Publication

I wrote a book.

Now, the advert and links and so on are at the end of this post. But first I wanted to write a little about the process, which arguably is more relevant for most teachers.

Commissioning

When I was asked to write this, I was given a very specific brief. The format for a revision guide is very structured, which can be both helpful and frustrating. It’s helpful because you have a clear place to start, with lots of small parts that will in time come together to form sections and chapters. It’s frustrating because, inevitably, that structure doesn’t fit every subject perfectly but it must be followed for consistency. I now know better which questions to ask, how much to write before getting some comments and why that format is necessary to avoid complications at the later stages. And I know how to get asked; be recommended by a colleague who has shown he or she is confident to work with you. Thanks to Carol Davenport aka @drdav for being that colleague for me.

Writing

Every teacher has written summaries of particular topics. We know that some are easier than others. One challenge I had was trying to focus on a summary, without including too much teaching. Using worked examples, for instance – is that useful for recall? To illustrate a definition? And how do you explain the less typical but still important cases, without getting sidetracked?

Another complication was the need to follow the structure of the matching textbook, which had been written – as is almost always the case right now – to follow the specification. Now, honestly, I have my doubts about this approach. I’d love to be involved in an exam-board-agnostic project, with a textbook matched to practice books (SLOP anyone?) and, importantly, a teachers’ guide which delves into the pedagogy specific to each aspect. In a dream world. this would be a print-on-demand project where you would add a chapter on your exact specification, with checklist and paper breakdown, to the subject-led approach. But enough of utopia. (Unless you want me to work on it, in which case email me.)

I wrote one chapter at a time, broken down into headings with diagrams specified as I went. These went to the editor, who sent versions back with queries or suggested revisions. It was not unusual to be writing one chapter – each took about a week of evenings spent slaving over a hot laptop – while revising another. And then there were the questions and answers, plus exam-style questions and accompanying markschemes.

Editing and Proofs

This was the stage that surprised me, even having contributed to a book before. There are so many people who need to see, comment and suggest changes. Some were simple corrections; we all make spelling mistakes or cut and paste errors while rephrasing paragraphs. Some picked up on ambiguous wording, or suggested alternate examples. Sometimes I followed the suggestions, and sometimes the original text was adjusted in a different way. The diagrams and photos each needed to be checked, sometimes amended or redrawn. At one point I was receiving editorial suggestions from three different people about different versions of the same text, at the same time as trying to trim it down for length. The consolation was getting to see my words in print, as the proofs came out on paper each time to scribble on.

Publication

After the work being signed off in July it’s finally published, ready for the year 11 students who will be sitting their exams this coming summer. My author copies arrived yesterday, and apart from the one I’ve promised to my Mum – as pointed out on Twitter, I’m going to have to send her a very strong fridge magnet – I’m going to offer them to parents in the Home Ed facebook groups, for a donation to charity. If you’re teaching the Edexcel IGCSE course, have a look below for some links.

Reflection

I have no intention of working out my hourly rate. Like anything in educational publishing, being an author is not a rational decision in terms of money earned. But I’m still glad I did it, and once I’ve completed my masters course I’d be happy to look at similar projects (HINT). Plus, well, a book. With my name on it. Apart from anything else, I’ve learned to be a lot more patient with published books and their authors. With so many steps, and so many people involved, some mistakes are inevitable. And they’re even more frustrating for the author than for the reader, I promise! I understand the limitations, either practical ones or because of industry norms, better than I did. And there are several areas of physics I now know better than ever, because I’ve had to think of every way an explanation could be misunderstood, and do better. For that reason, I’d recommend any experienced teacher tries writing for publication, because it prompts us to give the best we can, with the time to think it through that is rarely possible in a classroom.

The Adverts

bookcover

My book – and that’s still sadly rather exciting to type – is a revision guide for the Edexcel IGCSE Physics course, part of the Hodder My Revision Notes range. If you want copies for work, you may wish to contact them directly. On an individual basis, try your local independent book shop (hollow laughter) or give up and go to Amazon.

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The Day Job

I have a full-time job, although ironically I’m not managing to blog nearly as much as when I was a classroom teacher, which was noticeably more than full-time. I’m fielding a lot of queries about physics teaching concerns on Twitter, which is fine, but I thought it might save me a lot of hassle if I put the same links here. Over a third of those teaching physics topics, according to data reported on p2 of this report from Wellcome, are not physics specialists. This matches the data I’ve seen through my day job at the Institute of Physics.

