Physics Learning Environment: in the Context Double Paradigm Shift


Physics Learning Environment: in the Context Double Paradigm Shift

Learning Environment in Physics: the Context of Double Paradigm Shift

Palmira Jucevičienė

KaunasUniversity of Technology

Violeta Karenauskaitė


Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, University of Crete, 22-25 September 2004


Physics constitutes the most important background for many sciences, as the links between physics and other sciences have been expanding in the contemporary world. So, the demand for physics knowledge has been growing together with the influence of the discipline of physics upon different study programs at the university. However, the world physicist community argues that physics education has been undergoing a crisis: the interest in physics is decreasing, a learning motivation is declining, and the examination results are getting worse; less time is allotted for the discipline of physics in various study programs, there is a growing gap between basic schools and institutions of higher education. Moreover, students do not wish to learn any physics, not directly applicable and useful for their future professional life. This has been proved by different authors and organizations in their research (Garwin, Ramsier, 2003; Manogue and Krane, 2003; Karenauskaitė, Dikčius, Streckytė, 2001; TIMSS, 1995, 1999; Zhaoyao, 2002 and others.).

What has caused the crisis?

In the contemporary world, everyone faces new and rapidly changing situations which require solving complex problem decisions and, thus, possessing new knowledge and skills. In order to prepare a student for the unknown activities in the future and for a constant change, traditional teaching oriented towards a passive transfer and receipt of knowledge is no longer effective (Barnett, 1994; Bowden and Marton, 1998, Ramsden, 2000 and others). Therefore, a modern university should stimulate self-development of an active and creative personality, which is possible to achieve by releasing a student through his/her independent, self-regulating learning. In addition, according to the constructivism theory, learning is carried out in different spaces of human life and activity and the learner actively constructs knowledge from experience in his/her personal learning environment1 (Ahlberg, Dillon, 1999; Longworth, 1999; Jucevičienė, 2001 and others). However, traditional study programs at universities are often oriented towards teaching and formal transfer of knowledge, while active advanced students and professors aim at conscious self-study. In other cases, study programs at modern contemporary universities concentrate on learning, development of competencies and are student-centered, but students do not accept new ideas; moreover, they are not ready for consistent and independent studies. In both cases, problems occur at the interface between teaching and learning paradigms: on the one hand, due to a traditional attitude towards teaching and, on the other hand, due to the wish to resist this point of view accepting a learning, but not a teaching paradigm. The interface between these views constitutes the first reason of crisis in teaching physics.

Therefore, in a modern society which aims at sustainable development, ecological and societal aspects are highlighted, as their harmony ensures safety and creates a favorable environment for the humankind to live. The knowledge in natural sciences, especially in physics, and the appliance of sciences in such areas as environment protection, health care system, energy production, etc., plays an extremely important role (Alhberg, Dillon, 1999; Appelquist, 2001; Boeker, 2003; Garwin, Ramsier, 2003;Rudzikas, 2003). However, university study programs, their content, and teaching methods often do not reflect this, as they are limited to the acquisition of formal knowledge. Besides, many physics courses are detached from a real life context, employment, society, and the environment, that is, the process of acquiring knowledge and the goal of integrating knowledge into the surrounding environment is ignored2 (Alhberg, Dillon, 1999; Zhaoyao, 2002; Zoller, 2000). This may be called the interface between a normative paradigm (oriented towards scientific knowledge as an object) and an interpretative paradigm (which highlights the interpretative character of knowledge and the process of acquiring knowledge itself in the context of a physics study content). The interface grounds the second reason for the crisis in teaching physics (Jucevičienė, Karenauskaitė, 2002).

To avoid the crisis in teaching physics and to escape an extreme confrontation, growing between the interfaces, we argue that physics education has to undergo a double paradigm shift.

