Explaining current flow in conductors (part one)

Do we delve deeply enough into the actual physical mechanism of current flow through electrical conductors (in terms of charge carriers and electric fields) in our treatments for GCSE and A-level Physics? I must reluctantly admit that I am increasingly of the opinion that the answer is no.

Of course, as physics teachers we talk with seeming confidence of current, potential difference and resistance but — when push comes to shove — can we (say) explain why a bulb lights up almost instantaneously when a switch several kilometres away is closed when the charge carriers can be shown to be move at a speed comparable to that of a sedate jogger? This would imply a time delay of some tens of minutes between closing the switch and energy being transferred from the power source (via the charge carriers) to the bulb.

When students asked me about this, I tended to suggest one of the following:

  • “The electrons in the wire are repelling each other so when one close to the power source moves, then they all move”; or
  • “Energy is being transferred to each charge carrier via the electric field from the power source.”

However, to be brutally honest, I think such explanations are too tentative and “hand wavy” to be satisfactory. And I also dislike being that well-meaning but unintentionally oh-so-condescending physics teacher who puts a stop to interesting discussions with a twinkly-eyed “Oh you’ll understand that when you study physics at degree level.” (Confession: yes, I have been that teacher too often for comfort. Mea culpa.)

Sherwood and Chabay (1999) argue that an approach to circuit analysis in terms of a predominately classical model of electrostatic charges interacting with electric fields is very helpful:

Students’ tendency to reason locally and sequentially about electric circuits is directly addressed in this new approach. One analyzes dynamically the behaviour of the *whole* circuit, and there is a concrete physical mechanism for how different parts of the circuit interact globally with each other, including the way in which a downstream resistor can affect conditions upstream.

(Side note: I think the Coulomb Train Model — although highly simplified and applicable only to a limited set of “steady state” situations — is consistent with Sherwood and Chabay’s approach, but more on that later.)

Misconception 1: “The electrons in a conductor push each other forwards.”

On this model, the flowing electrons push each other forwards like water molecules pushing neighbouring water molecules through a hose. Each negatively charged electron repels every other negatively charged electron so if one free electron within the conductor moves, then the neighbouring free electrons will also move. Hence, by a chain reaction of mutual repulsion, all the electrons within the conductor will move in lockstep more or less simultaneously.

The problem with this model is that it ignores the presence of the positively charged ions within the metallic conductor. A conveniently arranged chorus-line of isolated electrons would, perhaps, behave analogously to the neighbouring water molecules in a hose pipe. However, as Sherwood and Chabay argue:

Averaged over a few atomic diameters, the interior of the metal is everywhere neutral, and on average the repulsion between flowing electrons is canceled by attraction to positive atomic cores. This is one of the reasons why an analogy between electric current and the flow of water can be misleading.

The flowing electrons inside a wire cannot push each other through the wire, because on average the repulsion by any electron is canceled by the attraction of a nearby positive atomic core (Diagram from Sherwood and Chabay 1999: 4)

Misconception 2: “The charge carriers move because of the electric field from the battery.”

Let’s model the battery as a high-capacity parallel plate capacitor. This will avoid the complexities of having to consider chemical interactions within the cells. Think of a “quasi-steady state” where the current drawn from the capacitor is small so that electric charge on the plates remains approximately constant; alternatively, think of a mechanical charge transfer mechanism similar to the conveyor belt in a Van de Graaff generator which would be able to keep the charge on each plate constant and hence the potential difference across the plates constant (see Sherwood and Chabay 1999: 5).

A representation of the electric field around a single cell battery (modelled as a parallel plate capacitor)

This is not consistent with what we observe. For example, if the charge-carriers-move-due-to-electric-field-of the-battery model was correct then we would expect a bulb closer to the battery to be brighter than a more distant bulb; this would happen because the bulb closer to the battery would be subject to a stronger electric field and so we would expect a larger current.

A bulb closer to the battery is NOT brighter than a bulb further away from the battery (assuming negligible resistance in the connecting wires)

There is the additional argument if we orient the bulb so that the current flow is perpendicular to the electric field line, then there should be no current flow. Instead, we find that the orientation of the bulb relative to the electric field of the battery has zero effect on the brightness of the bulb.

There is no change of brightness as the orientation of the bulb is changed with respect to the electric field lines from the battery

Since we do not observe these effects, we can conclude that the electric field lines from the battery are not solely responsible for the current flow in the circuit.

Understanding the cause of current flow

If the electric field of the battery is not responsible on its own for the potential difference that causes a current to flow, where does the electric field come from?

Interviews reveal that students find the concept of voltage difficult or incomprehensible. It is not known how many students lose interest in physics because they fail to understand basic concepts. This number may be quite high. It is therefore astonishing that this unsatisfactory situation is accepted by most physics teachers and authors of textbooks since an alternative explanation has been known for well over one hundred years. The solution […] was in principle discovered over 150 years ago. In 1852 Wilhelm Weber pointed out that although a current-carrying conductor is overall neutral, it carries different densities of charges on its surface. Recognizing that a potential difference between two points along an electric circuit is related to a difference in surface charges [is the answer].

Härtel (2021): 21

We’ll look at these interesting ideas in part two.

[Note: this post edited 10/7/22 because of a rewritten part two]

References

Härtel, H. (2021). Voltage and Surface ChargesEuropean Journal of Physics Education12(3), 19-31.

Sherwood, B. A., & Chabay, R. W. (1999). A unified treatment of electrostatics and circuits. URL http://cil. andrew. cmu. edu/emi. (Note: this article is dated as 2009 on Google Scholar but the text is internally dated as 1999)

Acknowledgements

The circuit representations were produced using the excellent PhET Sims circuit simulator.

I was “awoken from my dogmatic slumbers” on this topic (and alerted to Sherwood and Chabay’s treatment) by Youtuber Veritasium‘s provocative videos (see here and here).

