Moving On

So yesterday was the first proper day of the holidays. I say that because the weekends don’t really count, do they? But the first weekday when you get to lay in bed, relax over a cuppa, wear shorts rather than a shirt and tie… now that’s a holiday.

However, it’s a bit of an odd one for me. As you may have realised, depending on whether you caught the tweets or not, I’m moving on from my current job. In fact, it’s a bit more than moving on from the school I’ve been working at. As of September, I’ll not be a classroom teacher at all.

I’ve accepted a post with the Institute of Physics as a Teaching and Learning Coach. I’ll be one of 35 (some experienced and some like me new to the role) across the country. As part of the Stimulating Physics Network we’ll be promoting and helping physics teaching in secondary schools all over the place. My patch will be Derbyshire, mainly up towards Chesterfield, although we’re yet to finalise the specific schools.

For the first time in ten years I won’t be a classroom teacher, although as part of the job I’ll be visiting science labs and hopefully doing some work with various classes. I’ll still consider myself a science teacher, but they won’t be my classes. For the first time in a decade – since before my eldest son was born – I won’t be spending the summer stocking up on red pens. I will however be getting my head round various schemes of work and exam specifications, arguably more than before.

It’s exciting. And a bit scary. (Not least because with this being a part time role, I’ll have to manage some supply and/or freelance writing to support my coffee habit.) But I’m really looking forward to starting and seeing what kind of impact I can have. I suggested at my interview that the informal mentoring I’ve done in schools, and with the electronic staffrooms of blogging and twitter, could be seen as good training. Now to see if I was right.

I’m still planning to blog. I’ll still be tweeting “informally but informatively”, although I’ll be staying away from education policy for obvious reasons. Disclaimers have been added to my twitter profile and about page, making clear that these are my opinions, not those of my organisation. This means I’m now a writer-for-hire, so drop me a line if you’ve something I could be involved with. I’m still planning to join in with twitter chats and so on. All of that will be in my off-duty persona.

Spreading of identities, it’s probably time I formally came out of the closet. It’s not been that hard to link my real name with this account since I started writing elsewhere and linking to this site. So here I am, finally stepping out of the shadows.

I’m Ian Horsewell, and I’m a blogging addict.


A Scientific Summer

My eldest son already identifies as geeky. Maybe it’ll change, and that’s fine. But right now he’s got a Raspberry Pi, several electronics kits and a burning desire to make a robot that will allow him to take over the world. He likes coding (secret ciphers as well as Scratch and Python) and is getting into astronomy, microscopes and wildlife. He wants to be a zoologist (this week) and is learning to touch type so he can blog his discoveries. In the interests of fairness: he also reads continuously, rock climbs, draws really badly and has taught himself to turn cartwheels and do backflips on a trampoline. He’s as well rounded as the average nine year old, for which his mother deserves a lot more credit than I.
The thing is, supporting his interest in science always came easily to me. I get science. It makes sense to me. Although I mainly teach physics, I’ve enough of a grounding across the board that I know where to look for good explanations if I’m stumped myself. (Recently: what’s the difference between moths and butterflies?) Sport, drama, music – these are mysteries to me. But science I get.
Lots of people don’t. Which means lots of parents don’t.
The ExpeRimental project – the middle capital letter is because it’s being run out of the Ri, the Royal Institution – is about giving parents the tools to play scientifically with their kids this summer. Instructions for simple, kitchen science demonstrations that help kids explain basic scientific ideas. It’s free, it’s supported via YouTube and it’s led not by famous faces but by real kids and parents. Alom Shaha is part of the project which means both the science and the videos are top-notch. The focus isn’t on recreating something they could see online, but on thinking scientifically. This is about questions, not answers, and it’s something everyone can learn, young or old.
By this point you’re probably nodding enthusiastically, but you’re also realising, as I did, that we’re the wrong audience. This site isn’t intended for me, although I’ll use it. As science teachers, we don’t need this. Parents need this project.
I don’t need this site
Because I’m a geek.

There, I said it. Am I stepping out of some intellectual closet here? (Bonus points to anyone who gets the reference, answer in the comments.)

This doesn’t make me a character in The Big Bang Theory, which I see as undemanding (rather sexist) comedy rather than a life blueprint. It doesn’t make me a genius. I’m neither a scientist nor an engineer. It makes me a person who recognises a fact about the world that I’d probably take for granted, if I didn’t have to make it explicit in a daily basis for my students.

