Science - Electricity unplugged

16th September 2011 at 01:00
A lesson without equipment was not the shock it promised to be

Teaching at an international school can be a challenging experience. But discovering your predecessor apparently taught science without any equipment induces real panic.

At a well-established international school in Scandinavia recently, I was horrified to find the "lab" had no lamps, no leads, no power packs, no ammeters, no switches and, at first glance, no hope. And I was about to embark on a lesson on electricity - the most dreaded subject, even for physicists, because the start of any practical lesson is so often beset by cries of "It won't work, Sir" from every corner of the room.

Instead, I was forced to use role-play to explain how electricity works - and it was surprisingly effective. It made me realise that equipment can come between pupils and their learning and that by eliminating, or reducing the building of circuits, you not only avoid chaos but enhance deeper understanding.

Pupil confusion over words such as "charge", "current" and even "electricity" (whatever that is) is common. But by simply talking about the movement of electrons - even lower down the school in Year 7 - it is much easier for pupils to visualise a flow of particles carrying energy than it is for them to comprehend vague expressions like "flow of charge".

Simply cut out lots of 1 x 5cm pieces of paper and arrange pupils around the room in a large circle. The teacher is on one side, with all the pieces of paper, and a lit Bunsen is on the other, with plenty of mats surrounding it.

The pupils walk slowly round the room, collecting a piece of paper from the teacher, setting light to the paper at the Bunsen, and placing the flaming paper on the mats. They then return to the teacher to get more paper. Ask them in groups to try to identify the elements in the circuit (perhaps by sketching). The teacher is the cell (use correct terminology here), they are electrons, the Bunsen is a lamp and the paper is energy.

Then use a technique called "draw the sentence" to assess their understanding. Subsequent lessons can then focus on current in series and parallel circuits (using the role-play), voltage, power and resistance - making sure each concept is clear before moving on to the next.

Pretty much every electrical phenomenon right up to Year 13 can be dealt with using this simple analogy. At sixth-form you should emphasise that it is a useful model but not reality, extending more able physicists by explaining the actual nature of electron potential energy in an electric field.

Examples of PowerPoints to use with this approach are available on the TES Resources website.

Simon Porter is a science teacher at the British School in Warsaw

What else?

Simon Porter says "draw" the following sentences. You are allowed a maximum of one word per drawing.

- Electricity is the flow of electrons. l Electrons are tiny particles that orbit an atom. l The electrons flow from the negative side of a cell (battery) to the positive side. l The electrons carry energy from the cell to the lamp. l The electrons then return to the cell to get more energy. l The electrons are not used by the lamp. l Current measures the flow of electrons. l Science is the most important subject.

Check out Simon Porter's resource on using role-play to explain the flow of electricity at


Wherever you see the number icon on these pages, visit to link to resources.

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