Deriving centripetal acceleration

When I was an A-level physics student (many, many years ago, when the world was young LOL) I found the derivation of the centripetal acceleration formula really hard to understand. What follows is a method that I have developed over the years that seems to work well. The PowerPoint is included at the end.

Step 1: consider an object moving on a circular path

Let’s consider an object moving in circular path of radius r at a constant angular speed of ω (omega) radians per second.

The object is moving anticlockwise on the diagram and we show it at two instants which are time t seconds apart. This means that the object has moved an angular distance of ωt radians.

Step 2: consider the linear velocities of the object at these times

The linear velocity is the speed in metres per second and acts at a tangent to the circle, making a right angle with the radius of the circle. We have called the first velocity v1 and the second velocity at the later time v2.

Since the object is moving at a constant angular speed ω and is a fixed radius r from the centre of the circle, the magnitudes of both velocities will be constant and will be given by v = ωr.

Although the magnitude of the linear velocity has not changed, its direction most certainly has. Since acceleration is defined as the change in velocity divided by time, this means that the object has undergone acceleration since velocity is a vector quantity and a change in direction counts as a change, even without a change in magnitude.

Step 3a: Draw a vector diagram of the velocities

We have simply extracted v1 and v2 from the original diagram and placed them nose-to-tail. We have kept their magnitude and direction unchanged during this process.

Step 3b: close the vector diagram to find the resultant

The dark blue arrow is the result of adding v1 and v2. It is not a useful operation in this case because we are interested in the change in velocity not the sum of the velocities, so we will stop there and go back to the drawing board.

Step 3c switch the direction of velocity v1

Since we are interested in the change in velocity, let’s flip the direction of v1 so that it going in the opposite direction. Since it is opposite to v1, we can now call this -v1.

It is preferable to flip v1 rather than v2 since for a change in velocity we typically subtract the initial velocity from the final velocity; that is to say, change in velocity = v2 – v1.

Step 3d: Put the vectors v2 and (-v1) nose-to-tail

Step 3e: close the vector diagram to find the result of adding v2 and (-v1)

The purple arrow shows the result of adding v2 + (-v1); in other words, the purple arrow shows the change in velocity between v1 and v2 due to the change in direction (notwithstanding the fact that the magnitude of both velocities is unchanged).

It is also worth mentioning that that the direction of the purple (v2v1) arrow is in the opposite direction to the radius of the circle: in other words, the change in velocity is directed towards the centre of the circle.

Step 4: Find the angle between v2 and (-v1)

The angle between v2 and (-v1) will be ωt radians.

Step 5: Use the small angle approximation to represent v2-v1 as the arc of a circle

If we assume that ωt is a small angle, then the line representing v2-v1 can be replaced by the arc c of a circle of radius v (where v is the magnitude of the vectors v1 and v2 and v=ωr).

We can then use the familiar relationship that the angle θ (in radians) subtended at the centre of a circle θ = arc length / radius. This lets express the arc length c in terms of ω, t and r.

And finally, we can use the acceleration = change in velocity / time relationship to derive the formula for centripetal acceleration we a = ω2r.


Well, that’s how I would do it. If you would like to use this method or adapt it for your students, then the PowerPoint is attached.

Please Like or leave a comment if you find this useful 🙂

Teaching refraction using a ripple tank

It is a truth universally acknowledged that student misconceptions about waves are legion. Why do so many students find understanding waves so difficult?

David Hammer (2000: S55) suggests that it may, in fact, be not so much a depressingly long list of ‘wrong’ ideas about waves that need to be laboriously expunged; but rather the root of students misconceptions about waves might be a simple case of miscategorisation.

Hammer (building on the work of di Sessa, Wittmann and others) suggests that students are predisposed to place waves in the category of object rather than the more productive category of event.

Thinking of a wave as an object imbues them with a notional permanence in terms of shape and location, as well as an intuitive sense of ‘weightiness’ or ‘mass’ that is permanently associated with the wave.

Looking at a wave through this p-prim or cognitive filter, students may assume that it can be understood in ways that are broadly similar to how an object is understood: one can simply look at or manipulate the ‘object’ whilst ignoring its current environment and without due consideration of its past or its future

For example, students who think that (say) flicking a slinky spring harder will produce a wave with a faster wave speed rather than the wave speed being dependent on the tension in the spring. They are using the misleading analogy of how an object such as a ball behaves when thrown harder rather than thinking correctly about the actual physics of waves.

A series of undulating events…

Hammer suggests that perhaps a more productive cognitive resource that we should seek to activate in our students when learning about waves is that of an event.

An event can be expected to have a location, a duration, a time of occurrence and a cause. Events do not necessarily possess the aspects of permanence that we typically associate with objects; that is to say, an event is expected to be a transient phenomenon that we can learn about by looking, yes, but we have to be looking at exactly the right place at the right time. We also cannot consider them independently of their environment: events have an effect on their immediate environment and are also affected by the environment.

If students think of waves as a series of events propagating through space they are less likely to imbue them with ‘permanent’ properties such as a fixed shape that can be examined at leisure rather than having to be ‘captured’ at one instant. Hammer suggests using a row of falling dominoes to introduce this idea, but you might also care to use this suggested procedure.

You can access an editable copy of the slides that follow in Google Jamboard format by clicking on this link.

Teaching Refraction Step 1: Breaking = bad waves

I like to start by anchoring the idea of changing wave speed in a context that students may be familiar with: waves on a beach. However, we should try and separate the general idea of an undulating water wave from that of a breaking wave. Begin by asking this question:

Give thirty seconds thinking time and then ask students to hold up either one or two fingers on 3-2-1-now! to show their preferred answer. (‘Finger voting’ is a great method for ensuring that every student answers without having to dig out those mini whiteboards).

The correct answer is, of course, the top diagram. This is because the bottom diagram shows a breaking wave.

Teaching Refraction Step 2: Why do waves ‘break’?

