Meet a Modeler: Fran Poodry

Today’s guest post is from Fran Poodry, the president-elect of the American Modeling Teachers’ Association. Fran teaches high school physics in Pennsylvania. It is the fourth post in a series which shares the stories of teachers using Modeling Instruction. Fran writes:

I was a physics major in college and I knew all along that I wanted to become a teacher.  I took all my undergraduate education courses at a small private liberal-arts college, where I learned many things that are now called “21st century education” which I find humorous. Since I planned to teach, a professor I knew (but not at my school) suggested I join the physics teaching mailing list, PHYS-L, and from there I learned about Physics Education Research.  I also got to know (virtually) Joe Redish, Dewey Dykstra, Priscilla Laws, and others.  I wound up working for Priscilla Laws for two summers, learning about Workshop Physics, Vernier probes and interfaces (remember the ULI?) and analyzing data from student surveys pre- and post-instruction.

I graduated with a BA in Physics and a Pennsylvania teaching certificate in 1992, and I have been teaching physics since January, 1993.  I taught for five and a half years in Philadelphia public schools. Jane Jackson recruited me for a modeling workshop when I attended a summer AAPT meeting at University of Maryland (having known me from my online presence), and  I took modeling workshops in 1997 and 1998. These workshops were at University of Wisconsin-River Falls and were led by Rex Rice and Dave Braunschweig. I still make Rex’s guacamole recipe—yum!

As with many, my life was changed by Modeling Instruction.  I felt like I had discovered the way I wanted to teach, I just hadn’t figured it out before.  Also, I was amazed by how much physics I learned at the workshops! Though I loved using Modeling Instruction, the situation in my school was taking its toll.  The large class sizes, under-prepared students, tragic events, and the bars on the windows were all hard to deal with.  I decided I had to leave Philadelphia or leave teaching.  I left the School District of Philadelphia in 1998.

After leaving Philadelphia schools, I have been teaching in various suburban districts in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  I love my current school (where I am starting my 10th year), and I have great colleagues, but only one of my colleagues is also a Modeler (though we have four full-time physics teachers in my building).  I have used Modeling Instruction with kids in conceptual classes, honors classes, and in-between, and from a variety of socio-economic levels.  I have struggled to use Modeling with my AP students, since they have already (mostly) had a year of Modeling Instruction in their first-year physics class with my colleague. While I have enjoyed teaching mostly conceptual-level classes and AP classes for the past 8 years, I am looking forward to teaching honors-level and AP classes this school year, and trying out Standards-Based Grading.

I joined the AMTA board last year as Vice President, so am currently the President-Elect and I will be President next year.  I feel very strongly that the work of AMTA is vital for keeping Modeling Instruction alive and growing and funded, unlike previous worthy programs that were not self-sustaining (IPS, PSSC, Project Physics, etc). One way that to help this happen is through greater publicity.  Most science teachers in my district have no idea what Modeling is, and when offered a 2-hour introduction on an inservice day, only two teachers (out of over 40 high school science teachers) came to the session – the rest chose other sessions.  Not only teachers need to know about Modeling Instruction, the word also needs to get out to the politicians, the parents, and the voting public.

You can follow Fran Poodry on Twitter: @MsPoodry.

8 responses to “Meet a Modeler: Fran Poodry

  1. For Fran,
    What are the barriers to more widespread use of Modeling Instruction (MI)? For example, why have you been unable to convince the other two physics teachers at your school to use it? Do they have principled objections that suggest improvements that could be made to MI? Or is it that switching the way they teach would be a major hassle without much evidence of improved results? Do students who have taken their classes do substantially better or worse in subsequent physics classes than students who have taken your classes or your MI colleague’s? Do the physics teachers get together to devise common exams, so that you can compare the outcomes across different classes?

    Why were the “previous worthy programs” not self-sustaining? Was the problem that they were not taught to new teachers? That they were expensive to run? That they looked good but didn’t work? That they worked but didn’t look good? If you can figure out why previous efforts failed to have lasting impact, perhaps you can avoid making the same mistakes in trying to propagate MI.