Science is cool.

Not just because it leads to great stuff. Although it does. Not just because it involves big explosions. Ditto. And not just because it’s useful (candidate for this year’s understatement award) when facing crises like climate change, water scarcity and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Science is cool because it’s arguably the best way to answer one of the first abstract questions human beings ask.


Yes, I know that often the explanation of cause and effect involves people and their motives as well as scientific principles. Yes, I know that sometimes we’re answering the question in terms of justifying a choice rather than explaining how something works. But in its simplest possible incarnation, science is about describing how the world works and suggesting a reason for it. Magic and religion may have offered the first explanations, but science offered the first that actually worked. And still does. So science is cool, and thinking scientifically is useful to everyone, and lots of people think they can’t do it.

Who To Tell
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Is everyone too simplistic? It would be better to tell people who care. Parents who have six weeks of summer holiday ahead of them and know the summer reading challenge, great as it is, won’t be enough. ExpeRimental will be adding a new video each week over the summer. Kids and their parents will be encouraged to share their own contributions – videos, surprises, results, questions – via the project Facebook page.
Pass it on via your preferred social media, ideally a few times over the next few weeks. Email those in your family who are zoo keeping child minding this summer. Better yet, send it to older brothers and sisters and challenge them to help. Bribery is good – Horrible Science books are easy to find in charity shops and discounters, or the Klutz range provide great materials and ideas.
I’d love to see promotional materials in local libraries and their noticeboards – I might add a few myself. And perhaps bookshops might add something in their Science for Kids shelves? The point is to get the ideas into the hands of desperate parents who want to get through the summer without spending a fortune or shouting too much.
And next?
One approach that seems to have been missed; as well as primary teachers and those running science clubs, the resources would be great for youth groups. The project would be a great foundation for Rainbows or BeaversBrownies and Cubs. Pass on the link to youth leaders for a ready-made activity in the autumn.
Something I’m using with my own kids this summer is an American site, Kids can share projects, from Actor to Zoologist, and earn badges to show what they’ve done. The ideas would link really nicely with the PhilosopherData Visionary and Film Maker skills as well as the more obvious scientific ones.
Next stop would be visiting somewhere scientific. I’m sure there must be lists of science centres, museums with dinosaur exhibits and wildlife centres suitable for kids. This could be as easy as printing off a checklist and heading for the park to look at bugs. Or as involved as staying overnight in the Science Museum. Just like science, this project is about starting to ask questions, not about giving final answers. And this post isn’t really about science teaching, any more than visiting the Roald Dahl museum is about teaching literacy. Instead, it’s about being a parent.
Which is what I’ll be up to for the next six weeks or so. Probably armed with a Pringles cannon…

Book Swap


Six weeks of summer holiday stretching ahead and I’ve laid in a stockpile of books, both paper and electronic, to keep me out of trouble. I’ve also got a long list of saved articles to catch up on; lesson study is something I want to look into much more closely, for example.

Every term or so I’ve been buying a book that’s relevant to my teaching. These alternate, vaguely, between vaguely popular science and education. I want to be a better teacher and engaging with a good book can’t hurt. I’ve always liked paper copies, because it’s easier to scribble in the margins. (I am looking at ways to annotate ebooks and then share/search main points, but that’s another post.) But this means that I’ve got overflowing bookshelves.

Could you help?

I’d like to start some book swapping. Choose one of the books by adding a comment, let me know your address by email and I’ll post it your way. It doesn’t count as CPD unless you think about it, so when you’re done type something about the book. Good points and bad, ideas you liked or how you’ve put it into practice. I’ll host that as a guest piece and/or link to your own site.

Maybe you’ve got books you’d like to offer as loans to fellow teachers? (If you don’t already do something like this in your own school, can I suggest you set it up first to save postage costs?) If so, include a list of titles/authors, maybe with a few words about who might get the most out of reading, in the comments. It should be really easy for us all to get a couple of new teaching books to inspire us over the next few months, for a few stamps instead of the often high purchase cost. And then the discussion will help us develop the ideas further.

Worth a try? You know what to do.




A Better September

There are some great things about teaching. Changing kids’ lives. Sharing the passion for our subjects. That ‘lightbulb moment’. Showing kids they can exceed their own expectations. Never ever being bored. Great questions and interesting answers.