In short, because waves slow down as they hit the beach. The top part of the wave is moving faster than the bottom so the wave breaks up as it slides off the bottom part. In effect, the wave topples over because the bottom is moving more slowly than the top part.

The correct answer is ‘two fingers’

It is important that students appreciate that although the wavelength of the wave does change, the frequency of the wave does not. The frequency of the wave depends on the weather patterns that produced the wave in the deep ocean many hundreds or thousand of miles away. The slope of the beach cannot produce more or fewer waves per second. In other words, the frequency of a wave depends on its history, not its current environment.

All the beach can do is change the wave speed, not the wave frequency.

Teaching Refraction Step 3: the view from above

We can check our students’ understanding by asking them to comment or annotate a diagram similar to the one below.

Some good questions to ask — before the wavelength annotations are added — are:

  • Are we viewing the waves from above or from the side? (From above.)
  • Can we tell where the crests of the waves are? (Yes, where the line of foam are.)
  • Can we tell where the troughs of the waves are? (Yes, midway between the crests.)
  • Can we measure the wavelength of the waves? (Yes, the crest to crest distance.)
  • Can we tell if the waves are speeding up or slowing down as they reach the shore? (Yes, the waves are bunching together which suggests that slow down as they reach the shore.)

Teaching Refraction Step 4: Understanding the ripple tank

Physics teachers often assume that the operation and principles of a ripple tank are self-evident to students. In my experience, they are not and it is worth spending a little time exploring and explaining how a ripple tank works.

Teaching Refraction Step 5: the view from the side

Teaching Refraction Step 6: Seeing refraction in the ripple tank (1)

It’s a good idea to first show what happens when the waves hit the boundary at right angles; in other words, when the direction of travel of the waves is parallel to the normal line.

I like to add the annotations live with the class using Google Jamboard. (The questions can be covered with a blank box until you are ready to show them to the students.)

You can access an animated, annotable version of this and the other slides in this post in Google Jamboard format by clicking on this link.

Teaching Refraction Step 7: Seeing refraction in the ripple tank (2)

The next step is to show what happens when the water waves arrive at the boundary at an angle i; in other words, the direction of travel of the waves makes an angle of i degrees with the normal line.

Again, I like to add the annotations live using Google Jamboard.


References

Hammer, D. (2000). Student resources for learning introductory physicsAmerican Journal of Physics68(S1), S52-S59.

Wittmann, M. C., Steinberg, R. N., & Redish, E. F. (1999). Making sense of how students make sense of mechanical wavesThe physics teacher37(1), 15-21.

Understanded of the pupils

It is a thing plainly repugnant . . . to Minister the Sacraments in a Tongue not understanded of the People.

Gilbert, Bishop of Sarum. An exposition of the Thirty-nine articles of the Church of England (1700)

How can we help our students understand physics better? Or, in more poetic language, how can we make physics a thing that is more ‘understanded of the pupils’?

Redish and Kuo (2015: 573) suggest that the Resources Framework being developed by a number of physics education researchers can be immensely helpful.

In summary, the Resources Framework models a student’s reasoning as based on the activation of a subset of cognitive resources. These ‘thinking resources’ can be classified broadly as:

  • Embodied cognition: these are simple, irreducible cognitive resources sometimes referred to as ‘phenomenological primitives’ or p-prims such as ‘if-resistance-increases-then-the-output-decreases‘ and ‘two-opposing-effects-can-result-in-a-state-of-dynamic-balance‘. They are typically straightforward and ‘obvious’ generalisations of our lived, everyday experience as we move through the physical world. Embodied cognition is perhaps summarised as our ‘sense of mechanism’.
  • Encyclopedic (ancillary) knowledge: this is a complex cognitive resource made of a large number of highly interconnected elements: for example, the concept of ‘banana’ is linked dynamically with the concept of ‘fruit’, ‘yellow’, ‘curved’ and ‘banana-flavoured’ (Redish and Gupta 2009: 7). Encyclopedic knowledge can be thought of as the product of both informal and formal learning.
  • Contextualisation: meaning is constructed dynamically from contextual and other clues. For example, the phrase ‘the child is safe‘ cues the meaning of ‘safe‘ = ‘free from the risk of harm‘ whereas ‘the park is safe‘ cues an alternative meaning of ‘safe‘ = ‘unlikely to cause harm‘. However, a contextual clue such as the knowledge that a developer had wanted to but failed to purchase the park would make the statement ‘the park is safe‘ activate the ‘free from harm‘ meaning for ‘safe‘. Contextualisation is the process by which cognitive resources are selected and activated to engage with the issue.

Using the Resources Framework for teaching

I have previously used aspects of the Resources Framework in my teaching and have found it thought provoking and helpful to my practice. However, the ideas are novel and complex — at least to me — so I have been trying to think of a way of conveniently organising them.

What follows in my ‘first draft’ . . . comments and suggestions are welcome!

The RGB Model of the Resources Framework

The RGB Model of the Resources Framework

The red circle (the longest wavelength of visible light) represents Embodied Cognition: the foundation of all understanding. As Kuo and Redish (2015: 569) put it:

The idea is that (a) our close sensorimotor interactions with the external world strongly influence the structure and development of higher cognitive facilities, and (b) the cognitive routines involved in performing basic physical actions are involved in even in higher-order abstract reasoning.

The green circle (shorter wavelength than red, of course) represents the finer-grained and highly-interconnected Encyclopedic Knowledge cognitive structures.

At any given moment, only part of the [Encyclopedic Knowledge] network is active, depending on the present context and the history of that particular network

Redish and Kuo (2015: 571)

The blue circle (shortest wavelength) represents the subset of cognitive resources that are (or should be) activated for productive understanding of the context under consideration.

A human mind contains a vast amount of knowledge about many things but has limited ability to access that knowledge at any given time. As cognitive semanticists point out, context matters significantly in how stimuli are interpreted and this is as true in a physics class as in everyday life.

