Thursday, April 1, 2010

The shoulders of giants

As my pupils are aware, I have a great admiration of the works of Galileo. His name crops up time and time again in my lessons and I often herald him as the world’s first true physical scientist. I am probably wrong about this, but it is certainly the case that in Galileo’s time Physics was in its infancy and not at that stage recognized as a science in its own right. The thing that changed this was the realization that in order to learn about the world theory is not enough: You have to perform experiments.

Now there is a lot of debate about whether Galileo every carried out some of his most famous experiments but irrespective of this, Galileo certainly appreciated the importance of experimentation. Unfortunately he lived in an age where measurement was often very crude. The techniques we now take for granted did not, at that stage, exist; in fact many modern methods of measurement have their roots in some of Galileo’s discoveries - in particular all methods of accurately measuring time.
Time is very important for Physics since Physics concerns change and, in particular, rates of change. Despite not having access to the sorts of time keepers we now take for granted Galileo knew about a very accurate instrument for measuring time - the human ear. It turns out that we are very good at determining time just by listening to things - in fact we can detect time intervals far more accurately by listening to something than by using visual judgement. The reason for this comes down to the functioning of the brain. The left hand side of the brain is predominantly used for listening and for verbal communication; the same side of the brain is also dominant in temporal processing (i.e. keeping track of time). The right hand side, on the other hand, is predominantly responsible for visual processing and spatial awareness. The separation of temporal processing from this side of the brain means that whilst it is easy to judge, by looking, the distance to a moving car, determining whether you have sufficient time to pull out before the car reaches you is much more difficult - just ask any learner driver!
Why not try the following experiment for yourself:
One of my YouTube videos concerns the regularity of various oscillations (i.e. whether they rock back and forth at a constant steady rate). Try watching the video, first with the sound switched off, and try to determine whether the oscillations are regular. For some of the oscillations the answer is obvious - but for others it is less so.
Now switch the sound on, and this time listen to the noise made by the oscillations - the results may surprise you! Simply by listening you can determine slight changes in the regularity of an oscillation which would be hard to detect using a stopclock or even a datalogging device.
This brings us in a nice little circle because in medieval Europe, although Physics was not recognized as a science, music was.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Does the winner REALLY take it all?

We do things because we love to win.
But we learn more from failure than we do from success.

Whilst achieving success can often be the result is learning, once success has been achieved there can be a tendency to be complacent: To simply repeat the formula that achieved that success, without any ammendment. When we do learn in the course of achieving success the things we learn tend to be fairly minor and often, through perhaps some sort of arrogance, we can turn a blind eye to important lessons, believing what we do to be perfect.

Someone who is failing, on the other hand, often stands to learn a lot. They can learn by observing the victors and immitating their success. Because they want to win they are willing to learn new approaches and, in some cases, try radical techniques in order to achieve success. They don't turn a blind eye to advice; they positively welcome it.

The problem is that people can be turned off by failure. Failure can be dispiriting and, if someone does not believe they can succeed, can result in someone not attempting something, in which case they will learn nothing at all.

Teachers know that success is important to students for the above reason. But have we gone too far? Have we forgetten the importance of failure?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Coursework need not be dreadful

This may come as a suprise to some but whenever anyone asks me what the best part of our Physics A level course is I reply "the coursework". Coursework was first introduced to science in an attempt to promote the sort of higher levels thinking skills and manipulative skills that are not easily tested within a paper based examination. However, as most science teachers will recognise, this original vision has been eroded over the years: Coursework has become too formulaic and lost most of its original value - a chance for pupils to gain good marks, but little more. Girls usually love coursework, because it rewards diligence; boys hate the hard work involved; teachers dislike the marking, moderation, paperwork and mundane nature of it. This combination has probably been as much a factor in the shift of many independent schools towards IGCSE as the deterioration of the science specifications (ironically AQA Physics actually has significantly more scientific content than Edexcel IGCSE Physics).

The thing that, for me, makes our A level difference (OCR B: Advancing Physics) is the nature of the coursework: In the upper sixth it consists of a practical investigation and a research task. The coursework is by its very nature open ended and requires pupils to use their initiative. They are able to choose their work from an almost endless range of topics and, because of this, can choose topics of interest to them which they pursue with enthusiasm. The work, by its very nature, is educational: the pupils must analyse, evaluate and apply; they also need to be creative - this stuff comes from the top of Bloom's taxonomy, if you are into that kind of thing!

I am a great believer in the teaching of thinking skills, and coursework of this nature delivers those kind of skills. For me coursework does not involve two week without teaching - it is actually one of the most intense things that I do - but it is also one of the most rewarding! I am very excited by recent initiatives such as the level 3 Extended Projects and am very much looking forwarded to more involvement in them. These initiatives are nothing new however - extended project work has always been a part of some of our more forward looking qualifications and is, in fact, what coursework was originally supposed to be about.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A new theory of space and time

I enjoy Christmas: Not because of sherry and mince pies and that kind of thing, but because it gives me a rare opportunity to think. This Christmas, whilst packing our car for the annual trip to see the in-laws, I think I stumbled upon some new principles regarding the space-time continuum:
1) The Volume of a space, as measured by the matter it contains, is not equal to the volume as given by its dimensions.

No matter how large the boot of our car, my wife is always able to fill it. Over the years my cars have gotten bigger, whilst the amount of belongings we need to pack has decreased as our children have gotten older And yet everytime we go away, even if just for the night, our boot is filled. When we first got married I had a mini - you could excuse my wife for filling that - but now we have an MPV!

2) The Principle of Marital Mathematics: 1 + 1 = 1.

Remarkably, when I voiced my concerns about whether everything would fit, my wife told me "Don't worry, it's all presents - we won't have as much stuff when we come back". Hmmm... a car full of presents.... two small children.... lots of loving relatives to visit, each baring further gifts... Clearly the usual laws of mathematics don't work here... maybe less really is more - and vice versa of course!

3) The Concept of Infinite Baggage:

No matter how many bags you have already packed, there are always "just a couple more".

4) The Concept of the Infinite Boot:

Despite the above principle I always, somehow, find room to pack everything. Well, everything that is except for two of my shirts, several pairs of my socks, the really nice trousers I was planning to wear on Christmas day, that new book that I was going to read...

Have a great New Year!