But before I say too much, let’s start with a disclaimer: what’s on my blog and on twitter from me is not official IOP policy or approved content. The IOP doesn’t care about the music I listen to, the political views I share, the arguments I have about gun control, mental health support or how to spell sulphur. (Well, maybe that last bit.) When I blog and tweet, I speak for myself. I’ll do my best to explain the IOP approach, for example with energy stores and pathways or the best way to support gender balance, but my bosses will only care about what I send from my work email account on work time. They’ll defend me on that – or not, as the case may be – but my off-duty self is not their problem.

Teacher support via the IOP

Whether you’re new to teaching Physics or have been heading your department for decades, the IOP has supporting material for you via the For Teachers page. Among other suggestions, this links to the TalkPhysics forum (free to join), which I recommend for queries that include more detail than the average tweet. There are several projects running to support schools, including the Stimulating Physics Network and Future Physics Leaders; these run alongside the locally-based Physics Network Co-ordinators. If you want your department to receive a little more support, you can join the schools and colleges affiliation scheme which gets you the journal Physics Education among other perks.

Detailed and in-depth discussion of pedagogy is broken down into 5-11, 11-14 and 14-16 topics on the Supporting Physics Teaching site. If you’re after something specific you may want to drop me a line on Twitter, but the content is evidence-informed and referenced. Great material for when you have a little time to think and plan.

The Improving Gender Balance project grew out of the Girls in Physics report. Lots of resources are available and my colleagues are always happy to talk to schools interested in applying these ideas. The last set of data showed that in around half of UK state schools not a single girl carries on to A-level physics; the imbalance in some subjects is even worse.

For hands-on advice the IOP supports the Practical Physics site. This grew out of the Getting Practical materials and is well worth exploring, with guides to pass on to technicians. You may also find the Teaching Advanced Physics (TAP) site useful, not least because some of the concepts are now covered in the GCSE curriculum as well as A-level.

If you’re an established physics teacher, the chances are that you do some informal coaching of colleagues even if you don’t have an official role. This is what my day job is all about, so please give me a shout so I can steal your ideas discuss the sharing of good practice. You may also be interested in Membership and applying to be recognised as a Chartered Physicist, and I have supporting materials that could help.

Other sources

I may be biased but I think the IOP materials are a good start. There are, of course, other places to look! I’ve been involved with a couple of these but others I know from using them with students or colleagues.

There are simulations available at PhET and the Physics Classroom. Understandably they take an American approach at times, but they’re well worth checking out. Double check suitability before setting for homework, as some will need Java installing or updating so may not play well on mobile devices. Both include pedagogy discussions for teachers as well as simulations for students.

STEM Learning – what I still think of as the eLibrary, and linked to the physical library at York – has loads of great resources, including versions of some of those linked above. Two collections in particular may be of interest, which organise the resources according to a curriculum: 14-16 science resource packages and A-level science resource packages. Bizarrely, the topics within each subject are alphabetical rather than logical, but that’s pretty much my only criticism. A free sign-in is required.

I do some freelance work with Hodder Education. The textbooks are obviously worth a look, but I’m not here to advertise. One project you can get for free is the Physics Teacher Guide. This is matched to the student textbook and online (subscription) resources, but may be useful even if you don’t have the budget to get for your workplace.

As an ASE member, I get the journal and magazine regularly. You shouldn’t need a login to access the Physics resources, which are an eclectic collection. I highly recommend the free downloads from the Language of Maths in Science project. Heads of Department might find membership worthwhile simply to access the Science Leaders’ Hub.

For Students

You may already pass these on to students – or have opinions about why that is a bad idea – but I think SchoolPhysics (from the author of the Resourceful Physics Teacher), HyperPhysics (concept maps linking physics ideas, probably best for A-level) and Physics and Maths Tutor (for past paper) are worth a look. Several of the above links, of course, may also be useful for them too.

A-level students can get a free e-newsletter, Qubit from the IOP. Hodder also publish Physics Review for A-level students, which is a good way to extend their learning beyond the curriculum.

EDIT: I was prompted about IsaacPhysics, which of course is a great site and one I recommend to colleagues. Questions are organised by linked topics for the spaced retrieval practice we all know is so important. Thanks to @MrCochain for the reminder. They also have funded places for a residential bootcamp this summer for students in England between years 12 and 13 who meet one or more criteria eg in first generation going to uni.

Please share any broadly useful resources via the comments; I’ve deliberately not started listing teacher blogs because I’d be here for ages. Maybe that can be a later post? But I have several others on my list, including materials to support the learning of equations and a review of an old science textbook. There’s never enough time…

 

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.

