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


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.




Classroom Rules

I’m sure most people have quite clear rules for their classrooms, but one of my new (school) year’s resolutions is to build a more constructive relationship with some of my more challenging students. Don’t worry, I will not be describing specific difficulties, as I feel it would be unprofessional (as well as potentially being stupid – see the case of Elizabeth Collins for more detail). Instead, here’s my planned solution.

Over the past few years I’ve used a set of five rules which I gave to my students, and most agreed that they could follow them.

  • Listen
  • Attempt
  • Contribute
  • Ask for help
  • Follow instructions

This year I’ll be spending my first lesson asking them to help me write a set of rules we can all follow. Admittedly, I plan to ‘steer’ them a little (my own expectations can be seen here as a pdf: class rules), but they will still be doing most of the work. I will start by asking them to consider what we will all need to do so that we can:

  • enjoy the lessons
  • understand the ideas
  • succeed in the exams

I have a blank table (saved as pdf: classroom rules blank 2010) that they will add their ideas to, perhaps with post-it notes. I’ll refer back to a more permanent version during the year.

I have some thoughts myself about the rules we might eventually end up with, and some will not be negotiable (for example ‘attempt HW’ will be in there somewhere) but the idea here is that by having a greater input they will be more likely to follow them – or at least realise why they receive sanctions if they persist in breaking them. Partly this is for me as well as them. Although I feel that most of the time I have a reasonable rapport with most of my students, I’d like to improve this. I don’t want to be popular, necessarily – but I don’t want to be unpopular, either. At least partly because it makes my job harder!

Number one prediction for the rules they will suggest for me: ‘less sarcasm’.

I’ll follow up this post with some of their suggested classroom rules, and how it works for me. I know this isn’t a new idea, but I felt more enthusiasm for it having read the ideas of Geoff Petty. I picked up his book Evidence-Based Teaching over the summer and am going to be trying out a lot of the ideas from it. After all, it’s nice as a scientist to know that some of the suggestions actually have supporting data! I’ll try to post a proper review when I’ve read some more of it.

Teaching Evolution 5/5 – Resources

Hopefully the posts this week have given a few ideas about how to make the teaching of evolution a little more interactive – it is, after all, fairly hard to show evolution happening in a school science lab. Today I’m going to share a few resources that have not featured so far, split between books and websites (some for us as teachers, some for the students to ‘do’ something).


Bill Bryson’s book, A Brief History of Nearly Everything, is fantastic. It includes his discussions with creationists, as well as some great discussion of the main features of evolution, as observed and as documented in the fossil record. The illustrated version is a treat if you can afford it.

Richard Dawkins is a bit like Marmite, you either love him or hate him. I find myself defending his views a fair bit and must admit that he is strongest when discussing science rather than religion. He has a gift for annoying people and although I often agree whole-heartedly with his views, the way he expresses them is not always constructive. His books are many and varied, and in most cases probably a bit tricky for the average student, but I really enjoy them. He’s got plenty on evolutionary theory but I’d suggest that The Blind Watchmaker and The Greatest Show On Earth are probably good places to begin. Unweaving the Rainbow is also excellent, a collection of essays that provide some very vivid examples and quotes. 

I first read Matt Ridley’s The Origins Of Virtue when at University the first time. It was my first exposure to really good science writing and it still sits on my shelf today. For teachers, I’d suggest that Genome might be more accessible, unless you’re particularly interested in sociobiological explanations for altruistic behaviour. (Trust me, it’s more interesting than it sounds.) He followed up a lot of Dawkins’ early ideas, applying them to humans and human behaviour. If this kind of thing sounds good, try Jared Diamond. His recent Guns Germs and Steel was a great book, the history of the whole human race, and I’m sorry I missed the TV show.

Web – Activities for students

One I have tried out is from the University of Colorado, a sim based on the changing characteristics of wolves and rabbits in an ecosystem. Like all their others (listed on the website) it’s research based but allows students to spot and manipulate patterns of change.

Evolution Lab is another activity, based on imaginary organisms that ‘grab’ passing food. Over time students can observe effects on phenotype and so track evolutionary change.

The Peppered Moth is a standard example of natural selection in the UK, a case which happened quickly enough for us to notice. (As in most similar examples, it was a fairly dramatic change caused by human activites, albeit one which has since been reversed.) A simulation is found here, which I tracked down through an excellent blog run by an American biologist.

With Darwin’s recent birthday, there’s been a load of stuff available. Survival Rivals is a site with online activities, linked to documentation they’ll sent out to UK schools for free. It’s funded by the Wellcome Trust and there’s one activity for each of KS3, 4 and 5.

YouTube is an excellent resource, assuming your school network makes it available. I’m sure that Evolution Primer #1 is just the tip of the iceberg for useful introductions. I’m sure there are lots of other resources and evolution simulations about – it’s just the sort of thing Flash is good for! Please post in the comments if you have an particular favourites.

Web – Ideas

Although there are some difficulties in teaching evolutionary theory in the UK, our problems are nothing compared to the USA. The American Civil Liberties Union has a FAQ about ‘intelligent design’, the latest attempt to give creationism a coat of paint and call it a scientific theory. (It isn’t.)

One of many, the Evolution FAQ has some useful, short definitions and ideas. Along with Talk Origins (which has grown out of a Usenet group), it provides some excellent suggestions for countering arguments from intelligent design. As previous posts this week have discussed, humans do not think in geological timescales. This can make it hard to grasp the time available for generations of natural selection. Rejecting evolution (or anything else) on this basis is called the Argument from Personal Incredulity.

