Physics and German Schools

Written by Alex Black

An interesting study was carried out about the effects of what researchers at the MINT Learning Centre in Zürich  called cognitively activating instruction in secondary Physics teaching. They worked with a small group of experienced Physics teachers who were teaching in what is known as Gymnasia in German speaking countries. 

They are selective state schools which are sometimes referred to in English as grammar schools. A feature of these schools is that all students must attend classes in Biology, Chemistry and Physics that contribute over four years to their school leaving certificate (Matura) at approximately 18 years of age. The Matura is conceived as a broad academic basis for University study that allows a lot of choice in subject specialism. However, despite the fact that Physics is compulsory, the gender outcomes mean that many Swiss University Physical Science courses are male dominated.

These researchers wished to show the ecological validity and effectiveness  of their pedagogical concept. 

“In a quasi-experimental study, we wanted to determine whether regular in-service teachers are able to implement cognitively activating instructional methods under realistic classroom conditions to the benefit of their students’ conceptual understanding, without hampering their quantitative problem-solving performance.”

The design of our own professional development could well be informed by some of their concerns about how to enhance one thing without minimising some other desirable objective. 

They also were concerned with the underachievement of female students and how the nature of Physics traditionally conceived as a highly mathematical problem solving discipline played a role in this.

“The unsatisfactory situation in physics education also becomes obvious in the huge and persisting achievement differences between male and female students, to the disadvantage of the latter….. ongoing difficulties in understanding the concepts of mechanics have been demonstrated …….With our study, we also address the question of whether classroom instruction that focuses more on qualitative conceptual understanding than on quantitative problem solving is especially beneficial for female students.”

The paper also carries out an interesting review of the literature on the idea that successful learning in science is best understood in terms of conceptual change from naive conception to, hopefully, robust understanding.

“In past decades, science educators and psychologists have made good progress in understanding how to foster this type of conceptual change in the classroom: students must become aware of the limits of their everyday concepts and become convinced by the explanations offered during the instruction. This approach requires a classroom culture in which questioning and respect for initially diverse beliefs prevail …”

I found it particularly interesting that the Zürich researchers developed five key ingredients that they stressed were absolutely essential in their teacher development process.

“generating solutions to novel problems, inventing with contrasting cases, comparing and contrasting, self-explanation prompts, and metacognitive questions.”

I have been wondering how complementary these principles are to the Let’s Think Five Pillars (Concrete Preparation, Cognitive Conflict, Social Construction, Metacognition and Bridging) and what we can learn from this study in the ongoing development of bridging lessons from the CASE, CAME and LT English lessons.

A very important methodological point was made in this study about how research must not always be envisaged as large scale RCT type studies.

“With our quasi-experimental study, we wanted to bridge the gap between well-controlled but narrow learning experiments and the implementation of scientifically approved means of instruction by in-service teachers in real classroom contexts.”  By making use of parallel classes, we could control for teacher effects and therefore run a controlled intervention study with a relatively small number of classrooms. Although access to parallel classes may not always be as easy as it is in the Swiss system, it should be feasible in other countries as well. Such quasi-experimental intervention studies can be considered an intermediate step between laboratory experiments and large-scale studies.



Hofer, S. I., Schumacher, R., Rubin, H., & Stern, E. (2018, March 15). Enhancing Physics Learning With Cognitively Activating Instruction: A Quasi-Experimental Classroom Intervention Study. Journal of Educational Psychology