Energy Language Thoughts Part 3

As you would expect, this follows on from Part 1 (Introduction and Summary) and Part 2 (Pathways/Processes). Even if you’ve read them, you might want to look back at the comments readers have made  – many thanks to everyone who has been able to take the time.

Descriptions vs Labels: Stores

The stores are not simply renamed ‘energy types’. A lot of them use similar words, but that’s because they’re trying to describe the same physics. They represent the changing properties of a part of the system, caused by it gaining or losing energy. When a steel block undergoes physical processes, it changes in a measurable way. It might change shape. Its temperature might change. It might be moved away from the Earth’s surface. It is a shame that exam boards are taking different approaches, but the eight suggested by the IOP are:

  • chemical store
  • thermal store
  • kinetic store
  • gravitational store
  • elastic store
  • nuclear store
  • vibration store
  • electric-magnetic store

More details at SPT

Like the processes, there are sometimes more than one way to consider what is happening. If a gas is heated, the change could be considered in terms of the measured temperature change (thermal store), or in the increased movement of the particles (kinetic store). Realistically, there are not many situations where two stores will seem equally appropriate. And when they are, this is actually a strength. The two approaches will give values for the energy change which are the same. Energy is energy, whether it is considered in the context of a thermal or kinetic store. The whole point of using energy as a ‘common currency’ is that is translates between contexts.

The stores, as discussed in my introductory post, are each a way of considering a physical measurement and an associated equation. The idea is that you consider the ‘before’ and after’ situations for relevant stores, as snapshots. (The exception, for school-age students at least, is a chemical store where the values are found empirically.) I produced, based on some ideas from IOP colleagues, some energy store ‘bookmarks’ which bring together the different aspects. They wouldn’t take long to put together, but you’re welcome to my version:

stores-bookmarks as pdf

Common Variations

The vibration store can be considered as a kinetic store which oscillates. The easier measurement is not speed but amplitude and time period. Imagine trying to find a meaningful value of the speed of a swinging pendulum, for example. But some boards are omitting it, which is fairly easy to justify.

I’m less happy that at least one exam board (AQA) miss out the nuclear store entirely. This seems like a huge mistake to me as it uses the one equation pretty much everyone knows from physics, E = mc2! It would also make it impossible to start with the sun, which makes most biology a bit tricky. (From nuclear store via particle heating processes to sun’s thermal store then via radiating processes to Earth’s thermal store and biomass chemical store)

The electric-magnetic store – not electromagnetic – is about the position of objects within two kinds of field. Now, I know they’re related – Maxwell’s equations and all that – but I think for most students it’s a lot easier to consider two separate stores, the magnetic and the electrostatic. The upside is that this means you can clearly link them to gravitational stores and so cover fields as a ‘meta-model’. The downside is that it makes the stores list look even more similar to the old approach. If you take this tack, make sure you emphasize that it’s an electrostatic store to clearly distinguish from the electric current pathway.

Which brings me to…

What about light/sound/electricity?

The SPT resources have some very good explanations on this. My reasoning is that they are processes which only have meaning if we think about duration. To describe them in numbers, we use power in Watts rather than energy in Joules. So they are, obviously, real physics effects. But they fit best into this model as processes shifting energy between stores, rather than stores themselves.

Disclosure: my issue with this is that a very strict interpreation of thi would seem to rule out kinetic stores as well. The snapshot approach – comparing the change to stores in between two static frames – makes it hard to reconcile a moving object with a single instant. Hmm. Although we have no problem with considering momentum at a moment in time, yes? Contrariwise, students may have an image of light as being made up of photons as moving objects, or when older the equation E=hf. Hmm again. And what about latent heat? This is best considered as a special term of the thermal store, but it’s not obvious. (Thanks to my colleague Lawrence Cattermole for reminding me of this today.) Of course, no model is perfect. The test is whether this approach is better than the ‘types’ of energy approach that has been so pervasive.

‘Better’, of course, is not a very scientific term! It is more accurate when describing the physical processes. The words are a closer narrative match to the equations students will need to use as they develop their physics. The model is different to what we and our students are used to, but objecting to it on that basis seems short-sighted. As I originally said, you could argue that the timing is unfortunate, with new specs and grading systems, but I don’t think we’d ever be at the point where all science teachers welcomed a change with open arms.

As always – please comment, respond, shout angrily at me using the field below.