Firstly,in recent decades, a dynamic character of knowledge and a wider understanding of its value have been emphasized: in a rapidly changing environment, academic knowledge is not only valuable in itself, but it is becoming a tool for the development of particular personal qualities and competencies. Thus, in modern education, major attention is paid to individual’s ability to evaluate and comprehend a situation effectively, to solve complex problems. This requires a constant knowledge renewal and reflection, its correlation with the knowledge already possessed and the creation of a new meaning. It is possible to achieve the above only through an ongoing, self-regulating individual’s learning and through the development of competencies necessary for future activities in different changing and unknown situations. Consequently, a modern university has to transfer its performance from traditional teaching to learning of a new quality (Barnett, 1994; Bowden, Marton, 1998; Longworth, 2000; Novak, Gowin, 1999; Ramsden, 2000). It is a qualitative and fundamentalrevolutionary shift from a teaching to a learning paradigm, based on constructivism, and occurring in a pedagogical system.

An educational theorybased on constructivism argues that learning by environment is a constructive activity pursued by an individual; it cannot be transmitted. Every individual who is involved in learning, by continuously rethinking his/her knowledge already possessed at the theoretical level (not passively or actively absorbed) and testing it in practice, constructs his/her own theory and develops his/her competence integrating various concepts into the whole which is significant for him/her. This theory emphasizes developing not only knowledge, but also general and specialized skills, and relates learning to values. A constructive approach to learning emphasizes the ability to reflect, to listen to other people’s opinions, to have an independent opinion, problem solving skills, collaboration, responsibility for one’s ideas and opinions, the ability to take care of others, active participation in one’s community life (e.g. academic, urban, etc.), perception of outcomes and results of one’s work/study, etc. Therefore, while organizing a study process, a university aims at implementing a new learning paradigm: to use methods, forms and tools stimulating active, independent and self-directed students’ learning which will become life-long learning in all spheres of life (Alhberg, Dillon, 1999;Bowden, Marton, 1998; Jucevičienė, Stanikūnienė, 2002; Laurillard, 1993; Ramsden, 2000, and others).

Secondly, the main traditional aim of physics studies at the university, together with the studies of other disciplines, is a cognitive approach to the discipline (acquisition of formal knowledge and their reflection in action). Today, however, another aim is emerging, i.e. the aim of cohesion of an individual and the environment, which is expressed by a conceived relationship to nature and which is very important to society. A contemporary university should not only provide knowledge in science and technology, but also show the importance of knowledge in the context of interaction of science, technology, environment, and society (Appelquist, Shapero, 2001; Boeker and others, 2003; Hobson, 2003; Zoller, 2000), so that it could motivate learners and disseminate physics knowledge in society in a popular and understandable way. However, a strict normative content of physics and a normative attitude towards teaching physics at the university is the main barrier preventing the implementation of the objectives. Thus, only agradualevolutionaryshiftof a normative approach into an interpretative approach in physics content,emphasizing different viewpoints towards the knowledge itself and towards knowledge in the context of the environment, as well as towards the very process of acquiring knowledge,can ensure successful studies of physics. In a study process, physics knowledge has to be acquired considering both, the context of selected future activities and the surrounding environment. That is, the content has to be illustrated with the examples of knowledge usage and application, of possible benefits and damage for the environment, and it has to be adapted according to the level of students’ practical knowledge. Moreover, the importance of physics science knowledge in various spheres of society activities has to be demonstrated and its influence on the quality of human life and protection of the planet is to be emphasized (Appelquist, 2001;Boeker, 2003; Garwin, Ramsier, 2003; Karenauskaitė, Jucevičienė, 2002; Manogue and Krane, 2003; Rudzikas, 2003; Zoller, 2000); only then students will understand their relationship with the environment and will seek harmony among economic, technological, ecological, and social development in their activities. Forgetting these aims may lead to educating university students with no sense of responsibility concerning a fair and safe use of knowledge in their activities.