Redish and Kuo (2015: 577)

Suboptimal Understanding Zone 1

A common preconception held by students is that the summer months are warmer because the Earth is closer to the Sun during this time of year.

The combination of cognitive resources that lead students to this conclusion could be summarised as follows:

  • Encyclopedic knowledge: the Earth’s orbit is elliptical
  • Embodied cognition: The closer to a heat source you are the warmer it is.

Both of these cognitive resources, considered individually, are true. It is their inappropriate selection and combination that leads to the incorrect or ‘Suboptimal Understanding Zone 1’.

To address this, the RF(RGB) suggests a two pronged approach to refine the contextualisation process.

Firstly, we should address the incorrect selection of encyclopedic knowledge. The Earth’s orbit is elliptical but the changing Earth-Sun distance cannot explain the seasons because (1) the point of closest approach is around Jan 4th (perihelion) which is winter in the northern hemisphere; (2) seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres do not match; and (3) the Earth orbit is very nearly circular with an eccentricity e of 0.0167 where a perfect circle has e = 0.

Secondly, the closer-is-warmer p-prim is not the best embodied cognition resource to activate. Rather, we should seek to activate the spread-out-is-less-intense ‘sense of mechanism’ as far as we are able to (for example by using this suggestion from the IoP).

Suboptimal Understanding Zone 2

Another common preconception held by students is all waves have similar properties to the ‘breaking’ waves on a beach and this means that the water moves with the wave.

The structure of this preconception could be broken down into:

  • Embodied cognition: if I stand close to the water on a beach, then the waves move forward to wash over my feet.
  • Encyclopaedic knowledge: the waves observed on a beach are water waves

Considered in isolation, both of these cognitive resources are unproblematic: they accurately describes our everyday, lived experience. It is the contextualisation process that leads us to apply the resources inappropriately and places us squarely in Suboptimal Understanding Zone 2.

The RF(RGB) Model suggests that we can address this issue in two ways.

Firstly, we could seek to activate a more useful embodied cognition resource by re-contextualising. For example, we could ask students to imagine themselves floating in deep water far from the shore: do the waves carry them in any particular direction or simply move them up or down as they pass by?

Secondly, we could seek to augment their encyclopaedic knowledge: yes, the waves on a beach are water waves but they are not typical water waves. The slope of the beach slows down the bottom part of the wave so the top part moves faster and ‘topples over’ — in other words, the water waves ‘break’ leading to what appears to be a rhythmic back-and-forth flow of the waves rather than a wave train of crests and troughs arriving a constant wave speed. (This analysis is over a short period of time where the effect of any tidal effects is negligible.)

Both processes try to ‘tug’ student understanding into the central, optimal zone.

Suboptimal Understanding Zone 3

Redish and Kuo (2015: 585) recount trying to help a student understand the varying brightness of bulbs in the circuit shown.

4 bulbs in a circuit: Bulbs A, B and D are in series with the cell but bulb C is in parallel across bulb B.
All bulbs are identical. Bulbs A and D are bright; bulbs B and C are dim.

The student said that they had spent nearly an hour trying to set up and solve the Kirchoff’s Law loop equations to address this problem but had been unsuccessful in accounting for the varying brightnesses.

Redish suggested to the student that they try an analysis ‘without the equations’ and just look at the problems in simpler physical terms using just the concept of electric current. Since current is conserved it must split up to pass through bulbs B and C. Since the brightness is dependent on the current, the smaller currents in B and C compared with A and D accounts for their reduced brightness.

When he was introduced to [this] approach to using the basic principles, he lit up and was able to solve the problem quickly and easily, saying, ‘‘Why weren’t we shown this way to do it?’’ He would still need to bring his conceptual understanding into line with the mathematical reasoning needed to set up more complex problems, but the conceptual base made sense to him as a starting point in a way that the algorithmic math did not.

Analysing this issue using the RF(RGB) it is plausible to suppose that the student was trapped in Suboptimal Understanding Zone 3. They had correctly selected the Kirchoff’s Law resources from their encyclopedic knowledge base, but lacked a ‘sense of mechanism’ to correctly apply them.

What Redish did was suggest using an embodied cognition resource (the idea of a ‘material flow’) to analyse the problem more productively. As Redish notes, this wouldn’t necessarily be helpful for more advanced and complex problems, but is probably pedagogically indispensable for developing a secure understanding of Kirchoff’s Laws in the first place.

Conclusion

The RGB Model is not a necessary part of the Resources Framework and is simply my own contrivance for applying the RF in the context of physics education at the high school level. However, I do think the RF(RGB) has the potential to be useful for both physics and science teachers.

Hopefully, it will help us to make all of our subject content more ‘understanded of the pupils’.


References

Redish, E. F., & Gupta, A. (2009). Making meaning with math in physics: A semantic analysis. GIREP-EPEC & PHEC 2009, 244.

Redish, E. F., & Kuo, E. (2015). Language of physics, language of math: Disciplinary culture and dynamic epistemology. Science & Education24(5), 561-590.

2021 Retrospective

A huge thank you to everyone who has viewed, read or commented on one of my posts in 2021: whether you agreed or disagreed with my point of view, you are the people that make the work of writing this blog so enjoyable and rewarding.

The top 3 most-read posts of 2021 were:

1. What to do if your school has a batshit crazy marking policy

Extract from blog post "What to do if your school has a batshit crazy marking policy"

This particular post was written back in 2019 and it’s sobering to realise that it is still relevant enough that it was featured by @TeacherTapp in November 2021. As edu-blog writers will know, this unlooked for honour generates thousands of views — thanks, @TeacherTapp!

Note to schools: please, if you haven’t done so already, please please please sort out your marking policy and make sure it is workable and fit for purpose. It would seem that, even now, teachers are being made to mark for the sake of marking, rather than for any tangible educational benefit.

2. FIFA for the GCSE Physics Calculation Win!

Extract from "FIFA for the GCSE Physics Calculation Win" blog.

