Energy Language Thoughts Part 1

I was thinking ‘out loud’ on Twitter about the ‘new’ energy language, discussions prompted in part by science teachers applying the changes in their classrooms. I know I’ve blogged about energy before, but thought it might be time to have another crack at it. I’m not writing here in an official IOP capacity, although I’m also swapping these ideas with colleagues. All thoughts, responses, criticisms and offers of coffee accepted. And if you add the comments here it will be easier for others to join in, as twitter replies get lost after a while. Alternatively, as the responses to a twitter poll led me to post it in chunks, you might want to wait until it’s all done. I’ll crosspost the complete thing to TalkPhysics as well.

Challenges

  • Resistance to change – teachers as much as students!
  • Students who have learned one approach in KS3 and are now being told something different for KS4.
  • The exam boards can’t seem to agree on which stores to use and which to omit, which has knock-on effects for textbooks.
  • Teachers don’t know which answers will get marks in the exams, so don’t know what advice to give students.
  • Existing resources are incompatible with the new language – but with enough similarities to make it look like they’ll work (like a false friend in language teaching, which gives you confidence while misleading).

I don’t have answers for these. To be honest, nobody does! What I can say is that many people are trying to figure out the best way to make these changes work well for everyone. It is, in my personal view, unfortunate that they are coming in with both a specification and a grading system that are new. It’s worth noting the stores and pathways model hasn’t been recently  invented by the IOP to annoy teachers. For example: Robin Millar, Practical Physics.

There’s lots on the Supporting Physics Teaching resource from the IOP, but one place to start is this suggestion about useful things to keep in mind.

Hopefully Helpful Thoughts

A good thing about the ‘new’ language is that it encourages – pretty much demands – more attention on the actual physics. That’s the point. What is happening? So let’s start there; in any example, what process is involved? Some materials/sources call these pathways, but the idea is the same. Let’s not get hung up on labels for them, but on descriptions of actual events. It may help to emphasize to yourself that they are verbs, not nouns. They can happen fast or slow. But they involve actual physics, forces and EM and heating and so on (obligatory link to the Big Ideas of Science Education, because it’s awesome. When I rule the world every school science lab will have a huge poster of these.)

Now, these processes will change something. It means we can measure something which is different after this process compared to before. We’re not interested, right now, in how quickly this change has occurred – just that it has. This is a change – maybe a temperature increase, a greater separation of two objects, whatever – in a measurable quantity. This is associated with what we call a store. Different kinds of store have different equations, which link the measurable quantities together along with some constants. The result of that equation is a value for the energy associated with that store.

If we pay closer attention, we find that (at least) two stores have changed. What’s really interesting is that if we’re really careful, when we compare the equations, we find that the numbers are the same. An increase in one store is always balanced by a decrease in the other. The equations work as an exchange rate, showing how temperature rise in one part of the system is ‘worth’ faster movement in another part.

This, of course, is the principle of conservation of energy. Energy isn’t lost. But we can lose track of it. Sooner or later, the processes end up heating up the entire universe. Because the universe is pretty big (no, bigger than that) the change in temperature is effectively immeasurable.

So there we are; a very brief introduction to the ‘new’ model. More posts coming up, hopefully one per day. The sooner you comment, the more likely I can address your suggestions in the course of the series!

Variations on a Theme

It turns out that I’m really bad at following up conference presentations.

Back in early June, I offered a session on teachers engaging – or otherwise – with educational research. It all grew out of an argument I had on Twitter with @adchempages, who has since blocked me after I asked if the AP Chem scores he’s so proud of count as data. He believes, it seems, that you cannot ever collect any data from educational settings, and that he has never improved his classroom practice by using any form of educational research.

But during the discussions I got the chance to think through my arguments more clearly. There are now three related versions of my opinion, quite possibly contradictory, and I wanted to link to all three.

Version the first: Learning From Mistakes, blogged by me in January.

Streamlined version written for the BERA blog: Learning From Experience. I wrote this a while back but it wasn’t published by them until last week.

Presentation version embedded below (and available from http://tinyurl.com/ian-redmatsci if you’re interested).

I’d be interested in any and all comments, as ever. Please let me know if I’ve missed any particular comments from the time – this is the problem with being inefficient. (Or, to be honest, really busy.) The last two slides include all the links in my version of a proper references section.

Thoughts from the presentation

Slide 8: it’s ironic that science teachers, who know all about using models which are useful even though they are by necessity simplified, struggle with the idea that educational research uses large numbers of participants to see overall patterns. No, humans aren’t electrons – but we can still observe general trends using data.

