Review: 30 Second Physics

It’s always useful to have a few popular science books available for interested students. These make great summer extension work for some, and even less enthusiastic pupils may dip in and out of good prose. Adding magazines and a selection of science blogs is always worthwhile, of course…

30 Second Physics, Brian Clegg (ed)

Ivy Press, 2017, 160pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781782405146: buy via Amazon.

30-Second Physics cover
30-Second Physics

The book follows an established format; each edited by an expert in the field, and broken down into topics with small sections. In some ways it is the ultimate expression of a textbook with a double-page spread for each idea! It is, however, much briefer in detail but wider in scope. It’s worth noting that each topic is illustrated with a full-page picture, many of which owe more to artistic design principles than scientific diagrams. This is sometimes a missed opportunity.

Most of the text would be accessible to able GCSE science students and above; any who find particular ideas challenging can refer to the ‘three-second thrash’ on each page. If more detail is needed, there is a hint to further study, page references to related topics and brief biographies of relevant scientists. Each of the six sections includes one longer description; the usual physics suspects appear.

I’m not sure if the would supply useful extension work for specific topics but could be a good way to encourage students to consider links to the ‘Big Picture’. Because the text is accessible, selected bits would also work well to challenge able students at the upper end of KS3. Depending on personal preference, it could also be loaned out to students who might prefer to dip into something briefly rather than digging into something meatier.

One cautionary note; the pages on Energy are, unsurprisingly, aligned with the ‘types and transformations’ model rather than ‘stores and pathways’. This would not even be noticed by most parents, but students may find the reversion to a model no longer recommended for school teaching is confusing. The physics, of course, is fine – it is just the way the equations and processes are described in words that may cause difficulties. And as a physicist, I think the lack of equations on the pages is a shame; I suspect the average reader would consider it a benefit!

Overall, I’d recommend this as a good starting point for a classroom bookshelf but most interested students will soon move on to books on more specific physics topics. It would be a great for interested parents so they have a clue about what their children are encountering in lessons.

I was sent a free pre-publication copy to review; it was released on Amazon on 17th August.

Square Pegs and Round Holes 1/2

My son is a keen and able reader. Not quite ten, he read and enjoyed The Hobbit earlier this year. He likes both Harry Potter and Alex Rider. David Walliams‘ books are now ‘too young for him’ and he’s a big fan of variations on classic myths and fairy tales – The Sisters Grimm and Percy Jackson, for example. He was a ‘free reader’ most of last year and continues to make progress when tested in school, in both reading and writing.

He’s now back on the reading scheme – level 17 Oxford. According to the official website of the series, these books are at a lower level than the reading age as assessed by the school last year of 11 years, 9 months. They’re short, mainly dull, and despite the claim of his teacher that he needs to be reading a wider variety the school stock are almost all adapted classics. Jane Eyre and Silas Mariner for a ten year old boy? Really?

We’ve got a good range at home, and he’s reading these in between finishing off the official school books (which he manages in less than an hour, but can’t change more than a couple of times a week). It’s not stopping him from reading. But I hate that for the first time in ages, my son sees reading as a chore.

You can probably tell I’m a little annoyed about all this.

Reasons and Excuses

I’m pretty sure that there are two reasons his school are being so inflexible. Firstly it’s a new scheme, a new teacher and they’ve got a lot on at this time of year. Only two kids – the other a year older – are on this level in the school. The scheme and approach probably work fine with everyone else, and adapting it to one student is a big time commitment. I understand that. I really do.

The other is about assessment. We’d assumed that the only way he can be assessed (via the Suffolk reading scale, apparently) is by reading the books that match it. We’re now not sure that’s right. The school have chosen an assessment strategy which doesn’t cater for the highest ability. It will be interesting to see how they try to show progress, seeing as these are too easy for him.

I think they didn’t believe at first how quickly he was reading them. When he demonstrated that he had understood, retained and could explain the books verbally, they tried to slow him down. “Write a review.” “Discuss it with your parents so they can write in your record.” And, I kid you not – “Write a list of all the unstressed vowels.”

Maybe this week he’ll be told them while standing on his head. But that won’t address the problem – in fact, two problems – with this specific range.