  2. I start my 4th decade of community college teaching in January. My first decade was spent teaching the way I was taught. The second was spent exploring various curricula inspired by physics education research (from some of the same folks Fran mentions). This last decade has been focused on project-based physics, but borrowing heavily from the MI approach. As Science Division Chair, when I need to hire an adjunct physics faculty, I go to the teachers listserv and ask specifically for modelers because I know that our students will get a superior education than from a “traditional” course. There are data out the wazoo that MI is more effective than typical physics classes, but those data come from the use of instruments like the Force Concept Inventory and most traditional teachers don’t/won’t use it.

    I, too, have tried to spread the word to colleagues about MI, but there is a great deal of effort required to learn how to do MI (since most of us were never taught that way) and even more effort to get good at discourse management in the classroom. When I talk with colleagues who teach traditionally and I ask about how that’s working for them, they say that it isn’t very well, but that is because “kids today…”

    The biggest issue with sustainability for MI (IMHO) is that it requires a significant commitment to ongoing professional development. The equivalent of ~4 graduate courses (~200 contact hours?) is usually enough to get teachers off to a great start, but that takes time and money.

    I’m lucky to be in the Phoenix area where MI is better known. Furthermore, there are folks locally working on MI in Chemistry and Biology. Even still, it is a battle to get folks to recognize that the depth of understanding developed within MI is better than firehosing a bunch of topics. Cover less to uncover more…

  3. @gasstationwithoutpumps, there seems to be an implicit assumption in your reply that if a program is able to be adopted and yields good results,t hen physics teachers will automatically adopt it. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Teachers almost always teach as they have been taught and, like all of us, in all domains, are naturally resistant to change. This tendency is widely documented in the theories of change literature and also in the literature of teacher professional development. Your own comment is a perfect example… a traditional lecturing teacher, might, despite poor results, look around and say, “If this new thing is so good, why aren’t more people doing it?” and decide therefore, to stick with the status quo.

    More importantly, there is an implicit agreement in our society, particularly among high achieving adults (including teachers), that poor achievement in schools can generally be laid at the feet of the students – they are lazy, too interested in video games, too distracted by texting, etc. I can hear a dozen different variants of this trope at any given cocktail party. This belief also feeds teacher resistance to change, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of unsuccessful outcomes (such as a failure rate in high school math or science of greater that 5%) .

    I am a scientist, turned educator, turned effective educator by dint of intensive study of science education research, beginning with physics education research nearly 20 years ago, and by intensive self-evaluation and evaluation by outside experts. When I first heard of modeling instruction, I immediately was attracted to it due to the emphasis on one of the key skills of a scientist, the ability to work with models. In some ways, that is as bad as traditional instructors, as I was letting my own biases about the conduct of science inform my choice of educational strategies. However, drawing on my own scientific training, I have extensively reviewed the evidence in support of a wide range of strategies, not just the literature on modeling. This review has led me to believe that modeling is one of a small suite of instructional methods that can successfully engage student preconceptions and transform them in meaningful ways into conceptions recognized by physicists as viable models (Newtonian dynamics, instead of Aristotelian, for example).

    I have never taken a Modeling workshop and I part company with many modelers over their belief that modeling instruction requires 200 hours of training by a modeler. BUT… this is definitely a technique that requires an entirely different view of the role of the student and the role of the instructor, and requires very highly-developed facilitation skills, that are not typically developed at any level at all in undergraduate eduction instruction or in district in-service. This is not an approach that your average teacher could pick up from a manual or from a short in-service lesson.

