AQA RP8: Investigate, using appropriate apparatus, the densities of regular and irregular solid objects and liquids, making and recording appropriate measurements.
OCR PAG1: Use of measurements to determine densities of solid and liquid objects
Edexcel 4.3: Investigate the densities of solid and liquids (such as an investigation that uses irregularly shaped objects and a density bottle)
There are lots of misconceptions here – the well known idea of comparing the weight of a kilo of feathers and a kilo of bricks shows this. We conflate density and weight in common conversation, quite apart from mass! Students have often encountered the ideas when learning about buoyancy, which is frequently taught in primary school science. You may have shown them a ball bearing floating on liquid mercury.
Predictably, there are lots of great ideas at Practical Physics; in particular I recommend reading the teaching guidance which suggests a narrative approach before introducing the maths. Considering typical misconceptions is also worthwhile. There are many practical activities which provide opportunities for various skills such as PRODME discussion, measurement and data recording. If you provide differently-sized lumps of plasticene to students and have them plot mass against volume the points should give a nice straight-line relationship – time to discuss proportionality! The same would be true of varied pieces of (the same) plywood or water balloons if you’d like more data. You might also like to discuss the difference between the name of a quantity and the unit, or the symbol and the abbreviated unit.
As a follow-up, there’s a virtual practical at PhET which could be set as homework. This, like any simulation, gives an opportunity to discuss how we collect data, which lead to models, which make predictions, which can be compared to more observations. These animations give data which are unusually neat and clear compared to the untidiness of real life. (For real data, see the A-level Nuffield data book available on the eLibrary.) The density column as described at the American TeachEngineering resource site would be a great starter in a later lesson to check understanding. And how about using the Density notes at BBC Bitesize to create a ‘mistakes’ exercise which students can correct in class?
If you want videos there are unsurprisingly many options. Bang Goes The Theory created instructions to build your own Cartesian Diver. If you’d like something more theoretical, the ever-reliable Veritasium or Sixty Symbols might be good. You may of course have access to something like BrightStorm or BrainPOP as well.
If you’ve any ideas or improvements, please add them in the comments. This is the first post of a planned series supporting teachers with the new Physics GCSE ‘required’ practicals.

GCSE Practicals

You’ll already know that the assessment of practical work is changing. (I recommend this article by Alistair Moore and this at the RSC from @MaryUYSEG for useful perspectives.) At A-level it’s changed already, as part of many other alterations. The ISAs are gone for post-16, and it’s fair to say that most teachers aren’t going to miss them. At GCSE these changes will be part of the new specification which officially starts in September 2016, and which many schools have already started to use for their Year 9 students. Which is brave, when they’ve not been approved yet! If you’re teaching A-level Physics I’d recommend the resource created by one of my day-job colleagues at the SPN and available to all.
Different exam boards are taking different approaches, but there’s a big overlap. Each has a list of practicals which are required/recommended/suggested, and students will need to have a signed form of some kind which says they’ve done them. This means they’ll have had the opportunity to gain all the relevant skills (according to OfQual) which will be a pass/fail ‘extra’ to the grade. I predict, somewhat cynically, that the vast majority of students will have gained these skills on paper no matter how much their lab work resembles that of Beaker from the Muppets. 15% of the final exam marks will be awarded for students demonstrating in a written exam that they can think like a scientist, probably in a similar way to the ISA papers.
The list of practicals is a minimum expectation – a lower limit rather than an upper one. Most are ones we have always done, in one form or another. Students don’t have to work independently on all of them, or in exam conditions. They need not (and in my opinion should not) do them as a separate unit or topic but as part of their normal experience of science, alongside science content and social context. There is no specific way they are expected to write them up or record their results.
My plan is to create a resource list for each of the GCSE Physics practicals, drawn from AQA, Edexcel and OCR. These are my interpretation and, certainly at the moment, I’m doing them in my own time for no charge. (If anyone would like them sooner and/or to sell, contact me with a price in mind.)

Afternoon all

Hope you’re all enjoying your half-term; due to various crises (and yes, that is the correct plural of crisis) I’m temporarily off Twitter and rather stressed. This means blogging time is noticeable by its absence, as it’s all I can manage to keep the day job, freelance gigs and the washing up done. Oh, and being a Cub leader.

But I’ve not forgotten you all! Until I can produce something more constructive, I decided to share the entire contents of my now-defunct ‘Student Toolkit’ site via Google Drive. It’s neither organised nor pretty, but it is complete. I wasn’t getting any feedback or praise, and it was costing me money. So if you knew of it’s existence and hadn’t bothered to say thank you, well, now you know why it’s vanished. :)

I plan to blog one of the resources, with explanations and corrected links and so on, over time. It should be fairly quick and easy which is good when there’s a screaming toddler needing food and older boys hacking into the family WiFi. Or that of the neighbours.