Thus, only a parallel shift of two paradigms at the university will enable students to study in a modern way, to acquire competencies necessary for managing ever-changing surroundings, and to develop the sense of responsibility for the environment. The implementation of this double shift is possible looking for new physics learning strategies and creating the empowering learning educational environments3 (further in the article “educational environments”)at the university that is, creating conditions which stimulate self-study and activity, as well as reflection and evaluation. Consequently, it is important to help a student build and control his/her cognitive processes and demonstrate social aspects of scientific knowledge (physics) to him, the use of knowledge in real social situations which are important in the context of building student values (Bowden, Marton, 1998; Jucevičienė, Karenauskaitė, 2002; Ramsden, 2000; Ogborn, 2003 and others).

Learning environments have been discussed and analyzed in a number of research works by the researchers from different countries. Jonassen and Land (2000) have investigated psychological, technological and cultural aspects of learning environments and present the main values, the developers of learning environments should base their activities on. Bowden and Marton (1998) have been dealing with the learning environment that is being characterized by a high responsibility degree, possibilities to access the necessary resources any time one needs them, the tolerance of mistakes, and effective feedback. A learning environment of this kind strengthens student’s self-confidence and motivation. Vermunt (2003) has analyzed the importance of educational environment for the quality of students’ learning, classified educational environments on the basis of teaching methods. Jucevičienė (2001) has revealed general features of educational and learning environments; Lipinskienė (2002) has worked on the conditions and characteristics of educational environment that empowers students for studying; Tautkevičienė (2002) has focused on the peculiarities of university library learning environment. Different educational aspects of physics and learning environments have been investigated by representatives of natural sciences: Boeker and others (2003), Britton (2000), Garwin and Ramsier (2003), Christensen (2001), Joiner, Malone and Haimes (2002), Mills, McKittrick, Mulhall, and Feteris (1999), Ogborn (2003), Reigosa and Jimenez-Aleixandre (2001).

The shift of the above-mentioned paradigms, first of all, should be enabled at the individual level (student’s and teacher’s). Their attitudes towards physics, as one of the most important natural sciences, should be transformed; their attitudes to learning as a process should be changed. Many scientists have investigated the beginning of a learning paradigm in different aspects and havegrounded its necessity. However, no works on a systematic analysis of educational physics and student’s individual learning environments in the conditions of a double paradigm shift have been detected and no evaluation of their harmony has been found.

Therefore, the following issues of the research problemhave to be considered: how to enable a qualitative paradigm shift from teaching to learning and to shift from a normative approach to an interpretative approachin an educational environment at an individual level (that of a student and a teacher)? In what ways maximal identification and acceptance of student’s individual learning environment should be striven for?

Trying to find answers to these problematic issues, the analysis of scientific literature and theoretical modelling has been performed. In the first part of the article, the principles of creating educational learning environments suggested by different authors are substantiated and systemized; in the second part, on the basis of other authors and on our own educational ideas, a systematic approach tothe process of physics study is justified, considering the context of realizing main principles for educational environment creation.

Principles of creating a contemporary physics learning environment in the context of a double paradigm shift

Increasing volumesof information and improved information technologies, empowering individuals to get more information in more efficient ways, cause constant change of knowledge. This rapid vicissitude of knowledge raises new challenges for universities: they are demanded to be flexible in constructing new study programs which meet society and/or business needs, to be able to change the content of disciplines in consideration to study programs, and to look for effective ways for assimilating the changing contents(Bowden, Marton, 1998; Jucevičienė, 2001; Lipinskienė, 2002; Novikienė, 2003; Vermunt, 2003 and others). That is why, in an educational environment at the university, the principle of flexibility has to be realized which is one of the main principles in creating educational environments. It meets the fundamental principle of modern higher education,dynamics, which is also one of the basic principles of Lithuanian higher education reform (Jucevičienė, 1997) and ensures the possibility of choosing a study program at student’s level anda flexible satisfaction of his/her educational needs. At the levels of a teacher and an institution, this principle is understood as an efficient ability to adjust courses and their content, and to change teaching methods, looking for most suitable ones for each group and an for individual student (Jucevičienė, 1997; Ogborn, 2003; Ramsden, 2000),in order to secure bothsupport for learners and an interpretative attitude to the content of a discipline.

