Energy – Names, Stores, and All That


If you’ve found this blog then you probably know that the way Energy is taught has been under discussion, and that the wording required by the Physics GCSEs has been changed for first teach 2016.

If you want help with this change then your starting point should be the IoP because as far as I can tell this new wording is their baby, and they do provide plenty of online as well as face to face support:

There are also teachers starting to blog their ideas about how to convey the change to your students, one that caught my attention recently was by Neil Atkin:

Teaching Energy – The ‘New’ Approach with Stores and Pathways

I’d also suggest that you sign up to because there are plenty of people on there who will help.

The aim of this blog is, however, not to help, but rather to question the whole point of the change. I know that from a regulatory point of view it is a battle that has been lost, at least at GCSE level, but that doesn’t mean that we all have to line up and cheer.

So why do I object, is it just because I’m a curmudgeon for whom change is difficult? Well true as that might be, I hope it isn’t the only reason. I’ll start with one concern, and I can expand out to others if anyone is interested.

Before I start I guess I should nail my colours to the mast. I think that the idea that kids construct mental models of the world (Piaget) which they add to, or (very rarely) replace, in response to science lessons has a lot of value in explaining kids’ understanding of science.

Prior to first reading about the changes on TalkPhysics I hadn’t really given the way we teach energy much thought; we introduce the names in Year 8 and use them to frame the ideas that Energy is a Physics topic with Physics language that differs from everyday language and that Energy must be conserved. We do some questions with regard to efficiency, talk about perpetual motion machines, do one efficiency experiment and that’s it, we don’t think about it again until we can start to quantify Energy at the end of Year Nine, start of Year Ten. OK so we lament the rather silly questions where they have to write out the transformations. At best those questions are trivial, at worst they encourage the kids to think that the amount of energy dissipated via sound is as significant as that via heat.

Having named the types we go on to Thermal Physics, and it is here that we have to engage in a fight to break their preconceived models – in particular that Thermal Energy is a thing. We all know the “Explain Convection” “Heat Rises, Sir”  problem. If you were able to ask any nineteenth century Physicist I’m sure they’d tell you just how seductive the “Caloric” heat as a fluid model is. I suspect that naïve versions of Caloric are just the models which many of today’s kids construct for themselves, try as we might to oppose it.

I actually think that the names help with this. If heat is Thermal Energy, but Thermal Energy can just as easily be Kinetic Energy or Electrical Energy, then a mental model of heat as a fluid becomes just that little less tenable.

It is here, I think, that the differences between my impression of kids’ thinking and the “Stores and Pathways” (hereafter S&P) advocates’ impressions begin to strongly diverge. One of the arguments made against the names approach (hereafter Names) is that it leads to the kids believing that each of the named energies is a different physical thing. I’m not convinced that ours give it that much thought, and isn’t that something that can be minimised through the teacher’s emphasis? Of course, if the S&P advocates are right then Names hasn’t helped because if Thermal Energy is a separate thing then it can have a separate physical manifestation (i.e. be a fluid) from the other energies in a mental model of the world. But if their model is to be consistent doesn’t it require a whole set of pathways creating to explain how one physical manifestation of an energy type transforms itself into another?

If you have seen those pictures of vats of yellow fluid that accompany this topic then you have probably seen where I am going with this.

Energy is abstract. The S&P advocates continually emphasise the idea, which they give Feynman’s authority to, that it is just an accounting tool. Kids don’t like abstract ideas, you don’t have to be a died in the wool Piagetian to know that they shy away from them. What is the IoP sanctioned response to this when teaching abstract ideas like Energy or Electricity? Offer an analogous model. Anyone who has ever been to IoP training has probably passed a rope loop hand to hand to represent electrons in a circuit. And what is the model in this case? Vats of yellow liquid.

So the S&P advocates oppose Names in part because it gives a reality to the “accounting tool” that is energy, and then back this up with pictures of energy as a yellow liquid.  How can they not see that they are reinforcing the very problems that everyone already has – getting away from the fluid model of heat and getting away from the idea that energy is a thing? They even provide pathways from one vat to another so if you were worried that your yellow fluid has to have different properties when it is Thermal rather than say Kinetic you have a mechanism for change.

And don’t get me started on the thought that those pictures surely have to give the kids – that there will come a point when the stores are filled – and what happens then? When I asked this on TalkPhysics the implication was that I was a bit dim for not realising that the tanks drawn in the pictures were not real, well possibly, but I’m not 13 with a dislike of Physics.






