June 10, 2023

Values, Knowledge and Love Lessons in Physics

Last summer, I was delighted with the GCSE results my students achieved; they and I had worked hard all year and their results brought joy to us all. I thought this achievement was a consequence of well modelled explanations, regular spaced retrieval of key knowledge and loads of practice; all surrounded by a culture of relational teaching and high expectations. It may therefore be surprising that despite the improved GCSE results that allowed students access to A-level physics courses, these same students have struggled to meet the challenge of A-level. In fact, I feel a little deflated that my relentless focus on embedding knowledge in KS4 appears to have cost the students a proper understanding of the discipline of physics. Had I delivered a knowledge rich approach but failed to reveal the true concepts required for A-level study and beyond?  

When making judgments about pedagogical approaches, we are often forced to ask ourselves about the purpose of education. In my classroom, I’m much more interested in the question: what is the purpose of physics education for my particular class? This throws a complete internal conflict for me as a time constrained educator. Do I focus on getting my students the best possible grades and drill the key knowledge found in the specification and exam papers? Do I focus on the physics and make the fundamental concepts of electricity, energy, waves, particles and forces be the thread for my teaching? Do I deliberately show students at every stage that physics is actually really hard and that there is a hidden beauty and interconnectedness waiting to be found if only you keep jumping in at the deep end? Whilst most of us try to do all of these things, the pressure of GCSE results leads our classrooms to focus on straightforward knowledge retrieval and often far too little time is spent doing the hard stuff that makes physics such a powerful tool to understand the world.

There is sometimes an unnecessary educational debate in science education, creating a conflict between those using cognitive science alone and those that take ideas from the supposedly ‘outdated’ traditions of social constructivist science education research. Just as Assessment for Learning became a relatively simple way to improve attainment, increasingly so are many of the widely cited ideas from cognitive science. It would be easy to conclude that if you present knowledge through stories and well-rehearsed explanations (Willingham, 2010), don’t present information in a way that creates cognitive overload (Sweller, Ayres & Kalyuga, 2011) and use spaced and regular retrieval (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel, 2014) you have a simple all-purpose toolkit for improving results. Whilst I try to implement these strategies as much as I can, I also recognise that they need to be implemented carefully to avoid a diminished experience of physics. Consequently, some schools could be in danger of focusing too heavily on the outcome or using specifications and examinations to decide key knowledge. In our efforts to put subject and knowledge at the centre of what we do, we forget the very heart of our subject, and the physics curriculum becomes:

  • What do students need to know? (Key knowledge)
  • What do students need to be able to do? (Procedures and tasks using that knowledge)

There is a possibility that repeatedly setting tasks asking students to recall key knowledge from chunked explanations is capping their long-term potential. Departments risk oversimplifying the curriculum to statements of knowledge if curriculum conversations about the purpose of studying physics, the content itself and what exactly constitutes a good question in physics are not shared. Short-term needs should not replace the long-term goals of our learners. 

The often-perpetrated viewpoint that social constructivist researchers are an enemy to the new teacher-found wisdom of cognitive science researchers is foolish. We should want to learn from those that have thought so hard about students’ ideas in a subject specific manner. Furthermore, most social constructivist researchers are not fantasists that believe that if children play with science equipment that they will magically construct a version of the canonical understanding of science in their head.  Ultimately, the majority of science education researchers interpret social constructivism as learning that is guided by a knowledgeable teacher through thoughtful commentary and questioning (Hohenstein & Manning, 2010). Both cognitive science and science education research have something valuable to add to the discussion on improving physics education.

Science education research is regularly criticised when the research investigates a contextual intervention designed to test features of students’ affective domain; such as their attitudes towards science or motivation to learn. I vehemently argue that the purpose of education is not only to get an exam grade and that some of the fluffy affective stuff is also important, potentially improving attainment too.  Where science education research really comes into its own is the specific research into misconceptions (Taber, 2014) and the best questions to properly test students’ understanding (Whitehouse, 2013). The research into misconceptions is important to inform the best explanations and also create the very best questions to test understanding.