July and August.

But all good things come to an end and the summer break – where we get time off in lieu for parents evenings, marking, revision sessions, mock exam scripts and all the other overtime  –  will indeed finish at some point. Of course, the shops are already putting up ‘back to school’ displays, which must be as depressing for the students as it is for the staff.



And the summer is followed by September, both anticipated and dreaded by teachers through the land. Anticipated because, no matter what the students think, we actually enjoy teaching. But dreaded because the days are nearly as long as the lists of jobs. Because additional tasks descend upon us from the SMT corridor with a casual “Oh, and we need this done by tomorrow.” Because the exciting introductions and carefully planned demonstrations get trampled by the inevitable timetable tweaks, photograph schedules and welcome assemblies.

So let’s make September better.


  1. Make yourself a cuppa, look back at your planner pages from last September and write a list of the problems that showed up.
  2. Using next September’s school planner, can you eliminate some of these?
  3. Add deadlines now for coursework, reporting and exams. Calendarpedia might be worth a look.
  4. Double check you’ve got access (or copies) to schemes of work, lesson resources etc for the topics in the first month. Google Drive, Dropbox, Evernote and so on are your friends.

The rest of these, in no particular order, very much depend on your approach. They’re based on things I do or have thought about. YMMV.

Summer Reading

  1. Find yourself a few good teaching blogs to follow. They could be subject-based or about leadership roles, pedagogy, behaviour… it doesn’t matter. The odds are they’ll be quiet over the summer so you can catch up with old posts and steal some ideas.
  2. Buy a book. Even better, swap your copy with a colleague, with a set of post-its, so you can add annotations and argue about the ideas come September. (HoDs – why not encourage a half-termly book swap for next year?)
  3. Sign-up for emails from a teaching organisation: NFER, SCORE, IoE are just three examples.

Starters/Bell Work

This is likely to be more of an issue in September, as you’re getting to know the classes and they’re getting to know their way around.

  1. Choose four good lesson starter approaches eg pictures/diagrams of apparatus.
  2. Create a Powerpoint with the title September Starters.
  3. For the first week, make slides for all classes using the first idea.
  4. Repeat for second, third and fourth weeks.
  5. Over the year, you’ll probably want more variation, with starters better tailored to the lesson. But this will mean when time is short you have an easier option.


A lot of September is about establishing expectations and making habits, not learning lots of science. How will you make sure that the mistakes kids are making in September aren’t still an issue in July 2015?

  1. Clear expectations and shared checklists for layout and presentation.
  2. Department-wide (ideally school-wide) annotations and format for comments.
  3. If you could print feedback stickers for the ten most common errors (with QR codes to detail if wanted) what would they be? “Use a sharp pencil and ruler for the axes of a graph.” is one of mine.
  4. How will you use praise/rewards/credits for those students who have it sorted quickly to encourage the others?


The probability of a class list changing is directly proportional to the time you’ve spent creating lesson plans and organising directed support. Find a system that works for you, and do what you can ahead. This might include:

  1. Printing blank seating plans for your lab or classroom.
  2. Making sure you have photos you can cut/paste into a useful layout.
  3. Creating a board with ‘task groups’ of four pupils who will work together each lesson. (Teams named after scientists for KS3, numbered for KS4.)
  4. Buying a supply of pipecleaners for the fidgety kid to fiddle with.

Stationery and Equipment

  1. Decide now (with reference to school policy) what you’ll do about ‘forgotten’ pens and pencils. Visit Poundland for supplies if needed.
  2. Stickers and/or stamps; do what suits you.
  3. Try not to spend too much of your own money on shiny things. (Moleskines are my own particular weakness.)
  4. Wardrobe audit; clear out old ties and ragged shirts, repair buttons, spend money if necessary.

Personal Life

Over the summer it’s great to be able to catch up with family and friends. This tends to be murder in September, particularly if (like me) you have children of school age.

  1. Spend a couple of days making freezer meals (my son and I will be doing this together) so you have a little variety in September.
  2. Throw away all the takeaway menus and uninstall JustEat from your phone.
  3. Declutter accumulated ‘stuff’, school-related or otherwise, to charity shops, eBay or recycling.
  4. Put a good book to one side for the odd moments in September you’re not actually working.
  5. Try really hard not to be heavily pregnant over the summer (or have a partner who is) so that the autumn has a new baby as well as a new term.



