Does it make a difference if lessons are taught by a teacher without a specialist academic background in that subject? What forms of support for subject pedagogy do teachers need in the early years of their career?
How should school managers ensure that the non-specialist and early-career teachers in their teams have access to effective professional development and support?
What difference could this support have for pupils’ experience in the classroom, their engagement with the subject, their attainment levels and their post-16 choices?
The Institute of Physics, in partnership with the network of Science Learning Centres, has been working with hundreds of schools to address these questions in the context of physics. Despite a recent increase in the numbers training to become physics teachers, there remains a national shortage of specialist physics teachers in English secondary schools.
Many physics lessons, particularly at key stage 3 but sometimes at GCSE level and occasionally at A level, are taught by teachers without an academic or teacher training background in physics.
These may be excellent and committed teachers, outstanding in their own specialist field, but they may lack a deep knowledge of physics, an explicit and apparent passion for the value of physics, or the contextual awareness of the “big ideas” in physics which allows connections and synoptic links to be made – in essence, the qualities which lead to pupils’ deep and extended understanding of the subject and engenders a passion which will drive some to further and higher levels of study.
The project is called the Stimulating Physics Network, and has been funded by the Department for Education since 2009. The project has many facets but is centred on the notion that bespoke professional development is the most effective mechanism for influencing the experience that pupils have in the long-term, and we work with schools and teachers to develop the teaching and learning of physics.
The project has proven success, and the level of impact increases the longer the project works with a school. Partner schools have seen increased pupil attainment in GCSE physics and more pupils progressing to physics A level.
The structure of the project is built on what has been shown to be most effective practice in CPD: schools and teachers have access to an experienced and expert physics practitioner – a coach or mentor. Each provides support, CPD and other activities for an extended period (two to three years) which is bespoke to the needs of the school or individual teacher.
Over this time the coaches and mentors attempt to engender a culture of reflective practice and self-directed professional development; effectively, they work to make themselves redundant.
Another reason for the project’s success is that the support is focused on effective pedagogical practice in physics. What is the most effective way to teach electric circuits to year 9? Which models are good for demonstrating current and which are better for potential difference? How can the apparatus in the prep room be deployed most effectively to support pupil learning? What role do modern technologies and media have in physics lessons? Are there any particular strategies which have been shown to be useful in engaging girls with physics?
Recently qualified and non-specialist physics teachers may be uncertain; having an experienced and non-judgemental coach or mentor available to help answer questions like these can make a significant difference to those teachers’ knowledge, repertoire, confidence and enthusiasm. The coaches and mentors are all highly effective teachers in their own right, and as well as drawing on their own experiences in the classroom they also draw on the collective knowledge of the Institute of Physics, the Science Learning Centres, research into science education and the wider physics community. Through all this, there is an unrelenting focus on pupil learning.
Senior leaders of the schools the project is working with have all committed to the aims and to the time required for the teachers’ CPD. Early career physics teachers have access to personalised support via a mentor; non-specialist teachers of physics can attend four-day residential summer schools at an Oxbridge college; coaches can deliver large-scale physics shows for pupils to spark an enthusiasm and a “buzz” for physics in a school.
Perhaps most importantly, all of this support comes at no cost to any teacher, department or school.
The experience of the Stimulating Physics Network, which was developed in response to a specific problem of teacher supply and falling A level uptake, shows the need for strategic-level support for national priorities. Some challenges in education are best met by a co-ordinated approach, with the backing of government, supported by the expertise of subject associations and learned societies.
The Stimulating Physics Network has proved itself an effective model for developing the teaching and learning of physics in hundreds of schools across England. The project has attracted interest from ministers in the Welsh Assembly and the Republic of Ireland, and we have developed a variety of links, collaborations and potential partnerships with a range of organisations including the Historical Association, the Nuffield Foundation and the Teacher Development Trust among others.
Further informationFor more details about the Stimulating Physics Network, including how to become a partner school, visit www.stimulatingphysics.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org
David Cameron is the project manager for the Stimulating Physics Network at the Institute of Physics.
CAPTION: Best practice: The Stimulating Physics Network brings together teachers from across England to develop practical skills