Slide 13: it’s been pointed out to me that several of the organisations mentioned offer cheaper memberships/access. These are, however, mainly institutional memberships (eg £50/yr for the IOP) which raises all kinds of arguments about who pays and why.

Slide 14: a member of the audience argued with this point, saying that even if articles weren’t open-access any author would be happy to share electronic copies with interested teachers. I’m sure he was sincere, and probably right. But as I tried to explain, this assumes that (1)the teacher knows what to ask for, which means they’ll miss all kinds of interesting stuff they never heard about and that (2)the author is happy to respond to potentially dozens of individual requests. Anyone other than the author or journal hosting or sharing a PDF is technically breaking the rules.

Slide 16: Ironically, the same week as I gave the presentation there was an article in SSR on electricity analogies which barely mentioned the rope model. Which was awkward as it’s one of the best around, explored and endorsed by the IOP among many others.

Slide 20: Building evidence-based approaches into textbooks isn’t a new idea (for example, I went to Andy’s great session on the philosophy behind the Activate KS3 scheme) but several tweeters and colleagues liked the possibility of explicit links being available for interested teachers.

Reflective Observation

I’ve been pretty quiet recently – at least it feels like I’ve not been offering much to the conversation. There are several reasons, but a big part of it is that with paid freelance work I’ve really not been able to justify the time to do things for free. I’m not going to apologize for this because I’m sure you’ll all understand that without this work my family and I can’t go on holiday.
But I’ve missed you all, even if you’ve not been missing me.
This will be a quick post, hopefully to be followed up over the next week with another. I’ve been working in a school a couple of days a week, mixing teacher coaching with some intervention classes. It’s been interesting – and enjoyable, at least after the kids stopped swearing at me – so I thought it might be worth sharing a few things I’ve done.
I’m currently reading Mentoring Mathematics Teachers, effectively a collection of research papers published as a book. Now, I don’t teach maths – except in the process of getting the physics right – but I’ve found it really interesting. It’s mainly aimed at in-school mentors for pre-service teachers (PGCE, School Direct or similar) and NQTs. I’ve got a strong interest in how we can support teachers for a longer period than just a year, and in my day job we mentor ‘Early Career Teachers’ to the end of their second year post-qualification. I’m working through about a chapter a week, making notes in the margins, and really need to blog some of the ideas. So it was perfect timing to come to Chapter 9 by Lofthouse and Wright, about encouraging reflection by using a pro forma for observations. I’ve adapted it slightly with a fair bit of success and wish I’d been using it for longer.
As a physics teacher, I feel I should now make the point that teaching is a quantum process which is changed simply by the act of being observed. If you laughed at that, congratulations and please pick up your Physics Education Geek badge on the way out.
observation pro forma
Click for PDF version

There are four stages:

  1. The ‘observee’ defines one or two aspects they want to focus on, choosing a couple of questions for the observer to bear in mind.
  2. The observer makes notes of specific features in the lesson relating to these questions – no judgment, just facts.
  3. The observer poses questions based on these features to prompt reflection and discussion.
  4. Together, the colleagues plan future actions based on the outcome of these prompts, leading to questions for the next observed lesson.
The aim of this structure is to encourage reflective practice rather than “I saw X and you should try Y instead.” In this way both teachers gain from it as there isn’t necessarily a hierarchy in place. It would work just as well when an experienced teacher is observed by a novice, with the questions directing them towards interesting features of the lesson. I can also see it being useful for peer observation – and like all such activities, it would work best when well-separated from any kind of performance management process.
I should emphasize that this is my take on the process rather than a paraphrased version of the original. And, of course, I’m still tweaking it! Currently I’m following up soon after the lesson but wonder if leaving the sheet with the observed teacher so they can think about the prompts more deeply might be worthwhile. I’m numbering the evidence I see and then grouping them in the ‘Reflection Prompts’ section if appropriate – this helps me gather my thoughts and gives more than one relevant example.
EDIT: I recommend reading a great post by @bennewmark, Finding a Voice, for the issues that can arise when an observee tries to replan a lesson based on well-meaning comments from a colleague.
Please help yourself to the printable version, try it out and let me know what you think. Maybe everyone else has something better already – it’s two years since I had a lesson observed! But I’d appreciate, as ever, any feedback or suggestions.

Unspecifications

I’m really starting to get annoyed with this, and I’m not even in the classroom full-time. I know that many colleagues – @A_Weatherall and @hrogerson on Staffrm for example – are also irritated. But I needed to vent anyway. It’ll make me feel better.

