Science on Stage- Debrecan, Hungary, Here I come!


28th June 2017

Now sitting at Schiphol Airport gate D71. It’s been a long slog. At 8pm last night, or thereabouts, I left the Celebration of Achievement after watching the 2016 Space Cadets give their presentation (well done to them). I’d not been home.  Waiting at the bus stop was Mr Physics for a belt up the road to “the daughter’s”. She was ready with drink, a Barbie, and a nice comfy bed. It was a rough night as I didn’t want to miss getting up. It took 4 goes on Listen again to hear “Radio 4s World Tonight”. I just got passed the news, nodded off and woke up at the end to try again. So up I got, showered said my goodbyes and made for the bus. The 77 was very quiet, but then it was 5:30 am. Tried to finally learn the difference between passed and past, and thought I’d got it with a score of 19/20, but alas! I also can’t find the website with the check list on either.

Luckily Glasgow Airport staff were delightful and helped me out despite me nearly falling asleep. A lovely young gentleman checked me through the self service check in, as it would appear I couldn’t stick my passport in the right way. Then through security one kind lady helped sort my liquids. I hadn’t clocked that one wee bag was maximum, I thought they had to go in small bag or bags. She rammed everything in and removed stuff that didn’t need to be bagged. I’d just grabbed it Tuesday morning. Then the third member of staff located my tablets (ICT not medicines). I’d totally forgotten them and misplaced my tray when trying to repack my bag. Needless to say, the tiny Boeing 737 could have fitted into my pocket, but was so comfortable I fell asleep just about. I must finally be getting the hang of this flying lark! Now hiding in the corner trying to avoid anymore events. At least I’ve not accidentally caught the flight to Malaga which has been moved to our gate.

Original Post

I’ve known about this for what seems like ages, but I am not sure how long, things have all blended into one these days as there is so much to do at school.

Today I spent some time looking over the programme and I am now getting quite excited. My poster has been finished and is off for preparation, but I must contact D&S Packaging about a car box for my luggage.

I am taking our Road Safety Campaign to Europe, before they refuse to let us in! I am not sure if I ought to have reflected all the photos so they work for those who drive on the right!

I met some of the people going at the ASE Conference in Reading and I think we’ll get on well together. Unfortunately the family don’t feel there is enough to do in Debrecan to join me- a shame as the whole family could have made those dates.

I’ll keep you posted as the time creeps up and then lands in an overwhelming dollop on top of me and I panic that I haven’t got everything done!



Quotes for Students

There is a debate on Sputnik, the Scottish Physics teachers’ Forum, about displaying good quotes around the Physics Department. Since starting this website I have looked at several quotes and I think some of the quotes of Carl Sagan are fantastic.

My favourite to inspire all students is

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”
― Carl Sagan.

but closely followed behind it is the following little gem.

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” ― Carl Sagan, Cosmos

I would love to have included the poem by Dorothy Law Nolte “Children Learn What They Live” and I have permission to upload it here, but it must be password protected and I’d need to take it down after 4 years and pay again. I’m afraid that much as I believe people should get full rights for writing and holding the copyright, but budget won’t sustain that, so I suggest you check it out for yourself. It is online in loads of places.

To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.

Albert Einstein

and here are a couple of worryingly true quotes that seem to be even more pronounced in the UK with the latest education system.

We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology. Carl Sagan

I think we are a long was from a society that embraces innovation.

Once you have an innovation culture, even those who are not scientists or engineers – poets, actors, journalists – they, as communities, embrace the meaning of what it is to be scientifically literate. They embrace the concept of an innovation culture. They vote in ways that promote it. They don’t fight science and they don’t fight technology. -Neil deGrasse Tyson


I remember that this made an impression on me at school but I didn’t even know it was one of Einstein’s. I wonder if it was. I suspect it was a culmination of several people’s work.

Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.

One more on the benefits of getting educated and wisdom.

