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…



Core Physics revision sites handout

This second post in a day will be even briefer than the last. After complaints from my Year 10 students that they couldn’t possibly be expected to find good websites by themselves – yes, I know – I produced a quick handout listing a few URLs and comments for them. I was going to put it on the VLE, but realised it would be much more likely to be used if they had instant access, so added QR codes and gave them printed copies. Of course they were very appreciative for me giving up my break this morning to make this for them.

Stop laughing.

Anyway, here it is as a pdf. It’s got two identical pages because that was the fastest way to print off A5 versions, although it does mean there’s a bit of wasted space.

revision sites pic

Now, as this has quite possibly saved you a few minutes, I have a request to make. Use two of those minutes to add to my portfolio. Simply follow this link and tick a few boxes, no names necessary, so I can show how what I do helps people outside my immediate school. Many thanks.

T&L Ideas 1

In context; I’ve joined the Teaching and Learning group at my new/current school and have been asked to coordinate sharing ideas with the whole school. The original idea was as a blog, but we simplified this to a weekly email. The request was along the lines of “because you know about this blogging thing.” My mission, because I appear to have accepted it, is to share shortcuts and time-savers to make life easier, not to add to workload. I’m aiming to share three links on a common theme each week, and am hoping to send the email out each Monday morning. I’ll be increasing the ‘value-for-money’ by adding them to my own blog too, although some will be duplicated from previous posts. My hope is that by waiting a week I’ll be able to include feedback from my ‘in-school’ colleagues to improve what I’m sharing with virtual ones. So far nothing, but I live in hope. I’d like it to go the other way too, so if any blog readers have suggestions of secret weapons or tricks to share, resources to point to or interesting approaches, please let me know at the usual address.  is where David Didau – our speaker from the start of term – shares his thoughts and ideas. Well worth a read with resources to steal. He’s also active on twitter (and if you don’t use the platform to swap teaching ideas, you should at least consider it).
Dr Mark Evans is currently setting up a free school in Norfolk, but don’t hold that against him. is a nice introduction to the idea of evidence-based education and will lead you to all kinds of fun stuff (Marzano, Hattie etc). The EEF Toolkit is a good quick reference to effective strategies but does not take account of staff time on an individual level. Still worth a look.
A similar name, but a different approach; an assistant head who tweets and blogs as @teachertoolkit. His 5min lesson plan can be a good place to develop what we can all take for granted, without it taking up entire weekends. Many teachers have produced their own versions to suit different approaches and subjects, but see what works for you.
We’re hoping this will be a weekly email, with resources and links from all over the place. All feedback and suggestions appreciated, and if you don’t like it, (1)send your own and (2)blame (SMT name redacted to protect the innocent).

Summer Holiday

I have to admit, I feel a little guilty. With all the usual end-of-term rush, I hadn’t managed to post in several weeks. Now it’s the summer, I’ve taken a few days to try not to do anything even vaguely related to teaching. So no blog posts. And tomorrow, I’m off on holiday so won’t be posting again for a week!

I’m not dead. I’m resting.

I do have several ideas for more regular posting after I get back, hopefully continuing once term starts again in September. In the meantime, last night’s TV inspired the following musical link. Tim Minchin’s comedy is great (I also like Bill Hicks for what it’s worth) although you may possibly find it offensive. Oh well.

Happy holidays and remember, more feedback will mean more chance I take the time to write more posts…

Bad Surveys make Bad ‘Research’

NB The title of this has altered but the permalink remains unchanged so people can still find it.

Printable: fishy research as pdf

Adverts lie. This is not a big surprise. A hint of the truth, of course, makes an advert much more believable. Advertising is about what they don’t say, much more than what is explicitly stated. Now, as much as I can accept this (being allegedly grown up and everything – adult, if not mature) it doesn’t mean I should accept it when they use or abuse science to help them mislead the audience.