ASE Conference Talk Details

This is a sub-page containing my notes on each of the talks I attended at the 2016 ASE conference, the main page is here

CASE to Lets Think.

I know it’s not science, in that it is unevidenced, but I’ve always like Piaget’s ideas about kids constructing internal models and a concrete/abstract transition at some point after adolescence, because they seem to me to have good explanatory power for what I see in my Physics classroom. Therefore CASE (Cognitive Acceleration in Science Education) which was a program based on Piaget’s ideas and which reported big gains not only in science but for other subjects is really appealing.

CASE seems to have rather fallen out of fashion, so it is good to know that it continues through “Lets Think”. However, this presentation was a little disappointing because they couldn’t tell us the results of their trials because they were in the process of being written up for publication.

Have to wait for EEF to report I suppose.

Practical Work in Science.

This was the Keynote for the day from Sir John Holman, he reported on the progress of a project to survey practical work in science lessons across 11 countries.

Amongst the questions asked by the project was “Why do practical work at all?” answers included:

  • To teach scientific enquiry
  • To improve understanding of theory
  • To teach specific skills
  • To motivate and engage
  • To teach generalisable skills
  • Plus to encourage communication, teamwork and perseverance

Sir John thought it was interesting that it was generally true that teachers rated “motivation” as a driver more highly than official documents, while teachers rate the teaching of specific skills via practicals less highly than officials.

He also noted that many teachers feel that scientific enquiry has been reduced to following a recipe.

Of the specifics discussed the Dutch model was particularly interesting; 80 hours per person must be spent on research projects by Dutch 17 year olds. As a consequence open ended research is undertaken throughout science teaching in Dutch Secondary Schools in order to prepare students for their “profielwerkstuk”.

An International Perspective from the National STEM Learning Centre.

This was a bit of fun, we got to launch stuff across the room!

It was interesting to discover that the National STEM centre is teaching Physics from an engineering perspective in conjunction with Rolls Royce.

A snippet that I wrote down was “is it enquiry or inquiry based learning?” “enquiry means to ask a question, inquiry means a formal investigation”.

Science Teaching: What Works?.

Hmm, I made a mistake in going to this one, it was the “group work is good” CPD that you get a lot of in school. The room was packed and most seemed to enjoy it so it was just me being a grump, long day.

Teaching Using Real Weather Data.

The wife being a weather forecaster I had to go to this one didn’t I?

It turns out that the agricultural research station at Rothamsted has a lot of data that they would like to make available to schools, and they were keen to talk to teachers about how to go about this.

I hope we were useful in our answers. If you are a Biology teacher in need of real data on external effects (weather, fertiliser, pests, etc) on plant productivity get in touch with them, they will be very keen to help.

Language of Mathematics in Science.

Richard Needham started off with a very interesting exercise; he distributed data set into PC & B contexts and asked each table to graph their data. Only after sharing the very different graphs that resulted did he reveal that we all had the same data, just different contexts.

You have to wonder, if science teachers can’t agree on the look of a graph, how science and mathematics teachers can possibly agree on anything. Hopefully the “Language of Mathematics in Science” book will help when it arrives.

Physics Problem Solving: BPhO & Isaac Physics.

 Judging by the reaction to my tweets this talk by Robin Hughes was the most important that I attended.

I found out more about Isaac Physics than I had known – I didn’t realise how set up the website was for using in class and as HW. But the two things that had impact were two comments from Robin:

  • “When solving a Physics problem always draw a diagram (if there already is a diagram draw it bigger and better)!”
  • “If you want to involve kids in hard extra curricular Physics offer tea and cakes”

I have adopted both as gospel!

Frontier Science: The Mystery of Antimatter.

I loved this – well outside of my speciality, but pitched so I could follow the lecture – Professor Cristina Lazzeroni was infectious in her enthusiasm for the problem of the lack of antimatter.

And just as importantly I’ve enjoyed going back into school and talking about her lecture when teaching Particle Physics – it is so nice to be able to say “she said” – not something that often happens when describing particle physics.

Broadening the STEM offering at KS4 from AQA.

AQA wanted to talk about the development their STEM “Technical Awards”. It seemed crazy that the government had decreed that they could not have any overlap with the GCSE so designing them was incredibly hard.

Unfortunately for AQA there was no one in the room from a UK state school (two Jerseymen and an American!), which tells you how much take up there will be for their hard work.