You’re blessed when you meet Lady Wisdom,
    when you make friends with Madame Insight.
She’s worth far more than money in the bank;
    her friendship is better than a big salary.
Her value exceeds all the trappings of wealth;
    nothing you could wish for holds a candle to her.
With one hand she gives long life,
    with the other she confers recognition.
Her manner is beautiful,
    her life wonderfully complete.
She’s the very Tree of Life to those who embrace her.
    Hold her tight—and be blessed!- Proverbs 3 The Message

So I wanted to think of a quote for myself, to sum up everything, but I am just not that clever!


Oh I hope this isn’t me

I received a letter in the post from a former pupil, now a happily married Dr with two lovely children. She offered me this poem- failing to tell me it actually wasn’t about me. I had quite a wobble when I read it and genuinely hope my students don’t come and sit through my lessons like this, and anyway I’m only on the second floor now.

Ode to Double Physics

Crawled upstairs to the third floor.

Teacher greets us at the door.

Why does this feel such a chore,

When it’s the subject I most adore?

Take jackets off, shove chewing gum in,

Two minutes later “put that in the bin!”

Teacher roars “Oh what a din”

Right now I need a good stiff gin.

Outputs? Inputs? Analogue Device?

Can’t this be a tad more concise?

Turn to Gem, need advice,

All I get is “Russell’s nice”.

Potential energy of a rock.

Glance again at that damn clock.

That clever voice I try to block.

When will this pain ever stop?

Pack up time is here at last.

I’m so glad that’s in the past.

Then I realise, just as fast,

I’ve got to suffer one more class.

By Eileen MacEwen

Oh dear, I really hope this wasn’t about me, although logic gates can be rather boring. No wonder they’re only on National 4 now.

The photo of Eileen’s school report was written by her Chemistry Teacher Mr Dave Pound, who is sorely missed and was a real legend. The report was the “alternative” and not the one that went home stuck on the sheet.


IoP Physics Teacher Award

IoP Teachers of Physics award

The Teachers of Physics awards celebrate the success of secondary school physics teachers who have raised the profile of physics and science in schools.

The IoP acknowledge that teachers contribute an immense amount to society and wish to accord them the recognition they deserve.

The IoP Teacher of Physics awards, honour teachers alongside distinguished research scientists and industrialists.

In this way the IoP recognise that without dedicated teachers there would be no physics research community or technological base in society.

IoP Award 2015- Winner Andrew Ogilvie

Andrew Ogilvie

What are the Key Challenges in Education?

The key challenges for me teaching physics at the moment are threefold. A drop in the number of candidates choosing physics perhaps because of a perception (which is partly real and partly imagined) of the comparative difficulty of the subject , pressures of time due to course content and assessment and also that the rate of technological advance now makes many applications of physics so hidden behind opaque user interfaces as to be invisible.

For the first problem I try to  emphasise that the subject is not only comprehensible ( and can be constructed from our existing experience with a bit of imagination) but that  general principles are both economic ( learn a little understand a lot) and  satisfying.  For the second , well that’s just doing the job,  and for the third I try to make links explicit links from the curriculum to the technology and always  try to recruit the pupils experience and imagination, though Its hard to give a concrete example of this sitting here right now.

I think that contexts for learning are extremely important and I feel I’ve done my job best if I can do good by stealth without the kids noticing that they’ve learned something useful.

How do you manage your time?

To be honest in response to your second question I don’t feel that I do manage my time terribly effectively . It would be a very different , and less efficient ,world if I had been recognised for any sort of excellence in time management.  One thing I do think, though, is that if you’re going to try to do something you should try your best and , as a corollary, that its better to do a small thing well than a big thing badly.

What concerns you in Education?