HALT means Stop


Number one rule in discipline is never get irritable. Forgive easily and forget. Easier if you aren’t in a mood…
— Miss Smith (@HeyMissSmith) August 9, 2015

This tweet really resonated with me, and there’s not a teacher alive who can’t recall a time when they ignored this principle. Tell me you’re the exception and I’ll call you a liar. We all get irritable, often for very good reason. Everyone has different triggers, although some things are naturally more irritating than others. Missing the bus. Finding the milk’s gone off, after you’ve put it in your tea. Spoilers for a good book or favourite TV programme. Jeremy Clarkson. Teenagers in general.
As a teacher, the problem is that kids hold grudges even better than we do. And there’s more of them, so they’ll win in the grumpiness stakes, even if only by weight of numbers. Something that may be helpful is an idea from outside teaching, a reminder of the emotional states that lead to bad decisions. The concept is that we should generally avoid doing something that can’t be undone when we are:
This acronym/mnemonic has more than one claimed source, but you may find the guidance at LifeSIGNS helpful; my interpretations below are obviously a personal take on the subject! HALT means to stop before you do something you may regret.
It’s an easy one, this. Teachers rush. We might skip breakfast, even though we tell kids it’s a bad idea. A couple of biscuits with a cup of tea, drunk too hot when the bell goes, is all we get at break. Lunchtime might happen, in between kids explaining why they haven’t done their homework and a manager admitting that the deadline for predicted grade entry was yesterday and he forgot to email. Then a parents’ evening after a canteen baked potato, somehow burnt on the outside and nearly raw in the middle.
Like we tell our students during science topics, we shouldn’t divide food into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Instead, we need to think about ‘always’ or ‘sometimes’ foods. In the long term, yes; we should eat food, not too much, mostly plants. (LINK) But in the short term, we are better off eating something than going hungry. You could buy the cereal bars that are edible, but that don’t have enough chocolate to be a treat. Add packet soups to your emergency stationary drawer. Keep some bottles of water and dried fruit in the car, so when you’re running behind the traffic lights are a chance to eat as well as a source of huge frustration.
Anecdotally, NQTs either gain or lose five kilograms during the year. Now, this isn’t evidence-based, apologies to Tom Bennett. But there is probably enough truth in it to bear in mind when you’re shopping for break-time snacks you can eat between students.
They’re really good at pressing our buttons, aren’t they? Sometimes I don’t know what’s more irritating; teenagers who are honestly completely oblivious about their thoughtlessness, or those who are deliberately choosing to aggravate. I don’t mean those who tease about your football team losing, but the kid who tells you, absolutely seriously and sincerely, that they don’t understand why you don’t “just kill yourself and make life better for everyone.”
Yes, I’m quoting from personal experience.
There’s no cure for anger, wherever it lies on the ‘mild annoyance’ to ‘burning rage’ scale. An author I like, Spider Robinson, has a character in one of his books suggest that “Anger is fear in drag.” Whatever the cause, it’s rarely a bad idea to pause. If a kid was visibly angry, you’d remove them from the situation (or remove the situation from them). So this is where you repeat the instruction and specify consequences, allow take-up time and go to do something else. Go talk to a student you know you’ll be able to praise. Fetch a replacement board pen. Step around the prep room door and snap a pencil in half (don’t let the kids see, or they’ll treat it as a game). Longer term, there are things you can do, and should. In the short term, the aim is just to take a breath and respond, instead of react.
I think this – along with holidays vs term-time workload – is one of the biggest misconceptions non-teachers have about our profession. Despite being part of a team, often with dozens of colleagues and several hundred students, it can feel very isolated. Being a teacher means being responsible for thirty human beings, what they do and what they learn. The staffroom can be very lonely, whether you’re new to a school or you’ve just had a bad lesson despite years of experience. It’s remarkably depressing when you say that this class or that student was challenging today, and there’s a chorus of “They’re not like that for me…”
You shouldn’t be alone in the school – but it’s understandable you might feel that way. Like being a parent to a young child, it can be hard to make time for adult conversations. Try. Put it on the timetable that one lesson a fortnight you’ll go and talk to a colleague about teaching ideas. Make it positive and make it a regular commitment. Some colleagues can seem very negative, and where possible they’re the ones you need not to talk to!
You can also find colleagues, support and ideas outside of school. If you’re an early career teacher of Physics I’d recommend the SPN mentoring programme, for example! (The day job is working as part of the IOP.) Twitter can be great, although I’m taking a little time out for the moment, and you’ll be able to find ‘virtual colleagues’ who can help both professionally and emotionally.
All the problems of the classroom are easier when students recognize they’re dealing with a team, not an individual teacher. The positive experiences students have tend to be about our strengths; when things are difficult we need to rely on each other, on institutional standards and policies, to make up for our personal weak moments. Because we all have them, but we shouldn’t have to deal with them alone.
Lesson 5 on a Friday, anyone? After a parents’ evening on Tuesday and a Wednesday twilight INSET on the correct way to administer an EpiPen? How many of you have already started to think about your DVD selection? I know I would be, because sometimes it’s better to aim for a small amount of learning than risk catastrophe.
There as as many reasons for being tired as there are teachers, but some things are predictable. Make sure your personal calendar is visible when you do your long-term planning. Be reasonable, because if you try for every lesson to be all-singing, all-dancing, outstanding according to Ofsted… you’ll probably last a fortnight. It’s not sustainable unless you’re prepared to take a part-time salary and work full-time on planning and marking. Make your school life easier.
  1. Choose one lesson per group for the fortnight which will be impressive. Star it on your timetable, max one per day. Consider scheduling a ‘planned low impact’ lesson on the same day.
  2. Choose a template for activities which you use for a certain amount of time. Maybe you can use a structure so that the first lesson each fortnight with a class starts with a picture. The second lesson begins with three multiple choice questions. The third… you get the idea.
  3. Investigate pre-made and customizable activities which are ready to print and use. You might have some in house; you may find one site or library works well for you. (See the second half of this post on the difficulties with finding resources)/
  4. Passive activities can be made active with a relatively small time commitment. Turn copied and pasted notes from Bitesize into a ‘spot the mistakes’ exercise; no copying for the kids, but a chance to use the magical red pen. Have students answer questions after watching a video, or even better generate them for each other. Provide a template for research lessons and share the best examples as student notes.