Boredom and Spoilers

I should probably read a wider range of books myself. I’ll hold my hand up to sometimes limiting myself to SF and fantasy too much. But he does read a range, given the choice – and this selection doesn’t give him an option. Adapted classics, followed by… well, more adapted classics. He liked Frankenstein. Jekyll and Hyde scared him. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights bored him. Silas Mariner was an ordeal. This is not varied. If the school can’t afford to buy more (which, for such a small number of kids, I can understand) then why can’t he read his own as well? We’d happily accept a list of recommendations from the teacher. What about Harry Potter, Malorie Blackman, Young James Bond or Sherlock Holmes, Phillip Pullman, Michelle Paver (he liked this, thanks to @alomshaha for the suggestion)? If they have to be classics: Narnia, John Masefield, E. Nesbitt…

The other issue is that if he’s read – or been made to read – versions of great books like Frankenstein or the Three Musketeers now, what are the chances he’ll enjoy the full editions in a couple of years? Why spoil his future enjoyment this way? I doubt his GCSE English teacher will let him read Percy Jackson when the rest of the class are reading Jekyll and Hyde for the first time, just because he knows the ending. A crap film can spoil a good book (Ender’s Game and Starship Troopers, step forward) and I can’t see why this would be different. I’m sure the publishers have lots of reasons for getting ‘classics’ on to the list, but haven’t teachers pointed out that kids will grow up to have a lifetime of enjoying good books?

Ranting and Reflection

Having to assess all kids against one set of standards inevitably means that some find it too hard, some too easy. When I stopped thinking like a parent, and started thinking like a teacher, this made a lot more sense. I’m sure I’ve done this at some point and my reflections will be in a separate post, hopefully in a few days. For now I needed to rant, and hopefully you’re still reading to see I acknowledge that!

I’d really welcome any responses on this one – especially from any primary colleagues!

Book Swap

books

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.

 

 

 

Heat Misconceptions

Like many of us, I’m currently spending the majority of my time helping students prepare for external exams. Because of how science exams now work in secondary school, most of my classes are facing one or more exams in the next few weeks, just for physics. Seven classes are doing GCSE content (2 x Yr9, 3 x Yr10, 2 x Yr11) and two classes are in sixth form.

Something I’ve spent a little time on has been prompted by the variety of answers to mock questions on heat transfer. It was clear that many able students were struggling with clear explanations – and perhaps understanding – of mechanisms of the transfer of thermal energy, as demonstrated by Qs 4 and 5 on the AQA P1 June 2013 paper. So I looked into it.

Examiner’s Reports

My first step was to check whether this was an isolated case or something seen for these exam papers when originally sat. I strongly recommend all colleagues, if they’re not already familiar with it, find where they can read the reports written after the exam for the benefit of teachers and exam boards. They’re available (delayed) for pupils too, but with AQA you need to go through the main subject page rather than to the quick ‘Past Papers’ link.

…nearly half of students scored two marks or less. Common mistakes were referring to ‘heat particles’, thinking that the vacuum stopped all forms of heat transfer, thinking that the vacuum contained air and referring to the transfer of ‘cold’.

…Students who referred to water particles often mistakenly referred to them ‘vibrating more’ as a result of the energy given, or to the particles themselves becoming less dense.

From AQA P1 June 2012 Report

So it wasn’t just my kids.

Now What?

I think of myself as a fairly evidence-based practitioner, so next I wanted to check out some wider sources. A quick search for ‘physics misconceptions heat’ has a large number of results, including one from more than 20 years ago which shows how established the problem is.

As a science teacher, Physics Education from the IOP and School Science Review from the ASE seemed a good place to look. Unfortunately both require memberships, a problem in terms of cost which I’ve blogged about before. Students’ misconceptions about heat transfer mechanisms and elementary kinetic theory is relevant, as is this resource available without login on the ASE site. R Driver’s book Making Sense of Secondary Science was one of several recommended during an #asechat “What misconceptions do students have in science?” in 2011.

