Teaching is a highly complex undertaking, however, physics is especially so. Why?
Firstly: Our students arrive with many perfectly reasonable ideas that form their belief system of how physics works that are unfortunately wrong.
The Sun appears to rise and orbit the Earth. Fortunately, we are no longer likely to be burned at the stake for suggesting a different model
The Earth appears to be flat and the Flat Earthers present some interesting arguments explaining gravity
Heavy and light things don’t seem to fall at the same rate
Newton’s First Law: The motion of a body remains unchanged unless an unbalanced force acts on it seems to be broken by the experience that when I stop pedalling my bike comes to a halt. Logically then I need to continually exert force to keep moving. This thinking leads to students getting this question wrong
So the Laws we talk about don’t seem to work. We can verify them experimentally, but a belief system is often not shaken by hard evidence and our starting point is student scepticism.
Secondly : If this wasn’t bad enough everyday language throws another spanner into the works there are many examples but here are three common ones
- Power stations make electricity – What is electricity and how can you make it? Do they mean an electrical current or a potential difference?
- Heat rises – What is heat? A measure of the thermal energy of a body or how hot it is – its temperature as these mean different things. What actually is rising?
- Weightwatchers? – Do you really mean Masswatchers? Send me £10 and I will guarantee I can tellyou how to reduce your weight instantly!! Go into space or another planet. Now mass is a different matter – Have a haircut.
- Orbiting astronauts are weightless. No, they are not, they still have a gravitational force exerted on them by the Earth’s gravitational field. However, if they stood on some scales the reading would be zero so how do you get your head around that?
Thirdly: We are stereotyped and have a pretty uncool reputation.
Google Scientist Images and you get plenty of diversity and some cool looking people. Students can relate to these people. Although there is the mad scientist cartoon that our children are fed from an early age
Google Physicist and what do we get ? Google cartoon Physicist and it is even worse!
About 5% of the images are of women and some of these are stock photos of someone wearing a white coat whilst writing something unintelligible on the board. We are battling against an image that it is an old white males subject. Unconcious bias and many other factors we need to consider all perpetuate the idea for many students girls and underrepresented minorities that physics is “Not for people like me.
Forthly: Physics is often taught terribly by people who think they understand it. There is a huge shortage of physics specialist teachers globally. Primary teachers are wonderful in so many ways, but on answering questions to see what misconceptions people have, around 50% of the ones I tested think that gravity has something to do with magnetism and the Earths rotation. Primary teachers are messiahs to young kids they speak the truth. Physics teachers at secondary level, who regularly poll as the most unpopular teachers in the school, have the job of convincing hormonally charged teens that their ideas are wrong!
Fifthly: As we are in the minority in schools lots of other teachers constantly ask us questions and so we spend a lot of our time training others and very little expanding our own knowledge.
Sixthly: Students can often pass physics exams whilst understanding very little physics so sometimes by us teaching them well they do not perform much better than those taught badly.
What can we do? Stick together! We are setting up a series of Physics Hubs in Wales (to look at specifically the new Welsh Curriculum ) and in the South West of England although you can tune in remotely if you are in other areas. These are just for us to work together to improve teaching and learning in physics. Non-specialists and NQT ECTs are welcome as well. Contact me through the contact form for more information