A good question is key to improving the understanding of physics in the classroom by supporting students to link their knowledge to the bigger picture and make connections between content. There are many fabulous places to look for questions and explanations including the Best Evidence Science Teaching Project (BEST, 2020). However, the one book that has changed my practice the most is Conceptual Physics by Paul Hewitt (2009). Hewitt is a famous physics educator in the US, and his approach focuses on building conceptual understanding before computation. His explanations of forces, fluid dynamics and thermodynamics are the most beautiful and clear I have ever read. Arguably Hewitt is the only SLOP we ever need, and he splits his questions up into sections as follows:

  • Knowledge (Factual Recall)
  • Comprehension – More factual recall based on the explanations given.
  • Hands on application – explain a small demonstration, perfect to discuss scientific ideas
  • Equation familiarisation (Plug and Chug)
  • Mathematical application – questions where you use the mathematical laws guide explanations.
  • Analysis – think and rank. These ranking exercises slow down the students thinking and get them to comprehend the meaning of the physics
  • Synthesis – Applying the key knowledge and the mathematical understanding to different situations.
  • Evaluation – questions asking you to think about the nature of the knowledge, where it can be applied, and the links to other knowledge that can be justified.

(Hewitt, 2009)

The new emphasis on knowledge means many run the risk of falling into a simple divide that declarative knowledge is solely recall and procedural knowledge is merely ‘plug and chug’. Many teachers are sharing resources, with all the best intentions, that are encouraging this simplification. The conceptual part of what makes physics great is being lost and we convince ourselves that our approach is correct because in the context of GCSE attainment our results prove it. Yes, knowing and doing stuff is important, but it is not all that students of physics should do!

The way that I am working is to reflect more deeply on my core values as a physics teacher and more about properly understanding, explaining and testing the physics content itself as is also crucial for success at A-level.  Knowledge alone is not enough, but does have a vital place. Functional teaching should never replace aspirational teaching driven by a love of physics. Challenge is good and complexity is interesting and should not be diminished. It was the challenge of physics, presented through brilliant questions, that made us fall in love with physics in the first place.

As a little extra, here are three of my favourite questions about Newton’s 3rd Law from Conceptual Physics by Paul Hewitt. Each chapter ends with so many joyful questions like these:

  • How can a fully dressed person at rest in the middle of a pond on perfectly frictionless ice get to shore?
  • Bronco dives from a hovering helicopter and finds his momentum increasing. Does this violate the law of conservation of momentum?
  • An ice sail craft is stalled on a frozen lake on a windless day. The skipper sets up a fan as shown [directed at the sail]. If all the created wind bounces backwards from the sail, will the craft be set in motion? If so, in what direction?


Best Evidence Science Teaching Project: https://www.stem.org.uk/best-evidence-science-teaching

Hohenstein, J. & Manning, A. (2010) Learning in Science. In Osborne, J. & Dillon, J. (Eds.), Good practice in science teaching: what research has to say (pp. 68-81) England: Open University Press.

Hewitt, P. (2009) Conceptual Physics. 12th Ed.  Pearson

Sweller, J., Ayres, P. & Kalyuga, S. (2011) Cognitive Load Theory, Springer

Taber, K. S. (2014) Student Thinking and Learning in Science: Perspectives on the Nature and Development of Learners’ Ideas. New York: Routledge.

Whitehouse, M. (2013) Embedding Assessment to Improve Learning. School Science Review, 95 (351).

Willingham, D. (2010) Why Don’t Student’s Like School? Jossey-Bass

Featured photo by Stas Knop from Pexels

Dan is currently Assistant Director of Sixth Form and a Physics Teacher at a large state comprehensive school in Essex. He champions physics teaching whilst also being responsible for the extra-curricular experience of students in the Sixth Form. He has an MEd in attitudes toward physics from the University of Cambrige and was a school based physics coach for the IoP before his current role.

1 Comment

  • Keith June 27, 2020

    Values, Knowledge, Love, Lessons, Physics AND Wisdom – all in one place!

    Absolutely agree that different perspectives can be complementary, given that teaching and learning are complex processes.

    Also, absolutely correct that the (genuine) constructivist position is not one of unguided discovery learning, but balancing challenge and support by offering optimal (not minimal) guidance (e.g., https://science-education-research.com/publications/chapters/constructivism-as-educational-theory/).

    In the UK the person who did most to get constructivist teaching on the agenda was probably the late Prof. Ros Driver. In her book, ‘The pupil as scientist?’ she explained her thinking had been informed by watching learners in a laboratory school fail to rediscover scientific principles through unstructured discovery.

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