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.

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?

5 Es or 7?

A recent #SciTeachJC was spent discussing a paper extolling the virtues of the 5Es. It’s also known as the 7Es, slightly confusingly, and many teachers will be familiar with the process if not the vocabulary. It was pointed out during the session that both CASE and Wikid follow some similar principles. I thought that as it’s the season for (re)writing schemes of work, that it would perhaps be useful to put together a quick ‘how to’ guide. Linked resources are going to be mostly science-related, so apologies to teachers of other subjects.

If, of course, you are involved with York Science you may already be using this approach! If you’re not, I strongly recommend you check it out – I would still be contributing if I had time, but I’ve managed to over-commit myself with all kinds of teaching-related stuff. Oops.

Anyway, the 5/7Es. The original version, as put together by an American curriculum development group, started with the backward design concept. They identified five useful stages for a lesson which contributed to effective learning. These – or the overlapping seven Es, if you prefer – can be used as a checklist for a scheme or lesson which works. Here’s my interpretation of it, apologies for any misunderstandings/oversimplifications (and please comment to identify my mistakes!). Ideally we as teachers should start at the end, asking ourselves the question:

How will my students demonstrate to me and themselves that they understand this idea?

EDIT: A simplified, quick-reference version of this quick-reference post is now available in a single page pdf – Hope it’s useful!

Engage (and Elicit)

Get their attention and find out what they know. This will mean in some way making it relevant to them. Invoke curiousity, excitement, wonder. Make them feel as well as intellectually recognise the relevance. It will often mean identifying pre- or mis-conceptions. This will probably be your lesson starter, perhaps in the twin stages of setting the scene and gauging their current level of understanding.

  • video clip, perhaps from BBC Class Clips or similar.
  • quick demo, ideally one with a surprising outcome (eg dropping a nearly empty and a full water balloon from the window to test the ‘heavier objects fall faster’ assumption).
  • This is the equipment, what might we be doing today?
  • This is a scientist who did this experiment, what might have been his/her reasoning?
  • Label the apparatus and identify the control variables.
  • Two minute discussion of how X idea links to Y (mobile phone, internet, what they had for lunch…)
  • Surprising statement to make them question something (eg diagram of atom labelled ‘This is a lie’)
  • Unusual prop (radioactive rock, rusty nail or a brick with a piece of string attached for them to prove isn’t ‘alive’)
  • Question and three answers for them to grade as Good, Okay and Wrong, then justify choices and/or correct mistakes.

I’m in the process of putting together a powerpoint for these starters to cover every topic in KS3. It’s ongoing, for obvious reasons, but by adding a bit a week I’m making something with a variety of activities that wil be there as a back-up. It’ll stop me having to invent a question on the spur of the moment


The ideal method for students to learn science is by discovery, right? Hmm. Well, I’m not disagreeing – but it’s very important to remember that we need to give our classes just the right conditions so that they ‘discover’ the right things. If you doubt what I’m saying, think about the times you’ve had to finish a practical with “And what was supposed to happen was…”

Nevertheless, all good science teachers will try to make sure that as much as possible, students are exposed to real-life situations which demonstrate or illustrate scientific principles or facts. Of course they can’t ‘see’ everything with their own eyes during their own practicals. But we give them tasks which allow them to explore the ideas, with as much ‘hands-on, minds-on’ activities as possible:

  • designing and carrying out their own investigations
  • taking part in demonstrations
  • considering hypothetical situations (thought experiments)
  • discussing advantages and disadvantages of methods or technologies
  • observing the natural world
  • describing events and experimental results
  • drawing conclusions from recorded material, whether sample data, industrial processes or BBC documentary footage


Our role is to help them put these facts into a useful context. As much as possible, we should not be giving them answers – instead, we give them the language to describe what they have found out. This might be the literal words, such as current or evaporation. It might be more figurative, helping them to turn the patterns they have identified into clear mathematical relationships. This is scaffolding, supporting the students – who will demonstrate a wide range of understanding in most classrooms – to turn facts into knowledge. We relate it back to previous lessons or topics, hopefully drawing these connections from them whenever possible by the questions we ask and the reminders we offer. We may reword their ideas to produce a ‘class definition’, or have particular students share their explanations (which we have discreetly checked while they’ve been exploring).