If you have students giving specific arguments based on religious beliefs – and some may be given tuition in a religious setting or at home – then it is worth doing some reading yourself. There are a lot of classic arguments (the eye, for example) that we have excellent evidence for, and there is a list of responses to creationist claims; this is also at Talk Origins.

Recently a group calling themselves Truth In Science have sent out ‘textbooks’ to UK schools, giving the intelligent design arguments. Fortunately most science departments noticed the major issues with the book, which exploits the UK curriculum focus on discussing how science works. Check out the website of the British Centre for Science Education for more information.

Update: A recent comment in Nature summarises one of the major objections to ‘intelligent design; – we, like so many other organisms, appear to have been designed very badly! (I’m currently trying to recall where I first read a quote, I think from a biologist, that only an idiot would put the playground next to the sewer…)

Hopefully this week’s activities have been interesting as well as useful. I’d really appreciate any comments, positive and constructive. I’d be particularly grateful for any feedback about using the activites with students, as that will help me improve them.

Books to loan to students 5/5

The last in this sequence – but by no means the end of my bookshelf, from which many more are loaned (and usually returned, surprisingly) – is sadly no longer in print. At least, the listings I found are for old copies at extortionate prices. The Unnatural Nature of Science by Lewis Wolpert is not about any particular discipline, or trying to answer any questions kids might normally ask. Instead it’s about science itself, about how scientific hypotheses are formulated and approached. It’s easier going than some of the philosophy of science books I’ve flipped through, but gives some good explanations for the need to examine bias in methods, blinding and the use of controls as well as falsifiability.

This is certainly one of the more challenging books I’d loan out. I have others that are at a fairly high level, for example in evolutionary biology or physics, but they’re not ones I’d loan except to real enthusiasts. This week I’ve tried to focus on those that might be more appropriate for kids up to age 16. A later sequence will look at fiction books for reluctant readers, as I seem to have spent the last few years trying desperately to get my form to read. The ironic thing is that I’d commit murder for a chance to read more often and they act like I’m asking them to submit to the Spanish Inquisition…

Books to loan to students 4/5

We’re through the easier books, really – at least, the ones that I’ve found to recommend to students who are younger or who struggle, but are still interested. I expect them to dip in and out, perhaps miss the trickier sections. If I want to push them a little more, then Bill Bryson’s A Brief History of Nearly Everything is really good. Today’s suggestion is, however, a little more challenging.

I suspect many science teachers have read and enjoyed Ben Goldacre’s work. The Guardian column, blog and book all share the name Bad Science and there is a lot of overlap in terms of material. I strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in science, whether medical (as Ben is) or not. The book is certainly a good read and the newer edition has an index, which mine doesn’t. Ben has a keen interest in the use of bad maths to promote bad science and he has little patience for people and institutions who ignore science to promote their own agendas. Despite the regular claims of alternative medicine practitioners about bias he is equally scathing about drug companies or establishment figures who can’t, or won’t, do the maths if it would challenge their position.

Books to loan to students 3/5

I like comics. I liked them as a kid and I like them now, especially titles such as The Sandman, Transmetropolitan and Preacher. (NB – these last two not really suitable for kids or easily shocked adults.) And so I was pleased when I was given The Physics of Superheroes by a friend. I suspect it was inspired in part by a Larry Niven essay from years ago but covers the subject much more widely.

The book uses the concepts behind a range of superheroes to explain scientific theories and ideas. It considers the apparent contradictions of some of the heroes, some of which illustrate our changing understanding of matter, space or light. I’ve found it a great book to loan to more able students at key stage 4 who would like to access more challenging areas of physics than the syllabus allows.

In a similar way, but only really relevant for one month in twelve, Can Reindeer Fly:The Science of Christmas is a fun read that uses ideas or situations we take for granted – if in a less-than-serious way – to explain scientific concepts. Students have to be fast readers, hoever, to get through it during a single festive season. Single chapters or excerpts can be used during end-of-term lessons if desired…

Books to loan to students 2/5

How To Dunk A Doughnut is a great collection of the science in everyday life, written as a collection of chapters. Inspired in part by a light-hearted paper in Nature 397 (I think it’s the same one as is republished at First Science here), the book examines how science affects us every day in the most unexpected ways. The science itself is not easy, but is well explained by Len Fisher, who describes himself as a scientist, author and communicator. He is currently a visiting research fellow at Bristol and continues to write, including Weighing The Soul, which I also enjoyed.

I encourage my students to write while they read – a technique I often use myself. Many of my books have scribbled margins, and although they don’t tend to join in, I find it very interesting when they ask me questions based on what they’ve read or try and push themselves further. I know things are going well when I struggle to answer their questions!

Books to loan to students 1/5

As a sixth form student, many years ago, I had a subscription to New Scientist. I probably shouldn’t admit that on the interweb. Still, I found it interesting, if slightly geeky, and not too hard to understand most of the time. I now find some of the articles a bit basic, although useful in lessons, and have long since let my subscription lapse. Like many readers, one of the first pages I used to turn to was at the back, ther ‘Last Word’ section. This included questions asked by readers and a selection of the responses.

How to Fossilise Your Hamster is one of several books collecting together the high – and low – points of this correspondance. Some of the questions are about scientific theories, others ask about practical applications. This book in particular has many suggestions for ideas you can test out or demonstrate at home, and I have pinched a few to use in lessons too. The series (several are available) are great to loan out to students and have, for me, bridged a gap between the Horrible Science series, which are fun but a bit basic, and the more challenging recommendations I will list later this week.