SCIENCE @ SCHOOL / The experimental dimension in the teaching of Physics


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The experimental method does not consist in a mechanical succession of conceptual operations and operative techniques, but requires a putting into play of reason in its entirety. In this regard, the author refers to her experience as a physics teacher at the scientific high school, supporting her story with incisive texts by some great scientists.

The cognitive method in physics has as its characteristic the experiment. Experiments can be carried out to verify a physical law, to introduce a new topic and to find out how things are going, to measure a quantity….

Why spend time in the laboratory and how to make it perform at its best?

Experimental activity is useful if it improves the understanding of the students, if it deepens the knowledge for the students for the teacher. Not in all cases and not in all circumstances is it useful: it is when the choice between doing it or not doing it translates into an increase or not of experience, that is, a deepening of the connection between a particular and the whole.

The choice of experiments must respect the essential: it is unimaginable how much the children need to observe, to see embodied what they have studied, but it is also necessary to educate them to the fact that knowledge in physics proceeds with the exercise of reason in all its aspects. facets. I always tell students that thought goes farther than hands. Often it is mathematics that clarifies ideas about a phenomenon even before carrying out an experiment to reproduce certain conditions.

I quote below an excerpt from the text The student as a scientist? by Rosalind Driver (1941-1997).

The empirical conception of science states that scientific ideas and theories are obtained by a process of induction. Whoever conducts investigations, whether they are students or expert scientists, should proceed through a sequence of hierarchically organized processes, starting from the observation of “facts”. On the basis of these facts one can make generalizations and induce hypotheses or theories.

However, the current philosophy of science maintains that this conception is erroneous in that the hypotheses or theories are not connected in any deductive way with the so-called “objective” data, but are constructions, products of the human imagination. Their connection with the concrete world is achieved through the process of verification and eventual refutation[1]. And again by the same author:

Observation does not consist in a passive recording of a phenomenon as if it were an image that is produced by a camera. Instead, it is an active process by which the observer checks his own perceptions by comparing them with his own expectations […] As long as the observations do not serve to answer a question clearly posed it is possible that the children do not accurately record what they see.[2].

Therefore, educating students in observation means educating them to use the whole reason, I would say to put themselves on the line.

Focus on a question: what do I want to understand?

The first step in designing an experiment is to focus on a question: what do I want to understand?

The experimenter, even if he is a 16-17 year old boy, is immersed in the object and drawn to it.

The experimental dimension in the sciences proves to be an adequate method for a particular object of natural reality, it is opposed to the inevitable tendency to project one’s ideas on reality or to stop at appearances, it gets used to the unexpected and to the use of common sense: it is a disposition of the soul that concerns the entire path of knowledge in the scientific field.

The laboratory activity is a powerful tool of knowledge, but it does not automatically produce knowledge! Therefore the activity must be supervised and ordered by the teacher who raises the questions and guides their development because he knows the goal.

Go to the PDF for the entire article

Paola Balzarotti

(Professor of Mathematics and Physics at the Scientific High School of the “Don Carlo Gnocchi” School of Carate Brianza)

Bibliographic indications

[1] R. Driver, The student as a scientist ?, Zanichelli, Bologna 1988, p.85.

[2] ibidem, pp. 16-20.



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Written by Natalia Chi

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