How to Get Published.

 This talk was specific to the IOP’s “Physics Education”, but I went along because student research/publishing is a direction that I want to gently push my dept. I came away with a good check list of the steps that need to be taken before publication that I can share with the boys.

The Trials and Trails of Particle Physics.

This talk was given by David Cotton. Now before the talk I’d never met David, but it was clear from that we shared interests and he had been generous in sharing stuff with me. I was looking forward to it, and wasn’t disappointed!

His talk included a lot of reference to Becky Parker’s “Research in Schools” which is an interest of mine, and I learnt that I’d never been able to demo the photoelectric effect at school because my tube was UV-A and I needed UV-C. Just that was worth the airfare!

Using Models to Teach Electricity.

I’d intended to attend this talk out of interest since my first degree was electronic engineering and a lot of electricity teaching makes me unhappy. In the end I couldn’t justify occupying a seat just out of interest, because the session filled, and then just kept filling. So many worried looking teachers wanting to know how to approach electricity with their classes.

I have to wonder whether the worry the kids feel about electricity is something that they have picked up from their teachers.

Science Education/ResearchEd.

 This talk had a stellar cast: Charles Tracy, who leads a lot of what the IoP does on education, and Tom Bennett, government tsar and founder of the ResearchEd movement.

The ideas to be conveyed were that the IoP was developing an online tool to connect education research with the Physics classroom and the ResearchEd was holding its first Maths and Science specific conference in the summer.

The discussion that followed was interesting – I tried to hold my tongue and not be too forceful in my opinion that much published Education Research is very poor – I wasn’t successful!

Frontier Science: Is Man Just Another Animal?.

Can I admit to a bit of mancrush on Professor Steve Jones? When he’s on the radio I have to stop everything to listen. So whisper it quietly (I am a Physicist afterall) this was the talk I was most looking forward to.

Wow – he covered so much ground, I tried to write all the topic headings down on my phone as he ranged far and wide across evolution – I could barely keep up and I was only writing one or two words per topic!

@Bio_Joe tweeted about how SJ was a lesson to us all in the economy of his slides. I couldn’t agree more – the minimal powerpoint definitely did not distract from the talk. Great way to end.


ASE Conference 2016


ASE Conference 2016

So in 2015 I finally joined the Association for Science Education. I’d been taking part in their Monday evening #ASEChat tweep-ups for a long time so it seemed only right to see what else they had to offer. Not long after joining Jersey’s Education Department announced that they’d partially fund some teachers from Jersey to attend the ASE Conference. This seemed too good an opportunity to miss, especially when school generously allowed me to attend all four days – it turns out our Headmaster used to be a regular attendee.

The Conference being in Birmingham I have to say the first big surprise was just what a transformation Birmingham New Street Train Station has undergone – my memories of it from my time as a student are not good, but now it is all open and airy – fab.

Day One, Wednesday 6th was International Day. Not entirely sure of the point; Wednesday just seemed to be have fewer sessions on (so each was full), with some of those that were on having an international theme.

I went to:

Day Two, both the Thursday and the Friday were tough, because there was so much on that every choice to go and see something meant that there was something else I didn’t see. Choosing was made doubly hard by the fact that sessions could be anything from an hour to two and a half hours causing all sorts of overlaps, and several ended as the next was due to start in a different building, although it turned out that no one minded you wandering in late. There were also lots of repeated, or at least similar talks, on different days so you could sometimes deal with clashes by attending an alternative.

I went to:

Day 3. One of the problems with multiday conferences away from home is what to do in the evening. On Thursday I went to watch the Star Wars film. Loved the 3D, the plot less so! On Friday evening it was the ASE members dinner which I’d signed up for on the conference booking form. On arrival my name wasn’t on the list, but then nor, apparently, were a lot of other people’s so they didn’t seem to care! I was told that this was the first time that ASE dinner had been a casual affair, previous years it was black tie – which was lucky because my dinner suit was in Jersey. I ended up chatting to a couple of Dutch guys who worked in Primary. They couldn’t believe they’d driven all the way from Holland to Birmingham only to end up spending the evening drinking dutch lager at UK hotel prices. I’m not sure the fact that they found the idea of senior ASE people wearing medals of office funny went down very well.

