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Equation-centric physics teaching – why I’m leaving it behind.

elements of learning

“Physics is boring.”, “Physics is hard.”, “Physics is just remembering all the equations.” Comments I have heard all too often from students. I’ve been thinking about why many students have this perception of physics, whether it’s justified, and how we might be able to move away from it.

With the increased requirement for students to memorise equations, and the large percentage of marks in GCSE papers devoted to their recall and use (well over 30% in 2019 AQA GCSE Physics papers), it’s no surprise that teachers are tempted to focus on equations. I’ve certainly been guilty of this. In the 2019 AQA Physics papers a student scoring full marks on all the calculation questions, while leaving the rest of the paper blank, would have achieved a Grade 5 – what further justification of the importance of equations is required, you might ask? I’m certainly not advocating forgetting about equations, or…

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Reflections from a positive start to term – a positive feedback loop

As a trainee teacher with a light timetable I became used to the process of reflecting after a lesson. Unpicking *why* a particular lesson went badly went some way to avoid the same thing from happening again. Did the students become behaviourally disruptive because the task was too hard? Too easy? Could I have scaffolded or modelled that task more carefully?

As a trainee I also found time to reflect on things that went well, in an attempt to replicate the positive as often as possible. However, as I became more experienced time has naturally became more squeezed. I’ve had to spend more time *doing* things and had less time to think/reflect about how things have been going.

This blog is an attempt to help me to pause and reflect *why* things have gone well this week and what I can do to keep this up for both myself and my mentee. My reflections are below:

  1. Honeymoon period. Rules haven’t been tested yet.
  2. This is my third year at the school. Students know me. They know that I know what’s up. This is powerful; I’m not a new face & I’m trusted around the school. Most students might have heard of me & heard other students talk about my lessons. This proves that I *can* teach, *will* teach and trust is already built before a new student enters my classroom. This immediately makes it easier for me to enforce routines and establish expectations. Once routines and expectations have been set; that’s half the battle won.
  3. I’m well rested after the summer. Being well rested means that I’m positive, enthusiastic and have the energy to show this to my classes. Because I’m positive & enthusiastic this makes my students feel more positive & enthusiastic. Because they’re more positive, they enjoy the process of learning more & this makes me happy. I’m now happy & show this to the class. Because I’m happy this makes the class more happy. See where I’m going with this? It’s a positive feedback loop & me and the class are feeding off each other’s positivity. What perhaps I can learn from this is that should a “negative” feedback loop occur within the class then I can halt this slide with an injection of energy of positivity. Perhaps.

The idea of feedback loops then got me reflecting on well…reflections and the point of them. As I wrote in my previous blog post, I’m a mentor now & in the position of encouraging my mentee to reflect as routinely as possible.

Most readers are probably familiar with Kolb’s learning cycle or something similar. I’m a physicist though so I’m robustly sticking with the idea of a feedback loop (which is where I believe the concept of the learning cycle was first borrowed – from electrical engineering).

The above image shows one of the simplest feedback loops; the thermostat. A thermostat works by firstly detecting the temperature of a given room. Is the room too cold? If so, then a signal is sent via wire and this is used to close a switch thereby turning a source of heat on. The temperature of the room then increases until it reaches a pre-determined set-point at which point the thermostat opens the switch connected to the heater, therefore removing the heat source.

The thermostat is continuously *learning* from the surrounding environment and making changes to keep the temperature of the room at an optimal level.

This is, in essence how I feel effective teaching should work. Let’s say I pitch the level of the lesson too high & without sufficient scaffolding for the students to get to this high level. This means that the room is too *hot*. We are the thermostat; we learn from our surrounding environment (the lesson that is pitched too high) and to remove the “heat” from the classroom we either pitch the lesson at a lower level or, more ideally, apply some scaffolding to allow the students to reach the high level.

In this way, through trial and error, we can achieve the optimum “temperature”* in the classroom and I will be encouraging both myself and my mentee to reflect as much as possible on lessons this coming year. Judging by the first few days, I’m hoping it will be a good one!

*there is no such thing as optimum temperature in the classroom. It is always too hot or too cold and, mysteriously, sometimes both too hot *and* too cold simultaneously.

Engage your CORE; advice for trainee teachers/NQTs

Recently I’ve read a few posts on twitter giving advice to new trainee teachers/PGCE students & been quite frustrated about the quality of the posts. I’m sorry but generic advice that says “learn the names of people you work with” and “bring your own coffee mug” is not particularly useful. This could apply to any job, and is by no means unique to teaching.

First, the disclaimer: I have just finished my NQT year so am far from the most experienced of teachers. I am mostly writing this as an exercise for myself as I’m mentoring a new teacher this coming academic year and want to make sure I do as solid a job as possible. Fingers crossed. 🤞

I know how you teacher types love acronyms so here’s my own. Are you a trainee teacher/NQT? Then engage your CORE:

C – Consequences

O – Observations

R – Routines/Reflections

E – Expectations

C – Consequences

As a new teacher you’re going to get used to students not meeting your expectations. These expectations might be common to your school (i.e. showing up to the lesson on time) or might be your own (for me,  this could be to show your working during a calculation). 

