The magic of a good science teacher

Sheila Curtis

This year more than 35,000 students completed A-level physics. This not only represents a  move towards meeting the need for a more scientifically literate population, it hit the Institute of Physics‘ 2014 target for increasing participation in the subject a year early. The increase represents a rise of 29.5% on the 2007 figure of 27,466 – a fantastic endorsement of the hard work of many teachers of physics. Clearly science teachers are doing something right.

What is it that expert teachers do?

As a student teacher of science I remember the day when the department head in the practice school managed to enthral two classes of students with a lesson on the subject of π (pi) with no preparation. He was able to tell a story of the history and use of an idea that the students could not only relate to and understand but that linked to the big picture of science.

Whilst this may not fit with the modern day view of an outstanding lesson the skill shown by this experienced teacher was something never to be forgotten. Many of us have these stories, as one Guardian letter writer commented (5 September), in response to the building that melted a Jaguar car: “My inspirational physics teacher told us the Archimedes and burnished shields story to explain the powerful properties of the concave mirror, which was followed shortly by me getting a right clump for setting our front fence on fire with my Dad’s shaving mirror!”

There is some debate about the nature of knowledge an expert teacher possesses as opposed to that of an expert scientist. What is content knowledge and what is pedagogic content knowledge? However, to my mind, the teacher who can draw out a story related to the curriculum, illustrate it with good activities and encourage young people to test out the ideas against their own is onto a winner. It is clear that having the best degree in a subject, whilst important, is not the only prerequisite for making a great teacher. Enhancing the uptake of subjects like physics, I believe, is not just about generating more highly qualified teachers with higher physics degrees.

For example, there are many teachers of science who are expected to teach outside their degree specialism, even up to post-16 courses, and often feel very challenged by this experience. These teachers need the time and space to reflect upon their practice within their specialism but also to relate practice to the less familiar subject disciplines.

The newspapers are full of the news that there are not enough physicists training to become teachers. In addition, non-specialists are being encouraged to retrain to teach mathematics, chemistry and physics through subject knowledge enhancement courses both prior to their PGCE and as qualified teachers. Likewise physics expertise is being developed through the Stimulating Physics programme.

Teachers involved in these programmes are keen to learn both about what it is they are trying to teach but also how to teach it. They are evaluating, adapting and incorporating tools and resources within their context and framework of experience. In other words they need to learn both the accepted subject content ideas alongside discussing the pedagogical ideas and storytelling exhibited by experts. We are beginning to see the evidence of the success of these programmes as the numbers achieving Physics A-level this year demonstrates.

Subject Knowledge Enhancement courses at the IOE are now recruiting. Thanks to funding from the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL), the course is free for practising teachers in state schools and there is also £900 towards cover.

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Posted in Teachers and teaching assistants, Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
4 comments on “The magic of a good science teacher
  1. behrfacts says:

    Great post and clearly Physics is a critical subject in terms of ensuring adequate teacher numbers. On the science side we’re currently looking at trainee Chemistry teachers in terms of their specific subject expertise and how ITT models in England might best be able to provide for this. For more see: http://behroutcomes.co.uk/teacher-support.php .

  2. Ralph Levinson says:

    You’ve started a good ball rolling here, Sheila. And I take your point completely that good teachers often defy the dominant way of thinking about teaching and do things differently stimulating curiosity. But it begs the question whether teachers such as the ones you describe do enthuse all pupils? We recognise it as good practice but what about the students who don’t quite ‘get it’. I remember having a chemistry teacher at school. Most of the class thought he was inspiring, full of unusual experiments, but to me and a few others he was full of self-importance and chemistry became more a whizz-bang than anything which provoked intellectual interest (although he did promote interest in others). It’s so difficult to get to good expert teaching because there’s no universal depictor. I’ve loathed some ‘great’ teachers and learned a huge amount from some who are really struggling.
    One aspect i have noticed with student teachers who seem to be respected and sometimes loved by pupils is that they have a number of common qualities. First, they completely respect the views and ideas of the pupils they teach, they listen carefully to what they have to say and never dismiss an idea. It’s unusual but I’ve only seen it in a handful of student teachers over 15 years. they are not necessarily ‘performers’. But those same teachers do more than teach science, they link science to pupils’ worldviews. Two examples. One teacher teaching food webs made wonderful masks for the pupils to represent different organisms and had them link to each other through threads linking different feeding hierarchies, prompting one student to say in complete awe ‘Miss. Does that mean we’re ALL interconnected?’ Another student teacher, when teaching about earthquakes had his class of Y10s leaving the room wondering how humanity can now manage on a fiery ball of an Earth with just a thin crust to protect us. They drew on the pupils interests and their emotional connections with Nature. But how we know what good teaching is is a toughie and must take into account school and social contexts. What we can’t do is measure and evaluate it but of course that’s what we’re asked to do all the time.

    • Rick says:

      As a school administrator it was always hard to find physics and chemistry teachers; especially those with documented success. Sadly at times I would take the entertainer that at least kept the young minds in science,
      Relating and empathy for students may at times be the higher “call”

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