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?

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. 

Why didn’t they tell us that at school?

Depending on what era you grew up in, there are plenty of things that you’d claim not to have been taught in school. A lot of us still carry some resentment or frustration that things would be better if we’d only been tough such-and-such instead of chemical catalysts, river deltas or trigonometry. 

The truth is we were taught some of the greatest lessons at school although we didn’t realise it at the time: how to cope with annoying people, how to get out of doing something, how to turn up on time and how to learn. These and other skills were not ‘in the curriculum’ of subjects so we tend to call them ‘extra-curricular’. Some are generic, some are woven throughout school ethos and some are deliberately focused on. 

At Fyling Hall School we have a suite of extra-curricular systems. We have our Tutor Groups, Assemblies, visiting experts, Clubs and Societies and of course the Learning for Life programme which is an extra lesson per week about a range of topics linked to the government’s PSHE, Personal, Social, Health and Economic directive.

This year, a lot of our programme has been and will be disrupted and we’re working on different ways of doing things. That main question remains: ‘what would we wish they’d have taught us at school?’, and ‘what extra skills and knowledge do kids of today need to flourish in their lives?’. These are the driving force behind the plans we put together. 

During lockdown I created a ‘chat show’ to replace some of what we could suddenly no longer do in school. It gave me the opportunity to get guest speakers and interview them on a range of topics of value to our students. None of the topics discussed fit into the curriculum, they were all life skills and knowledge that enrich lives if taken note of. There are links to the shows and their topics below. See what you think.

A lot of what schools do actually teach may at first glance to seem like a waste of time (“when will I ever need to use algebra in real life” is a common one). This is partly that we have become too focused on subjects and topics as collections of facts and information and then, realising that a simple Google search will pull up that information, wonder about the relevance of spending six hours a day in a classroom. “What about the stuff you actually need?” people cry, “like filling in a tax return, how mortgages work, how to book a foreign holiday…”. I like to answer that with two responses. One, those topics would make for very, very dull lessons. Two, those things can be found out by a simple Google search too.

I believe that the answer to this dilemma is to switch this obsessiveness away from topics, information and facts to skills where the information is the conduit for learning the skill. It’s not really about chemical catalysts, river deltas or trigonometry, it’s about what you become by studying these things. It’s about the process of learning itself. It’s about critical and creative thinking. It’s about resilience, perseverance and practice. If you can be the person that can learn, understand, remember, apply and combine ideas on one complex or abstract topic, you can do it for any topic.

That said, the curriculum is nowhere near perfect. I’d love to be able to re-tool it beyond what I can do just in my own school. That’s why I’m working on a manifesto for a new approach, not that anyone with any power will take any notice, but I’m doing it anyway. What would you like to see in it?

Here’s a list of what we covered in The Early Show:

  1. Professional speaker and magician John Hotowka discussed resilience, the skill of keeping strong when things are tricky and you feel like giving up.
  2. Steve Judge continued this to the extreme adding in the idea of having a string vision that drives your perseverance. As a gold medal winning special Olympian, Steve’s story of overcoming dramatic injury to become a winner was inspiring and moving. Steve ran a competition to win a copy of his book for creating a vision board.
  3. David Hyner is one of the countries great speakers on having and achieving goals. His humour and humility made the case to take action immediately. Some of our students did following the talk and got coached by their heroes during lockdown. 
  4. If Frederika Roberts’s presentation on wellbeing and happiness didn’t make you smile, you need to watch it again. She presented us with loads of tips to keep our minds healthy, especially during difficult times.
  5. Science magician Matt Pritchard talked about us re-gaining a sense of wonder about the world around us.
  6. David Thomas, the Guinness Book of Records memory man told us bluntly that memory is something you work on, not something you have or don’t have. 
  7. Our headmaster Steven Allen talked candidly about the nature of school returning to wider opening.
  8. Alex Drew disused the benefits and dangers of the rise of internet use.
  9. Lind Sage, a criminal psychologist, discussed how we each make our own prisons. She works with the most dangerous criminals to help them come to terms with their actions which are li need to their self belief. She should us how we can change positively too.
  10. Jackie Perkins talked to us about self-image and how we present ourselves in our appearance, clothing etc. She told us how dressing for the occasion will get you further in life. 
  11. Graham Frost escaped from a cult as a young child, overcame a number of massive problems and now talks about the power of decisions and how they can positively change your direction.
  12. Silky is a stand up comedian and trainer of comedy and improvisation skills. He discussed with us the meaning of life and how in fact, the meaning is to find the meaning and in doing so, enjoy it.

