I used to be a high school teacher. I taught 9th grade physical science, physics, a bit of chemistry, and computer programming. During that time my students did countless labs, solved thousands of equations, and witnessed hundreds of demonstrations. I think I did a pretty good job, but if I was in the same job today I think I’d do things quite a bit differently.
Ward Cunningham‘s original WikiWikiWeb was already in existence when I started teaching in the fall of 1995 although almost no one had ever heard of it. I saw it a few years later, but it never occurred to me at the time that such a beast would be a valuable educational tool. If I was a physics teacher today, my students and I would create our own physics textbook in wiki form. We’d have to do lots of experiments since you can’t put an experiment in your book that you’ve never tried yourself. And we’d have to do lots of calculations to find the ones that are just the right level of difficulty and are interesting to students. And of course we’d need to design demonstrations that illustrate the concepts that we’re trying to explain. (And why not create QuickTime movies of the demos while we’re at it so they can be shared easily.) It would be the students’ chance to learn the physics that’s all around them in skateboarding, video games, and DVD players in a way that would be interesting to them.
There’s no shortage of physics wikibooks; or chemistry, or paleoanthropology, or Spanish for that matter. Perhaps we’d contribute our work to the WikiBooks project too. Maybe I’d find another physics teacher somewhere and we’d have our students collaborate on the project.
How would I assess the students? I’m not sure. (Never let assessment questions ruin a really cool idea.) I do know that I don’t get a letter grade at the end of the term from my boss. I get “graded” by having frequent conversations as we collaborate, solve problems, and celebrate successes. Assuming that I have the students working in groups, I don’t see why a similar arrangement wouldn’t work for my course. I suppose I’d be forced to come up with a letter grade at the end of the term, but I’ll bet each student and I could come to an agreement based on their goals and what they produced as part of their team. Sounds like a great way to spend a year in physics class to me.