Using the constructed understanding – a synthesis of what they have explored, put in the context and language of our explanations – students check that they grasp the concepts. This may consist of straightforward exercises, or more open questions. It could be something more imaginative – to explain their ideas in a podcast or video, or produce a poster summing up the main points. To challenge them this should include parallel examples which require them to base their examples on concepts, not just words or mathematical methods. During this time some will realise that they don’t understand it as well as they thought, and will (or should) ask for help. You may use the 4Bs method here to encourage independant problem solving, or have some students assigned as mentors. Further explanations may be needed and sometimes you may have to pause their work to give more examples to some or all of them.

Homework can be an effective way to continue this checking, but if they have not been able to identify difficulties with you there thay may hand in a blank sheet of paper. This is where encouraging self-assessment and being clear about feedback in terms of steps to progress, rather than scores, is essential.


In many ways this should be the focus of the lesson (or series of lessons, more often). Students should be able to describe their progress, and tell you how they can measure their improvement. A ‘split-screen’ plenary where they can comment on both content and methods means that they start to consider how they progressed, not just whether they did. I find it useful to have them grade themselves in terms of confidence and competence – the latter based on data. This can be particularly powerful if they started the lesson with a similar self-assessment, so can articulate their progress. This automatically tells them what they need to do next, setting themselves targets for further lessons.

Maths Skills For Science Lessons

After taking part in a recent online CPD trial with the Yorkshire and Humber Science Learning Centre, I’ve been trying to find ways to help my students use their maths skills in a science context. (And no, this wasn’t prompted by the recent SCORE report.) As we discussed during the course (and yes, I want to blog about it in more detail) the issue isn’t always that they don’t have the skills – it’s that they don’t use them. Sometimes it’s about language differences (positive correlation vs directly proportional, for example) and sometimes it’s just some kind of mental block. I’m trying a few different things:

  • providing science formula sheets to Maths to use for practice in lessons
  • producing data sets that they can use in Maths lessons
  • display work highlighting similarities and differences between science and maths vocabulary

But the focus for the blog post is something different. I’ve produced (but not yet finished trialling) a booklet for students to use and refer to in Science lessons. It covers a few areas identified by students and colleagues as causing problems. Each page includes an explanation, worked examples, hints and tips, possible applications and practice exercises. I’m making it available here in this untested state for comments, suggestions and improvements; click on the image for the pdf.

To Come (Hopefully)

  1. Corrected version if (when?) you find problems with it, with included pages for write-on answers/notes
  2. Markscheme/answer booklet
  3. Accompanying A4 display pages with extracts
  4. Additional pages if sufficient (polite) demand

I’d really love some feedback on this, everyone – please comment with improvements and suggestions.

Integrating Science

I know the title sounds like some dreadful policy statement, or yet another course which promises high scores for the league tables without any dumbing down, nudge nudge wink wink. But it’s not. Instead, it’s a simple activity you could do with any science class. It would work well during Science Week, and I think the results might be worthy of a display. Even if it started as a joke on Twitter:

Why not start with your preferred version of this, and see what kids can suggest about the real links between science topics? This would be an interesting review activity towards the end of KS3, for example. Electron shells are both physics and chemistry, as are proton numbers – but can students write in the overlapping regions how it works? What about the chemistry of aerobic respiration (or is that physics because of the energy change)? Geology can be considered as what happens when physics (convection, fluid dynamics, expansion/contraction etc) meets chemistry (minerals, rock composition, acids). I’m imagining large circles drawn on a demo desk, and students adding post-it notes with their ideas in the appropriate gaps.

I like the idea of having students spot and explain the links between what are so often seen as completely different regions of the subject. I used this with my year 13 students recently, when we discussed how a melting ionic compound is breaking both chemical and physical bonds. Making these connections between subjects help to improve both understanding and recall. I’d love to hear how other students – and teachers – integrate the varied science topics into a Venn diagram in their very own way. Links in the comments, perhaps?

(I should add a thank you to @PookyH for her description of how to embed a ‘live’ tweet’.)

And I’d like to apologise to regular readers for the long pause between posts; I’m in the middle of several new projects, one of which is just getting off the ground. Check out for more information.