EDIT: after discussion on Twitter – with Chemistry teachers, FWIW – I’ve decided it might help to emphasise that my statements below are based on looking at the Physics specification. I’d be really interested with viewpoints from those who focus on teaching Biology and Chemistry, as well as those with opinions on whether I’ve accurately summed up the situation with Physics content or overreacted.

The current GCSE Science specifications are due to expire soon, to be replaced by a new version. To fit in with decisions by the Department for Education, there are certain changes to what we’ve been used to. Many others have debated these changes, and in my opinion they’re not necessarily negative when viewed objectively. Rather than get into that argument, I’ll just sum them up:

  1. Terminal exams at the end of year 11
  2. A different form of indirect practical skills assessment (note that ISAs and similar didn’t directly assess practical skills either)
  3. More content (100+ pages compared to the previous 70ish for AQA)
  4. Grades 9-1 rather than A*-G, with more discrimination planned for the top end (and, although not publicised, less discrimination between weaker students)

Now, like many other subjects, the accreditation process seems to be taking longer than is reasonable. It also feels, from  the classroom end, that there’s not a great deal of information about the process, including dates. The examples I’m going to use are for AQA, as that’s the specification I’m familiar with. At least partly that’s because I’m doing some freelance resource work and it’s matched to the AQA spec.

Many schools now teach GCSE Science over more than two years. More content is one of several reasons why that’s appealing; the lack of an external KS3 assessment removes the pressure for an artificial split in content. Even if the ‘official’ teaching of GCSE starts in Year 10, the content will obviously inform year 9 provision, especially with things like language used, maths familiarity and so on.

Many schools have been teaching students from a the first draft specification since last September. The exam boards are now working on version three.

The lack of exemplar material, in particular questions, mean it is very hard for schools to gauge likely tiers and content demand for ‘borderline’ students. Traditionally, this was the C-D threshold and I’m one of many who recognized the pressure this placed on schools with league tables, with teachers being pushed much harder to help kids move from a D to a C grade than C to B. the comparison is (deliberately) not direct. As I understand it an ‘old’ middle grade C is now likely to be a level 4, below the ‘good pass’ of a level 5.

Most schools start to set for GCSE groups long before the end of Year 9. Uncertainties about the grade implications will only make this harder.

The increased content has three major consequences for schools. The first is the teaching time needed as mentioned above. The second is CPD; non-specialists in particular are understandably nervous about teaching content at GCSE which until now was limited to A-level. This is my day-job and it’s frustrating not to be able to give good guidance about exams, even if I’m confident about the pedagogy. (For Physics: latent heat, equation for energy stored in a stretched spring, electric fields, pressure relationships in gases, scale drawings for resultant forces, v2 = u2 -2as, magnetic flux density.) The last is the need for extra equipment, especially for those schools which don’t teach A-level Physics, with the extra worry about required practicals.

Even if teachers won’t be delivering the new specification until September, they need to familiarize themselves with it now. Departments need to order equipment at a time of shrinking budgets.

I’m not going to suggest that a new textbook can solve everything, but they can be useful. Many schools have hung on in the last few years as they knew the change in specification was coming – and they’ve been buying A-level textbooks for that change! New textbooks can’t be written quickly. Proofreading, publishing, printing, delivery all take time. This is particularly challenging when new styles of question are involved, or a big change such as the new language for energy changes. Books are expensive and so schools want to be able to make a good choice. Matching textbooks to existing resources, online and paper-based, isn’t necessarily fast.

Schools need time to co-ordinate existing teaching resources, samples of new textbooks and online packages to ensure they meet student needs and cost limitations.

Finally, many teachers feel they are being kept in the dark. The first specification wasn’t accredited, so exam boards worked on a second. For AQA, this was submitted to Ofqual in December (I think) but not made available on the website. Earlier this month, Ofqual chose not to accredit this version, but gave no public explanation of why. Teachers are left to rely on individual advisers, hearsay and twitter gossip. This information would have given teachers an idea of what was safe to rely on and what was likely to change. It took several weeks for the new submission dates to appear on the website – now  mid-March – and according to Ofqual it can take eight weeks from submission to accreditation.

If these time estimates are correct, the new AQA specification may not be accredited until mid-May and as yet there is nothing on record about what was wrong with previous versions. Teachers feel they are being left in the dark yet will be blamed when they don’t have time to prepare for students in September

I think that says it all.

