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!

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.

A Science Generation

I’ve dug out some old markbooks – electronic and paper – because I wanted to think about who it is that we’re teaching, and why. It occurred to me that having universities contributing to A-level specification discussions assumed that the courses were for their benefit. In the classroom, we as teachers adapt our examples and contexts to suit our students. We can’t adjust the syllabus itself, even if we know that the majority of our students will be progressing to a route very different to an undergraduate physics course.
I’m relying on slightly incomplete data and scribbled marginalia, plus my own memory. It’s for one ‘generation’, from year 7 to year 13, at a previous workplace (specialist science, outstanding according to Ofsted, included sixth form etc). I’d be really interested in contrasting data, if anyone has it to share – I have no idea how representative it is generally.
September 2005 – July 2012
2005 (Year 7): 240 students starting our in-house course based on the QCA topics – remember them? The students were externally assessed (following an internal annual exam) by SATs. Remember those? After they were phased out we continued with our own internally marked version. The score was used to separate students into double and triple classes for GCSE.
2008 (Year 10): 64 students started the triple course (AQA Biology, Chemistry and Physics). They were selected on the basis of good scores in their KS3 SATs for both Science and Maths, as we ‘borrowed’ some maths time for the extra science. The remaining 176 did ‘double’ (Core and Additional AQA). None could swap during the course.
At end of yr11, a large majority of those who continued to AS science courses came to our linked sixth form. A few extra students applied from other schools locally. The majority of those doing Physics had followed the triple route. (This was similar for the other sciences but not as clear.) Maths was recommended but not required,  and the entry requirement was a B no matter what GCSE route.
2010 (Year 12): 40 students started AS Physics (AQA), of which 33 were our students previously. By the end of the year, 11 had dropped the course for various reasons. Those who had studied Double science were not disproportionately represented in those failing or dropping, but those who had gained a B at GCSE were.
2011 (Year 13): Of the 29 students starting, 24 had been our students at GCSE. The cohort achieved grades from A-E, only five below C. Of these students, 14 went on to scientific degrees. Of these 14, 8 went to do physics or engineering. (6 of these had been our students from Year 7.)
science generation
Summary
Ignoring later entrants, this means of the 240 we started teaching in yr7, only six went on to physics and engineering courses: less than 3%. Even just looking at those entering sixth form as our starting point, only 20% went on to directly relevant courses.

For many students, this was exactly as planned. Some of the courses – chemistry, medicine, maths – would no doubt use the skills and knowledge gained. For other students, the more nebulous skills such as logical reasoning would be valuable in their future courses. And it’s much harder to track those who may not return to the academic content until after an apprenticeship or similar.

But as far as university physics admission tutors are concerned, those students are pretty much invisible. They’re irrelevant. What they know, or don’t know, never affects first year courses or the tutors who complain about this or that gap in their undergraduates’ knowledge.

The competing needs of ‘Science for Future Scientists’ and ‘Science for Citizens’ have long been identified, but not resolved. I’d argue that in many ways it is a situation which cannot be resolved. A few factors which we’d easily identified in our prep room cause clear difficulties:
  1. We ask our students to choose (or often, we choose for them) in year 9 or even earlier. At this point some are yet to gain confidence, while others will have already peaked, in ability or attitude. There will be a proportion of students who could go either way, but can’t be identified yet. As science teachers, we’d see this as uncertainty, not error. (Insert Schrodinger’s Cat joke here)
  2. The courses are seen, rightly or wrongly, as having different values. I’ve always said that I’d have a lot more confidence in the equal value of BTecs and similar if the same proportion of students in private and state schools did them. When an MP’s child, Tarquin or Poppy, do a college course in Leisure and Tourism instead of A-levels then maybe parity will have been achieved.
  3. Currently 16-18 courses feel very specialized. I would have loved to do more than four subjects, and it was seen back then that a broader curriculum was coming. And that, as my wife frequently reminds me, was years ago. Students feel they must identify as a scientist – or not – very young. I suspect for many it feels like a big commitment. (We looked at doing science vs identifying as a scientist in an early SciTeachJC).
  4. The very topics which might motivate students to carry on to further study are those which are less relevant for daily life. This means that it is easy for the open-ended, challenging ideas – the inspiring ones – to be saved for those students who will come to them again anyway. Those achieving at a lower level are taught topics which are less exciting – reinforcing their belief that physics is boring. A self-fulfilling prophecy!
I’m not expecting to solve anything. I don’t think I’ve even identified anything new. But when I went through the numbers, despite having taught over those years, I was surprised by just how small a proportion of our students are ‘pre-physicists’. Perhaps it would be interesting to think about the equivalent numbers at your institution?

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…