I don’t “dread”  teaching anything in the Higher or Advanced Higher but that’s not to say  that there aren’t challenging bits.  I find I enjoy understanding things better myself through teaching them.
My concern for Higher and Advanced Higher is to try to  give students some sort of insight into ideas like Particle Physics, Relativity, Stellar Physics or Cosmology  and making  these areas seem accessible to reason..
While I understand some of the reasons for the inclusion of these topics  I really feel there is a danger of presenting them in an “unscientific” way  just demanding they be  accepted  by virtue of  our authority as teachers with the justification being inaccessible both to them and often to us.  (The inclusion of these topics seems similar to trying to study Finnegan’s  Wake in Higher English or Stockhausen in Higher Music ) It  might be better to defer that particular form of gratification until  such a time as we have acquired the analytical tools to experience it fully but, if we must do it, then it must also be done well.

What are your top teaching tips?

Top tips : no particular order

Try to enjoy the privilege we have in spending time with the pupils ;  learn the pupils’ names and make time to say hello to them passing in corridors etc ;

Remember that sometimes the teacher can be wrong.

Always try to explain – if you’re not explaining,  its not Physics ( its “stamp collecting”)

When someone outside of work  learns you’re a teacher and  asks you “how you put up with the wee blighters” stick up for the kids.  95 % of them  are thoroughly admirable and wonderful in their own ways and if you’re not like that when you’re eleven years old its not your fault.

When I was at Jordanhill one of the lecturers said  always say you teach “children” not a particular subject… this sounds glib but is in fact very good advice – the job isn’t to produce the best  exam results  that’s just a by product of trying to develop the best people we can.

No-one’s fond memory of school is doing Ohm’s law calculations so you’ve got to try to make your lessons about more than that, even when its Ohm’s law you’re teaching .

Given the opportunity you should speak truth to power and if not given the opportunity you should probably try to make an opportunity. (The truth,  incidentally, doesn’t always have to be bad news.)

Sometimes, if you like that sort of thing, ( and I do ) you should talk about poetry,  or  music , or mountains, or crocodiles…. (To be honest, the crocodiles only really work  if, like me, you are missing a finger or two and I can’t recommend that as CPD)

I think I could go on and on ( although its equally possible that that is all I know) but its also worthwhile reminding myself that a) I’m just an ordinary teacher with no special insight and b) what works for someone else might be completely different.

I’m very flattered to have been asked my opinions , so thanks for that , but I recognise it as flattery and I’d  be a fool to believe my own hype so neither should anyone else.  Please don’t imagine that I think I’ve got all, or even any, of the answers its quite the reverse.

Today I have been waiting for Godot – and  I have failed. Tomorrow I shall wait for him again- “fail again, fail better”

IoP Award 2016

Mrs Physics

Here is a copy of an interview I gave with Sally Weatherall from Guzled after hearing of me being awarded the Scottish IoP Physics Teacher Award in 2016.

How can I better what Andrew Ogilvie wrote last year? (See above) He summed it up perfectly. If you want to know all about Physics and teaching his answers are there, fully formed and written so much more eloquently than anything I could do.

When I started teaching we worried about telling people what we did. Telling people at a party you were a  teacher was easy but when you got to the “what do you teach” I found the best reply was “children”. If you made the mistake of saying Physics it would lead to a tirade about how bad their Physics teacher was at school and how hard the subject is and how clever you must be. At this point they would leave to talk to someone else. A friend and colleague of mine was so fed up with having no one to talk to at parties when he said that he was a Physics teacher that he either told them he was a basic rocket scientist, or told them he worked for the Government, in a lab. . How times have changed. I think in the old days some teachers were excellent but just didn’t relate to the student. Such cannot be said for my Physics teacher who is a fantastic guy and inspired me.

What key challenges are you facing in teaching physics right now?

I think the crucial two points are the number of students taking the subject and the workload.

When the subjects are limited to five or six then students will often tackle the ones that appear easier. I think that by making students see the relevance of Physics to everyday things then you’re half way there, but too many still want the easy option and the increased likelihood of higher grades. I think it is vital to put Physics into context, even if the information sounds obscure; at least you can show students how to weigh up the arguments and get them to think for themselves. In my classes I always make students feel that it is OK to get things wrong. The worst sin in my class is not putting forward any idea, not thinking anything. Science is all about having an idea, testing it and if it doesn’t work out try something else. What better recipe for life!