This principle (as well as the principles of individualization and integration) in physics studies is possible to implement through modular teaching (Jucevičienė, 1989), which enables constructing a discipline content in a fast and flexible way. For example, constructing the content of physics from separates modules learners from different study programs can choose module content relevant to their future speciality (Karenauskaitė, Rotomskis, Streckytė, 2001). Provision with information communication technologies and ensuring their effective usage(virtual practical tasks and demonstrations, teaching materialson CDs and on theInternet) gives perfect possibilities for learners to refresh their knowledge or to obtain new knowledge at the most convenient time and place for them, thus, using their study time in the most effective way (Laurillard, 1993; Targamadzė, Normantas, Rutkauskienė, Vidžiūnas, 1999; Karenauskaitė, Dikčius, Streckytė, 2001). Using active teaching/learning methods in study process, flexible schedule, thus meeting different students needs (Ogborn, 2003) the principle of flexibility is implemented.

Students who enter a modern higher education system are very different in their knowledge and interest, since higher education is becoming a mass phenomenon (Barnett, 1990; Jucevičienė, 1997, 2001; Ogborn, 2003, etc.). Moreover, a humanistic and constructivistic approach to education emphasizes conditions which stimulate the expression of personal individuality. Thus, the principle of individualization has to be implemented in educational environments at the university. This principle provides students with the possibility to choose a study program, a learning content, and assessment forms according to differences in personality, interests, skills, experience, reasoning peculiarities, and motivation for studies. The need for individualization is based on students’ differing attitudes towards learning, deep or surface (Bowden, Marton, 1998; Ramsden, 2000), on different styles and pace oflearning, on the scientific knowledge they already have, and on other personal characteristics (Joiner and others, 2002; Scott, 2000; Šiaučiukėnienė, 1997). Revealing the importance of his/her personality to a student strengthens motivation, thus developing student’s individual lerning style and discovering potential possibilities (that is, creating conditions for self-realization). Individualization of a study process can be achieved in different ways: by using Learning Contracts or Study Agreements (Lipinskienė, 2002), with the help of modern information technologies (Laurillard, 1993; Targamadzė and others, 1999), applying different teaching methods (Garwin, Ramsier, 2003; Mills and others, 1999; Ramsden, 2000; Jucevičienė, Lipinskienė, 2002), or differentiating tasks and accepting various learning styles (Šiaučiukėnienė, 1997). For example, a student who has deeper and wider practical knowledge in some physics area should be given more complicated and problematic tasks which create conditions for further analysis, indicate extra information sources and involve them in the study process with weaker students, as individuals learn teaching others.

According to Alhberg (1999), every individual, aiming at high quality learning and meaningful congnition, constructs the latter relating the knowledge he/she already has to particular problematic life and environment situations, at the same time, integrating separate conceptions into a meaningful whole. In order to achieve a balanced development of a particular community and/or of the whole society, a favourable environment, and decent living conditions, continuing learning is necessary at the levels of an individual, a group,or an organization which involves learning from each other, learning from the best practices, and studying individual’s understanding as well as general understanding. This is called ‘learning to work in the network’ and ‘using the network’. In order to ensure such learning in an educational environment at the university, it is essential to implement the principle of integration: to look for and find the ways to effectively integrate the knowledge, feelings, and actions at an individual and collective levels, aiming at a balanced development of student’s learning and striving for meaningful and creative educator’s performance.

In a modern high-technologysociety, problems can be solved effectively only in collaboration among representatives of various sciences and society members. Therefore, the knowledge in different sciences is requiredfor a student to form an solid picture of the surrounding world or to get an integral understanding of a particular phenomenon. Therefore, the knowledge of different sciences has to be integrated in every discipline of studies, specifically considering the context of a selected study program or real life situations (Bowden and Marton, 1998; Boeker, 2003; Britton, 200; Christensen, 2001; Mills and others, 1999; Ramsden, 2000; Zoller, 2000).