The next post is one I am very proud of, even though FIFA is just a silly mnemonic to help students follow the “substitute-first-and-then-rearrange” method favoured by AQA mark schemes. Yes, FIFA did start life as a “mark-grubbing” dodge; however, somewhat to my own surprise, I found that the vast majority of students (LPAs included), can rearrange successfully if they substitute the numbers in first. Many other teachers have found the same thing as well — search #FIFAcalc on Twitter for some illustrative tweets from FIFAcalc’s biggest fans.

However, it is clear that the formula triangle method still has many adherents. I think this is unfortunate because: (a) they only work for a limited subset of formulas with the format y=mx; (b) they are a cognitive dead end that actively block students from accessing higher level STEM courses; and (c) as Ed Southall argues effectively, they are a form of procedural teaching rather than conceptual teaching.

3. Why does kinetic energy = 1/2mv^2?

Extract from blog explaining how to derive the kinetic energy equation

This post is a surprise “sleeper” hit also dating from 2019. It outlines an accessible method for deriving the kinetic energy formula. From getting a respectable but niche 200 views per year in 2019 and 2020, in 2021 it shot up to over 3K views. What is very encouraging for me is that most of these views come from internet searches by individuals from a wide range of backgrounds and not just my fellow denizens of the online edu-Bubble!

Here’s to 2022, folks!

Circuit Diagrams: Lost in Rotation…?

Is there a better way of presenting circuit diagrams to our students that will aid their understanding of potential difference?

I think that, possibly, there may be.

(Note: circuit diagrams produced using the excellent — and free! — web editor at https://www.circuit-diagram.org/.)

Old ways are the best ways…? (Spoiler: not always)

This is a very typical, conventional way of showing a simple circuit.

A simple circuit as usually presented

Now let’s measure the potential difference across the cell…

Measuring the potential difference across the cell

…and across the resistor.

Measuring the potential difference across the resistor

Using a standard school laboratory digital voltmeter and assuming a cell of emf 1.5 V and negligible internal resistance we would get a value of +1.5 volts for both positions.

Let me demonstrate this using the excellent — and free! — pHET circuit simulation website.

Indeed, one might argue with some very sound justification that both measurements are actually of the same potential difference and that there is no real difference between what we chose to call ‘the potential difference across the cell’ and ‘the potential difference across the resistor’.

Try another way…

But let’s consider drawing the circuit a different (but operationally identical) way:

The same circuit drawn ‘all-in-a-row’

What would happen if we measured the potential difference across the cell and the resistor as before…

This time, we get a reading (same assumptions as before) of [positive] +1.5 volts of potential difference for the potential difference across the cell and [negative] -1.5 volts for the potential difference across the resistor.

This, at least to me, is a far more conceptually helpful result for student understanding. It implies that the charge carriers are gaining energy as they pass through the cell, but losing energy as they pass through the resistor.

Using the Coulomb Train Model of circuit behaviour, this could be shown like this:

+1.5 V of potential difference represented using the Coulomb Train Model
-1.5 V of potential difference represented using the Coulomb Train Model. (Note: for a single resistor circuit, the emerging coulomb would have zero energy.)

We can, of course, obtain a similar result for the conventional layout, but only at the cost of ‘crossing the leads’ — a sin as heinous as ‘crossing the beams’ for some students (assuming they have seen the original Ghostbusters movie).

Crossing the leads on a voltmeter

A Hidden Rotation?

The argument I am making is that the conventional way of drawing simple circuits involves an implicit and hidden rotation of 180 degrees in terms of which end of the resistor is at a more positive potential.

A hidden rotation…?

Of course, experienced physics learners and instructors take this ‘hidden rotation’ in their stride. It is an example of the ‘curse of knowledge’: because we feel that it is not confusing we fail to anticipate that novice learners could find it confusing. Wherever possible, we should seek to make whatever is implicit as explicit as we can.

Conclusion

A translation is, of course, a sliding transformation, rather than a circumrotation. Hence, I had to dispense with this post’s original title of ‘Circuit Diagrams: Lost in Translation’.

However, I do genuinely feel that some students understanding of circuits could be inadvertently ‘lost in rotation’ as argued above.

I hope my fellow physics teachers try introducing potential difference using the ‘all-in-row’ orientation shown.

The all-in=a-row orientation for circuit diagrams to help student understanding of potential difference

I would be fascinated to know if they feel its a helpful contribition to their teaching repetoire!

FIFA for the GCSE Physics calculation win

Student: Did you know FIFA is also the name of a video game, Sir?

Me: Really?

Student: Yeah. It’s part of a series. I just got FIFA 20. It’s one of my favourite games ever.

Me: Goodness me. I had no idea. I just chose the letters ‘FIFA’ completely and utterly at random!

The FIFA method is an AQA mark scheme-friendly* way of approaching GCSE Physics calculation questions. (It is also useful for some Y12 Physics students.)

I mentioned it in a previous blog and @PedagogueSci was kind enough to give it a boost here, so I thought I’d explain the method in a separate blog post. (Update: you can also watch my talk at ChatPhysics Live 2021 here.)

The FIFA method:

  1. Avoids the use of formula triangles
  2. Minimises the cognitive load on students when approaching calculations.

Why we shouldn’t use formula triangles

Formula triangles are bad news. They are a cognitive dead end.

Screenshot 2019-10-27 at 15.34.54

During a university admissions interview for veterinary medicine, I asked a prospective student to explain how they would make up a solution for infusion into a dog. Part of the answer required them to work out the volume required for a given amount and concentration. The candidate started off by drawing a triangle, then hesitated, eventually giving up in despair. […]

They are a trick that hides the maths: students don’t apply the skills they have previously learned. This means students don’t realise how important maths is for science.

I’m also concerned that if students can’t rearrange simple equations like the one above, they really can’t manage when equations become more complex.

— Jenny Koenig, Why Are Formula Triangles Bad? [Emphases added]

[Update: this 2016 article from Ed Southall also makes a very persuasive case against formula triangle.]