Energy Language Thoughts Part 2

The previous post was a summary or introduction – thanks to all those who have commented already – and tomorrow I’ll be moving on to stores in more detail. But for now…

Descriptions vs Labels: Processes

To make life easier, humans like to use shorthand for complex processes. These are categories or labels, not detailed descriptions. Many pathways or processes can be put into one of these categories, but the aim should always be end up able to describe what is actually happening.

  • Heating by particles
  • Radiating (aka heating by radiation)
  • Electrical working
  • Mechanical working

Longer explanation at SPT

How we choose these categories will alter our interpretation. For example, are sound waves a form of mechanical working? Or do we include all waves in the ‘radiating’ category? The physics description of what is happening is what we and our students should be concentrating on, because it doesn’t change. The ideas about Johnstone’s Triangle that I’ve read about via Michael Seery’s blog, from chemistry education, has obvious parallels.

johnstones-triangle-1024x573

Reproduced from Michael’s post, credited to University of Iowa.

If we can link the macro (observations in lab) and sub-micro (particles and interactions) levels, the symbolic can wait. A similar discussion is had on SPT about alternating between the lived in world and a theoretical model.

Avoiding using these categories – which by their very nature are imprecise – might be worth considering. It would be very easy for students to think they have to assign any physics process to one of the four listed above, without really thinking through what’s happening. (If you’d like to consider symbolic approaches, I’d suggest checking out the physical versions of energy bar charts as described here by Greg Jacobs.)

As pointed out by several – most recently Richard Needham on Twitter – changing how energy is described in physics lessons means nothing if we can’t apply this to biology and chemistry. And it needs to make more sense there too! In school chemistry, heating and radiating (in the form of light-emitting) will be the significant processes. The equations used later on for enthalpy change – endo and exo-thermic reactions and so on – work nicely with this framework. In school biology, the transfer of energy is usually about photosynthesis (a radiating pathway fills a chemical store by the production of glucose/oxygen) or nutrition/metabolism. (More about stores in the next ‘chapter’.) One of my jobs is to have a closer look at the KS3 specification for any mention of energy in chemistry and biology and see what I’ve missed – please let me know in the comments if this has been done already!

I’ve heard – and contributed to – discussions about other possible pathways, perhaps useful for younger students. The regular suggestion is reacting, which would include chemical reactions in cells (aka metabolic-ing) as well as the lab. The shift happens between two chemical stores. The physics process, if we look closely enough, is about electron exchange between atoms. But I wouldn’t want to have that level of explanation in a year 7 lesson! As ever, the question is about us choosing a realistic level of detail for our students at any particular time.

The Power of Processes

I wrote earlier that we weren’t interested in how quickly a process worked. That’s obviously not always true; rates are very important in physics! So the process can happen quickly or slowly, which changes the magnitude of the final change in the relevant stores. This tells us that processes are about power, not just energy. (Thanks to Brendan Ickringill who pointed out the word rate is important.) The analogy I use is that of the carbon cycle. Asking how much carbon is ‘in’ plant biomass at any point is a meaningful question, if not an easy one. But it makes no sense to ask how much carbon is ‘in’ combustion, or any other process. They are rates, not amounts.

My colleague Trevor Plant reminded me of the need to change how we use Sankey diagrams for this new approach. The width of the arrow can now describe the power of the process, transferring or shifting energy between stores. A lot of the same questions could be asked, and efficiency is still a helpful consideration. We’d now think about useful processes (with values in watts) and wasteful or dissipative ones. As ever, we’d need to distinguish between similar processes; for example, energy shifted to the thermal store of water in a kettle is useful, whereas heating of the air around it is not.

Effectively what we’re doing here is describing what the ‘magical arrow of energy transfer’ is symbolising. A useful resource is a set of laminated arrows which students can write on for descriptions of the physical processes. You could provide some with descriptions on them, but the danger is that the class – or the loudest member of it – will then choose a best-fit rather than something more accurate. If you also supply laminated cards – as boxes, not arrows – with the eight stores on them, they are ‘encouraged’ towards the new model. These might be particularly useful to analyse a chosen selection from the famous energy circus.

On this theme, I produced some cards to go on the electrical sockets in the lab. The idea is to remind students that the current comes from somewhere else, and that the electrical supply is a pathway/process, not a store. Download below.

power-stations as pdf

As before, I hope the discussion here is useful – and please respond in comments if there’s something I’m missing out! Next post will be looking at stores in more detail, then hopefully a last one at the weekend on practical approaches and ways to adapt what you used to use!

 

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!

Physics Equations flashcards

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

But anyway.

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

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

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

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

Set of flashcards on StudyBlue

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