An open letter to my leaving students

As teachers we don’t usually get to mark ‘final’ exams. We only get to see the results of all those years of study as you do, on results day. This year is again different. I know what grades you are getting. But then so do you. We worked it out together, as a team, me and you.

It was unusual marking these, your final exams. You got so many tricky questions completely correct. I don’t mean just the short answer ones, but the explanation ones and the ones with complex calculations. It’s interesting seeing you do so well because I remember teaching you all that stuff but you soon won’t remember learning any of it. But it’ll all be there, in you, it’s become part of you now, your knowledge, cut off from me. The goal of any teacher is that the student surpasses the master. It’s my job to give you what you need to become more and to go on and do bigger and better things. 

Some of you leaving in year 13 I taught in my first year here in when you were tiny scruffy year 8s. Those of you leaving in year 11 were still in the junior school when I started at Fyling Hall. Does it seem like a long time ago to you, or did it all race by in the blink of an eye?

I’m resigned to the fact that you won’t remember much of my lessons, or indeed any lessons, or any part of school life, as the next years go by and it all fades away as you meet new people and have new experiences. You just won’t have cause to remember how far you’ve come and how much you’ve grown, human memory doesn’t work like that. On some level perhaps you’ll remember a feeling. All I can hope for now is that it’s a warm and welcome feeling.

Maybe, many decades from now, you’ll hear some music, or some other trigger, that will call up some long forgotten feeling from the distant past. Perhaps you’ll remember the fun we had and raise a glass to your old teacher, back here in the before time, who did try his best to give you what you needed. And I’ll still be here, long, long ago, raising a glass forward to you and all your dreams and futures and hopes and loves and joys.

To all of you and yours,

You were fantastic.

Wishing you Happy Times and Places,


A. Instone

Exciting stuff: our recent experiments in Physics

Here are photos of the kind of experiments I run in Physics for various classes from year 7 to A Level.

Interested in Interesting

“The unexamined life is not worth living” said the Greek philosopher Socrates. Self-reflection is important. Knowing who you are and what you like doing is important.

Our broadcast assembly had this theme to start of the new term. All of our six terms have names by the way. This, the 5th term of the year, is actually called Perseverance – a great message for us all, especially those in our exam classes, reminding them to keep going for this final push. (Co-incidentally that’s the same name as the new robot on Mars. Here’s another interesting thing: the first powered flight on another planet was the Ingenuity helicopter that flew for the first time this month on the surface of Mars. Attached to it was a piece of fabric from the wing of the Wright brother’s plane at Kitty Hawk, the first powered flight on Earth, from 1903.)

So where were we? Yes, interesting people do interesting things – and it doesn’t matter what they are. Everyone should be interested in something, however obscure or common, obvious or abstract it may be. So I wanted to run a survey to find out what we as a school are in fact interested in.

What do I mean by interests? I described them as the activities you’d engage in if you didn’t have to do anything else. The activities you’d do if you could choose, what you’d do if you just had the time. Part of the purpose of being at school is to do your best so that you can have more options, more choices about the future. 

Sooner or later this will all become vital for our students when they turn up for collage or job interviews. To get an interview means you’ve met the minimum requirements. From that point on it’s not about your qualifications or grades – everyone asked to interview has already proved that they’ve got those. Now they’ll have to prove who they really are: their personality, their perseverance, their ingenuity. Having hobbies and interests does just that – it lifts you up from the average.

I also asked all the teachers to do it too. Role models are important. 

But it’s not about being obscure or unique. It’s just about doing whatever it is to a level of detail, of expertise. So I didn’t want people to just say “football” or “the internet” and think they were done. I created a form that asked for more specifics, to be particular. I’ve attached my own examples so you can see what I meant. It should be that what they put in the last column is pretty obscure to a lay audience, as mine are.

I’m compiling the results now and I’ll let you know later what the findings are. We’re hoping to use any data from the survey to help inform forthcoming ideas for clubs and societies as well. 

My Masters Postgraduate Degree at Oxford: Making the Invisible Visible

I completed my Masters Degree at the University of Oxford in 2016. Part of the submission was to present a large sized poster for an exhibition of Postgraduate work as a summary of research carried out to that point in the process. Below is my poster.

