Guest Post blog by Gareth Sturdy, physics teacher and co-ordinator of The Physics Factory
Gareth Sturdy has been a teacher since graduating from the University of Liverpool in 1993, and currently splits his time between teaching physics at the East London Science School, coordinating the Physics Factory and worrying about the fortunes of Arsenal FC.
Don’t be misled by her stern portraits: Marie Curie, who died 80 years ago this summer, approached her work with wonder and imagination. “A scientist in his laboratory,” she wrote “is not a mere technician; he is also a child confronting natural phenomena that impress him as though they were fairytales.”
Summer is a particularly sensitive time for those interested in the young and science. As A-level and GCSE results are published, will we again be enchanted with the fairytale of continuous grade improvement?
Actually this year could be a different story for the first time in ages. Like Cinderella in reverse, students who thought they were going to the freshers’ ball are now worried they may not be. The Department of Education (DofE) has pushed for a tougher academic climate in schools, more rigorous assessment and an end to the re-sit culture. The first effects of this tectonic shift are about to be felt. Many students believe it’s a shift of the goalposts – what if last year’s A grade marks are only worth a B now? Yet universities welcome the attempt to close the gap between the feel-good fairy story of results headlines, and the more sober reality of what students actually know when they turn up.
Teachers are also worried because if things don’t go to plan in the results, jobs can be on the line. Especially in physics: a hard and often abstract subject which not all students take to, yet all must do at GCSE. Physics teachers are often among those having a post-results chat with the head. For even the best teachers, success can be difficult in such a context.
So physics teachers everywhere are about to pour over spreadsheets and slice up data. The analysis will directly feed into next year’s lesson plans, inserting new techniques for upping the performance of different groups of students. Any and every attempt to lift grades will be embraced. All very important, but this process of targeted intervention has been going on for years. If it was really so successful at driving improvement, why has the DofE had to drastically reset the benchmarks overnight? And even if it improves the results of those taking physics, it doesn’t address the fact that not enough students are choosing physics in the first place.
Call to action
Decline in take-up of physics among sixth-formers was being reported as early as 2006 by the Royal Society. The Today programme took it seriously enough to broadcast a special edition from the august institution. John Humphrys grasped the shocking implications for UK science and engineering, and spoke for everyone when he asked what was to be done.
Former physicist Jim Whittell was listening and took Humphrys’ question as a call to arms. The result was The Physics Factory which has just launched in London after flourishing in Birmingham. A visionary solution resting on a few simple premises that have been largely overlooked in all the talk of data and technique, it would have immediately seized the attention of the likes of Marie Curie. It should do the same among today’s equivalents.
At the Physics Factory, subject knowledge is the key. The best physics results come from teachers who truly love their subject. That level of immersion only really happens at the grassroots, when teachers get together to talk physics with each other and those at the cutting edge of research, or to share expertise, working together on common problems or ambitious and madcap experiments. It’s there that authentic inspiration takes root, and goes on to become infectious in the classroom. The most reliable way to improve results is to put the fizz back into physics among its teachers and their students. If you’re a physics teacher, all you have to do to connect is click ‘get involved’ on Physics Factory website or join the Physics Factory group on LinkedIn.
The launch party was held in July in the heart of London’s East End at the East London Science School in Bromley-by-Bow. Staff from Nature turned out in force to support the event, with editors from the prestigious physical sciences titles inspiring teachers from all over London with talk of quantum cakes, entropy and massive neutrino machines. Another bastion of the physics world, the National Physical Laboratory, also threw its weight behind the project, intriguing the audience by measuring heart rate from the colour of a person’s face and other novel metrological concepts. The evening finished with the firing of a cannon: made from bathroom plumbing pipes by a physics teacher, it hurled potatoes a good 60 feet across the River Lea. Parties don’t come more physics than that. Next term we will be running similar and even more ambitious events on a regular basis, all provided – like our CPD courses – free to anyone teaching physics in London. In this way, we hope to bring inspiration back.
Wonder and thrill
The invitation to academia is to catch the vision of inspiring students by sparking up their teachers with the best in physics. Many of the people getting our students through their exams are not trained physicists; they aren’t as familiar with the mind-blowing kind of stuff that caused us to be physicists and engineers in the first place, but imagine what will happen when they are! And among those who are, the technical pursuit of criteria and targets risks putting out the flame of fun and enthusiasm with a demoralising snuff. It will be teachers embracing their subject, together, supported by the wider scientific community, which will keep it burning. Curie’s dictum was never more important: let’s balance out a technical approach to our subject with the wonder and thrill we all knew as children. At the Physics Factory at least, that’s no fairy-tale.