What I mean by “consequences” is that if a child does not meet your expectation, whatever it is, then there needs to be a consequence of some sort for the student. Without a consequence, there is nothing to dissuade the child from repeating the same mistake. This consequence doesn’t necessarily need to be a detention or something particularly negative for the student but could be any number of things. As Tom Bennett said recently on twitter it could be any of:

1. Sanctions

2. Rewards

3. Reminders

4. Small group nurture work

5. Re-instruction

6. Time out

7. Restorative conversation

8. Neutral feedback

For me, let’s say a student is doing a calculation-based task and has insisted on putting numbers in their calculator but did not show their working on paper (FYI – this is SUPER COMMON!). The consequence for this student would be a gentle “please show your working on paper, if you got this wrong and didn’t show working unfortunately you wouldn’t get any marks”. This isn’t particularly negative, but shows the student that I have noticed what they are doing. I have noticed and this brief conversation was the consequence. If this pattern continued then perhaps there would be a larger consequence but by intervening early this was hopefully not necessary.

O – Observations

If you’re new to teaching then this is one of your most powerful tools. Please, please, PLEASE observe other teachers teach. When I first started teaching, I had no idea what a lesson actually looked like. I had little memory from school, and my most recent memory of education was in a lecture at university. 

And this was my first lesson: DO NOT LECTURE TO YOUNG STUDENTS. It does not work. My first few lessons were just me telling information to the class and these lessons were remarkably ineffective. Observing other teachers allowed me to pick apart what made their lessons tick. In this way it allowed me to see what other teachers routines were, what their expectations were and, importantly, what the type of tasks the teachers set to the students were (hint: they did not lecture students for a full hour!). 

Say you’re teaching a lesson in the first week of term; try to find a teacher who is teaching the same lesson and observe them delivering it. I guarantee that you will learn a lot! Even now, if I’m delivering a lesson that I have not taught before, I will observe other teachers deliver the very same lesson. I *always* learn something when I do. 

R – Routines/Reflections

Okay, I cheated a little here and came up with two “R”s for my acronym. But both are equally important. I have consistently tweaked my class routines over the past two years until I’ve been happy with them. These are the little things that help your lesson tick along and, if you’re not concentrating, could easily go unnoticed. 

My first routine for a class would be how the students enter the classroom. In other words, the “entrance routine”. Do the students enter the classroom as soon as they arrive? Or do they line up in an orderly fashion? In my trainee year, I viewed lining up as a waste of students’ time and got them to enter straight away. “They can get on with the do now immediately and waste no time”, I thought. This worked *okay* during my trainee year when I had a light timetable but I altered my thinking in my NQT year. 

I generally found that if I got students calmly lining up then they entered the classroom in a calmer fashion. The lining up process also gave me a vital minute to organise myself for the new lesson (powerpoint/books etc.) when I had a busier timetable. 

Other routines include the “transition routine” when you move from one segment of the class to another (for example, you’ve just had a think, pair, share…how do you get the class back to listening to you?) and the exit routine. This means, how you get the class to exit the classroom calmly at the end of a lesson (again, observing other teachers do this is SUPER useful). 

With regards to reflections, this simply means reflecting on a lesson after it has happened. Have you had a great lesson? Great! But why? Unpick why this has happened so that you can replicate it in the future.

Have you had an ineffective lesson? Sorry, it happens! But what happened during the course of that lesson? Were the students unsettled when they entered the class? Was the lesson pitched too high? Too low? What can I do in the future to make a similar lesson more effective?

By systematically reflecting on the effectiveness of lessons, you can coherently learn from each lesson and build towards a system that maximises the chances of having a successful lesson. 

E – Expectations

Okay, we’ve already discussed consequences and routines, but how do students *know* what your consequences and routines are? Simple! Re-iterate your expectations as frequently as possible to your class! Are they meeting your expectations? Brilliant! Praise them!

I’ll give you two examples:

1) Your routine is to get the class lining up calmly and in silence before a lesson, but they are not doing so.

Here, we can make the expectation clear to the class by saying something like “I’m not sure why we’re talking and aren’t lined up before my lesson. We *know* that when we arrive to my lesson, we do so in silence and line up in single file. Well done to those at the front who are following my instructions.” 

We have made the expectation clear and praised those who are meeting the expectation. If it’s near the beginning of the year then some students might not know that this is your expectation, but by repeating it numerous times it will be taken in by the students & be more likely to be met. 

2) A student is talking while you are giving an explanation to the class. 

“This is a warning for talking while I am talking, the expectation within this class is that you listen while I am talking. If you continue to talk then there will be consequence X”. 

Again, this is a minor (but common) issue but we have a) highlighted how the student is not meeting your expectation and b) highlighted the consequence if the student continues to not meet your expectation. In this way, it is as clear as possible what the student needs to do in order to meet your expectations.

Anyway, if you are a trainee/NQT teacher then I hope this was useful! If you are a more experienced teacher then I’d LOVE a suggestion/comment for what you’d change/like to add. 

