In Zen Buddhism a kōan is a story or a question which may cause initial puzzlement, but which leads to enlightenment with further thought and reflection. Familar examples include "If a tree falls in the forest, and there is nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound?"
A physics kōan is a conceptual question that is puzzling at first, but which illuminates or demonstrates physics principles or ideas or concepts. A simple example is "If a cannon ball and a musket ball are dropped at the same time from a tall bulding, which will hit the ground first?"
The choices for answers are generally distinctly different: does it go up, or go down, or stay the same?
Or the question may be based on common misconceptions.
Or they may be predictions for the outcome of demonstrations.
Good physics kōans use and illustrate the application of principles, rather than just encouraging memorization.
For more background on the use of conceptual questions for peer instruction and what constitutes a physics koan see my talk Half and Half Homework: Can peer instruction methods be adapted to physics homework?
"Peer Instruction - A User's Manual" by Eric Mazur (Prentice Hall, 1997)The best conceptual questions in this book are most certainly physics kōans (though it may not be that they all are, but they don't all have to be).
I do these at the end of a unit, after I've explained the idea, to test their understanding of the idea and to open things up for questions and discussion.
I have found that after I use these in class, even a big lecture class of 80 or more students, I get more questions and more discussion than had I not used these questions.
These kinds of questions work especially well for physical demonstrations. Ask the students to predict the outcome of the demonstration first, and they will pay more attention to the demonstration, the result, and your explanation. The example question of blowing between two sheets of paper shows this, and after folding two cards each student should have two sheets of paper that they can use to try it themselves.
So to get the answer to the question about the two strips of paper, try it yourself. If you don't know the answer to the question about the fox then Google for "What does the fox say?" and view what the fox himself actually says.
"Peer Instruction for Astronomy" by Paul J. Green (Prentice Hall, 2003)
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