and science teachers and teacher educators in Thailand, China, and the Galapagos Islands.  I attribute it all to the broadening of my horizons that occurred because I showed up at a Modeling Workshop in Chicago one hot day in June, 1995.

So, why did I join the AMTA?  Mostly because I want to do whatever I can to help keep the dream alive and growing.  Modeling is a better science pedagogy because, more than any other with which I’m familiar (and I’m familiar with most of them), it brings sharp instructional focus to the two most important aspects of teaching science: models and classroom discourse.  Humans are natural modelers – it’s how we explain phenomena to ourselves.  Even though many of our models of the physical world are non-Newtonian (mostly because we can’t see frictional forces), they work pretty well (else we’d be dead!).  And because they are, in fact, generally “adequate,” trying to teach over the top of them is like speaking a foreign language – just so much gibberish that doesn’t jibe with everyday experience.  Modeling acknowledges students’ prior experience and provides opportunities for them to confront and challenge their everyday models.  Classroom discourse is a vital part of this experience because it gives students real-time feedback.  We’re expecting our students to undergo conceptual change from their everyday models to more scientifically aligned models – well, this takes mental energy (our brains are “lazy”) and guidance.  For the vast majority of students, the necessary prodding and guidance is available only in a classroom setting with a teacher who recognizes these incontrovertible facts about learning, that is, a Modeling teacher.  Modeling is our best chance to tap the reservoir of initiative and creativity in our students that historically has been ignored by those science teachers who couldn’t understand why their students didn’t understand.  How could I not help?

Nick Cabot is on the board of the American Modeling Teachers’ Association.

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