I believe the use of formula triangle also increases (rather than decreases) the cognitive load on students when carrying out calculations. For example, if the concentration c is 0.5 mol dm-3 and the number of moles n required is 0.01 mol, then in order to calculate the volume V they need to:

  • recall the relevant equation and what each symbol means and hold it in working memory
  • recall the layout of symbols within the formula triangle and either (a) write it down or (b) hold it in working memory
  • recall that n and c are known values and that V is the unknown value and hold this information in working memory when applying the formula triangle to the problem

The FIFA method in use (part 1)

The FIFA acronym stands for:

  • FORMULA
  • INSERT VALUES
  • FINE TUNE (this often, but not always, equates to rearranging the formula)
  • ANSWER

Lets look at applying it for a typical higher level GCSE Physics calculation question

Screenshot 2019-10-27 at 16.04.29.png

We add the FIFA rubric:

Screenshot 2019-10-27 at 16.13.00.png

Students have to recall the relevant equation as it is not given on the Data and Formula Sheet. They write it down. This is an important step as once it is written down they no longer have to hold it in their working memory.

Screenshot 2019-10-27 at 16.18.15.png

Note that this is less cognitively demanding on the student’s working memory as they only have to recall the formula on its own; they do not have to recall the formula triangle associated with it.

Students find it encouraging that on many mark schemes, the selection of the correct equation may gain a mark, even if no further steps are taken.

Next, we insert the values. I find it useful to provide a framework for this such as:

Screenshot 2019-10-27 at 16.27.41.png

We can ask general questions such as: “What data are in the question?” or more focused questions such as “Yes or no: are we told what the kinetic energy store is?” and follow up questions such as “What is the kinetic energy? What units do we use for that?” and so on.

Screenshot 2019-10-27 at 16.35.54.png

Note that since we are considering each item of data individually and in a sequence determined by the written formula, this is much less cognitively demanding in terms of what needs to be held in the student’s working memory than the formula triangle method.

Note also that on many mark schemes, a mark is available for the correct substitution of values. Even if they were not able to proceed any further, they would still gain 2/5 marks. For many students, the notion of incremental gain in calculation questions needs to be pushed really hard otherwise they will not attempt these “scary” calculation questions.

Next we are going to “fine tune” what we have written down in order to calculate the final answer. In this instance, the “fine tuning” process equates to a simple algebraic rearrangement. However, it is useful to leave room for some “creative ambiguity” here as we can also use the “fine tuning” process to resolve difficulties with units. Tempting though it may seem, DON’T change FIFA to FIRA.

We fine tune in three distinct steps (see addendum):

Screenshot 2019-10-29 at 12.17.55.png

Finally, we input the values on a calculator to give a final answer. Note that since AQA have declined to provide a unit on the final answer line, a mark is available for writing “kg” in the relevant space — a fact which students find surprising but strangely encouraging.

Screenshot 2019-10-29 at 12.16.46.png

The key idea here is to be as positive and encouraging as possible. Even if all they can do is recall the formula and remember that mass is measured in kg, there is an incremental gain. A mark or two here is always better than zero marks.

The FIFA method in use (part 2)

In this example, we are using the creative ambiguity inherent in the term “fine tune” rather than “rearrange” to resolve a possible difficulty with unit conversion.

Screenshot 2019-10-27 at 17.20.42.png

In this example, we resolve another potential difficulty with unit conversion during the our creatively ambiguous “fine tune” stage:

Screenshot 2019-10-27 at 17.33.05.png

The emphasis, as always, is to resolve issues sequentially and individually in order to minimise cognitive overload.

The FIFA method and low demand Foundation tier calculation questions

I teach the FIFA method to all students, but it’s essential to show how the method can be adapted for low demand Foundation tier questions. (Note: improving student performance on these questions is probably a more significant and quicker and easier win than working on their “extended answer” skills).

For the treatment below, the assumption is that students have already been taught the FIFA method in a number of contexts and that we are teaching them how to apply it to the calculation questions on the foundation tier paper, perhaps as part of an examination skills session.

For the majority of low demand questions, the required formula will be supplied so students will not need to recall it. What they will need, however, is support in inserting the values correctly. Providing a framework as shown below can be very helpful:

Screenshot 2019-10-27 at 17.47.24.png

Also, clearly indicating where the data came from is useful.

Screenshot 2019-10-27 at 17.55.45.png

The fine tune stage is not needed, so we can move straight to the answer.

Screenshot 2019-10-27 at 18.01.07.png

Note also that the FIFA method can be applied to all calculation questions, not just the ones that could be answered using formula triangle methods, as in part (c) of the question above.

Screenshot 2019-10-27 at 18.06.16.png

And finally…

I believe that using FIFA helps to make our thinking and methods in Physics calculations more explicit and clearer for students.

My hope is that science teachers reading this will give it a go.

You can read about using the FIFA system for more challenging questions by clicking on these links: ‘Physics six mark calculation? Give it the old FIFA-one-two!‘ and ‘Using the FIFA system for really challenging GCSE calculations‘.

PS If you have enjoyed this, you might also enjoy Dual Coding SUVAT Problems and also Magnification using the Singapore Bar Model.

*Disclaimer: AQA has not endorsed the FIFA method. I describe it as “AQA mark scheme-friendly” using my professional own judgment and interpretation of published AQA mark schemes.

Addendum

I am embarrassed to admit that this was the original version published. Somehow I missed the more straightforward way of “fine tuning” by squaring the 30 and multiplying by 0.5 and somehow moved straight to the cross multiplication — D’oh!

My thanks to @BenyohaiPhysics and @AdamWteach for pointing it out to me.

Screenshot 2019-10-27 at 16.58.23.png

Engelmann and Direct Instruction (Part 3)

I’m going to begin this post by pondering a deep philosophical conundrum (hopefully, you will find some method in my rambling madness as you read on): I want to discuss the meaning of meaning.