    Dave Smith

  4. Dave, I was not assuming that good pedagogical practice is automatically adopted—far from it! My questions were genuine, not rhetorical. You have identified a few barriers:
    • teachers teach as they were taught.
    • teacher blame the students for pedagogical failures.
    • MI requires “highly-developed facilitation skills, that are not typically developed at any level at all in undergraduate eduction instruction or in district in-service.”
    • “not an approach that your average teacher could pick up from a manual or from a short in-service lesson.”
    Those all seem like genuine barriers that are difficult to overcome—harder for MI than fro some of the previous physics approaches that have mostly disappeared. If MI is facing an even larger activation barrier than previous approaches that failed to surmount the barrier, what can be done to lower the barrier and catalyze the change?

  5. I’m a student in EDM 310 at the University of South Alabama, and if it wasn’t for this class I would probably be “teaching the way I was taught,” too. It made me realize that over the years I was conditioned to these lecture-style classrooms and my creativity was lost. Now, it’s interesting to know how the brain works, as well as the most effective way to retain information, and MI seems to be a good approach. Although I’m not gong to be a physics teacher I hope to use it in my classroom. Thanks for sharing.

  6. The first commenter asked, “Why were the “previous worthy programs” not self-sustaining? … If you can figure out why previous efforts failed to have lasting impact, perhaps you can avoid making the same mistakes in trying to propagate MI.”

    This is an important question. Bottom line: Past efforts at high school science reform, such as PSSC and ChemStudy, were worthy but foundered after a short lifetime. Once support for training dried up, they became nothing more than sets of curriculum materials that lost popularity as trained teachers retired.

    These quotes from (now retired) physics teachers who used PSSC and later learned Modeling Instruction provide evidence.

    In 2007, retired Modeling Workshop leader Don Yost (Sacramento CA) wrote, “I’ve seen how PSSC developed, and the text was what finally killed it. PSSC, like modeling, demanded teacher skill in inquiry. This doesn’t seem to be taught in teacher ed programs, so the only way to make sure the teachers are prepared is to run workshops.”

    In 1998 I asked long-time physics teachers to describe their experiences with PSSC and to say how Modeling Instruction is different. Excerpts are below. Their full responses are at .

    Charles Rhodes (Santa Rosa, CA) wrote: “The first semester modeling materials which were first developed by Malcolm Wells obviously show that Malcolm was a PSSC trained teacher. The Modeling Workshops present a well-developed instructional strategy and specific instructional tools which go well beyond anything I ever experienced in PSSC training.”

    David Boyer (Rhode Island) wrote, “[PSSC] required a very skillful practitioner trained in the ‘storyline’ – otherwise its success may not be as effective. In my opinion, students trained in PSSC by a dedicated teacher who ‘followed through’ were indeed quite fortunate.
    PSSC physics and Physics Modeling are similar in many ways. Both are the product of an inspired genius(es) and a highly motivated, dedicated and innovative team. Both recognize the need for a ‘storyline’, use of the experimental method as a discovery approach, and model building with reinforcing activities to deepen student understanding.  
    While the PSSC and Physics Modeling Method share many similarities, they are, in my view, different in two critical respects. The Physics Modeling Method provides the student with a variety of representational tools to aid in the communication of concepts and the solution of unique problems. The continual use of these tools, peer
    presentation and review, and the socratic questioning method enable ALL students to gain in conceptual understanding.”

    Ellis Noll, now retired from the Webb School in Knoxville KY, wrote, “I had been using PSSC about 10 years before participating in Modeling. I served as a pilot teacher for the 7th edition of PSSC. I was surprised how much Modeling was like PSSC but soon learned that Modeling was significantly different in important ways. While both methods use an experimental, ‘storyline’ approach with reinforcing activities to strengthen student understanding, Modeling provides specific models that serve as anchors for further and deeper understanding and application of physics concepts. … Besides the anchors that the models and representational tools provide, maybe the biggest contribution that Modeling makes is that it recognizes that students need to be given sufficient time to work out an understanding of the way nature behaves. While PSSC appealed to the brighter student, Modeling appeals to a wider range of student abilities. … PSSC is not involved with how students learn physics. The paucity of attention given pedagogy may be PSSC’s greatest weakness. The student presentations used in Modeling are key for students to understand physics; They add a human dimension that PSSC lacks. ”

