Waiting for pupils to see the light

24th March 1995 at 00:00
Linda Elliott Tells How She Teaches.

Name: Linda Elliott School: Hitchin Girls School, Herts Post: Head of physics, acting head of sixth form

Landing on the moon's surface may have been one small step for Neil Armstrong, but it was a giant leap in the ambitions of schoolgirl Linda Elliott as she sat glued to the television at home.

"It was incredible. I decided then that I really wanted to be an astronaut, so I did A-level physics and then a degree in applied physics."

Things didn't quite go according to plan - she became a physics teacher instead - but her interest in space exploration has taken her on terrestrial travels to Russia and as a teacher representative to International Space Camp in America a kind of educational summer school.

Her enthusiasm has rubbed off on students at Hitchin Girls School where last year all 15 candidates passed A-level physics - 10 of them achieving grades A to C - and there is a thriving Space Club. The woman who eventually fulfilled Linda's ambition, cosmonaut Helen Sharman, has been a recent visitor.

"Obviously, I think physics is fantastically interesting," Linda says. "The wonderful thing about physics is that it's all around us. It deals with concrete concepts that have lots of applications and you can show them with simple pieces of machinery or equipment."

She believes that in physics, as in teaching, there are certain immutable laws that bring results and that control in the classroom is a question of being firm but flexible.

"I start off being strict, I establish discipline early. Once I have established the relationship then I relax.

"I have a plan in mind every time I go into the classroom but I will often improvise. If a pupil asks a question that's relevant I will often expand on it, go into the cupboard to fetch a piece of equipment and demonstrate it. The most important factor is to capture their interest. One way of doing that is to break up the lesson into different pieces - a bit of reading, a bit of writing, a demonstration, an experiment."

During her visit to Russia she was astonished by the ability of a group of 14-year-olds in an English-speaking school. "Theoretically they were brilliant. They share one textbook between three and there is little equipment, but they are years ahead of us in terms of what they are teaching. I asked them what they were doing and they said they were doing the ideal gas laws - which is a very, very theoretical subject area that we save until sixth form. And they were only 14!" Having taught mixed classes in FE colleges in Orpington and Letchworth before taking up her current post in 1984, she is convinced of the benefits of single-sex education for girls.

"In mixed classes, the boys tend to respond more while the girls sit quietly. With girls, confidence is a big problem - boys seem to have an innate confidence but girls need to be encouraged to try things. I think it's better for girls learning science to be in a single-sex school.

"You have to look at them as individuals. I have just as much enthusiasm for someone who is going to go on and read physics at university as I do for someone who struggles to see the point but finally gets there."

She recounts the tale of one girl who had difficulties getting to grips with scientific concepts but eventually, and literally, saw the light. "We were talking about the different qualities of light - about reflection, transparency, opaqueness. I said 'give me some examples of materials that are opaque' and this girl put her hand up and said 'I'm opaque'. She had grasped the concept and everyone just applauded.

"My days are full of interesting moments like that. Every class is different and has a different atmosphere. You can be teaching the same thing two days running and it can come out completely differently."

Linda Elliott was a regional winner in the 1994 TESASE Science Teacher of the Year award. Nominations can be put forward by pupils, colleagues, parents and schools. Details and application forms for the 1995 award from ASE, College Lane, Hatfield, Herts AL10 9AA. Enclose an A4 SAE.

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