Let the forces be with you

18th March 2005 at 00:00
Are you on thin ice when it comes to physics? Soon a set of CD-Roms will offer basic knowledge and class tips for non-specialist teachers of 11-14 science, writes Bob Kibble

Mass or weight? What is the difference and how do you explain it? Is energy transferred or transformed and does it matter how you teach it? What messages should you give about light bulbs connected in series and in parallel?

For trained physics teachers these questions are their professional home ground, but for many non-specialists faced with teaching such topics, they can lead them on to thin ice.

Three years ago the Institute of Physics, recognising that non-specialist teachers of physics needed support, initiated an ambitious project called Supporting Physics Teaching 11-14. The development work is now complete and a set of five CD-Roms, together with associated training, is about to be released.

The teams responsible for generating each CD-Rom comprised not only physics specialists but also those teaching other secondary science subjects and upper primary in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. This strategy of collaboration has resulted in a resource which presents physics teaching in a language that will resonate with non-specialists.

The CD-Roms cover forces, energy, electricity and magnetism, light and sound, and Earth and space. Each is presented in a three-tiered structure; the physics narrative, the learning challenges and the teaching approaches.

The narrative layer presents the essential physics content. If teachers need to learn the physics first, this is where they should start.

The pedagogical layer considers those messages from research and experience which reveal the problems learners have with particular ideas. This contains the teaching and learning challenges. Each conceptual hurdle is presented in a language of wrong trackright lines. The wrong track illustrates the most likely preconceptions learners will bring to the classroom. The right lines show where the teaching is destined to take them.

The final tier offers ideas for teaching approaches. These do not constitute a complete course covering every possible activity but a selected set of activities designed to reflect ways of tackling the teaching and learning challenges.

Each CD-Rom is designed to assist navigation along the narrative and between tiers. Any part of the resource may be downloaded and modified for use in a teaching scenario. The video clips of children talking are particularly helpful, showing just how problematic these topics are for learners.

A thread which runs through the whole set of materials is that of modelling. The skill of reducing a complex reality to a simple model, recognising its limitations and its benefits, is presented as a defining feature of physics thinking.

The SPT 11-14 project group has started a series of workshops to train the trainers. The idea is that local authority trainers, teacher education tutors and teachers with responsibility for continuing professional development will be the first group to meet the materials. They will be taught the philosophy underpinning the resources and given an overview of just what each CD-Rom contains. They will then consider how best to present the materials to teachers, and be able to select perhaps one or two CD-Rom areas at a time and incorporate the materials into their normal training programmes.

The CD-Roms can be purchased direct from the Institute of Physics. However, they are designed to be used in conjunction with an element of training and this is definitely to be encouraged.

Any student embarking on a first course in physics might find the narrative layer a good companion resource to use alongside their textbook or lecture notes. A chemistry, engineering or biology graduate in initial teacher education would find much in the set to steer their own practice. Even physics specialists might want to engage with the second and third tiers, picking up ideas for their own teaching.

This resource will not replace existing professional development provision, but will enhance it, and help illustrate the challenges and opportunities which define the landscape which is physics teaching.

Bob Kibble lectures in science education at the University of Edinburgh. He led the development team for SPT 11-14 on forcesSPT 11-14, http:teachingphysics.iop.org

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