    Tony Nicholson, now retired from Greenwich High School (CT), wrote in 1998, “I was introduced to the PSSC approach during an NSF Academic Year Institute in1965, and it was the curriculum that has been a major influence on my teaching to this day along with the Harvard Project Physics approach which came a bit later. I’m sure “Modeling” will be the driving force for my remaining years. … “Modeling’s continuing search for a good story line, emphasis on ferreting out student misconceptions, emphasis on Socratic techniques by teacher and students for learning and accent on basic problems rather than difficult problems or numbers of problems are some of the most valuable attributes of the “Modeling” method of presenting the physics story.”

    Lou Turner, now retired from Western Reserve Academy in Ohio, wrote, “PSSC was wonderful in that it had a great story line, it was model-based. I loved teaching it, but I will never go back to it because it is subject to the ills associated with all textbooks. A textbook is a silent lecturer, and it is teaching by telling. I taught PSSC for about ten years, and I taught it in a traditional manner, and with hindsight, I am willing to bet that very few students understood the material I covered with them. 
    The modeling method is different in that the student occupies center stage. The class is managed so the students must make decisions and go through thought processes on their own. They become active participants. They must listen to their peers and evaluate what they say. They are guided in doing labs, but they must decide exactly how they are going to achieve the agreed-upon objective. This gives them ownership… Whiteboards and the representational tools available to students make the modeling approach a more user-friendly environment.
    To me, the major difference in the two is the way in which the class is managed.”

  7. Thanks, that clarifies a lot of my questions about “modeling” (not so that I now know how to implement it, but I at least have an inkling of what it involves).

    It looks like the only way for modeling to become mainstream is for most teacher-training schools to teach it to most science teachers. That is a big barrier to overcome, and it is more a political one than anything else. Has anyone made an progress on it (like 2 teacher training programs teaching it)? Are there organizations that have sufficient clout to pressure teacher-training programs? Do any of them support modeling?

    • I like your questions!

      Yes, teacher-training schools are a big barrier to overcome. I hope that the American Modeling Teachers Assn (AMTA) can address the barrier eventually — but as a bottom-up movement of high school science teachers, politics is not one of our strengths.

      These teacher-training programs in physics departments use Modeling Instruction: Brigham Young University (Duane Merrell), University of Arizona (Ingrid Novodvorsky), Florida International University (Laird Kramer & Eric Brewe), University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh (Mark Lattery), Buffalo State College (Dan MacIsaac). At ASU, pre-service teachers in physical sciences take Modeling Workshop courses: last summer we had 10 in our physics, chemistry, and physical science workshops; and this semester we have 14 chem ed and earth/space science ed students taking a physical science Modeling Instruction methods course.

      At the University of Illinois – Chicago, the College of Education is supportive: they offer two Methods of Physics Teaching courses each year, which focus on Modeling Instruction (taught by Jim Stankevitz of Wheaton-Warrenville South High School, who also places student teachers and is happy that he can place most of them with experienced modelers). A few other university colleges of education have modelers on their faculty.

      I help coordinate Modeling Workshops nationwide; and I keep in touch with Modeling Workshop leaders and faculty organizers (and the 4000 high school science teachers who have taken them); that is how I know this. .

      Surely the Next Generation Science Standards will influence teacher-training programs; the 8 scientific practices of the Framework for K–12 Science Education (NRC) describe Modeling Instruction. And the Common Core Math Standards for high school emphasize math modeling; they align with our work.

      In all this, it is important to realize that our motto is continuous improvement; our goal is better thinking, reasoning, and understanding in science; and our guiding thought is as ASU physics professor & co-founder David Hestenes wrote, “Scientists explore the physical world for REPRODUCIBLE PATTERNS, which they represent by MODELS and organize into THEORIES according to LAWS.”

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