The day-to-day work in my class happens in at tables in an “individually together” manner that I described in the Whiteboarding Mistake Game: A Guide post. Quick summary of “individually together”: Students work at tables on problems in their packets. They mostly work on their own, take a moment to consult and debate with the group, then move forward with their own thinking. It involves a lot of individual thinking and working which is periodically supercharged with moments of group debate. It isn’t quite group work, but it is collaborative, and it is (in my experience and observation) better then staying mainly at just one end of the individual-together spectrum.
At the start of the year, I encourage students to try out as many different tables as they can. They need to find their “physics soul-mate”. That is, they need to find the person (or people) with whom they can argue productively about physics.
Your soul-mate might not be the person you initially think he will be when you look around the room on the first day. She might not be your best or close friend. He might not be someone you know very well (yet).
What to look for in a physics soul-mate:
You work at about the same speed. Someone who works faster than you work will make you feel perpetually behind and dragged along. You’ll find yourself agreeing with them because they seem to know what they are doing (simply because they are ahead of you). On the other hand, someone who works more slowly than you work won’t be ready to have the arguments you need to have when you’re ready to have them, so you will be missing out on defending your thinking and having your thinking challenged in real time. Faster does not mean better—better is someone who keeps pace with you.
You don’t trust each other implicitly. If you always trust what the other person says, you won’t be able to have discussions about the problems. You need to be able to be persuaded by a good, solid argument, but you shouldn’t simply trust the other person carte-blanche.
Those are the main ideas. Notice that you’re not looking for the person who you think is the best at physics in your class. Nor are you looking for someone who you think is about as good as you are. It’s less about matching or mixing (perceived, current) abilities and more about facilitating productive and well-timed discussions.
Two quick notes on physics soul-mates in practice
There are always students who would rather go it alone in class and work next to someone (and never with that person). In my experience, those students actually go faster and learn better once they find a person that will make the “individually together” paradigm work—even though they adamantly believe they will work faster on their own.
Finding a physics soul-mate can be hugely motivating for students who would otherwise be tentative about physics. They start looking forward to the class and the feeling of working in such a productive team (even though that “teamwork” really means a lot of their own, tough work of thinking). It helps give them ownership and belonging in the class. It’s really fun to watch that happen.
I’ve tried to keep this post short, so I’ll close it off here with some photos of physics soul-mates in action from the past year (just a few quick choices out of many, many great moments). Ask about what I missed here in the comments, if you will.