Doing Physics

A recent Guardian blog was from a 16 year old who felt that Physics at A-level had little to offer her. Sadly the Guardian weren’t interested in the response, so I’m posting it here.

It’s a basic principle of science that anecdotes are not data. Sadly the personal story shared by Sarah is one example supported by wider evidence. There are undoubtedly many reasons why students, male and female, drop physics at sixteen. Things are better than they were, since the low point in 2007 when less than 28000 chose it as an A-level subject. But female students still make up only 20% of sixth form physics classes, despite GCSE results that are as good or better. This is frustrating for students, for teachers and certainly for politicians.

So why should anybody, male or female, choose Physics for post-16 study? The reasons are the same as for any subject; for interest and for usefulness. I can’t imagine not finding physics fascinating, but then you could argue I’m one of the success stories.

I start the school year by turning out my pockets and challenging students to recognise the science implicit in our lives. It stretches from the metallurgy of my keys and wedding ring to drug trials for painkillers, from the link between the shape of my lenses and my prescription to the magnetic coding on my credit card. And that’s before we consider the many facets of mobile devices, from electronics via touchscreen engineering to the EM spectrum and orbital mechanics for the satellites that carry the signals. Science really is everywhere, physics certainly as much as biology or chemistry. From the big, abstract picture to the uses we take for granted day to day, physics is mind-blowing.

In practical terms it’s also a hugely useful, facilitating subject even if you don’t plan to use it directly in the scientific, medical or engineering worlds. Yes, rocket scientists (actually usually engineers) need physics. Yes, it provides an important grounding for medicine. But the skills you learn provide many other benefits in a wide range of courses and careers. When able students choose other subjects we as teachers inevitably feel we missed making that clear enough. Sometimes students making A-level choices don’t appreciate that the courses are a stepping stone, not an end in themselves.

There is a big imbalance in the number of male and female students who choose Physics at A-level. This is not new, and it’s not going away by itself. I think – and more importantly, the data shows – that there are several possible causes worth considering. Unsurprisingly, some of these factors are more difficult to address than others. Many subjects have a gender imbalance, some much worse than physics, but as a physics teacher I have a personal stake. I often describe changes in education happening at different levels.

Nationally, there are some really big issues affecting education across all subjects. Representations of scientists in the media are improving, but Brian Cox isn’t the only reason students choose Physics. The Wellcome Trust raised many issues in their 2011 report about young people’s views on science education. Programmes of study and the exam specifications need to be considered for their impact on a range of diverse students. The type of school makes a difference – although this is nothing to do with academies or free schools. Students with attached sixth forms make up more balanced classes. Girls are more likely to choose physics in independent schools, especially if they are single sex. These findings, along with several of the other links, form the backdrop to ongoing projects at the Institute of Physics to improve UK Physics education. There are often other political choices to be made, from funding of teacher training to rebuilding school facilities. The Royal Society recently published their Vision for science and mathematics education, This is ambitious and far-ranging, considering how we might develop teaching of these subjects over the next twenty years.

School leaders and governers need to consider what affects student choices for A-levels across subjects. The evidence, despite claims to the contrary, suggests that the rapport between teacher and student is generally much more important than the gender of the teacher. Having specialists teaching physics well to younger students also makes a big difference. A school with no Spanish teacher has the option to offer other languages instead, something that doesn’t apply to the sciences. Of course local authorities and academy chains make choices at this tactical level too.

And I can change things in my classroom, with my students. I can ensure examples and textbooks feature male and female physicists. I can make clear links to social implications of the physics we study, something which has been shown to improve engagement for all but girls in particular. I can point out when individuals or the class are making assumptions; for example in a recent question describing the movement of a skydiver, 22 out of 28 in the group used male pronouns for no reason they could explain. I can try out different arrangements of practical groups so boys don’t dominate the hands-on aspect. These aspects are about good teaching methods. At the same time they’re hugely important and completely overwhelmed by the bigger picture.

If I were Sarah’s teacher, I would tell her that Physics is hugely relevant to daily life and always will be. It’s a beautiful subject with fascinating implications. It is a vital part of many careers and studying it provides many future options. I would never criticise a student’s choices – it’s their life, not mine – but I hope their decisions are a truly informed choice. A lot of teaching is helping students to overcome their misconceptions. I hope that we as teachers can do a better job of offering that informed choice to more students across the UK.