Asking for a friend

All secondary teachers look forward to the summer term. Not just because we might actually get to see daylight before and after work, but for that possibly mythical creature, ‘gained time’. Assuming you don’t end up teaching RE to stroppy teenagers after a colleague collapses in tears trying to reconcile ‘Trinity’ and ‘monotheism’, you might get a classroom to yourself. Without kids. A chance to have a cuppa and finally clear out the bottom drawer of detention forms and credits.

Until you get handed 100 pages of new syllabus and are asked to write a scheme of work for September, that is.

Science teachers across the land are currently going quietly mad about the new GCSE specifications. We’ve lost count of which draft version the boards are on, although rumours abound that they’re going to be properly published any minute now. Even if you’re planning to start in September for a two-year GCSE this is cutting it fine for buying/creating resources, let alone ordering kit for the required practicals and any new content. And if you teach the content over three years, you’ve been having to use a draft specification for real kids. Which is more than a little frightening.

Reciprocal Altruism

I’ve blogged before about the difficulties of finding resources to use without trawling through dozens of sites, each with their own login and categories. Even great sites like the eLibrary (its URL has changed but your login should be the same) can’t have everything. And every time the specifications change, we have to move everything around. If schools can share the planning then the workload can be reduced.

A school in Hampshire is holding a free “Science Curriculum in a day” event in March. Basically loads of teachers building a scheme of work as best they can. It’s organised by @MartynReah who tweeted about it, and I wondered if I could help. I can’t make it down there (although I will be trying to contribute via twitter: #teacher5adayScience ) and I suspect that’s true for many of my readers too. So how about crowdsourcing a resource list instead?

I’ve created a GoogleForm. It should take just a couple of minutes to complete for each online resource you’d like to share. Copy and paste the URL, tick a few boxes so they can be sorted by subject/topic and type of resource, and you’re done. The resulting spreadsheet will be freely available (although it’s currently pretty empty) and be used by those who can attend the day as a starting point.

EDIT: I’ve sorted a couple of bugs so specifying Chemistry topics doesn’t lead you to the Physics list (completely accidental I promise!) and you can now describe something as ‘All Subjects’. No need to repeat submissions but please add to the seven so far!

(I’ve suggested to Martyn that a Dropbox folder would allow colleagues to donate their own offline resources too, and will update this post if relevant.)

Maths

I have, according to WordPress, 132 followers. If each one of those can contribute a couple of links between now and the event, that’s over 250 teacher-recommended resources for a new Scheme of Work. The more people who get involved, the better the spreadsheet will be for us all, on the day or not. Heads of Department, why not ask your teams to add a favourite resource? NQTs, this would allow you to tick the ‘sharing good practice’ box on your paperwork. Fancy helping out?

I’ve even created short links so you can stick it up on noticeboards or in staff meetings. Please share widely. I intend to be tweeting this regularly with a running total of shared resources, so please help get the numbers up.

Form: tinyurl.com/teacher5adayscience

Results: tinyurl.com/teacher5adayscience-all

 

 

 

 

Learning from Mistakes

“So I was arguing on Twitter…”

That’s how all the best blog posts start, just like the best fairy tales start with “Once upon a time…” In this case, it wasn’t a new argument – in fact it was a disagreement I’ve had before, with the same person. But it’s also something which has been discussed in staffrooms all over the country, probably all over the world. A version of it has been had any time two people with the same job compare notes.

How can we be the best professionals possible without making all the mistakes personally?

It’s true that people learn from mistakes. Sometimes. When we recognize them. When we can change our behaviour based on that insight. When we’re not too hungry, angry, lonely or tired. When we have the chance to reflect on our actions and plan for ‘the next time’. When we can successfully generalize our specific experience.

I was having this conversation, for the hundredth time, with my eldest this week. In particular, we were talking about how the only thing better than learning from your own mistakes is to learn from somebody else’s. It’s generally less painful, expensive and embarrassing. We talked about how, perhaps, it’s the pain of our own mistakes which means they stick better.

Teaching from Mistakes

In education, we learn a lot from screwing up ourselves. From not labeling the beakers, from letting year 7 use powerpacks with 1A bulbs, to mixing up the two Rebeccas in your class during parents’ evening. We also, especially early in our career, learn a lot from watching our colleagues, deliberately or in passing.

(Brief digression: we should do more of this. Short observations, team-teaching, co-planning, watching a practical, seeing how they manage a demonstration, the ‘spiel’ for radioactive samples… all great chances to learn from a colleague and give them the ‘view from the back’. Go into an A-level English Lit lesson and talk for ten minutes about the ‘science’ of Frankenstein’s Creature, or invite a music teacher colleague into your Sound lesson to demonstrate high and low pitch. The important thing is to make a solemn promise that this will never show up on performance management.)