As to the work load, the Physics community have been amazing and I am one of those who would have gone under if it wasn’t for the kindness of others who willingly shared their materials on SPTR and GLOW. If you are one of those people who have allowed me to use their materials then I thank you, and I’ll buy you a drink to celebrate your part in this award. If you are someone who has used my stuff, I hope it has helped you. If you are a teacher that has never produced anything I suggest you give it a go. We all need to add our contribution to surviving and I know some feel it isn’t their skill but they will still have something positive to contribute. We all need to give and take.

How are you trying to overcome these challenges?

I have mentioned much of this already. We need to get students to see the relevance and importance of choosing Physics. I describe some subjects as a walk in the park, and Physics as climbing the mountain. A walk in the park is very nice but the sense of achievement at climbing the mountain remains with you for much longer. For the students who have found it a mountain to climb, I tell them it will be the one they check first on their certificate- they usually rush back in September and tell me it was, and how good it feels. I think getting the students to see that you appreciate that it will be hard work but worth it can inspire them to at least try it. If students know that it is a team effort, you’re on their side doing your bit, then the mutual respect is there and the synergy is obvious. (Oh can I use that biological word in a physics piece?) . Another important key is to ensure the students know that the teacher doesn’t always get things right. This is a great get out clause for anyone. I can’t understand teachers who tell students they are never wrong. That doesn’t lead to mutual respect.

Time constraints affect teachers worldwide. How do you manage your time effectively?

I find this really difficult to manage, but I would rather put something up for the students on my website, or do a little more marking than clean behind the sofa? I do get hung up with minutiae and like things to be just right instead of ok. I think the students appreciate the effort that you put in for them and sometimes it motivates them to try harder. It’s all part of the team work. I am also happy to answer student questions on Edmodo at silly o’clock. I’d rather them manage their homework than make excuses that they couldn’t do it.

Do you have any “top tips” for physics teachers who are new to the profession?

  • We are teaching the best subject in the school, although many students don’t know it, so we need to get students to realise it’s the best subject. We can do that by showing the relevance to their everyday lives and, if it is an obscure topic, then at least you can get them to think. Think about asking the whys and how things happen.
  • If you can make the learning fun and relevant then that will keep down discipline problems. If you still have discipline problems then ask the students if they are following what you’re doing. Bad behaviour is generally a cry for help or boredom.
  • I treat all students differently. Each one needs a different amount of boot, carrot, praise laughter, and understanding. Find out what makes each student tick. Try to find out what interests the students and then find examples to fit that interest. If all your speed/ distance calculations need to be about tractors that’s fine!
  • If the students know you won’t give up on them they’ll certainly try hard, but also tell them when they’re not delivering what they are capable of. Even Physics can be completed by 95% of students if they really go for it, I mean I’m teaching Physics so it can’t be that difficult.

Oh yes, go and do amazing things! Who would have ever thought as a Physics teacher that I would spend 7 weeks working in a nuclear power station on a Royal Society of Edinburgh Teaching Fellowship? Visiting astronauts in their houses (Scottish Space School), going underground around the LHC, sharing a meal with a Nobel Prize winner (Royal Society Partnership Grant Scheme), speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (Royal Society), being invited around Renault HQ (Yourideasyourinitiative), testing the reaction time of the Queen’s cousin (Summer Science Exhibition), spending two weeks at the Royal Society and getting students produce a Scientific paper published in a special Young Scientist Journal, spending 3 days in a shooting hotel working at the Optoelectronics College, or spending two great weekends with snoring Physics teachers exchanging notes and making IoP rockets in the middle of the forest (I think now the police would be on to us as a terrorist cell) (Regional CPD event). There are so many opportunities for teachers and students. Grasp each one, as it keeps you invigorated and excited by the amazing things around you. As we are in a rural area we don’t have the same access as some of you do to Universities, Science Centres, great speakers and so on, so try to make these opportunities available for students so they can be inspired by the Science around them and realise that Science will bring them great opportunities. I think I sound like a seven year old- maybe that is the secret, be as inquisitive as the students and show it is OK to be curious!