I used the students’ answers as a way to diagnose the ‘alternative conceptions’ that they had built up over time. For many these had clearly been established long before my arrival, but I’m going to build some of the ideas into my next cycle of teaching for early intervention. Some of the points from Cyberphysics UK and PhysicsClassroom.com were also useful. What I produced – firstly as a scribbled list, then as a more formal activity, was the ‘Seven Sins of Heat Transfer’. In time I’d like to produce some confidence grids and link these to the diagnostic questions approach as explained at York Science. Concept cartoons with clear viewpoints let students explore different models without ‘owing up’ to ideas they think are wrong, which can be very helpful. And so here’s one of the great @DoTryThisAtHome cartoons:

 

Seven Sins of Heat Transfer

  • Heat rises
  • Particles of heat
  • Expanding particles
  • Shiny materials are good conductors
  • Cold gets in
  • Condensing and contracting are the same
  • Trapped particles can’t move through a vacuum flask

These are what I wrote while marking papers; I’ve just removed the profanity. My reading showed me that some were common alternative conceptions, while others demonstrated a poor understanding of technical terms, often made worse by persistent misuse in ‘everyday’ language. A bit of thinking, and more reading, helped me find ways to highlight these issues for students.

Printable version with prompt Qs: 7sins as .pdf

EDIT: I shouldn’t have needed prompting, but CathN suggested in the comments that model answers would be useful, particularly for non-specialists. And so I’ve put together a presentation going through each of the sections, explained more or less the way I would in class. Obviously colleagues will have their own thoughts and preferred analogies, but I’d love comments on possible improvements; simply click on the title slide below.

7sins

Alternatively: 7sins as .ppt

When time allows during revision, and certainly next time I teach this content, I’ll be linking these misconceptions explicitly with practical activities. I think I’ll also ban the use of ‘heat’ by itself. If students are forced to use ‘collisions between touching particles’, ‘energetic particles in a lower density region’ and ‘thermal radiation’ then we should be able to solve the sloppy language issue, at least.

Thoughts and comments on this very welcome; it strikes me that I could usefully spend time producing a series of lessons and resources on just this sort of thing. Exam question followed by diagnostic questions, circus of activities to highlight misconception, then applications of correct idea to new situation. So if anyone wants to pay me, well, you know where I am…

In the meantime:

I’m trying to track my impact (eg you using this resource or basing your own on my ideas). You don’t have to leave your name, just a few words about how what I did made a difference. If you’ve blogged about it, I’d love for you to include a link. Tweets are transient, comments on the posts are hard to collect together, but this would really help.

Blog Feedback via Google Form

 

Outstanding or Excellent?

So I did some CPD.

As part of an INSET day, we watched a video of a lesson in cross-curricular groups. We used Ofsted criteria to judge it and then discussed our overall findings. Back in curriculum groups we then discussed common features and next steps as a department.

Interesting or Frustrating?

It was interesting to see other lessons and hear a range of other viewpoints. The lesson we watched was judged as ‘Good’ despite it being very teacher-led, a lack of pace and what I would describe as a very subdued atmosphere. Maybe the parts where students were excited and engaged, discussing and interacting rather than passively listening, had all been cut out. In summary, it felt like the teacher had treated Ofsted criteria as a tick-list, making sure each thing had been addressed but perhaps at the expense of any enjoyment or coherence.

It was frustrating for two reasons. Firstly, some of the items included in the observation proforma (which I’m trying to find a link to, as it doesn’t appear to be an ‘official’ one) were dismissed by colleagues even though I know there’s evidence to support their use. They also pointed out, rightly in my opinion, that some of the features would take an unrealistic amount of time to include on a regular basis.

Secondly, I think many schools would benefit from doing more peer and paired observations. I know I’d like to see how my colleagues approach particular topics, or how they manage individual issues or students. It would be interesting to observe some or all of a lesson then swap ideas with another colleague who had also watched it, especially if they had a more senior role. As it is, I’ve only really observed PGCE students. Otherwise, my experience is as an observee. If we’re going to learn about lesson observations, let’s actually do some!

Learning or Observing?

We’re looking at a new literacy strategy in my current setting which will involve students having a specific target, assigned by their English teachers from a list of twelve. Each subject will have students do a piece of work where their success against this target will be measured. (I should add that I think this is a great idea, despite the added workload, which as usual SMT may not fully appreciate.)

The problem is that students will be told to write their literacy target across the top of the page and consider it while writing. Surely this would mean a lot more if they were expected to aim to meet their target whether or not it was the specific six-monthly assessment piece? Isn’t this a rather artificial situation?