A recent post on Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science site – to be exact, a brief entry on the delicious miniblog which appears to demonstrate his uncensored stream of consciousness – caught my attention. Although I’m not on Mumsnet myself I had heard about the site and Ben’s comment suggested that some dubious research had used the brand to get attention. The weblink didn’t work, possibly because once Ben was on to them the company decided to pull the press release, but I found another one [EDIT, which they also pulled – copy now found here, and if you go here you’ll find the text of it in case they get it removed it again]. The ‘research’ was into the taste and health benefits of an Omega-3 (fish-oil) supplement for kids. A little more work found two posts on Mumsnet, one asking for participants and another listing their feedback. Comparing the data (I’m assuming that the feedback posts comprise the total of the data collected) to the press release, a few things caught my eye.

  1. The participants had to already use omega-3 supplements or have tried them in the past; this means any ‘evidence’ collected in the second (health effects) stage is even more worthless than the average survey.
  2. Because earlier survey answers are visible, surely this means that people are more likely to follow previous trends? I remembered reading about experiments showing an extreme case of this by Solomon Asch, a social psychologist in the 1950s .
  3. The comments in the feedback did not, on first glance, seem to be as positive as the press release had suggested.

A little time spent tallying responses confirmed this last impression. The press release claims that 93% of parents had said that the product didn’t taste of fish. Of the 42 responses I found, seven said it did taste at least slightly fishy while 35 said it didn’t. The only way I can get that to be 93% is by taking that as 7 Yes answers out of 100 responses – even though the question was about the kid and/or parent. This is either sloppy or deliberately deceptive.

They ask the question very carefully – they ask if it tastes of fish. By quoting this (slightly mangled) statistic, they can ignore the large number who said it tasted bad (the word ‘vile’ came up more than once). This seems to me to be a good example of a carefully selected proxy outcome (explained nicely in the fantastic How To Read Health News article, found on the NHS Behind The Headlines site).

They also claim that over half of the parents would recommend the product to a friend, while I counted only 14 Yes answers of the 42 who responded – exactly a third.

Well, what else should a science teacher and long term reader of BadScienceBlogs dowhen faced with something like this? Produce a lesson activity and post it on his blog, of course! The printable activity (downloadable as fishy research pdf) has several possible approaches.

The ideal in some ways would be to give your students the tally sheets and weblinks, asking them to total up the answers to each question. There’s a page you can give them access to with the links they need. Alternatively, there’s a page with an extract from the press release, a sample answer and my totals. I’ve only gone through this once myself, so please let me know if my counting is off. I am confident that although I may be off by one or two either way there’s no way the data says what they claim in the press release. The only other possiblity, of course, is that they collected data directly as well as through the forum. Of course that must be it. Silly of me to suspect anything else.

Either way, the last page is a (write-on) worksheet, with questions which will lead them through the ideas I have covered here and a few more. Students will have to compare the data to the press release and comment on possible reasons for the differences. They are invited to consider the phrasing of the questions (it specifies a fishy taste rather than a bad taste) and speculate on how the process could have been rather more rigorous. Finally, they will be asked to consider a brief summary of the evidence for fish oil for ‘average’ children and suggest how the popular ‘brain boosting’ hypothesis could be best tested.

As always, I’d be very grateful for any feedback on the activity. In this case I’d be especially grateful if you can let me know if my arithmetic isn’t what it should be! I know I haven’t especially focused on the evidence, or lack thereof, for the brainboosting effects of fish oil. I figured I’d leave that to the professionals. I’m a teacher – I’ll stick with teaching. If you like this activity, you might like to check out my previous post (and associated scheme plus resources) on homeopathy. I will leave you with one last quote.

“Advertising is about making whole lies out of half truths.”


“But What About My Social Life?”

This was the response from a student when I pointed out that with their first exam eight days away, they should probably be staying in revising most nights between now and then. They seemed amazed that I should expect them to be putting their exam preparation first, even though some of them are close to grade boundaries or are hoping to use their grade to access sixth form or college courses. These are clearly kids who would have failed the marshmallow test when younger.