I would also like to mention a guy who really ought to have won this award but didn’t live long enough to see the nomination process through. That is Kevin Bailey from Wallace Hall Academy in D&G. He was an amazing teacher, would give up everything to help his students and had the respect of all those he knew. He is still sorely missed.

Teacher of Physics award 2017

Martyn Crawshaw
Millburn Academy, Inverness
Awarded in 2017 for outstanding contributions to the teaching of physics

Martyn is a dedicated and enthusiastic teacher who instils a thirst for knowledge in his students and enjoys the challenge of presenting new concepts to them. He has made a very significant impact on his school’s science faculty and the wider school community, and is seen as a “go-to” person for physics support in the north of Scotland, particularly by schools with single-teacher departments, new staff or challenging issues. His students appreciate his engaging and encouraging teaching style and his ability to relate physics to life outside the classroom, while he is a supportive and challenging mentor to new teachers. Throughout his extensive efforts in organising visits, links with industry and hosting CPD, his work-rate has been phenomenal while his ability to empathise with students and colleagues has been exceptional.

(from the IoP Website)

Teacher of Physics Award 2018

Michael Murray
Ayr Academy, Ayrshire


Michael strongly believes that teachers should be facilitators, putting students in control of their own learning. His quirky and humorous approach makes lessons enjoyable while he strives to continually improve his own teaching by incorporating new ideas. Keen to inspire the next generation of physics teachers, Michael is a friendly and supportive mentor. He has contributed to the wider education community in a number of ways, from his work to support staff in delivering the science curriculum in local primary schools, to educating future physics teachers on the University of the West of Scotland PGDE course.

From the IoP Pages

Teacher of Physics Award 2019



Oh what embarrassment, but no one reads this anyway!

In the certain knowledge that I am the only one reading my blog, and I’m not surprised. I feel I can quite simply put these links up.

What an honour to be recognised as a good Physics teacher. If any of you knew how poorly qualified I have felt over the years, and continue to feel, and if you knew how I have battled and continued to battle with my understanding of this amazing subject I think you would all see the irony in it.

I have managed to love this subject so much because of the amazing support and kind and thoughtful explanations from the Physics community in Scotland, whether teachers, lecturers, SSERC members, SQA developers or just interested students.
I think there is a lot wrong with Scottish Education at the moment,  but one thing that is totally right is the support that the IoP and Scottish Teachers give to each other. The subject is in a much better place because of it.

I am of an age now that the teachers that I started working with are retiring or even worse no longer with us. I will forever admire Kevin Bailey from Wallace Hall who was such a selfless and skilled teacher and also Frank Callaghan, who after 10 years of close friendship I still knew so little about.

Thank you to all the Physics community in Scotland; the award is really about you and for you. I just get to keep it on my mantlepiece.

IoP Teacher Awards

Boy did I really send such a silly interview to Sally? Sorry. You can judge for yourself, and thanks to Uncle Eric for the tip on Rocket scientists!

Apollo 13- re-enactment

What fun! I am so pleased to be able to run a skills course. I am teaching Physics through the medium of Modern Foreign Languages and communication. We have just watched some of Apollo 13.

While the lunar module had enough spare oxygen to accommodate Swigert as well as the intended lunar module crew of Lovell and Haise, carbon dioxide was beginning to build up. Normally lithium hydroxide (LiOH) canisters absorbed the gas from the air and prevented it from reaching dangerous levels, but the canisters on-board the Aquarius were being overwhelmed. The Odyssey had more than enough spare LiOH canisters on-board, but these canisters were square and couldn’t fit into the holes intended for the lunar modules’ round canisters.

Mission control needed a way to put a square peg into a round hole. Fortunately, as with the lunar module activation sequence, somebody was ahead of the game.

Ed Smylie, one of the engineers who developed and tested life support systems for NASA, had recognized that carbon dioxide was going to be a problem as soon as he heard the lunar module was being pressed into service after the explosion.