So as teachers do we include these features because we think they are important for our students’ learning, or because we think they’ll be noticed when we’re observed? If they matter, based on evidence and experience, then we should include them for our students’ benefit. If they’re only for the inspector, then we should exclude them – also for our students’ benefit. There isn’t enough time for the things which matter, let alone optional extras.

Outstanding or Excellent?

If the criteria I was given is typical, I can see that it would be very easy to use this as a shopping list of aspects to include in each hour lesson. This in turn could make for a very ‘bitty’ experience, with the flow of a good lesson interrupted while students assess their progress in endless mini-plenaries. I can certainly understand the temptation, but to include so many things in the time means it might tick the Outstanding boxes, but not be an Excellent lesson. Those factors are the results, not the causes. The best parallel I can think of is Body-Mass Index.

BMI is a fairly crude health measure which is currently on the GCSE Science specification. It’s a single number for a person, calculated by dividing their mass in kilograms by their height in metres squared. There are agreed (but disputed) ranges for under, normal and over weight. My BMI says I’m overweight, for what it’s worth.

The thing is that a person’s BMI in isolation doesn’t tell you much. It’s like heart rate or most other medical measurements. The context matters a lot, and the BMI is the result of many factors, not all of which are easy to change. It might be a warning sign, but it isn’t an instruction for improvement. Doctors don’t assume everyone in a particular range needs the same advice or treatment, because they understand it’s a bit more complicated than that.

There’s some great arguments around on this topic; about what Ofsted want and how to give it to them. For his typical measured and balanced approach, see this post from @OldAndrewUK. The reality is probably that different inspectors or observers would give different judgments based on their own preferences – or dare we say bias? And when being graded as ‘Requires Improvement’ will have inevitable consequences, for an individual or a department, means a lot of pressure to play it safe with the criteria.

I found The Perfect (Ofsted) English Lesson by David Didau (aka @learningspy) to be an interesting read, with many ideas that could be applied to Science. In fact, I still haven’t blogged my take on it. Bad @teachingofsci, no biscuit. But the idea of being observed by a member of SMT with the book in hand, telling me I’ve missed out the idea on page 42, fills me with terror. I want to be a better teacher, like all of us. But saying I want my students to learn, enjoy and achieve isn’t the same as saying I want to be Outstanding according to a stranger with a clipboard.

Performance or Practice?

In my view, the aim of teachers should be to look at the criteria together. This will probably be at different levels. As departments we can probably agree at least some of the ways in which excellent teaching will be demonstrated, but getting a high observation grade is a consequence of that primary aim, not the end in itself.

None of us can be Outstanding teachers all of the time, but neither should we hope to pull off one great lesson to get the grade when we’re being observed. This should be a general expectation, not a one-off. Instead, individually or in groups we need to look through the criteria and decide what our own targets should be.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

Will Durant, paraphrasing Aristotle

Where possible, let’s share the good ideas, observe each other with constructive feedback and get better at what we do, every day. Maybe the best approach would be to choose one aspect per half-term and learn how to build it in, so more and more of the positive features – and many of the Ofsted criteria do recognize them – are included as a matter of course. That’s a department or a whole-school approach that will really pay off where it matters – in our classrooms, not just on an Ofsted report.

 

Human Rights for Children

So, I had this idea.

If you read this blog at all regularly, you’ll know that I consider @alomshaha a friend. As well as writing, making films and teaching science, he should be credited with getting me on to Twitter two years ago. Thank him later. Right now, I’ve something more important for you to do.

I read Alom’s excellent book, The Young Atheist’s Handbook, when it first came out. Despite the title it’s easy to read it as a personal story of how he came to consider himself n atheist, despite his early upbringing in a Bangladeshi Muslim community. The references and explanations of ideas supporting his lack of religious belief are a comfortable part of an honest and evocative story. I’d recommend it to anyone, and have done.

The problem, as I saw it, is that the very kids who would benefit most from reading it were those least likely to have the chance. If your parents are invoking freedom of religion (actually an example of religious privilege) to teach you from a young age to follow their faith, without question or deviation, then they are unlikely to be pleased at you putting this on your birthday list. I’m sure some young people will read it discreetly as an eBook of whatever format. But, I reasoned, there had to be a better way.

School is for learning. School is where kids learn the things their parents don’t or can’t teach them. Like swear words and how to think for yourself. So, I reasoned, if Michael Gove can send bibles into schools, and the Gideons can visit, and the Church of England can explicitly plan to use their schools to indoctrinate kids, why not provide a different viewpoint?

