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How does it all work?

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Pupils are keen to "take things apart"

How does it all work? Let’s find out…

A curriculum is a list of topics that must be covered in a course. Every teacher would agree that there’s always something on that list that we perhaps wouldn’t include if we were to design it ourselves, but I find it more interesting to look at those topics that are not on the list but I really think should be. For me in Physics, the missing topic is electronics*. 

We live in a world dominated by technology and all that technology relies on electronics. Not so very long ago children would be able to take apart toys, radios and other devices (although not necessarily be able to put them together again) and see a glimpse of their parts and gain some inkling into how those parts worked to make the whole. As a child I would marvel how those funny little stripy resistors, magnets and what looked like metal spiders could possibly make a radio work. 

Sadly, many of today’s children don’t seem to want, or to be able, to take things apart. It’s a mixture of having so many other more instantly satisfying things to do as well as devices being so much more difficult to take apart and put back together. I worry that it has led to a larger gap between the complexity of the technology and the awareness of how it works. 

So in Fyling Hall’s Year 7 Physics we’ve been looking at electronics, recognising the various components and building simple circuits with them to do something exciting. Using component kits we made a music synthesiser, make an electronic cat meow and have a light controlled bird sing as well as solving logic gate problems. It has also opened up other skills that the students initially struggled with before getting better at: 

  • Dexterity – fine motor skills, accuracy. Can they assemble small parts? 
  • Patience – it takes time to assemble a complex circuit and nothing will happen until it’s finished
  • Perseverance – can they keep going without getting distracted or bored?
  • Resilience – it probably won’t work straight away. Can they push past their frustration?
  • Problem solving – why doesn’t it work? Can they re-trace their steps, check every part over and over and troubleshoot what could be the problem? 
  • Spacial awareness – being able to create a 3D circuit from a 2D diagram requires spatial dynamics, a critical but often overlooked skill to be able to internally picture three dimensions in your mind and predict patterns of movement.

Next week, armed with screwdrivers, we’ll be dismantling our old PCs to remove any valuable components and recycle the rest. If you think that taking an old computer apart to see how it works is a bit heavy handed, bare in mind that this is exactly the approach that particle physicists are using at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN: smashing sub atomic particles together to split them open and see what comes out.

Despite being an independent school, we still follow the National Curriculum and we obviously offer the GCSEs, A Levels and other examinations as elsewhere so what we teach must prepare our students for those finals. What we can do differently is change how we teach, in what order topics are presented and in what ways connections are made between those topics to create a coherent subject understanding. This is certainly true in science and especially true for me in designing and delivering our Physics courses. This is why I like to sneak in these missing topics, extra experiments and stories that help add context and relevance to the course and life.

Of course not everyone is interested in how things work, and that’s fine. There are plenty of interesting things out there to be an expert in. But our job as a school and my job as a teacher has to be to introduce as many different opportunities, options, ideas and insights as possible. If one of our students them picks up any one of these ideas and runs with it, it may be something they can make a living from, have a life long interest in, or failing that simply have the enjoyment of doing something interesting along the way.

*The main exam boards no longer offer an Electronics GCSE. For a few years it was part of Design and Technology in some schools but that has become optional recently for many. Even in most A Level Physics curricula it has been demoted to be optional. Who will chose an option that they’ve had no experience in?

by Ayd Instone, Head of Physics

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