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Image from https://www.flickr.com/photos/christiaan_tonnis/15768628869

Ludwig Wittgenstein begins the Philosophical Investigations (1953), perhaps one of the greatest works of 20th Century philosophy, by quoting Saint Augustine:

When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shewn by their bodily movements . . . I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires.
Confessions (397 CE), I.8

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Image from https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Antonio_Rodríguez_-_Saint_Augustine_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

Wittgenstein uses it to illustrate a simple model of language where words are defined ostensively i.e. by pointing. The method is, arguably, highly effective when we wish to define nouns or proper names. However, Wittgenstein contends, there are problems even here.

If I hold up (say) a pencil and point to it and say pencil out loud, what inference would an observer draw from my action and utterance?

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They might well infer that the object I was holding up was called a pencil. But is this the only inference that a reasonable observer could legitimately draw?

The answer is a most definite no! The word pencil could, as far as the observer could tell from this single instance, mean any one of the following: object made of wood; writing implement; stick sharpened at one end; piece of wood with a central core made of another material; piece of wood painted silver; object that uses graphite to make marks, thin cylindrical object, object with a circular or hexagonal cross-section . . . and many more.

The important point is that one is not enough. It will take many repeated instances of pointing at a range of different pencil-objects (and perhaps not-pencil-objects too) before we and the observer can be reasonably secure that she has correctly inferred the correct definition of pencil.

If defining even a simple noun is fraught with philosophical difficulties, what hope is there for communicating more complicated concepts?

Siegfried Engelmann suggests that philosopher John Stuart Mill provided a blueprint for instruction when he framed formal rules of inductive inference in A System of Logic (1843). Mill developed these rules to aid scientific investigation, but Engelmann argues strongly for their utility in the field of education and instruction. In particular, they show “how examples could be selected and arranged to form an example set that generates only one inference, the one the teacher intends to teach.” [Could John Stuart Mill Have Saved Our Schools? (2011) Kindle edition, location 216, emphasis added].

Engelmann identifies five principles from Mill that he believes are invaluable to the educator. These, he suggests, will tell the educator:

how to arrange examples so that they rule out inappropriate inferences, how to show the acceptable range of variation in examples, and how to induce understanding of patterns and the possible effects of one pattern on another. [loc 223, emphasis added]

Engelmann considers Mill’s Method of Agreement first. (We will look at the other four principles in later posts.)

Mill states his Method of Agreement as follows:

If two or more instances of the phenomenon under investigation have only one circumstance in common, the circumstance in which alone all the instances agree, is the cause (or effect) of the given phenomenon.
A System of Logic. p.263

Engelmann suggests that with a slight change in language, this can serve as a guiding technical principle that will allow the teacher to compile a set of examples that will unambiguously communicate the required concept to the learner, while minimising the risk that the learner will — Engelmann’s bête noire! — draw an incorrect inference from the example set.

Stated in more causal terms, the teacher will identify some things with the same label or submit them to the same operation. If the examples in the teaching set share only one feature, that single feature can be the only cause of why the teacher treats instances in the same way. [Loc 233]

As an example of an incorrect application of this principle, Engelmann gives the following example set commonly presented when introducing fractions: 1/2, 1/3, and 1/4.

Engelmann argues that while they are all indeed fractions, they share more than one feature and hence violate the Method of Agreement. The incorrect inferences that a student could draw from this set would be: 1) all fractions represent numbers smaller than one; 2) numerators and denominators are always single digits; and 3) all fractions have a numerator of 1.

A better example set (argues Engelmann) would be: 5/3, 1/4, 2/50, 3/5, 10/2, 1/5, 48/2 and 7/2 — although he notes that there are thousands more possible sets that are consistent with the Method of Agreement.

Engelmann comments:

Yet many educators believe that the set limited to 1/2, 1/3, and 1/4 is well conceived. Some states ranging from North Dakota to Virginia even mandate that these fractions should be taught first, even though the set is capable of inducing serious confusion. Possibly the most serious problem that students have in learning higher math is that they don’t understand that some fractions equal one or are more than one. This problem could have been avoided with early instruction that introduced a broad range of fractions. [Loc 261]

For my part, I find Engelmann’s ideas fascinating. He seems to be building a coherent philosophy of education from what I consider to be properly basic, foundational principles, rather than some of the “castles in the air” that I have encountered elsewhere.

I will continue my exploration of Engelmann’s ideas in subsequent posts. You can find Parts 1 and 2 of this series here and here.

The series continues with Part 4 here.

Playing the Game

Kings made tombs more splendid than houses of the living and counted old names in the rolls of their descent dearer than the names of sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry.

— J. R. R. Tolkein, The Two Towers

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If there’s anything that makes me lose the will to live, it is being in the same room as an educational Player of Games. I’m sure everyone is reasonably familiar with the type: “I want every intervention from now until the end of term focused on improving the A*-C pass rate for left-handed Y11 students whose birthday month has an R in it.”

Yes, it might help, marginally, in some sense. On such massaging of the margins are modern educational careers and reputations built.

Personally, such considerations leave me cold. Such teachers, it seems to me, hold their statistics in higher esteem than their students. The percentage is adjudged to be the outcome, rather than merely an indicator of a number of successful outcomes.

Sometimes, when I try and express this, people look at me as if I had twelve heads. It is a nuanced and subtle difference of emphasis, admittedly, but I think it’s a valid one. As an analogy, imagine a doctor who focuses on (say) a patient’s temperature to the exclusion of all else: “Doctor, I think I’ve broken my leg.”

“H’mm, let’s have a look. Actually, your temperature is a wee bit high. Here, let me apply this cold compress to your forehead.”

“But what about my leg?”

“Well, your body temperature is back to normal now. That means that we now have the officially mandated number of ‘healthy’ patients as per Ofdoc guidelines.”

“But what about my bloody BROKEN LEG?”

