Chemistry, but not Physics

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.


  1. WOW. How terribly sad. Another snapshot of public schools. Hard to believe some are STILL teaching like that ( and boring students to death). Way to kill curiosity and give a false view that science is dull and drab…and pointless. It almost makes me weep with frustration and anger.
    My dad taught “honors” (advanced / gifted) physics in high school. Some of my favorite memories (as an elementary age kid) are of us sitting on the living room floor “dry-run testing” whatever hands-on experience he was perfecting for the next day’s class…he taught very little “graphs, math, charts” I think…the kids were always doing activities that taught concepts (then they would be able to do the word problems and answer the open ended questions later.)
    He always said the important thing about physics – and all sciences – was to develop the ability to think critically, observe closely, see relationships and risk stating a possible conclusion…then working to prove or disprove it……none of these really involve dull worksheets.
    I never had scheduling room to actually take physics, but I did tutor friends in college who needed help with that. I love physics…
    Hopefully your daughter will find a teacher who loves science and is so excited about it they can’t wait to share it with students.
    Meanwhile, sounds like the physics-at-home for fun ideas are great….at some point as a parent you have to realize if your kid is going to learn, you have to do it yourself. Hang in there.

    • Thanks for the words of encouragement. I know you’re right about the dull worksheets, and it sounds like the unit was introduced without any big-picture overview so it wasn’t apparent why any of this matters. At the same time, I’m especially worried about her interpretation that physics is hard and boring where chemistry is not. I’m trying to figure out where she came up with this assumption, since both subjects involve math and graphs and sometimes even worksheets. Why the discrepancy??

      • the difference may be in the delivery / teaching style of teachers – or personality of the teacher. Some teachers who did not enjoy or do well in physics are intimidated or unsure when teaching students – so the class is sort of “stiff” and rigid and boring. All you can do is experiment hands-on at home…it sounds like she hasn’t been shown the whole world of physics ..there’s still this age like one thing one day – and it changes entirely in a few weeks…or maybe a friend suddenly finds it interesting. I was in teaching for a looooong time, heavily involved in curriculum development and teacher training ( that’s why bad teaching experiences by students upset me so). Ended up in research ( after the publishing business for a while) – brain development, how brain acquires knowledge and language, how kids learn. I have known and worked with some great Canadian teachers..most didn’t start out in teaching. Teaching and watching how different kids absorb knowledge is great – enjoy it – it sounds like you are doing a great job. ( I promise not to write so much!)

    • Sounds like you’ve had an interesting path! And hey — how to educate teachers (or at least, this one in particular) is a major concern of mine. Write as much as you feel inspired, I’m always curious about where people are coming from.

  2. I was going to read this later but your post caught my attention. What a delightful child! She is lucky to have you in her life to help nudge her into the critical and creative thinking that keep her learning and loving it!

    But you ask, what to tell her. I do not think you can tell her that the 77% is not a mark of what she has not learned, but rather an indication of her teacher’s lack of ability in igniting the students’ curiosity. But it might be good to tell the teacher, although I predict s/he will not be receptive. Maybe you can assure your niece that the best learning does not always take place in the classroom–that her reading and learning and asking and answering questions makes her a potential leader for the future.

    Just so you know, my life is devoted to education. I taught English for over 20 years and then moved into administration. I wish I were evaluating that teacher, so I could suggest ways to better facilitate learning without turning off the students or lowering standards–those concepts are not mutually exclusive.

    • I do not think you can tell her that the 77% is not a mark of what she has not learned, but rather an indication of her teacher’s lack of ability in igniting the students’ curiosity.

      *laugh* Agreed — that probably wouldn’t help the situation. When we talk, I get the feeling she is using the concepts of velocity, etc. in a logical way. But the way she describes “math and graphs” makes me suspect that they don’t hold any meaning to her. Or rather, they hold meaning all right — they mean “thing you draw because the teacher said so.” Given step-by-step instructions, she could probably copy Arabic calligraphy with equal accuracy, but it wouldn’t reveal any poetry.

      I agree that we could raise standards and turn on students — or at least this student. Teaching how to read a graph so that it reveals meaning, just as a sentence does, would probably make the topic much more engaging. Maybe I’ll try to leverage her joy of chemistry to help her read graphs. In the meantime, I hope her appreciation for chemistry doesn’t suffer the same fate.

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