You’ve guessed it – this is another revision tips post. The title of the lesson I gave was ‘Revision vs Facebook’ and focussed on web resources that students could use to revise effectively. I’ve shown them the flash card programs before (see Revising Online) but wanted to give them some alternatives. The two concepts we looked at were producing summaries using frameworks and making mind or concept maps.


A blank piece of paper is intimidating. I’ve found that many students take time getting started with revision, not just because they have a tendancy to procrastinate but because they don’t know where to start. For a while now I’ve told them to finish one revision session by writing a heading on a new piece of paper for the concepts they need to do next. This sheet then goes into their revision guide, sticking out at the right page. When they start the next session all they need to do is find the book and they can start without thinking. This is based on the idea of making a ‘to do list’ while wearing a ‘boss hat’ so you can get things done when less focussed. (Not as stupid as it sounds – see this Lifehacker post for more info).

Producing a framework for revision can be done in seconds, but it may be worth putting a little more time into it. A list of topic headings give a framework, for example. These might be added to a Cornell layout, as I’ve posted about before (and some of my students tell me really helps). Copying and pasting a few past paper questions on the same topic can set a clear objective: students can list bullet points that summarise the main ideas behind their answers. With luck they’ll notice common themes in the questions or, if they are sufficiently self-critical, will pick up on common weaknesses in their answers.

In a recent lesson I divided a page into three and asked students to write five key ideas under each of three headings for enzymes. This took seconds so I’m not going to produce a printable version, but it looked like this:

 Over several lessons I refined this idea and produced different versions of a ‘leaflet’. I suspected my younger students would get a lot more out of the concept of making a proper leaflet, so produced one they could fold and add to their folders. This gave a more structured approach than simply three headings. If you print this double-sided (flip on short side!) it will fold nicely to give three different views.

printable: energy leaflet as pdf

For my GCSE class, I produced and had copied for them a double sided leaflet with headings, a total of six columns with prompts that will hopefully flag up the most important bits. (Which in a way makes me sad – does it seem to anyone else that being able to fit the key ideas for an exam that makes up a quarter of a GCSE on two sides of A4 is a little worrying?) I’ve made an electronic copy available on our school VLE so they can print extra copies, or make their own versions with extra copies of a single column (for those who use the tried and tested method of cover, write, check, repeat). And I’ve suggested that if they filled in one of the columns several times, using different resources online (Bitesize and Skoool were the two I pointed them at), they would probably get the facts straight in their heads. I even suggested they could fill it in while listening to the relevant podcasts from the Naked Scientists, also available on Bitesize.

printable: AQA B2 leaflet as pdf

Only one student noticed that, once more, I was strongly suggesting making something rather than simply reading. Or is it too optimistic to hope that they all believe and understand this now and take it for granted that reading isn’t revision?

Mind Maps

Am I the only person who sees the constant disagreement about how mind/concept maps ‘should’ be drawn as something similar to a religious war? There seem to be hundreds of sites, all with their instructions for the one, ‘true’ way. I’m a bit more relaxed and give my students just a few basic rules:

  • all lines show links between ideas
  • the lines mean links – consequnces, subgroups or similar – so don’t be afraid to draw them as arrows
  • pretty colours are pointless unless they signify something

This does mean that sometimes a concept map turns into something like a flowchart, or circles are drawn around all examples of something to make it vaguely venn diagram-esque. If that’s a word. Which it probably isn’t.

Sorry, it’s late. Anyway. There are tons of places, online and off, to look for information on mind mapping. This may need to be a whole separate post at some point [scribbles in a notebook] but for now there are two websites I was going to flag up. I’m sure both have advantages and disadvantages, and that there are may others that you may feel do the job better (comments section below, please feel free to correct me), but for now these are two I’d like to direct you towards.

I’d never heard of MindMeister but I like it. At least partly I like it because there’s content there already, which my students have already been directed to, for their coming exams. A guy who tutors science and stuff has put at least these two, and probably many more. AQA B2 and AQA P2 are nice summaries students could use to consider how well they currently understand the topic, and perhaps even extend it. Naturally making a mind map is always better than using one, but a starting point is still useful. If nothing else these show what can be done with the software. 