For two days straight since then, his team had worked on how to jury-rig the Odyssey’s canisters to the Aquarius’s life support system. Now, using materials known to be available on-board the spacecraft–a sock, a plastic bag, the cover of a flight manual, lots of duct tape, and so on–the crew assembled Smylie’s strange contraption and taped it into place. Carbon dioxide levels immediately began to fall into the safe range. Mission control had served up another miracle.


I have 20 students across two rooms. The only means of communication is through Edmodo messenger. One group have a model in front of them, the other are having to build the model from instructions given over the internet.

The frustration on both sides is evident. Caps com has changed hands several times as different people type and give the orders (flight director). I am desperate to go and see what is happening downstairs. I’ve used the phone twice, once to check the students were logged on (a massive delay between switching on and getting logged on). The instructions given weren’t always as clear as caps com thought. The second time was to tell them time was up and to bring up the models to compare.


Just couldn’t wait to see the models, and by all accounts both teams did a brilliant job. I must find another course to fit this into. It is excellent for showing communication, frustration, team work, and all manner of other soft skills.

IMG_20160830_125625420  IMG_20160830_125604868_HDR

And the winning team was….



Well done to you all. I had fun, I hope you did too, and I learned so much!


Off to Edinburgh

Mrs Physics is taking to the stage!

(Yes, I know the joke…. “You should be on the stage: there’s one that leaves in five minutes”).

It appears I am going on the stage appearing with two far more distinguished people than I. I think I am there to make the numbers up. The info about the event is given below.

The Science of Writing for Young Readers

Mon 22 Aug 7:00pm – 8:00pm, Baillie Gifford Corner Theatre, £8.00, £6.00
The Science of Writing for Young Readers
Gill Arbuthnott

Experimenting with Words

Quality popular science books can be an interesting way to liven up lessons. Using the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize shortlist as an example, author and teacher Gill Arbuthnott, teacher Mrs Physics from Lockerbie Academy and education researcher Ruth Jarman discuss how the segue from literature to science, or science to literature, can engage school age children on new and exciting levels.

Now, I wasn’t sure what I’d let myself in for when I signed up for this. I was quite terrified but put it to the back of my mind behind the gall bladder removal. (Which reminds me I must write a post about that soon.)

However, I’ve had to think about this event. So off Gill Arbuthnott came for a morning on Mostly Harmless and we had a really good chat. She’s a very interesting lady, with a love of Science and books and it was a privilege to share a coffee, few cakes and a salad (but not all together). It has totally got me thinking about Science books: no, not text books- books that students can read for pleasure, and there are plenty of them. I realised that apart from the Royal Society Young Peoples Book Prize and a few reviews in Science in Schools, we don’t actually get to know about Science books unless we spend hours in the bookshops, and that’s not easy in rural areas and it isn’t always clear where to find them. Well, that’s where the other person on the panel comes in. I hadn’t realised that, education researcher, Dr Ruth Jarman is aiming to increase the profile of Science reading and literacy for fun.

ruth jarman

I am not sure about having the audience there, I think the three of us will have a wonderful chat and share some great ideas: I am quite looking forward to finding more about what they do. I think I had better go and prepare something and make sure that I keep fairly quiet, as these two ladies will be very interesting and have loads to say! I am a bit worried about the blurb for the Festival, as it talks about it being full of experts, so I don’t know why I was asked.

Students at Lockerbie Academy have been very fortunate to have participated in the Royal Society Young Peoples Book Prize for several years and it is really interesting. Many students don’t know that you can buy or borrow interesting Science books and read them for fun!

Do come and say hello if I see you, although I might have to rush off, it will be double higher first thing Tuesday morning!



Why electron flow?-Scotland does things differently!

teacher clip art

There was an interesting debate on the Physics forum a few months back about why Scottish school physics went down the electron flow route whereas everywhere else stuck with conventional current.  Well one man, “our man in Aberdeen (as well as all over the place)” has done a great deal or research to get to the bottom of the query. Here is his edited reply.