Anyway the day itself was Physics through and through, I went to:

I then got collared to attend an IOP focus group on whether there was a value in them developing their own “Advanced Physics Teacher” qualification. I’d intended to follow lunch with “IOP: Using Models to Teach Electricity” but as the session got fuller and fuller, and harder and harder to hear because there was another IOP workshop in the other half of the lab, I retreated to the back and went back to chatting to David Cotton about Cern@School.

I spent the rest of the afternoon in the Exhibition Tent.

Top Picks:

  • The National Physical Laboratory has put together some simulation software (a bit like PHET but more interactive), and even better, they sent me away loaded down with posters.
  • And CIE informed us that they were due to making a decision on whether or not to change their iGCSEs to a 1-9 grading system.

Day 4, Saturday. After Friday being packed with trainee teachers, Saturday was pretty empty and had a winding down feel to it. Not helped by the fact that with the students not yet back in full force, and there being few academics in on a normal Saturday, most of the food outlets on campus were closed. But Saturday also featured a talk by Prof. Steve Jones who I always admire when I hear him on the radio, so I was excited – clearly suffering from a bit of man crush!

I was late because I went to buy a jumper – Jersey doesn’t get that cold – but then I went to:

Then the train back down to London.

I’ve been asked several times since I got back what I thought of it, and my usual reply has been “It was entirely science and there was so much going on that you could always find something that interested you. It was very different to normal CPD which it is often general and can be pretty wearing if you realise early on that it doesn’t have much relevance. Definitely worth it.”

On a personal level it was great meet the IoP guys like @NewmanPhysics – David Cotton, who I had particularly gone to meet, and the ASE movers and shakers @ViciaScience and @NeedhamL56. In addition, I can now put a face to fellow Physicist @A_Weatherall, while the preeminent Science teaching tweeter @HRogerson, was pointed out to me from afar – I didn’t manage to get her autograph! I also said hello to several twitterers who like me were tweeting at the conference and came along to Linda’s in-person tweet-up – all of whom I now follow – @Bio_Joe, for one, clearly having forgotten, or forgiven me, for saying Biologists can’t draw graphs!

Looking back over the rather short list of what I went to it doesn’t seem that way, but at the time it felt like I was continually running to the next lecture and never really got the chance to talk to anyone. I made that comment to the following Monday’s #ASEChat which set several people off on talking about how to combat that, so maybe next year there’ll be creches for newbies, or just those on their own, so they can find someone like-minded to have a chat with.

Overall a great experience, lit up by the two Frontier Science lectures that I went to by  Professors Cristina Lazzeroni & Steve Jones.





AS Physics – Particles

Both my old (Beithaupt) and my new textbook (England etc) for AQA AS Physics seem to like to do particles in the opposite order from tradition. The trouble with this is you are talking about photons before you’ve explained where the idea comes from. I’m afraid I’m traditional and like to teach it from a historical point of view. To that end I follow this timeline:

Particles Early Timeline

When I get towards the photoelectric effect I follow the history as laid out by Klassen:


I illustrate the history with an apparatus diagram from Von Lenard’s Nobel Lecture:


And the graph that Millikan produced when trying to disprove it, from his Nobel Lecture:


And although not strictly in the A level, having introduced De Broglie, I like to go through the Bohr atom as well:

Hydrogen and Bohr



Pendulums Project

This is a project that we give to Year Nine across six hour long lessons – which in our case takes six weeks. It was inspired by reading about the dutch method of teaching science as recorded in the TIMSS International Video study. The Dutch seem to set assignments that require the students to pace themselves through long term assignments, and as our school was having a push on independent learning I thought I’d dip a toe in the water.

The project is mostly about experimental design and utilises the fact that we have enough datalogging kit for classes to be able to measure the period of a pendulum in more ways than just hand timing.

We’ve been doing this project for at least four years now. The boys don’t like it much – especially the top sets, because we refuse to help them and they are used to being able to get our help in setting experiments up, but I, and I hope my department, think it is a useful exercise. It certainly means that we do not have to bother covering pendulums again until Y13!


They are always surprised when they get an increase in time with swing size (pendulums only do SHM for angles of roughly 6 degrees or less) – our fault for the way we introduce pendulums in Y7 I suspect. They often get a tend when changing the bob mass because they do not take into account the fact that the change moves the centre of mass. They do not know what to do when there is no trend – again our fault, we always set experiments that have trends. And they always conclude that the computer readings were better, when actually the resulting trend from that experiment is a curve and not a straight line because of the mass of rod and probably the inertia of the pulley. Even when they notice that it gives a curve, they still conclude that that was the better experiment!

