The Stimulating Physics Network

The Institute of Physics Stimulating Physics is a national programme of CPD, funded by the DfE. The Network’s Project Manager, David Cameron, explains how this high-impact programme works. This is one of the articles in our National Teacher Enquiry Network Easter 2013 newsletter (sign up here).

IoP - David CameronThe Stimulating Physics Network is a project which works with over 400 schools across England to develop the teaching and learning of physics.  Funded by the Department for Education and managed by the Institute of Physics in partnership with the network of Science Learning Centres, the Stimulating Physics Network is a strategic teacher development network of unprecedented scale and impact.  The Stimulating Physics Network has been operational on a national scale since 2009 and, in the schools where the project has been working longest, teachers have seen an average 70% increase in the uptake of physics A-level by boys; and a remarkable 200% increase in the number of girls choosing to study physics A-level.

We believe that the Stimulating Physics Network represents a model for supporting teachers in all subject areas, particularly those teachers at an early stage of their career or those teaching outside of their subject specialism.  The Stimulating Physics Network sets the benchmark for facilitating effective CPD and for developing local, regional and national professional networks, for rehabilitating the culture of a subject within schools, and for engaging school leadership in teachers’ professional development.  At its heart, the Stimulating Physics Network retains a focus on pupil learning and outcomes, and developing the pupil experience.

Origins – the need for the Stimulating Physics Network

The need for the Stimulating Physics Network came from a chronic shortage of specialist physics teachers in English secondary schools in the 1990s and 2000s.  The Institute of Physics estimated that 500 schools had no science teacher who could be considered a physics specialist.  It is likely that in a school where there are no – or even just one – specialist physics teachers, the ‘culture’ of physics can be lost.  By this we mean, a lack of professional dialogue in prep rooms and staffrooms, and an unwillingness to try new ideas and approaches in teaching.  Either way, the reality was that the number of pupils who chose to study A-level physics across England fell from about 45,000 in 1985 to below 30,000 in 2005.  This figure is now rising, but is still lower than the other sciences.

Much is now being done to remedy this issue, and the Institute of Physics has been at the heart of recent changes – most significantly the introduction of Teacher Training Scholarships, administered by the Institute of Physics, which aim to attract high-achieving graduates and career-changers into physics teaching.  These approaches have been successful in attracting more specialist physicists into the classroom than ever before.  However, the previous and long-running shortfall in physics teacher recruitment means that many pupils in English schools are still taught physics by teachers without an academic or ITT background in physics.

Objectives – enhance pupil experience through teacher development

The Stimulating Physics Network works particularly, but not exclusively, with these non-specialist physics teachers, to develop their pedagogical content knowledge and confidence.   The stated objectives of the Stimulating Physics Network are: to raise the profile and perceived value of physics in schools; to support the professional development of physics teachers; and to develop pupils’ perception of physics as exciting, accessible, aspirational and relevant to their lives.  We take an increase in A-level physics numbers as the ‘thermometer’ that these objectives are being met.

Project operation – a team of TLCs

The Stimulating Physics Network is built around a team of 35 ‘Teaching and Learning Coaches’, or TLCs, who together provide coverage from St Ives in Cornwall to Ashington in Northumberland.  Based from home, each TLC supports 12 schools in their local area, working flexibly to meet the schools’ needs.  Schools either request to work with the Stimulating Physics Network, or are invited to join on the basis of historical data of physics A-level numbers.  Each school is designated an ‘SPN Partner School’ for a period of two years, and a bespoke programme of support is drawn up between the TLC and the Head of Science.  As the relationship between TLC and Partner School develops, this support is refined down to the level of individual teachers’ professional learning needs.

Quality CPD based on a common resource

Each TLC is a highly experienced and expert physics teacher, with a background in supporting other teachers as a head of department, deputy head, AST or local authority adviser.  Each TLC develops a particular repertoire, but all work from a common core of material, the ‘Supporting Physics Teaching’ (SPT) resource.  SPT is an authoritative package of material developed by the IOP and university-based experts in physics education, covering not only the most effective teaching approaches to various topics, but also the pedagogical challenges, the common misconceptions amongst pupils and teachers, and the underlying ‘narrative’ and ideas.

TLCs are specifically coaches, rather than trainers.  A TLC workshop in a Partner School builds from the SPT resource and deploys effective approaches in professional coaching: providing support without judgment, encouraging discussion between colleagues, challenging preconceptions, enabling each teacher’s own professional learning, and always, always retaining a focus on the pupils’ learning and outcomes.  TLCs don’t write lesson plans, but instead work to facilitate a culture of reflective practice and enquiry amongst a department.  Each TLC is working to make themselves, and the project, redundant.