Demonstrations (#aseconf 2/3)

I managed to make it to the 2012 ASE Conference for just one day, the Saturday. My plan is to blog it in three chunks for the sessions I attended, in order. We’ll see how it goes. These will be edited versions of my Evernote summaries of the sessions and my commentary (in italics), although I’ll link to other resources I’ve since found that I think are relevant. Apologies if I mix up any names or misquote any of the people involved. I really enjoyed the sessions and the social side, but will cover this in more detail in the third post.

Presented by David Sang (among many other roles, editor of the Practical Physics site) and Alom Shaha (teacher, film producer etc)

In an electricity and magnetism public lecture, Oersted noticed compass movement during public demo – real public science.

I’m now thinking about reenacting this for the students, perhaps as a plenary after more ‘interactive’ work.

  • Use webcam to make it visible.
  • Mark north/south without magnet, make sure kids see change, note alteration.
  • Show range of effect, compare strength of wire and earth magnetic fields.
  • Equal strength when at 45degrees.

A demo has many possible purposes, but should always – like everything we do in a lab or classroom – lead to a better understanding of some of the ideas. It can be used as a stimulus for them to do investigative work. While explaining the demo, we can give differentiated possibilities. A useful mantra should be ‘hands-on, minds-on’.

For any demonstration, there are some things to consider:

  1. Visibility/clarity
  2. Preparation and practice, e.g. clamps and where you stand
  3. Prepare for failure, be ready with explanations
  4. Ensure kids focus on important aspects – what are we changing, what is happening
  5. Involve students in practical (holding equipment, readings, recording data)
  6. Contextualise (history, application, consequences, possibilities for the future)
  7. Predict, (explain), observe, explain. (I already used this myself but now I’ve added a prompt poster to my wall)
  8. Q&A are a standard way to check ‘takeaway’ understanding (why not ask students to ask their classmates a question?)
  9. Extend (possibly via Q&A)
  10. Give correct explanation, try not to give misconceptions (although this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use appropriate levels of model)
  11. Good opportunity to repeat the demo, perhaps with more involvement or explanation from students (giving commentary?)
  12. Summarise (giving a summary as part of a L2L split plenary would work well)
  13. Safety – nobody died.

For this one in particular (link between magnetism and electricity) can show same principle with generators, generator handles, cheap wind up torches. A wind up torch vs cell/switch/bulb would nicely demonstrate different energy changes (classic misconception is that closing switch is KE) in energy circus.

Why not do demos?

  • Safety (rarely for most – see guidance e.g. CLEAPPS)
  • Unreliable
  • Technician time/materials cost
  • Prefer to ‘learn by doing’? (NB see evidence for/against this)

All worth considering, but use them as prompts to improve quality rather than going straight for a video.

Why do as class practical?

  • Small groups can be fun/hands on
  • Practical skills
  • Know/appreciate problems eg ‘messy data’
  • Make (and justify) plans
  • Experience non daytoday phenomena

Best reason to do demo (from Alom)

We can promote ‘awe and wonder’ by showing them something they could not have observed (or perhaps appreciated in isolation) – this is worthwhile. (eg induction with lenz law in copper tube – sleight of hand helps!). This will often involve an unexpected result, perhaps because we set up the situation with an unnoticed or unappreciated ‘tweak’ or ‘cheat’.

Alom: Nobody goes into science because the science was like ‘magic’ – but because they wanted to figure out magic. Emotional engagement is a good thing, and kids link enjoyment to both teacher and subject. This improves performance, recruitment and retention.

My plan is to turn the choices – reasons to use a demonstration vs a class practical – into a checklist or flowchart for a later blog post. If you’ve any particular ideas, I’d love to incorporate them so why not comment below?

Further reading

Learning Toolkit

After a Twitter discussion I realised I’d never followed up my Learning Journey blogpost with the printable material I was working on, so here it is. These form the basis of a display (with examples, ideally using students’ own work) of a ‘toolkit’ which can help pupils to be more independant. It links well to L2L concepts (see this page from @teachitso for a quick justification), for obvious reasons, and you might like to use individual pages or the whole thing. If you’re in a school which allows mobile devices, why not add a QR code to those which could do with more explanation?

My vague hope is that these ideas will turn into a separate website at some point in the future – a version of this blog, aimed at students to use independantly of teachers. Thoughts, comments, suggestions?

I’ll update this post at some point in the future, but I should really get on with (a)work and (b)ASE conference write-ups. Let me know if any of this is useful.

learningtoolkit as pdf.