Physics Soul-mates

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.

Lucy and Janee cart Malcolm and Bella board Ysabel and Jessie fruit

13 thoughts on “Physics Soul-mates

  1. Interesting concept Kelly. What do you haVe to do to encourage kids to try people that are not their friends? In my experience this has been the hardest thing. Or break up people from globbing onto the smartest kid in the class? Thanbk you for. Another great idea!

    1. Hey Jim,

      1) I basically just tell them everything I wrote above. Going meta with them has usually worked for me. And if they are consistently making poor choices for themselves, then I step in and make the groups (assigned groups, but not assigned seats—they can figure out getting the groups at the same tables without my telling them that) for a little while (switching every couple of weeks or so) until I eventually hand it back over to them. I always put a ton of thought into making the groups—I never do it randomly. Actually, at least one of the groups in the photos above (all of which depict some serious soul-mate love) came from a group that I put together when I was making the groups for them. They stuck together for the rest of the year after that.

      2) Again, as far as the “smartest” thing, I basically just tell them what I say above. What I find is that there really isn’t a “smartest”—it’s usually more about breaking one of the two ideas I wrote about. It’s a slower student wanting to work with someone who works faster or a student who implicitly buys anything another student says. It doesn’t work for either of them, so I try to engineer the groups if I need to in that case. Sometimes I do some more precise engineering than carefully choosing all the groups, and that sometimes involves talking to a kid or two outside of class (and maybe not the ones who are making the poorer choices, but the ones I want to work with those kids) so that I have some allies and can make that engineering go more smoothly (instead of awkwardly) at the start of the next class.

    2. You could also try being a tad more devious… don’t tell the students they’re going to pick their own groups (because they often will not think about choosing wisely after you say that nor will they listen to your wisdom about groups after that).

      Have the students answer a question (with 4 answer choices) about their “comfortable working speed” compared to their peers. Everyone who answers “A” goes to one corner, “B” goes to another corner, and so on. Have the students in each subgroup discuss the merits of working with similar-minded students and perhaps the pitfalls of working with students who work markedly faster or slower. Then have them form their teams from the students in their corner.

      I really like this idea of Kelly’s — I think I just need a bit more structure in my situation.

      1. That’s a great point and a good solution for a larger class. I’d say it’s really “devious”, not devious, because you’re still taking it to the meta level with them.

      2. I love this modification. I typically use a survey and what I know of the students to form groups. Think I will try this method this year :).


  2. Hey, I forgot… in the top photo, what experiment are the girls doing with the “roller-skate” apparatus? I have a bunch of those old things and I’d love to use them if the kids can get pretty good data with them.


  3. Haha nice strategy. I guess I’ll figure out a way to implement it in my math class. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and ideas. The internet is really a great place to find tools and resources for my classroom. For example, I stumbled upon a tool called ClassroomIQ ( It’s a very efficient grading tool. It helps me grade homework and exams more quickly and easily. It’s a very handy and convenient tool to have. Can you write more posts on education technology? I’m craving for ed tech tools!

  4. Hi Kelly– I was given your name by Sarah McKibben, editor of ASCD’s Education Update. I am currently working on an article for Education Update on the Next Generation Science Standards. I would like to interview you, if possible, about NGSS and your thoughts on the new standards as a high school science teacher. Please let me know if you’re interested in speaking with me. I appreciate it and look forward to hearing from you! Jennifer Rice Henderson (

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