I’m afraid there are no magic solutions to tiredness; the average teacher has a lot more work than week. Anything you can reuse from past years, ‘borrow’ from colleagues locally or electronically, find at one of the many resource sites, gives you more time. I like the idea of time assets and debts, which you could sum up with a simple example. If I can spend an hour in August Doing a job that will save me just two minutes every week in term time, I’ll be ahead after a year. If it saves me two minutes each school day, I’ll have gained five hours by next summer.

So tiredness can’t be solved except by the boring approach of sleeping more. But we can use our waking hours better, just like we tell kids in exam season who would rather complete Call of Duty that revise.

Time to HALT?

I’d be really interested in any feedback on this – maybe it’s obvious, but writing it helped me get some things straight in my own head. As I said, I’m off Twitter for a bit, but feel free to share – just remember you’ll have to comment here if you want me to know what you think.

So the new AQA Physics specification – currently still a draft – is interesting. Much of this also applies, of course, to other exam boards. Some of the changes I like, some I’m not so sure about. Of course a lot of these requirements were set by Ofqual and we could spend days arguing about how much of this is based on political, rather than pedagogical reasons.

But anyway.

Some schools are, of course, starting to teach this to their Year 9 pupils because they treat Science GCSE as a three year course. Even if not, those of us who teach KS3 will be looking at the specifications making sure we are setting the scene helpfully. Others have commented in far more detail than I, but I wanted to raise a few issues that have come up already during my day job.

  1. The language used to describe energy is changing, like it or not. Instead of types, the movement is towards stores (and pathways/processes) which may feel like a huge change. If you don’t know about it, please drop me a line via email or twitter, or contact us at the IOP through TalkPhysics. I blogged (personally) with some links a while back.
  2. There are required practicals instead of ISAs. (Cheering throughout the land…) Each exam board has their own list, but they’re pretty reasonable. Requirements about recording vary but it seems to me an ideal opportunity to build in regular discussion/analysis of practical tasks. SMT may need to be reminded that the list is a minimum expectation and lots more practical work still needs to be budgeted for.
  3. In AQA, at least, students will be expected to recall many more equations than previously. I’m personally dubious about memory as a proxy for leaning, but I’m not in charge. Not yet, anyway. So we will need, as early as possible, to get kids into good habits with fluent recall of these equations and their meanings, units and so on.

This last point is what I’m focused on, after a discussion with one of my mentees (the IOP runs a scheme to mentor early-career teachers of physics) over video chat at the weekend. We talked about using ideas from languages and primary spelling/times tables, where small regular testing improves familiarity. I spoke about Plickers and QuickKey as two ways to quickly collect scores for multiple choice questions. But, I reasoned, what about the students learning independently?

So today I’ve created a set of equation flashcards for the AQA (draft) specification on StudyBlue. Students could download these to their own devices for free (Android and Apple apps are available) then test themselves. Hopefully they’d customize them over time.