I have wondered for some time what led to Scottish school physics education going down the electron flow route whereas everywhere else stuck with conventional current.  I had put it down as an outcome of the very significant discussions about the nature of science education and subsequent curriculum development that took place in the 1960s, in much of the western world, initiated at least partly as a result of Sputnik being launched by the USSR.   

Although I have no direct evidence I assume that conventional current was likely to have been used prior to the 1960s.  As I see it there has been four significant periods of curriculum development in Scottish Physics education during the last sixty years.


There was the development of the Alternative O Grade and Higher Grade and the introduction of CSYS.  I would wrap up these up with the developments that occurred following the publication of Curriculum Paper 7 and which led to the likes of Science for the 70’s and the Scottish Integrated Science project.  The Alternative O Grade developments ran in parallel and overlapping with the Nuffield curriculum changes south of the border. 


$_35 th8MOBH3N7

Standard Grade and an applications based approach and the tweaks to Higher and CSYS that followed.  This did a great deal for the popularity and uptake of Physics. 


Higher Still where the mantra was “minimum change” so the physics did not change much.


9781471808258 9781444168549       $_35

(NB Other text books are available!)

CfE (and the Revised courses before) where we have had a welcome refresh of the physics in the Senior Phase .

The move to the orthodoxy (I had better not use the term convention) of using electron flow seems to have been pretty much in place during my own education in the 1970s and certainly by the time I started teaching in the 1980s.  Hence my assumption that it was one of the products of the developments around the introduction of the Alternative syllabuses of the 1960s along with things like tartan trolleys and ticker tape, Westminster electromagnetism kits, Teltron tubes and much else we have become very familiar with since.

 I have done a bit of digging into my archive of publications to see what further clues I can find, but my hypothesis is that the shift occurred not so much with statements in published curriculum documents but in CPD and other activities associated with the implementations, and Jim Jardine’s influence on student teachers at Moray House.

 Here is what I have found.

 SCEEB (predecessor of SQA) First Cycle (S1/2 – and overlaps with Curriculum Paper 7 (1969), Second Cycle – O Grade and Third Cycle – Higher syllabus (1969) and update (1976).

Photos to follow

No mention of direction – all brief statements such as:

p37 Magnetic field of straight wire carrying current.

p37 Force on conductor (qualitative).

SCDS (predecessor of Education Scotland) Memorandum 31 Specific Objectives for Ordinary Grade Physics (1977)

No mention of direction – more specific statements interpreting what was published by SCEEB in 1976 such as:

p16 Recall that the direction of the force on a current-carrying conductor in a magnetic field depends on the directions of the current and the field.

It would appear that there was no preference for either convention in syllabus documents and there does not even appear to be an acknowledgement that two options exist.

 Jim Jardine’s Physics is Fun Book 2 (1964)

Movement of charges, electrons and ions, is well covered in Chpt 2 from p15 but the first signs of electron flow being interpreted as a current appear on p37 in a section titled “Direction of Current”.  “An electric current can be considered as a flow of negative charges (electrons) in one direction or a flow of positive charges in the opposite direction.  We will usually represent it as a flow of electrons, particularly when dealing with electric current in wires.  Black arrows will then be used to indicate flow of electrons.  When dealing with the movement of positive charges arrows will be coloured red.”

Figure 89 then shows a circuit with black arrows on the wires labelled electrons indicating a current in the circuit.

In Physics is Fun Book 4 (1967) p58 the section uses black print to show streams of electrons in the case of magnetic fields around conductors.

Jim’s NatPhil ‘O’ (1973) continues to use the black and red two colour approach but there is definitely less of the red and in figures such as Fig12-4 on p109 it would be very easy just to interpret a current flowing negative to positive and to lose the distinction very clearly made in the Physics is Fun books.  On p120-1 in the magnetism section reference is made to both positive charges and electrons and Fig 13-28 is of Fleming’s Motor Rule using conventional current.  On p123-4 both black and red are used but the black dominates in appearance.