My research was about exploring the use of diagrams in science to aid understanding of abstract concepts and processes. The three research questions I examined were:

In what ways could diagrams have learning advantages over text alone?
How can the use of diagram representations enhance comprehension and retention? 
How can students (and teachers) be better equipped and trained to make best use of visual media?

My ink drawings of Robin Hood’s Bay

I got my first Rotring Rapidograph technical drawing pen when I was 13. It was a revelation. It was also very expensive and a year later I got a second one with a nib size of 0.13mm, even smaller than my first 0.35mm.

The pens allowed for a precision and a super high contrast of stark black and white that was amazing. One of my favourite early drawings with them, as a 15 year old is a cutaway drawing of K9 from Doctor Who (see below).

This winter I got my pens out again. Sadly the thinnest one’s nib had seized up beyond my ability to clean it and I tracked down various other sizes until I had the set. Then, inspired by some of my favourite artists who worked in black ink I began a series of new drawings for various purposes: the graphic comic strips of Frank Bellamy, album covers of Klaus Voorman and the Art Nouveau of Aubrey Beardsley and Alphonse Mucha among others.

Below are my three latest pieces depicting themes around where I live in Robin Hood’s Bay.

View of Ravenscar, 2020
Robin Hood’s Bay, 2021
Robin Hood’s Bay, 2021
Doctor Who’s K9, 1985
My pens from 0.10mm to 2mm

Danger and Safety in the Lab

I remember my own first Physics and Chemistry lessons, aged 11, very clearly indeed. I loved that it was a whole new world of doing things, in a very particular way. With strange new equipment and beakers of weird dangerous liquids that changed colour, fizzed or burst into flames.

The main emotion I felt when I first became a teacher of Year 7 science was the weight of responsibility and honour to recreate that initial introduction for a whole new generation. I want them all, each and every year, to feel that same sense of wonder, anticipation, excitement and feelings of success as I did. 

I still have all my original exercise books of course. You know what? What we teach now is exactly the same. I run, as far as possible, the same introductory experiments, the same introduction to the the scientific method and the same explanation of risks and hazards and instructions on safety. (All except one of my favourite reactions, that of the ignition of ammonium dichromate which we’re not supposed to do anymore).

Some other subject teachers and some parents are surprised that in this age of health and safety where kids are no longer allowed to carry pen knives or use solvent based glues (quite rightly), we far more dangerous stuff in the lab than you think.

A major part of teaching science is about teaching the concept of risk and how to manage it. Rules are not there to spoil our fun as some believe, rules are there to keep us safe so we can do even more. The arrival of the rules around Covid-19 in our science lessons are a massive inconvenience of course. But having life and limb threatening dangers in our labs is not new and although annoying, frustrating and time-consuming, it’s all in a day’s work for us: we just have another set of safety procedures to add to our existing risk assessments and safety protocols.

I did not want the virus protection policies to limit or spoil our pupils’ science education experiences, especially for our Year 7 pupils. We’re implementing all the complex guidelines (from CLEAPSS, the support agency for science in schools, To do so we’re re-jigging our curriculum and lessons running order, equipment usage rotas, cleaning and sterilisation plans, to offer as much practical experimental hands-on work as possible. 

In short, you still have to tie your hair back and tuck your tie in, put on your safety specs and stand up straight, tucking your stool under the bench. You still have to light your bunsen burner and set it to the roaring blue flame of 700 degrees Celsius. Yes, there will be explosions. Yes, there will be high voltage sparks. Yes, there will be fizzing and colour changes, poisonous gasses and corrosive acids. Yes, there will be electron guns and lasers. Yes, there will be radiation, strange smells and odd coloured flames. There will be all these things because we’ve carefully planned and prepared to showcase all these terrifying dangers while keeping all of us safe.

My school’s Philosophical Society

It’s been quite a while since I last ran our philosophy club. Current global events have curtailed normal operations of our clubs and societies over the past year but this term I experimented with special weekend gatherings for the boarders called ‘Philosophy Nights’. 

