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. 

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, https://www.cleapss.org.uk). 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. 

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 https://youtu.be/gi_UZ3k7rDI resilience with @JohnHotowka 

Ep.2 https://youtu.be/IMLCdKpDF8w vision with @SteveJudge 

Ep.3 https://youtu.be/pgwXD2aNH4I goals with @davidhyner 

Ep.4 https://youtu.be/kRDzgppOi4M wellbeing with @Frederika_R

Ep.5 https://youtu.be/qLxSvWXzQMQ wonder with @ScienceMagician

Ep.6 https://youtu.be/iieo7u03skI memory with David Thomas

Ep.7 https://youtu.be/uFt6N0AWwaM wider school opening with Steve Allen

Ep.8 https://youtu.be/eTC6AOHLqlA internet use with @Alec_Drew

Ep.9 https://youtu.be/3NRJVgYyGGI self belief with @meetLindaSage

Ep.10 https://youtu.be/XBjbDBtROXQ express yourself with Jackie Perkins

Ep.11 https://youtu.be/7b-H6p5NzBI decisions with Graham Frost.

Ep.12 https://youtu.be/0yPlh_DIpnA 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…

Tolerance, Intolerance and Prejudice – a talk for students

This is a TED-style talk I gave, again from my lab, broadcast to the whole school about Tolerance, Intolerance and Prejudice. I was attempting to address issues of race, bias, antisemitism, extremism as well as issues in the news around those topics. Tutors then had a followup task for the students in each group. This is part of my role as Learning for Life Co-ordinator.