My partner’s 15-year-old daughter can place every element on a blank periodic table in under 6 minutes. Her favourite YouTube video is a song about scientific experiments (see above). She tells jokes about Heisenberg and Schrödinger. And she doesn’t like physics.
It’s not that she doesn’t like the class or her classmates; she’s in Grade 10, where physics is just a unit in a semester-long course, and she doesn’t object to the other units. It’s not that she doesn’t like the teacher (same rationale). It’s not that she doesn’t like thinking hard, or tricky puzzles, or things that other kids find uncool. As evidence, I submit that last fall she read Twelfth Night for fun, just because it was sitting on a coffee table; last weekend, she taught herself to play chess (which she knew absolutely nothing about) by losing to the computer and analyzing its moves; and she has been known to go to class wearing a tie, a fedora, and/or pi-day pins.
I asked her what they were working on in this “physics.” Answer: displacement and velocity. (Before you conclude that this itself is the problem, note that she was already dreading it before it started.) She tells me she thinks the work is pointless, all they do is answer questions where the answer for distance is “10m” and the answer for displacement is “10m north.” Over, and over, and over.
So I feed her some examples that illustrate the difference between distance and displacement, without exactly explaining (you walk around the block. How far did you walk? How far did you get?). Over the course of the next two days, during quiet moments in other conversations, she pipes up with questions, all of which I avoid answering directly but encourage her to give me examples that explain her thinking. “Can distance and displacement be different numbers?” “Does that mean that distance and displacement will be different if you make any turns?” “Can displacement ever be higher than distance?” “Does that mean that velocity can never be higher than speed?”
She thinks about these things. For fun. Over Sunday brunch. But she “doesn’t like” physics.
On her interim report card, she’s got 90s in everything (including math) except science, where she got a 77. She’s excited to tell me about her grades, except that when she tells me about science class, she mumbles, looks away, and seems embarrassed. She volunteers, “in physics, there’s a lot of formulas and math and graphs and stuff. I’m hoping to bring my grades up next unit when we do chemistry.”
You know, where there aren’t so many graphs and formulas and math and stuff.
She’s a tough, persevering, open-minded, critical-thinking kid. If she needs high school physics at some point, there are a bunch of ways to get it later, when it has a point for her. I’m not actually worried.
I just wish I knew what to say.