Saturday, November 14, 2015

NGSS Physics is NOT a Math Class


I want to scream that so that every single high school physics teacher hears this.  sigh

I have been teaching physics for the past 5 years, but teaching for over 12.  When I was first asked to teach physics, I was a bit nervous.  No, that's not accurate.  I was incredibly nervous.  Physics is not my background, so not only did I have to get the supporting credential to teach the topic, I had to go learn it myself.  I took physics in college, but that was YEARS ago.  I had a lot of gaps to fill and a lot of challenging math to learn.  And then, two years in, I was asked to teach AP Physics.  Gulp.  I really had to work my butt off to make that happen.  But now that I get it, and appreciate it, I LOVE PHYSICS!!!  Having said that...Physics is NOT a math is a science class that uses math as a tool.  This is no different than biology or chemistry.  If Physics was supposed to be a math class it would be in the math department.

Looking at the criteria for NGSS and how to best support the performance expectations, I believe that the best approach for physics (assuming that all students will have to learn all the PEs) will be a conceptual approach.  I'm sure lots of traditional style physics teachers will disagree with me.  They will probably say I'm not a physicist so I wouldn't understand.  And they are right...I'm not a physicist. I'm a trained scientist turned teacher.  Just like some physics teachers, they might be trained physicists turned teachers.  But, let's go ahead and agree that high school physics isn't quantum physics and we won't be deriving the mathematical equations to support wormhole existence.  We are teaching ENTRY level physics so that all kids can get a glimpse of the awesomeness of physics.

Physics is more than math....much more than math.  Physics is full of incredible concepts or themes:  motion, forces, energy, thermo, etc.  These are amazing concepts that can use math (and, when speaking of physics majors and research they DO use math), but you don't HAVE to use math to explain the concepts.  You can argue that the math supports those concepts, and it does, but many kids do not have the mental capacity to truly see this at a young age.  If they CHOOSE to pursue a degree in physics they would clearly use the language of math to support phenomena, but understanding that hot drinks get cool because heat transfers and breaks create friction that generate a change in acceleration...well, those things are actually usable and applicable to ALL students, not just college bounds students.  And to assume that all fifteen year olds can master the concepts of physics by only doing math is, in my opinion, foolish.  Math should not drive the instruction, concepts should.

The best approach for NGSS Physics is a conceptual approach.  One of the best possible resources for this course will likely start with the work done by Paul G. Hewitt.  He doesn't ignore the math, but he definitely focuses on the concepts.  If we approach physics with the understanding that the concepts are most important, but that we can use math to support this, then maybe more kids will want to take physics and recognize that physics is arguably the foundation for all science...I say that as a trained research biologist.  Breaks my heart just a little to make this claim.  I LOVE YOU BIOLOGY, forgive me!

If you are a high school physics teacher and you are currently letting math drive your instruction, ask yourself why you are doing this.  Tradition?  Is there a chance that your program could expand if you laid off the math just a little bit?  Would high school level physics really collapse if you could approach the learning with algebra based math?

Listed to the right are the equations I use in my physics course.  We still do math, but it doesn't drive my instruction.  Because of this, I have grown the physics program from 3 to 6 courses in two years.  There could have been more sections offered, but I'm the only physics teacher at my school site.

Some might say that is making physics too easy.  To that I would say, why are you making physics so hard?  I believe that ALL students can learn and apply physics, not just kids in calculus.  And if we want our next generation to appreciate science, then it is our job to show them the awesomeness of science!  If we aren't doing that, then maybe we should be looking for a different career.

Here is some math models for an NGSS Physics class:

physics teacher + math only = no work

students + no concepts = no learning

math of physics + calculator = math

math + physics concepts = applied learning

math + physics concepts + NGSS = AWESOMENESS

If you truly read the standards and unpack what they are saying, then you identify that there is SOME computation, but the conceptual relationships between variables is more important than the math.  If you disagree with me, then go read the standards again.  ALL students should have access to learn the physical science standards through a phenomena based approach.   If you purposefully create mathematical barriers that prevent students from learning the science, then ultimately you are choosing to fail students.  What educator CHOOSES to fail students before they even step foot in their class?  Not me.  Not you. 


  1. What is your passing rate of your students who take AP Physics?

    1. It is always above the National pass rate by 10% or more.

  2. Hello, I am enjoying reading your blogs in support of NGSS since I have stumbled across them. I was wondering if you might be willing to share your physics course outline or progression or order of resources? I am also a trained scientist, recently turned teacher (of life sciences), and even more recently (this past semester) asked to help (persuade/model for) the 9th grade conceptual physics teachers at my school to move toward NGSS-style teaching. The only problem is that, like you, I don't have a physics background- took it in college YEARS ago. I'm still trying to move my biology teaching to NGSS, so trying to learn how to teach physics AND model how to do it NGSS-style for other [reluctant] physics teachers is just about killing me. I don't have extra time to build something from scratch & was wondering if you already knew of any good resources or Facebook PLCs that might be sharing files? Any advice? Thank you in advance for anything you might be willing to share.

    1. I can be reached at
      MANY thanks!


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