“My work here is done. Next patient please!”

The other note of caution that needs to be sounded more loudly in the education world is awareness of what is known as the Halo Effect.

I learned about this in Duncan Watts’ excellent book Everything Is Obvious (When You Know The Right Answer) in which he summaries the work of Phil Rosenzweig:

Firms that are successful are consistently rated as having visionary strategies. strong leadership, and sound execution, while firms that are performing badly are described as suffering from misguided strategy, poor leadership or shoddy execution. But, as Rosenzweig shows, firms that exhibit large swings in performance over time attract equally divergent ratings, even when they have pursued exactly the same strategy, executed in the same way, under the same leadership all along. Remember that Cisco Systems went from being the poster child of the Internet era to a cautionary tale in a matter of a few years . . . Rosenzweig’s conclusion is that in all these cases, the way firms are rated has more to do with whether they are perceived as succeeding than what they are actually doing.

— Watts, p.197 [emphasis added]

In one early experiment, several teams were asked to analyse the finances of a fictitious firm. Each team was rated on their performance and then asked to evaluate their team in terms of teamwork, communication and motivation. The high scoring teams assessed themselves very highly on these metrics compared with the low scoring teams, as you might expect. However, the kick was that performance scores had been allocated at random — there was no real difference between the teams’ performance at all. The conclusion is that the appearance of superior outcomes produced an illusion of superior functionality.

Watts argues persuasively that we tend to massively underestimate the role of plain, dumb luck in achieving success. He cites the case of Bill Miller, the legendary mutual fund manager who did something no other mutual fund manager has ever achieved: he beat the S&P 500 for fifteen straight years. Watts notes that this seems a classic case of talent trumping luck. However:

. . . right after his record streak ended, Miller’s performance was bad enough to reverse a large chunk of his previous gains, dragging his ten-year average below that of the S&P. So was he a brilliant investor who simply had some bad luck, or was he instead the opposite: a relatively ordinary investor whose ultimately flawed strategy just happened to work for a long time? The problem is that judging from his investing record alone, it’s probably not possible to say. [p.201]

I trust that I do not have to draw too many lines to highlight the relevance of these points to the education world. Outcomes, in the sense of exam grades, are currently the be-all and the end-all of education. But the Halo Effect makes it clear that a simplistic reading of successful outcomes can be highly misleading.

Negating the Halo Effect is difficult, because if one cannot rely on the outcome to evaluate a process then it is no longer clear what to use. The problem, in fact, is not that there is anything wrong with evaluating processes in terms of outcomes — just that it is unreliable to evaluate them in terms of any single outcome. [p.198]

Ofsted. managers and politicians please take note: our search for a signal continues.

Approval of what is approved of
Is as false as a well-kept vow.

— Sir John Betjeman, The Arrest of Oscar Wilde At The Cadogan Hotel

Actions and Consequences

‘I think we all owe Howard a debt of gratitude for coming up with the solution to all our difficulties,’ said one of Kirk’s [university] colleagues.

Kirk took this as his due and nodded, ignoring [the] accurate observation that all the difficulties had been created by him.

The assembled academics had all just tunnelled through the service area under the student picket lines which had been brought into being by Kirk and had surfaced in a conference room to deal with problems which had been fomented by Kirk and had finally got around to passing resolutions in conformity with the wishes of Kirk.

— Clive James, review of 1981 TV adaptation of Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man, from Glued to the Box, 1983

I am sure all teachers have been in that student disciplinary meeting that suddenly goes all Kafkaesque in a manner reminiscent of the academic conference described by Clive James above: what begins as a formal gathering to address the many difficulties created by the student, challenge the obfuscations and untruths put in place by the student, and alleviate the problems fomented by the student; suddenly and inexplicably, often at SLT’s behest, turns to passing resolutions in conformity with the wishes of the student. For example, Kayleigh gets to come off Red Report and SLT will have a serious chat with her teachers about their “questionable attitudes towards her” because, after all, “Kayleigh wants to do well“.

I started thinking about actions and consequences in response to the Quirky Teacher’s provocative post Is Hardship Really So Bad?

TQT argues that perhaps people today are too insulated from genuine hardship. While I think he has a point, I would argue (as in the example above) that, although Kayleigh may well have hardships enough in her life, what the education system as it stands is insulating her from are the long-term, serious consequences of her actions — until it’s too late.

It seems to me that there is, or can be, a widespread acceptance of misfortune and hardship — although perhaps it can often be characterised as sullen rather than stoic. What is different from the world I remember being raised in, is the precipitate rush to don the holy mantle of victimhood; as if the fact that that other individuals or institutions were involved in creating the unfortunate situation absolves the “victim” of all responsibility whatsoever.

At times, of course, the victim is truly the victim and, in all fairness, no portion of blame can be attached to her.

That given, what I am attempting to highlight is an unfortunate trend in modern culture that seems to hold that if one has been sinned against, then by definition, one cannot have sinned: in other words, victimhood = sainthood.

This is, I think, the mindset behind the demands that students cannot be “allowed” to fail and that it is entirely the responsibility of the teacher to make sure that every student not only passes, but achieves their over-inflated “aspirational” (dread word!) target grade.

I disagree: of course, the teacher has a responsibility to ensure that every student in her care is as well prepared as possible. But the student is also responsible for her own preparation and I am concerned that the balance of responsibility has shifted too far towards the teacher (and, to be fair, towards the school and SLT — which is why the pressures are passed down the line management structure).

It has been said that a pennyworth of example is worth a pound of preaching. I cannot help but feel that having more students (and parents) being aware that failure is an option and that success is not a birthright would result in a healthier educational culture.

You must reap what you sow. There is no reward, there is no punishment, but there are consequences, and these consequences are the invisible and implacable police of nature. They cannot be avoided. They cannot be bribed. No power can awe them, and there is not gold enough in the world to make them pause.

— Robert Green Ingersoll, Ingersoll Again Answer His Critics IV, 1891