And so the #YAH4schools campaign was born. The admin is complicated, and is being supported by the British Humanist Association. This idea is simple (that was my bit).

We want to raise enough money to send copies of the book to every UK secondary school library.

Young people have the right to choose to be free from religion. It is not just their parents’ freedom of religion we should respect. We want young people to feel supported, not isolated, if they choose to exercise that right. Freedom of religion shouldn’t mean that parents have the choice to force their children into one particular faith. If you think this project is a good idea, there are two things you can do:

  • Donate to the campaign via YAH4schools.org.uk
  • If you feel able, tell your friends and your family; share the link on Facebook or via Twitter (hashtag #YAH4schools).

Whether you agree or disagree with the project, then of course I’d be interested to hear your views in the comments below.

Reluctant Teenage Readers

I tweeted a while back how frustrating it was many of a class of fourteen year olds seemed incapable of reading for fifteen minutes without distraction. I could understand it if I had handed out copies of The Origin of Species, but they choose the reading material. They can bring in their own books or borrow them from the school library (or my own selection), or they can bring magazines.

Admittedly, I am probably also a long way from ‘normal’ when it comes to reading. It’s an unusually busy week when I don’t read four or five books, usually a mixture of fiction and fact. I have an upstairs book, a downstairs book, one in the car and several on my Android. (Currently You Can’t Read This Book by Nick Cohen, The Perfect Ofsted English Lesson by David Didau aka @LearningSpy, Better Learning Through Structured Teaching by Fisher and Frey and Where The Bodies Are Buried by Chris Brookmyre, if you’re interested.) I would rather read than sleep and, in fact, often do. So it was always going to be hard to understand their extreme reluctance.

So I did some research.

An old item in the Telegraph discussed a link between kids reading at 16 and a higher chance of having a professional-grade job in later life. Sadly this probably says more about the kids who voluntarily read a lot as teenagers, than ways to encourage readers at this age. The comments below this article in the Guardian are quite depressing, and there’s really not much in the way of solutions. A more recent article on their professional network is more constructive, but still focuses on the books that could be offered.

LoveReading4kids is an online bookstore with a section for reluctant readers, but it’s more about books than strategies. Their downloadable leaflet is more aimed at parents than teachers. I had a look at BookTrust, but their research page has more about evaluation of their programmes than anything else.

The research page at the Literacy Trust was much more useful, although most of the ideas they have for engaging with reluctant readers need a whole-school approach. Not much I can do alone for Year 9 students in one form time a week! The most recent survey results, however, were interesting. I’d recommend having a look yourself if you’re interested, but I was shocked by how little the young people surveyed read for pleasure.

55% of KS4 students (58% of boys) read once a week or less. A third of KS4 students (40% of boys) agreed with the statement “I only read when I have to.” This covered all aspects of reading, including magazines and online, not just books. And it’s despite around three quarters agreeing that “the more I read, the better I get,” with roughly the same response across all ages.

Of course, difficulty in reading is identified as a major factor putting young people off reading. There are many approaches to this, none really applicable in form time. In my situation, I don’t think it’s a significant factor as they have a free choice of material and our library is well-stocked with a range of options. Another problem is that even those who do happily read seem content to stick with familiar and non-challenging books, long after their skill level increases, perhaps increasing boredom.

I suspect part of the issue is that they are using this area to assert their independence and provoke confrontation. The social cachet from defying the teacher – even passively, by repeatedly reading the blurb on the back instead of the book itself – is worth the few minutes of boredom.

So what can I do? It does feel like a broader approach is called for than the options available to me in form time. The research has certainly highlighted the problem, and in some ways reassured me that it’s not a ‘local’ issue. But it doesn’t solve it. Tried so far:

  • Rewards/sanctions for those who repeatedly remember/forget.
  • Suggesting 200word mini-essays “Why I would rather be bored than read.”
  • Keeping a selection of my books to hand.
  • Sending students to the library, where we have a range of choices including graphic novels.
  • Reminding them of magazines that they could use.
  • Passing on recommendations from other students of good books.

I’ll pass on my comments to the Head of Year – it’s a mandated form activity – but suspect I will be told to persevere for at least the remainder of the year. Any other suggestions?