Set of flashcards on StudyBlue

If these seem useful, please let me know. I’m thinking about putting together sets for other aspects of the course – units and symbols are an obvious next step. So if you send me feedback, there will be more free stuff for you to use in class and save yourself time. A good deal?

Medical Careers


Apologies if this is a repost, but I can’t find it anywhere even though I created it ages ago. I, like many science teachers, have found that kids have tunnel vision when it comes to careers. Medicine, for a variety of reasons, is a real target for many of them. For some it’s a totally unrealistic one. The progression (anecdotally) goes like this.

  • At the start of Yr12, more than 30 in a year of 120 were ‘going to be doctors’. When it is pointed out that we might send two or three off to medical school in a good year, there are blank looks. Even asking “Are you one of the three smartest students in the year?” doesn’t reach everyone.
  • By halfway through the year, more than half of the students now know medicine isn’t happening for them. They immediately start looking at Pharmacy.
  • By the start of yr13, with results in hand (and yes, I know that’s changing) we used to be down to between eight or ten with a reasonable chance. Some of those who had hoped for Pharmacy are now clinging to the hope of Biomedical Science. And have a private tutor.
  • By Christmas, a few more are being realistic and have switched to other plans; I’ve found they’re a bit more open-minded, but it’s marginal. I had one student tell me they now wanted to do theoretical physics as it was the next best thing to medicine.
  • At Easter, between six and eight think they’ve got a reasonable chance; two or three of those might actually get in.

What’s interesting is that hardly anywhere in this do they consider other clinical options that aren’t Medicine. (Some, of course, started off hoping for Dentistry or Veterinary.) It’s as if the vast majority of medical roles, working with patients and using highly technical skills, simply pass them by. So I created a list, not intended to be exhaustive, which is linked below. Perhaps useful to kick off discussion if nothing else?

medical careers as .docx file

medical careers as .pdf


A good turnout for the second week, although some pupils hadn’t shown up despite the stories about marshmallows and spaghetti. Apparently this is a regular issue for after-school activities in primary school. Several kids were enthusiastic about telling me the scientific things they’d been doing, including building more structures with kitchen ingredients. So I think we can count the first week as a definite success!
Balloon Car Racers seemed a good next activity; simple materials, a clear outcome and hopefully something to take home. As with the other activities, the materials from the Ri ExpeRimental project gave us pretty much everything we needed.
We had 12 kids but plenty of leftovers (most earmarked for future sessions). These cost £4 from the pound shop.
  • 250 straws
  • 50 balloons (x2)
  • 100 BBQ skewers
Plus tape, card and bottle lids from general classroom resources and the local scrap store. I’d suggest collecting milk carton lids in the staffroom for a few weeks if possible.
I started by asking about things that go and what makes them move. With each example – which I also used as a chance to get some more names – I added another step to the car. The video was blocked (primary school with YouTube issues) so I couldn’t use the section linking reaction forces to swimming, which was a shame.
I asked the pupils to tell me which they thought was more important – how far the car went, or how fast it traveled. Predictably, there was a mixed response! With more time I would have finished by running a ‘race’ and giving two different rankings, one for speed and the other for distance.
I used a timer on the IWB, set to 20 minutes, for the building time. This was a little ambitious, it turned out! All students had built or nearly built a car by the end of the hour session, and perhaps half had raced them against each other.
Some pupils struggled with the fine motor skills needed to use the sellotape. I don’t think I emphasized enough the need for the axles to be parallel to each other, and perpendicular to the ‘exhaust’ straw – perhaps next time draw lines on the card for them? With more time I’d have them make two, a ‘first draft’ and an ‘improved’ model. This would have been an excellent way to introduce the make/test/improve cycle, perhaps using photos of their cars to illustrate the progress. But it would have taken longer – this could easily be done over a week of lunchtimes, perhaps taking a photo each time to show the development visually. I suspect spreading it out over more time would be difficult with such young students, although at KS3 it might make a good structured project.
Pushing the skewers through the lids also proved difficult for many. Next time some preparation would have been useful – especially for some lids! I’d add an awl or corkscrew for the teacher, and blu-tack to press into. A balloon pump to make up for little lungs and reduce slobber might also have been useful!
For future sessions, I’ll think through a specific ‘skills list’ before we start. Ideally the class teacher would be able to suggest particular points likely to cause problems, but I can probably manage. I’d do this automatically for my usual age group – what can they do easily, what do I need to explicitly teach – but I made guesses based on my own kids, who have always enjoyed crafty activities from Lego to junk modelling, (They haven’t a clue about football skills however, just like me.)


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