The argument I had seemed to come down to one principle. I think that we as teachers can – and should – learn from the successes and mistakes of other teachers as summed up in research. My counterpart feels that if someone isn’t a good teacher, they never will be, and that there’s nothing he can learn about teaching outside of a classroom. He sees educational research as a waste of his time.

But there’s a lot of research out there, which means a lot of student experiences added up to suggestions. Test results that might make patterns, implying how one approach on average works better than another. Don’t get me wrong – there’s a lot of crap, too. There’s a lot of context-free claims, a lot of ‘studies’ carried out without a control group, action research subject to the Hawthorne Effect and so on. But the argument I had – in this case and before – wasn’t about the bad ‘research’ that’s out there. It was about the very idea that educational research should or could guide our practice at all. And to me, that just seems weird.

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During the conversation, @adchempages also used #peoplearenotelectrons. Which is true. But isn’t the whole point of science to use models, simpler than reality, to give us an indication of how reality works? We can model people as particles making up a fluid when we design corridors and stairwells. And that gives us useful information. Nobody suggests that those people travelling on the Underground are actually faceless, indistinguishable drones. (I’m saving the sarcastic comment as it would undermine my point.) But with enough data, and enough people, we can make good predictions about what will usually happen most of the time. There are caveats:

  • Averages using large numbers aren’t specific to a small subset, even if homeogenous
  • There are lots of confounding variables, some of which are unknown
  • Kids are all different and there’s a fine line between describing and defining them
  • Many anecdotes are not the same as data
  • We tend to find/remember the results which confirm our expectations

But

I feel like I’ve been here before. In fact, I have – I wrote a similar post back in 2013 about how I might design a trial, and there’s also my post from when the Evidence-Based Bandwagon was taking off. But it’s worth revisiting as long as we are critical about research. We need to be able to ask good questions about the sample sizes, about the methodology, about sources of potential bias. But then we need to take on board the advice and try applying it to our own classes. Let’s imagine a way to test someone’s willingness to use research in their own practice.

Imagine…

  1. Recruit lots of teachers, teaching same subject to same age group.
  2. Match ‘equivalent classes’ or ideally randomize.
  3. Choose two interventions (or simply the same activities in a different order, eg theory then practical or the reverse.)
  4. Compare results of the kids in the same test.
A difference between the two averages might be significant (suggesting a real difference) or not (could be due to random chance). The bigger the numbers, the more we should pay attention to that difference. There are lots of statistical tests we could argue about, but for now let’s assume the difference is dramatic enough to convince us that one intervention is better than the other for students learning this concept. Why would you ignore that hint when planning your own lessons?
Any two classes might be compared without spotting this pattern. Only wider research lets us see what’s going on. The difference might be so small that we decide it doesn’t matter. It might turn out that one intervention works better for girls, the other for boys (which then leads to a hugely political issue, doesn’t it?!). But if we don’t ask, then we’ll never know.
When we look at research, we need to remember that our class might be so different that it doesn’t apply. But if so we need to base that on data, not just ‘because I said so.’ I’m not saying instinct should be ignored, but let’s try informed judgment. Research won’t often give a recipe. It won’t turn us into robots or allow our jobs to be done by computer. What it can do is inform and guide. It can suggest good starting points, or approaches that, more often than not, will be the best way to teach a concept.
We could ‘teach’ science by giving the equation, a load of examples and walking away. But we don’t. Because the data shows that it doesn’t work as well for most students as considering possible links between variables, investigating patterns, explicitly eliminating confounding factors, describing a proportional relationship between cause and effect and then putting this into mathematical terms with fixed values.
In my day job with the IOP, one of the ideas that is really useful at KS3 and KS4 for teaching circuits is the rope model. It’s not new, and it’s not something we invented from nothing. It’s based on research, including ideas summarized in the classic Making Sense of Secondary Science, showing that previous models caused misconceptions about current. It avoids what I call the ‘electron delivery’ trap in models used such as pizza delivery trucks, allowing for clearer explanations of AC later on, as well as being a ‘hands-on’ rather than imagined model.
It’s interesting that @adchempages chooses to describe teaching as an art, rather than a science. I can see what he means, in a way. But I’d suggest that there’s a middle-ground. Is it better to think of teaching as a craft? It might be ‘in person’ rather than strictly ‘hands-on’, but that word hints more at the professional judgment and individual style involved than the common perception of a science. Crafts traditionally guarded their secrets from outsiders but shared them openly within the group or guild. The second part, at least, is a model we should aspire to. Let’s think of research as just a conversation within a larger staffroom, and maybe we can avoid making all the mistakes ourselves.