The idea was to introduce the basic ideas of philosophy and the rules of engagement. I lead with the Socratic method in that I would question the students’ views, to prod and probe them into thinking deeper about their opinions on the big questions that face us. 

Philosophy is ‘the love of wisdom’ and deals with questions that don’t always have a direct or clear cut answer. It exposes our lazy thinking and assumptions, posing the question ‘why?’ rather than the ‘how?’ of science. 

We discussed, among other topics, the essence of the self – what makes us, us; what would happen if we found life beyond the Earth; is there a God; are there such things as ghosts; do we have free will; is war inevitable and is it sometimes right to break the law?

Having well-formed thought-through opinions that can be expressed clearly is a valuable thing to have. Perhaps one day soon we can once again open the doors of Fyling Hall’s Philosophical Society to more members and more questions.

Physics: the magic and the myths

When I meet someone for the first time, out there in the world beyond school and they ask what I do, I say ‘I’m a teacher’ and they say, ‘oh, that’s interesting, what do you teach?’ and I say, ‘kids’ and they give me a funny look so I say, ‘I teach creativity… through the medium of Physics’. Then I get a blank look so I spell it out, ‘I teach Physics.’. And that’s where the conversation ends as the person sees something over my shoulder or suddenly remembers they’ve left a knife in the fork drawer at home by mistake or they have to get home before one of their frayed laces snap. This is the outside world where Physics is regarded as ‘oh I found that too hard at school’ or ‘that was just too boring for me’ or ‘I never understood any of that’ and even (and I can almost not bring myself to type this) ‘It’s not for girls’ (yes, people still say that). This is the outside world where the numbers taking Physics at A Level have been in sharp decline for over a decade. This is the outside world where boys taking physics outnumber girls, on average 10 to 1 (I’ve seen some estimates closer to 20 to 1).

I made a poster for the lab that has 33 mini posters of successful women in physics. I wanted the girls who came into the lab to see a future pathway for themselves right there. I wanted them to walk into the room and think this is a subject for them and a career for them as much as anyone else. These women are not in the textbooks. I put the poster pack free online, you see it here: I’m delighted to hear from other physics teachers who have downloaded it and put it on their lab walls. It’s now in over 50 classrooms around the country.

Is Physics hard? That’s a hard one to answer. All A Levels require a massive level of independent study, dedication and practice. The gap between GCSE and A Level is wider than many let on (the gap between A Level and degree is by comparison, minuscule). Many students are not quite mature enough come September for this step up. It takes some a half term to realise and get their act together. 

What does being ‘hard’ or ‘difficult’ mean? If someone asked you to dig a hole with a spade, you could probably manage it. Would it be hard? It would depend on how much effort you put in and how long you stuck at it. This is a bit like what GCSEs are like, you get out what you put in. If you don’t work at it, it’s not particularly very hard but your results may not be of the highest grade. A Level Physics is like digging a deep trench. There are measurements, dimensions on how deep, how wide and how long it must be. The sides must be straight. You don’t get to choose what sort of hole it is this time. It has to be just that bit deeper than you’d naturally want to dig. It’s a bigger job that you thought. That’s true of all A Levels of course and that’s why anyone could say any of them are ‘hard’.

The final myth, that Physics is not interesting. Really? This is where the magic of my title comes in. Understanding how the Universe works, what its made from, where it comes from and where its going can be (as one of my students said recently) a magical mind-bend. Learning that we never actually touch anything (the force field of my hand repels the force field of the table), that particles (and universes) can be created out of nothing or that you age less the faster you go creates an interesting state of mind. Learning about these things also dispels the ignorance of more mundane magic. To know and understand how a mobile phone or computer actually works rather than regard it as a magical device is not only enlightening and liberating, it’s essential for a new generation to understand. We live in an advanced technological society where everything we do depends upon advance technology which so very few know anything about. To become one of those who can not only drive our civilisation forward but perhaps even save it, is something wonderful indeed.

If Physics differs from other subjects, if it differs from the other sciences it is that it is solely about problem solving. Students are amazed that the exam board give them a six page booklet with every formula on it. The reason is that it’s not a memory test. It’s about applying the skills to solve real world problems, and the world certainly has plenty of those.