All of the shows are available on YouTube:

Ep.1 resilience with @JohnHotowka 

Ep.2 vision with @SteveJudge 

Ep.3 goals with @davidhyner 

Ep.4 wellbeing with @Frederika_R

Ep.5 wonder with @ScienceMagician

Ep.6 memory with David Thomas

Ep.7 wider school opening with Steve Allen

Ep.8 internet use with @Alec_Drew

Ep.9 self belief with @meetLindaSage

Ep.10 express yourself with Jackie Perkins

Ep.11 decisions with Graham Frost.

Ep.12 the meaning of life with @paulsilkywhite

Please tell me in the comments below what you’d wished you’d learnt at school or what you did learn that you’re convinced was of no use whatsoever…

Naming of groups in science teaching and the profile of women in science

For the past two years my science department has named all our science classes after famous or no-so-famous-but-should-be-famous scientists. It’s certainly more interesting than calling them ‘set 1’ and ‘set 2’ but there’s much more to it than that. 

In a recent TeachFirst poll1, only 49% of the public could name a female scientist. This is hardly surprising since women in science are not part of the public consciousness. This is due in part from a vast array of scientific achievements being either attributed to their male colleagues or their part in discoveries played down. This has led directly to the second reason as TeachFirst also stated in their poll:

“Not a single woman’s name features in the national curriculum for GCSE science.4 And in a sample analysis of three double science GCSE specifications from the major exam boards, we found a total of two female scientists named. This compares to the mention of over 40 male scientists, or concepts or materials named after them.”1

This is true, but the context needs a closer look. Yes, there are only two named women in the science curricula and around 40 male names. But this isn’t quite what it seems. Hardly anyone at all is mentioned in the science curricula2. That’s because the science curricula is simply a list of concepts, devoid of any context and missing any human stories of discovery. The male names that are mentioned are only there because their names are given to the many units or concepts in science: Newton’s Laws, Joules, Volts, Amperes, Coulombs, Watts, Celcius, Kelvin, Planck, Avogadro constant, Boltzman constant: all named after men’s surnames. There is only one named after a female’s surname and that is the Curie, named after both Pierre Curie and his wife Marie Skłodowska Curie. 

We find ourselves in a circular trap: we don’t know any female scientists because no units are named after them. No units are named after them because their discoveries have not been included in naming of units. Because no units are named after them they are not in the curricula. Because they’re not in the curricula we’ve never heard of them. And so it goes on… 

This is where teachers step in. If we just ‘taught to the curriculum’ we’d simply be reading out a list of topics and concepts. To bring these topics and concepts to life we have to engage the children, to draw them in, to make it real and relevant for them. There is one pedagogy that solves this: storytelling. To make a concept mean something we can tell the story of its use and of its discovery. Telling the story of its discovery means we name the individual that struggled, failed, achieved, lived and died to bring us the particular concept. By doing this we name those individuals. By doing this properly we name the women involved along with the men. By telling the stories of these women and their science, we put them into the public consciousness, one class at a time. 

I have tried to address these misappropriations in the posters on my lab wall entitled Women in Physics. You can read about that here. Download the poster pack here.

Out of the 8 names, 4 are women, 4 are men. 3 are British, 7 are international. 3 are black. We’ve chosen names that are perhaps lesser known but still have great stories to tell. They have either made Earth-shattering discoveries or have lived amazing lives or worked in fascinating areas of science. Each year two names drop off the end (of Year 11) and two new ones are added in Years 7 and 8. There are enough scientists that we don’t need to recycle names.

By naming these scientists, by naming our classes, we’re aiming to take that dull list of topics off the curriculum and relate to it as what it is: a story of real people with real struggles and real jobs. The purpose of our science education cannot be to produce children who are simply good at a science quiz on a range of facts and units. It has to be a preparation for life, for work, for adventure and for discovery.

It’s part of our remit to create a world, starting by creating a school, where there is balance in all things and where everyone is welcome and can find their place no matter what gender, orientation, colour, creed or religion. No matter what hopes, fears, desires or loves. 

Mae Jemison is the name for our new Year 7 Science class. She is a medical doctor working as a GP and doctor in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone. She has degrees in chemical engineering and African American studies from Stanford University and medical qualifications from Cornell unit ersity. She’s best known for being the first black woman to go into space, becoming the mission controller for the Space Shuttle Endeavour. She has written books for children, has many honorary doctorates and has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the International Space Hall of Fame. I think she is a great role model for our new science class. 

When Jemison was asked why she wanted to work in science and be an astronaut she said she was inspired by watching Star Trek and seeing a black woman in an important command position. (It was African-American actor Nichelle Nichols’ portrayal of Lieutenant Uhura.) Jemison later appeared in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation herself. Seeing someone like her, up there, among the stars, in an imagined future became her vision.

Teaching has to be this: “people like you have walked this way before, here’s what they did so you can decide to follow in their footsteps or forge your own path. Whatever you decide, here’s what you’ll need…”

That’s why our science classes have names.

(Also or the first time, my A Level Physics classes have names too.)