Why Teach?

EDIT: please note I do not endorse, support or recommend the Central College for Education, a fee-paying distance learning institution. If considering a career in teaching, I recommend you contact university education departments who will advise about the best route for you.
I miss teaching kids.
Don”t get me wrong, I’m really enjoying my current day job, working as a TLC with the Stimulating Physics Network. I work with a dozen schools to develop physics teaching, as well as early career teachers; the adults are, on the whole, more focused and motivated than year 9. I get time to perfect the demonstrations, and I can log CPD time towards my (part-time) working week. I get a lot more time with my family, from the eleven-year-old currently being home-schooled (long story) to the toddler who thinks sleep is for wimps. I can fit in a little freelance work here and there. (I have room for more. Email me.)
But it’s not the same.
The days are more predictable, even though I don’t have a timetable as such. Colleagues get excited about physics practicals, yes, but it’s not the same as the look on a kid’s face when they hear a slinky for the first time. (You can do something similar with a fork.) Digressions happen, but you don’t get to help a students realize how science matters to their life, hobbies, pets or sports. Even attentive teachers – which on a dark evening after a long day is a big ask – can’t measure up to a class of thirty seeing you put out a candle with carbon dioxide, or suddenly silent teens passing around a flint spearpoint made by their ancestor, 300 generations back.
So Alom’s post asking “Why teach when you can tutor?” was an interesting read. I’ve tutored too – although not at London prices – and it’s rewarding, but nothing like being in front of a class. It’s a conversation, not a performance. It’s tiring in a very different way. In the best lessons, what you do seems effortless to the kids. All the hard work, like a swan on a lake, is below the surface. Part of the ‘flow’ is that it looks easy. Maybe that’s why so many non-teachers think they’re entitled to express an opinion about the classroom? At the moment I’m working with adults for my day job and volunteering as a Cub leader. But they enjoyed their Science badge, which is something…
There’s a ‘buzz’ about a good lesson that makes up for a lot of the grief. No teacher goes into the profession wanting to do paperwork and fill out spreadsheets of targets. I’ve yet to meet a teacher who likes marking. Appreciates the need, yes. Enjoys sharing feedback with students and seeing them take it on board, absolutely. The long holidays are good, even if we pay for them in blood sweat and tears during term-time. But they’re a perk, not the purpose.
Kids ask great questions. They get excited about cool things, because they’ve not learned to fake cynicism. At least some of them will find you at break with yet more questions, or an empty chrysalis they found at the weekend, or to borrow books. They’ll act shocked when you say they can use your first name on Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expeditions, because “I’m a volunteer youth leader at the weekend, not your teacher.”
They’ll hate you, sometimes. They resist, and they fight. We don’t get it right every time, and not every student will be a success story in your lessons. Those are the ones where you look really hard for something real to praise them on, whether it’s their sports performance or how their English teacher was raving about their poetry. (If you can link it to science, even better – I had one student who applied her choreography skills to remember the different ‘types’ of energy.) But because you see them on the corridor you can thank them for holding a door, or show them in other tiny ways that you’re still both members of a school community.
The real question – the one which teachers, school leaders, governors and politicians need to answer – is “Why tutor when you could teach?” Some of the reasons might be individual, family commitments or ill-health for example. But if we’re going to keep recruiting and keeping classroom teachers, we need to be able to give good reasons. The draw of the classroom must outweigh the benefits of tutoring. For many, the good things about being in a school aren’t enough to make up for the disadvantages. Only by being honest about those reasons, and being committed to changing them, will we make the classroom a more attractive place for all of our colleagues.