An alternative to flashcards

A message that I have repeated to some of my students ad nauseam:

Making flashcards will not make you memorise the facts. You have to do something with them. You have to quiz yourself (or get someone else to quiz you) on the facts until they have been committed to memory. 

As we got closer to the exams I continued seeing students make flashcards, which were then sometimes never (or rarely) used again. I therefore decided to instead provide students with my own revision tool (shown and downloadable below). 

Here, I instructed the students to fold over the sheet shown. They can then either:

  1. Attempt to write down the correct equation from memory and check answers afterwards.
  2. Get a family member or friend to quiz them on the correct answers (and I’m a big fan of parental engagement with this process). 

Have you repeated this until everything has been committed to memory? Great! Now mix up the order to make it more challenging. 

This isn’t only applicable to recalling equations in physics, though. Recently, my department has re-written our curriculum with key-learning questions in mind (much like in Adam Boxer’s brilliant blog here: https://achemicalorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2018/03/02/fixing-key-stage-3-core-questions/)

One side of the sheet can be the question; the other can have the answers. In this way, students can make sure that their factual, declarative knowledge is on point. And they can make sure of this very easily. 

It’s understandable if a student loses marks on a complex multi-step calculation or an interpretation of a nuanced point in GCSE physics. There are some genuinely difficult questions with complex procedural or conditional knowledge required. In my opinion, however, it far less understandable if a student can’t recall a basic fact.

As I repeatedly tell my students:

You have to know the facts. You can have all of the skills in the world, but if you can’t remember the facts then you won’t have an opportunity to show off and use your skills.  

Delivering ramped worksheets

I’ve been getting a lot of love on twitter recently for my “ramped” worksheets; this will be a short post on how I deliver these resources to students.

Back in September 2017; I was a trainee teacher & had never stood in front of a class before. I had no idea of teaching pedagogy & while wide-eyed and bushy-tailed I didn’t quite know what to expect. What I did quickly learn, what that there was a lot that I needed to learn. And fast.

I arrived to teaching from a university background and my first half dozen lessons or so were delivered in a lecture-like way. It was what I was used to. There were no clear instructions of what students should be doing at any given time, and almost no independent work for the students to complete. I learnt very quickly that:

  1. Students cannot simply sit still and listen for an hour. (Hell, I can’t…I don’t know why I’d expect my students to). And if you try to make them do this as a trainee teacher then behavioural issues will quickly arise. Behavioural issues that I wasn’t yet competent at dealing with.
  2. Students do not learn by simply listening. I was shocked by how little students could recall at the end of a lesson.

Thankfully, this was the first thing that my brilliant mentor picked up on. Students need independent work. They need to concentrate on a body of work to solidify their strengths and to highlight weaknesses. There were a couple of worksheets already on our computer system (written by another teacher) with three levels of difficulty (basic, medium and hard). The first lesson I delivered one of these was far more successful than before.

Seeing the results of this and, after doing some wider research on deliberate practice, I was sold. I decided to make it a routine for all (well, most…) of my worksheets following this pattern at KS4. They were easy to deliver, and student outcomes were vastly improved.

My routine for delivering one of these tasks has developed as follows. This is loosely based around “I do, we do, you do” from Teach Like a Champion:

I do: Students copy the “core” notes in silence before a teacher explanation of the topic. I like students to have finished writing before I start the verbal explanation so I know that they are listening. Any students that finish the notes have a small “stretch” question on the board.

 The teacher then reviews the stretch and models how to answer some questions live on the board (for example in a calculation lesson I would be performing a calculation on the board while verbalising the thought processes). Following this, I will cold-call some students to check for understanding and I’m if happy that students are prepared for the worksheet then they’ll begin.

We do: Students start the worksheet at whatever difficulty (basic, medium and hard) they find appropriate. If a student mis-selects and tackles some questions that are, for example, too easy then I nudge them onto harder ones. Vice versa if the level selected is too hard & a student is struggling.

If the worksheet is written carefully then the basic questions can scaffold students onto the medium questions and the medium onto the hard. It is “ramped” in difficulty with scaffolding being removed as students progress through.

 I classify this as the “we do” section as I am circulating, live-marking and helping students when stuck. I also allow students to help each other during this time should they wish. At the end of this time (usually lasts for 20ish minutes) I’ll put answers on the board and students will self-mark any that I haven’t.

You do: This section is my plenary and is usually an exam question based on the topic of the lesson. I call this section “struggle time” and I verbalise to students that it’s supposed to be hard & it’s important to show resilience when tackling hard problems. This is in exam conditions and students again mark their own questions at the end of this time. I will flick over these exam questions at the end of my lesson & this is what I’ll use to gauge the success of the lesson.

I’ve now standardised most of my KS4 lessons to run like this; and students feel comfortable that they know what the format of a lesson with me will be like.

Hopefully this might help when delivering some of my resources; if you have any suggestions/comments then I’d love to hear about them.

New Blog!

Argh! New blog!

This will be a place for me to share thoughts on science pedagogy (particularly Physics…cos it’s the best science) and a convenient place for teachers to find my resources. Free resources, woo!

Science Doctor (aka @edmunds_dr on twitter).