Beyond the school, TLCs help to develop networks of physics teachers, communities of practice for mutual support and lasting professional development.  In addition to local networks based on each TLC’s portfolio of twelve schools, there are regional networks facilitated through ‘SPN Teacher Days’ which are organised through the regional Science Learning Centres and hosted by supporting schools.  Additionally, all physics teachers can access the national professional community of physics teachers through the TalkPhysics site, hosted by the IOP and supported by the Stimulating Physics Network, which has over 7,000 registered users.

Multiple points of contact: benefits of being an SPN Partner School

An SPN Partner School can access multiple benefits to support physics teachers and develop pupils’ experience of physics.  All are provided at no cost to schools or teachers, and the support for each school is worth about £5,000 per year.  Since April 2012 the TLC team has facilitated over 21,000 teacher-hours of CPD across the country.  Over 92% of teachers attending these workshops felt that their confidence in the classroom would improve as a result.  Each Partner School receives an average of 43 teacher-hours of CPD each year.  In addition, one or more non-specialist teacher at each Partner School can attend an ‘SPN Summer School’, a four-day residential event of intensive CPD led by a team of eight TLCs and hosted at either an Oxbridge college or the National Science Learning Centre in York.

SPN Partner Schools can access a range of pupil engagement activities.  These include the large-scale ‘Ever Wondered Why’ shows, which TLCs deliver to year-group size audiences and feature regularly in local media and online.  TLCs can also help to deliver talks focused on careers linked to physics, A-level and GCSE masterclasses, and projects on the physics of music concerts.  In all these cases the TLC works with the school’s physics teachers, linking the activity back to the teacher’s CPD, ensuring the capacity to deliver similar activities in the school will remain once the engagement with SPN has ended.

SPN Partner Schools can also register for a new competitive project for Year 9 pupils based on the discovery of exoplanets, where pupils are supported remotely by A-level physics students in other schools across the country.  This project is particularly aimed at seeding science clubs, again ensuring a lasting legacy for pupils beyond the span of the project’s partnership with a school.

Subject-focused mentoring for early career physics teachers

With a recent increase in funding from the Department for Education, the Stimulating Physics Network has been able to expand its activities to include a mentoring programme for early career physics teachers – ‘Stimulating Physics Support’.  The network of 26 SPS Mentors complements the work of the TLCs in Partner Schools by providing individual, personalised support and subject-specific development for 400 new physics teachers each year.  Teachers are registered to the programme in their initial training year, and benefit from three years of guidance, support and local events and workshops specifically for early career physics teachers.  The SPS Mentor challenges each teacher to develop their practice progressively; SPS is unprecedented as a mentoring programme in terms of its scale, focus and the fact that the support is sustained to the end of the teachers’ second year as a qualified teacher.

Effective approaches in coaching and mentoring

The Stimulating Physics Network is not successful because of its structures and systems; it is successful because it explicitly puts into practice what the evidence base has shown to be the most effective approaches to teacher development and professional coaching and mentoring.

Hobson has shown that having access to an expert coach who stands apart from any hierarchy of appraisal, assessment or performance management is particularly effective in teacher CPD and vital to developing confidence and trust in the coaching relationship.  Hattie’s meta-analyses of the most effective CPD in terms of pupil outcomes characterises the practice of the TLCs and SPS Mentors: CPD is conducted over an extended period, drawing on external experts; teachers are engaged sufficiently to deepen their knowledge and develop skills, and prevailing discourses and misconceptions are challenged; the CPD facilitates teachers talking to other teachers in networks; and an unwavering focus on pupil learning is maintained.

Hattie emphasises the importance of support from the school leadership for effective CPD, as does Viv Robinson.  The Stimulating Physics Network ensures the engagement of the school senior leadership from the outset.  All SPN Partner Schools sign a formal Memorandum of Understanding with the Institute of Physics, which requires the headteacher’s signature as an expression of the school’s commitment to work with the Stimulating Physics Network to develop the teaching and learning of physics.  This strategy has been very successful in maintaining the engagement of the Partner Schools; since April 2012 the project has recruited over 300 Partner Schools, only one has withdrawn from the project in that time.

General implications for teacher development

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 coordinated approach with the support of government and subject associations or 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 from a range of organisations associated with science education and teacher development generally – including the Historical Association, Teach First, the Nuffield Foundation, the South East Physics Network, the Ogden Trust and of course the Teacher Development Trust.  We are very keen to share our experiences with others, and work to develop pupils’ experiences in a range of areas.  We are confident that the model that has proved so effective in this case does not need to be limited to physics education… a Stimulating History Network?  Why not?

David Cameron
Email: david.cameron@iop.org
Website: www.stimulatingphysics.org
Twitter: @TakeOnPhysics, @David_Cameron76

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Posted in March 2013, Newsletter.

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