The other site is called and I’m still playing with it. I know I like it, but I haven’t quite figured out all the bits and pieces yet. I like that I can share what I’ve produced and I see this as a really nice way to work collaboratively. My students (although they don’t know it yet) will soon have a homework to contribute to such a mind map. One I’m fairly happy with is linked from the thumbnail below.

Teaching Evolution 6/5: Skeletons in the Family Tree

 I’ve decided to add a quick post which fits in nicely with the set of five I made the other week. Basically, a bunch of interesting things showed up in science news online, more or less simultaneously, and I thought it was worth adding a new post instead of amending an old one.

One bit of news is that there is some evidence to suggest that humans bred with Neanderthals. This was reported in New Scientist, and the accompanying editorial was pretty good too. An interesting aspect is that Neanderthal DNA shows up in all human populations not descended from ancestral Africans. This nicely illustrates the problems with the whole concept of a species as a distinct, separate group of individuals. Things are a little more complicated than that.

The SciencePunk website puts the human family tree in perspective by linking to some work estimating just how closely related we are to other modern species. Describing chimpanzees, gorillas and so on as cousins is a helpful shorthand, but this article makes the relationship a little more specific. It links to the Tree of Life website, which although not recently updated shows the wider genetic connections between diverse species. The page on us (Homo, naturally) includes links both popular and academic.

Not so much our family tree (in an immediate sense), but still something that students may be interested in. On Not Exactly Rocket Science, Ed Yong’s excellent science interpretation blog, a paper was referenced which gives more evidence that feathers were first used for warmth, not flying. A study has shown that the bones were probably not strong enough to support powered flight. Please note, I’ve carefully stated this as ‘used for’ not ‘evolved for’ as that is just asking for trouble with determinism…

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.

Teaching Evolution 2/5 – Mutations

Nobody understands mistakes like kids. Unless, of course, you mean the teachers who have to correct them. I find my students get very interested in the idea of mutation and starting from the media version – X-Men for example – we work towards a more accurate description, of a mistake that is made during the copying of genes in cell division. I find it useful to mention mutations in body cells and their causes (chemical triggers such as tar and benzene, viruses like HPV and nuclear radiation). With an articulate, curious class, this can turn into a lesson of its own!

With a new individual that has an altered gene compared to the parents, there are two possibilities. If in ‘non-coding’ or junk DNA, there will be absolutely no effect. (Variations in these sections are used for DNA fingerprinting, which students can learn about by doing a Nova Interactive.) If it is in ‘coding’ DNA, those sections that actually do something, then there are several possible outcomes:

  • it makes exactly the same protein – no observable change
  • it makes a similar protein that does effectively the same job
  • it makes a protein which does the job slightly better or worse
  • it doesn’t make a protein at all (and the organism can’t survive)

Most mutations that cause any effect at all, cause a negative effect. The example – explained better in the powerpoint linked below – is that if we change a random letter on a page of a book, it is unlikely to make the book better. These mutations are random, not deliberate. The chances of a mutation improving the functioning of a protein or cell is small, to say the least.

In my activity – Evolution In Other Words as ppt – students start with a word and ‘mutate’ it by changing one letter at a time. I’m playing with ways of making this more random, perhaps by using Scrabble tiles. The idea is that students will see not only that mutation can happen, but that after a few ‘generations’ it is hard to see relationships, both between ‘ancestor’ and ‘descendant’ words, and between ‘cousins’ – words which diverged by changing a different letter. Depending on how much of the powerpoint is used, students can also be prepared for concepts such as selection and speciation.

What’s interesting to me is that many surviving mutations will appear to be survival-neutral – they don’t make an organism better or worse at surviving. I often give the contrasting examples of fur colour and eye colour. Different colours of fur are clearly relevant for survival in the wild, but eye colour, as long as it is not linked to eyesight, shouldn’t matter. This is a nice way to introduce the concept that sometimes the advantages of a characteristic are difficult to observe, subtle or non-existent.