Is it really too much to ask for a collaborative research and evidence-informed physics teaching community?

Image: Shutterstock/Andrey_Popov
Image: Shutterstock/Andrey_Popov

I have been teaching physics in Scottish secondary schools for 33 years and for the past 13 years supporting physics teachers as one of the IOP’s Physics Teacher Network coordinators (PNCs).

During that time I have seen, and been involved in, many changes to the physics curriculum and its assessment, and organised and delivered many continuing professional development (CPD) events. I have seen many initiatives come and go and unfortunately seen a good too many wheels reinvented.

To teach in Scotland, one needs to be registered with the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS). In recent years the GTCS has brought in new teaching standards and a Professional Update process. Professional Update requires teachers to record their professional learning on an ongoing basis, and for it to be validated every five years in order for them to remain registered with the GTCS. The standards and Professional Update include a requirement for teacher enquiry and research – not something that has necessarily been uppermost in many teachers’ minds previously (or still?).

I am sure I am not alone as a practising teacher, despite a significant interest in all things teaching and learning, feeling that there is usually too great a disconnect between much education research and classroom practice. I have found much education research inaccessible either due to a paywall, the manner in which it is written, or just plain relevance to my day job. In addition there is the problem of teachers finding time to engage with research given all the other pressures on their time.

Therefore I reacted with significant interest last year when PNCs were informed that the IOP was going to support a small number of us through the University of Oxford’s MSc in science teacher education with the aim to help bridge the gap between education research, the work of the IOP Physics Teacher Network, and of course the day-to-day work of the teachers we support. I was lucky enough to make it through the selection process and have now completed the first unit of the course.

So far the journey has been fascinating. Studying for the MSc has forced me to priorities spending time reading and reflecting, something I would always have liked to have done, but which always got bumped down the priority list for one reason or another.

Completing the activities has made me reflect on my own practice and that of the education system more generally. Even some of the simpler starter tasks have had a significant impact. For example, have a go at writing down on a single side of A4 your beliefs about students learning science. It really makes you think about what you are actually trying to do as a teacher.

This session I have University of Aberdeen PGDE students on placement, plus a probationary teacher, in my department, and the work I have done already has impacted positively on the way I have been able to support them. In recent weeks I have also started to think more deeply about how PNCs can best support more experienced teachers.

I know PNC workshops and CPD sessions routinely receive very positive evaluations from the delegates, but how much these sessions actually impact on the practice of the teachers, and more importantly the learning of their students, is less well known, and this is an area I am interested in exploring further.

In Scotland we have been going through a series of curricular reforms known as Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). Curriculum reform now seems to be a pretty much continual process in many countries. This has raised many issues for teachers with one of the main ones being a less prescribed curriculum than in recent years. At the same time there has been an increase in time consuming bureaucracy in schools. The more prescribed recent curriculums, along with the lack of time for reading, reflection and quality collaboration has not equipped teachers well to be suddenly left to develop their own curriculums or to really engage properly thinking about the more fundamental purposes of teaching and learning. I hope that the PNCs completing the MSc will be better equipped to support teachers improve their agency in terms of curriculum development.

The IOP Physics Teacher Network has already been very effective in supporting teachers, and certainly in Scotland thanks to the meetings PNCs have organised, the Sputnik email list, and the various other activities PNCs have been involved with in partnership with others I am proud to say there is now a vibrant, collaborative, sharing community of physics teachers.

I am optimistic that if we can better draw on some of the sort of professional learning I have been exposed to as part of this MSc we can help ensure that future developments are more research-informed and evidence-informed.

I hope that will help teachers of physics to better meet their obligations for Professional Update, improve the teacher agency evident in the physics teaching community, but, more importantly, improve teaching and learning for the benefit of our students.

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Stuart Farmer

Stuart Farmer

Stuart is a physics teacher, IOP Physics Teacher Network coordinator, and in 2016 won the Institute’s Bragg Medal
Stuart Farmer
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