2016: Looking Ahead

2015 was a pretty busy year. Lots going on – not that life with three kids is ever any different – and it didn’t always feel like there was a chance to breathe. So now I’m taking a moment to write what I’m hoping to get out of 2016.
Professionally, I’m hopeful. The day job is going well, I think, and I’m looking forward to sharing more ideas with colleagues. I’m hoping to collect some data on the classroom impact of what I’ve been doing with ‘my’ schools, which will possibly lead to an article with my name on it. I need to start searching more systematically for freelance work, delivering CPD or getting involved in the textbook and resource side of things. I think my blog can be a good way to showcase what I do, so I’m planning to schedule days to build it up each month. I’d like to get some more classroom time, with real students, but supply work is both hard to fit in and really badly paid, so it will probably be in small chunks in my partner schools.
As ‘payment’ for a recent review piece I scored several education texts, so the reading will form a fair bit of my own CPD over the coming months. I plan to share highlights and insights on here as ever. Plus I got What If? just before Christmas, which will get a post all of its own. (Summary: it’s great.) I was hoping to make at least one day of #ASEconf but my wife and I are both shattered as smallest person is doing a lot more teething than sleeping. I’ll have to look out for something later on in the year. Suggestions?
Due to circumstances beyond our control – persistent bullying by pupils, and a lack of willingness to deal with it coupled with deeply unprofessional behaviour on the part of the school management – we’ve taken our eldest out of school. He’ll be finishing his year 6 being educated at home, which has its own set of challenges but also opportunities. To start with, he’s missing the huge ordeal of SATs. They had already started doing practice papers, in November, showing how disproportionate an effect external testing can have. So instead he’s learning to cook, improving his photography and gymnastics skills, and developing his computing by designing and building a website for our child-minder. Plus regular maths practice, book reviews and comprehension exercises based on articles from chicken care to architecture. The good news is that by September he will also have all the skills I’ve so often seen lacking in Year 7 science students, if it kills me. Which it might.
Illness on my side of the family – Dad’s very much past his best-before date, and it shows – means we’ll be making the trip south on a fairly regular basis. Several hours stuck in a car with a crying infant now constitute a hot date for my wife and I, sadly. This is probably one of many issues that have encouraged the return of my personal ‘black dog‘, so apologies for frequent silences and grumpiness on Twitter. More running might help. I need to sign up for some events – I won’t call them races because I’m only competitive with board games – to motivate me to get out and train. I got out climbing with the boys last week, which reminded me of just how much I ennjoy it and just how out of shape I’ve become. Less chocolate. More climbing. Repeat.
I’d like to get into the habit of baking bread. I want to get at least one more tattoo, and I’m still playing with some science-inspired ink designs. Drink good coffee. Read good books.
And to all my loyal readers… all the best for the coming year.

My #aseconf

To increase the chances of this actually getting posted – instead of sitting in limbo like the (ahem) five drafts I’ve not completed – this will be briefer than my usual approach. But I figure bullet points are better than nothing.

I made it to the end of this year’s ASE conference. I had a great time, predictably because of the lovely people there. (Not the weather, obviously. I mean, it was Reading.) As ever, choosing sessions was nearly impossible with so many options and the plans for changed anyway. But this is what I did.

Thursday

I met my good friend and fellow physicist @90_maz on the train on the way down. (She also blogs and you should check her out. And the blog.) Luggage dropped off, we headed for the exhibition to score some freebies. Post it notes seemed to be the popular one this year, although I’m quite pleased with my syringe pen. It doesn’t take much.

It’s probably a bit sad that on meeting Keith Gibbs I wanted to shake his hand and thank him for his help. His book was a gift on finishing my PGCE – from Marion, as it happens – and is well thumbed and annotated. His student-level website, SchoolPhysics, is one of the first I suggest to novice colleagues for their classes. I now have the revised and expanded edition of The Resourceful Physics Teacher, which I somehow bought without asking him to sign it. I’m proud of my self-restraint.

Finding the teachmeet was challenging. A plea to the conference organisers; can we please have a venue next year which is quieter, larger and not in the middle of the exhibition area? But it was filled with interesting ideas, plus my wittering, and I’m glad I joined in. I particularly liked the scannable answer sheets concept shared by Lucie, Quick Key, turning any device with a camera into a multiple choice OCR scanner. I talked about Checklists and Commentaries, including PRODME an approach to investigative thinking I’ve basically stolen from lots of people. Nothing revolutionary but I was pleased with how it went over.

