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.