I’m always thinking that I ought to do another, but although I do have a sixth form project along similar lines, I’ve never yet thought of a topic which inspired me to do another for KS3 or 4.


Writing Up a Practical

I suspect this will be the most contentious piece I’ll write, but I’ll hide it in “Resources” and it’ll never be found!

I have particular views about write-ups, and I tend to be pretty uncompromising about them, on the perhaps tenuous basis that many years ago I have had a couple of papers published on experimental Physics.

In KS3 and Ks4 the idea of an “investigation” is rather silly – the kids do not know enough about Physics, or even the kit that a department possesses, to design and test anything but the most trivial hypotheses with uninteresting experiments. Why then are we routinely expecting them to include “hypothesis” and “evaluation” in their lab reports – especially if it is an experiment we gave them instructions for in the first place? I know you can answer “because the ISAs require it”, but they’re gone now – and really?  Once again the hypotheses are so trivial there is just no need to have been reinforcing the process through the previous however many years. You are teaching them that science is trivial. As for “evaluations”, what can they evaluate? You are encouraging them to write “I enjoyed it and I think we did it well”. Who cares!!??

And so these are our write up instructions that must be followed throughout KS3 & 4 if they want a decent effort grade :


and the glossary:


For the level our boys work at, and certainly with a parent’s help, I regard the “Method” portion as pretty self explanatory, and so requiring these instructions to be followed frees up our marking effort of comments and advise for direction at what I regard as the hard bits – drawing and interpreting the graphs.

Just as an aside:

In a recent inspection of the department it was suggested that our exercise books were a confused mix of write ups, notes and problems. I’m trialing these lab books from Rhino for all write ups with a Y10 group to see whether this helps. So far it is going very well and I suspect that next year we will be rolling lab books out across more of the department.

KS3 Grading/Marking Policy

From what I read about marking in UK schools suspect that this is of very little use to anyone else, we aren’t ofsteded so I’ve no idea what they’d think.

Our school sends home regular updates with a level (yes we still do levels) and an effort grade from 1(good) to 5(so poor it is very rarely given). Parents are often less concerned by the level than by the effort grade, and so we have to be prepared to justify it to them and to the SLT. With this, and the idea that kids only read their grade and not the comments, in mind (boys don’t tend to be competitive about the amount of work they put in!), we stole an idea from our Maths Department, which has since spread to other departments. The idea is that homeworks should only be graded on their effort (ie 1 to 5) and that it should be the ticks and crosses and comments that convey how the Physics went. It is a lot easier to judge effort than level on single piece of work. Then a mean of the grades received since the last report home can be the easily justified effort grade on the next report home. It also means that boys in lower ability groups do not have to consistently get low grades. It has worked remarkably well, marking is much easier and when, as is quite often the case, our grades that are sent home are questioned as harsh we have our justifications ready.

Of course if you are going to go in this direction you have to make sure that you have documentation explaining your expectations in place, and so the following document is on our VLE, for the boys, but mostly for the parents:


Imaging in Year 9

In Year Nine we have put several bits and pieces from across the KS3 and KS4 syllabus together into a topic that we called “Imaging”.

Imaging contains the obvious stuff like Pinhole Cameras, Lenses, the Eye, and the EM Spectrum, but also some less obvious stuff like False Colour Imaging.  False Colour Imaging is included because we have done quite a lot of work with the Faulkes Telescope Project where we obtain individual black and white images that need combining to give an RGB picture (there are some examples of our work on this site).

As with our Year 7 programme, textbook support for this work is a bit sketchy so we wrote some notes to support it:

Year 9 Imaging

And a worksheet for a lesson on False Colour Imaging based on Adobe Photoshop:



Year Seven Physics Textbook

Because we teach Physics as a separate subject from Y7 it is tough to find appropriate textbooks at KS3.

In Y8 we use a mixture of Johnson’s “Physics for You” and Philpott and Clifford’s “Physics 11-14”.

In Y9 we use “Physics for You”.

We’ve toyed with the idea of using Reynolds’s “Complete Cambridge Secondary 1”, but at the moment I can’t justify the cost.

All of which leaves us without a textbook for Y7 so we wrote our own as a PDF that the boys are then required to access through our VLE. Feel free to have a look and tell me what you think. (I’m not sure that every single exercise is our original work, so if you happen know where one came from, do let me know so that I can credit it – or remove it if it’s yours and you want me to!)

Y7 Physics