The #alternativedinner – capably organized by @MrsDrSarah – was great. Rather than dinner jackets and long speeches there was much laughter, great food, interesting discussion and dueling with breadsticks. What more could you ask? It was a great example of how the informal accompaniments to a conference are as important as the official sessions and the signed-off CPD.
Friday
I had a little more time in the morning to check out the exhibition. Several things stood out when I had the chance to think about it.
  • No stall from the Institute of Physics, my day job. Several colleagues were presenting workshops but the omission was noticed by many. I suppose it’s nice we were missed, and I don’t think it was just for the stickers.
  • Lots of companies offering paid-for workshops in schools with kids, eg for KS1 and 2 science clubs. I’m sure many had good ideas but I suspect for most schools the budget just isn’t there.
  • It wasn’t just the IoP; several non-profit groups seemed noticeable by their absence. I didn’t see the Crest Awards, for example. Presumably in these times of tight budgets it was a hard sell?
I’m really glad I attended the session from the Perimeter Institute, a hands-on practical making measurements to calculate Planck’s Constant. I’ve used purpose-built apparatus before, similar to this from Phillip Harris, but the RI kit was much more direct – and significantly cheaper! We started the session by using a ‘black box’ starter, where we had to model the arrangement inside a piece of drainpipe to explain the movement of ropes. Building one of these is now on my jobs list.
I was worried that nobody would make it to my workshop, especially as I was a late addition to the programme. In the end about ten colleagues came, although I suspect the promise of @90_maz’s brownies had a lot to do with it. Interesting discussion and the participants seemed pleased – even inspired in one case! I’ve created a new blog site, aseconference2015.wordpress.com, with the hope that making it easy to get started will help those new  to blogging. My presentation is available on Google Drive and if you’d like to contribute a guest post – or for me to link to your own site – then email me or use the Google form.
After my session I attended two more in quick succession. Literacy in KS3 science could have done with more time, but then it is a big topic! An important reminder was that, just as with science methods, we need to ‘think out loud’ when demonstrating and modeling literacy skills. @Arakwai and I agreed that one big issue is the confusion when everyday words have a specific science meaning. I coined the acronym SAL – Science as an Additional Language – to summarize this.
This was followed by a look at the new KS3 science specification, led by Ed Walsh (aka @cornwallscied). It was interesting to analyze the differences between the old and new approaches to ‘thinking scientifically’. In particular, I wonder if the reduced emphasis on social implications of scientific ideas is a concern, as this is something which has in the past been shown to increase the interest and commitment of female students. A brief digression during the session was to discuss the issues students have with science being ‘only a theory’ – something that the RI addressed nicely with the video from @alomshaha and @jimalkhalili:
 So in summary: a great day and a half with, as ever, many things to think about over the next little while. Some of them may even end up being blogged – if I can clear the backlog. Happy January, everyone…

Energy Stores and Pathways

Tonight’s #asechat will involve Charles Tracy, the IoP’s Head of Education (and one of my bosses), discussing the new approach adopted by exam boards from this year. There’s lots of information at Supporting Physics Teaching, which is free to access and needs no sign-in. Other sites and resources will hopefully move over to this terminology (BBC Bitesize already has, for example). But why should we bother?

Energy is one of those topics, isn’t it? We teach it several times, but the kids seem to hang on to their misconceptions. Partly this is because it’s a word which is used in everyday life, often interchangably with power. Partly it’s the way students get mixed up with energy ‘resources’ (or as I prefer to teach it, ‘ways to make electricity’.

We shouldn’t be surprised that this causes problems. Energy is at heart a very abstract concept, and so one which is difficult for students to grasp. Does it make things happen? Well, not always – and this leads to students confusing energy with force. I used to divide the ‘types’ of energy into potential and moving categories, which I suppose could be seen as a crude version of this new approach.

In the simplest possible description, energy is about bookkeeping or currency. It turns out that when objects interact, often via forces, then we can do some maths which describe the change. What’s interesting is that if we pay attention, then the same number comes up more than once. This tells us that something is conserved.

We call that something energy and say it has been transferred from one place to another. Calling those places stores emphasizes that they still have whatever they were given. This sounds similar to past approaches but avoids the idea of distinct ‘chemical energy’ being turned into ‘electrical energy’ and so on. SPT has a good comparison.

So we teach energy concepts to make it easier to do calculations. We can’t measure energy directly, but the equations we use allow us to make measurements, which allow us to make deductions, which in turn allow us to make predictions.

That sounds a lot like science, doesn’t it?

Energy moves from one store to another via pathways. These are actions – verbs, if you like – which describe a change in a system. The IoP is suggesting using the word shift rather than transfer. (I would suggest one good reason to do so is to avoid the mix up with transform, which suggests there are different kinds of energy.) I found the diagram of possible pathways at SPT useful.

Several approaches are possible, including taking a ‘snapshot’ before and after an event, or showing the amount of energy in each store with orange liquid. There are of course others, many of which are visual and so provide an anchor for students to observed reality. This isn’t to recommend VAK of course – only to suggest that making this concept ‘stract’ can only be a good thing.

I’ll be taking part in the session this evening, and I’ll add a link to the archive afterwards. I’m sure there’ll be an advert for TalkPhysics, which is one place to get access to ongoing advice and support on this and other approaches. It may be short notice but please pass on the link for tonight’s chat; the more the merrier.