In my opinion, one of the biggest barriers in physics education is the way which it is perceived. Alongside maths, I have never heard so many parents tell me at parents’ evening that they weren’t good at Physics at school as it was so hard! The mathematician Bobby Seagull is undertaking a doctorate at the University of Oxford about the anxiety and phobia of Maths, and I don’t think we’re too far away from seeing something similar for Physics. It’s a common perception that Physics is difficult, and this is what links to the title – It’s not rocket science? Well, yes, physics is, but having this phrase to describe an easy task isn’t exactly helpful!
So, what can we do about this? How long have maths teachers been trying to change the perception of maths and not fully succeeded? It’s not easy, but you can create a culture of students succeeding in Physics, and these are just a few ideas for consideration.
Arguably the most important factor in all of this is you as the Physics teacher. Students often see us as a level above them intellectually. We are the person in the room with the degree, however, we need to break down these barriers. You cannot make the students feel intellectually inferior. I have seen on some occasions teachers boast about their own intelligence, their IQ and the university which they went to. All of these factors are factors which we can be proud of but think about the long term effect on those students. Would a student see this as impressive? Maybe. Would they see this as attainable? Not always.
Mistakes are key. We all make mistakes, so why not embrace them? Students need to feel they are able to make mistakes and these are not the end of the world. Teachers make mistakes in the classroom, and students LOVE spotting and correcting these, so embrace this further. Every now and again make a deliberate mistake, see how carefully students have been listening. Let them feel as if they are correcting you, it builds their confidence and makes them feel like they can achieve.
Activities for finding mistakes also work well for both checking understanding, but also in building confidence. If these are carefully planned, they will involve wins for every student. Plan these so that there is more than one way to correct these, this also increases the chances of students being able to demonstrate their knowledge. This is so important at both the start and the end of a lesson. You often hear finish on a high, but if you also start on a high the mindset of the students are much more positive, leading to a more positive lesson. A successful lesson needs a good start. One of the greatest phrases to centre your teaching around is ‘success leads to motivation and not the other way around’. This is especially important in the lower attaining spectrum of pupils. (apologies for the chemistry-based example however the lockdown has severely limited the books I have access too!).
Physics in the real world
We can also try to show students what physics is in the real world, beyond the lab, beyond the equations. We discovered the Faraday Challenge by the Institute of Engineering two years ago, these involve a representative from the Institute of Engineering coming into your school and running a practical physics/engineering competition for both your students and those from visiting schools. These challenges link Physics to the real world by allowing students in year eight to apply knowledge of physics. The first year we took part was to design and build a prototype of a device which would help the James Webb Space Telescope, and this year for Airbus. When students can see how these circuits that they sometimes see in isolation in physics, how the knowledge of forces and how the understanding of energy can be applied to the ‘real world’ it does make a massive difference.
So, in summary, what I’m trying to say is make it OK for students to feel that they may make a mistake, but make them learn from it. Let them see how Physics can be applied, make those links to their possible futures and how it is influencing their lives today, allow physics to be more than a textbook. But most important, don’t put an intellectual barrier between you and them, you have a lot of power in that room as the adult, the professional. You may be the most intelligent on paper, but teaching is more than just a piece of paper, so break down those barriers. As Uncle Ben said, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’.