Nuffield Teachers’ Guide II (1966)

As part of a section dealing with the teaching of electricity the following appears on p40 “So far….we have not bothered very much with the direction of current.  In future we shall adopt a universal agreement made a century ago.”  All the Nuffield materials then go on to use conventional current but at times mentioning how electrons move as appropriate. 

Science for the 70’s Book 1 (1971) on p111 in Unit 7 makes the statement “The electrons flow out along the wire connected to the negative terminal of the cell.”  Otherwise the discussion is about relative brightness of lamps.  However, in the Teachers’ Guide on p138 there is the Specific Objective:

“…the pupil should acquire:

2. the knowledge that current in a solid conductor is regarded as being a flow of electrons,”

In Science for the 70’s Book2 (1971) on p111 Figure 15.15 and the surrounding text uses conventional current to determine the direction of the magnetic field around a current carrying conductor.  However, I very few people ever had enough time to reach Unit 15 in the time available for science in S1/2.

In the Scottish Integrated Science Worksheets and Teacher Guides (1977) there is no specific directionality on diagrams etc but in the Teachers’ Guide Sections 1 to 8 on p131 the Section Objective:

“All pupils should acquire:

2 the knowledge that current is a flow of charge (electron)”

There is also a recommendation to use the symbols and practices in SCDS Memorandum 5 Symbols and Terminology in Physics (Second Edition) (1975).  Although this lists the conventions for writing quantity symbols and units and circuit symbols there does not appear to be any recommendation on current direction.

Cackett, Kennedy and Steven’s Core Physics (1979) on p184 it states “When we describe current in our circuits, we will be referring to the movement of electrons and this direction will be from negative to positive.  In some textbooks the current is described as flowing from positive to negative.  It is then often referred to as ‘conventional current’.”  Arrows labelled I are then shown in subsequent figures in both circuits and magnetism sections.

Alistair Reid’s O-Grade Physics (1980) book current arrows on circuit diagrams going from negative to positive and the right hand rule in the magnetism section.  I cannot see any reference to conventional current or electron flow it appears to just assume current is negative to positive.

David Standley’s SCE O Grade Physics (1983) book explains both conventional current and electron flow on p163 with a helpful diagram showing a conventional current arrow on the circuit wire and an electron flow arrow separate from the wire and avoids using direction arrows on figures.  Conventional current is consistently used in the magnetism section (I might add that David taught in an independent school which also taught English syllabus courses which I am sure at least in part accounts for the difference in his approach).

So in conclusion, I think I have confirmed my hypothesis.  Between the early 1960s and the early 1980s none of the syllabus or guidance documents state a requirement for one convention or another.  However, following the lead taken in Jim Jardine’s Physics in Fun books the emphasis was increasingly placed on electron flow in metal conductors.  Although Jim makes the distinction very clear in his early texts this is less so later on and in subsequent texts published by others in Scotland the idea that current is a flow of electrons becomes dominant.  I suspect that by that time the subtle distinctions and teaching points that I am sure were discussed and considered very important by the committees involved during the development of the likes of the Alternative O Grade and Nuffield resources were forgotten in the mists of time.  I suspect there must also have been CPD available when the Alternative Physics and Integrated Science courses were introduced that also promoted the use of electron flow.  Hence we arrived at a point when I entered teaching that Scottish physics teachers just accepted currents in school physics as electron flows because “that was the way it is” without necessarily appreciating the underlying philosophy – it might even be an example of “group think”.  

Our Man in Aberdeen and all over the place is Stuart Farmer. Head of Physics, Robert Gordon’s College, Aberdeen, United Kingdom. He has been awarded the 2016 Bragg Medal and prize of the Institute of Physics. He has been a member of the Association for Science Education (ASE) since he started teaching and has been its Chair of Trustees as well as Chair of ASE Scotland three times.  Stuart is the Vice-chair of the Institute of Physics (IOP) in Scotland, a member of IOP’s Scottish Education Committee and the IOP’s Teacher Network Co-ordinator for Grampian and the Northern Isles.