Virtual Physics Staffroom again
East Lothian
Nick Hood

Virtual Physics Staffroom again

2020, May 29    

On the last two Fridays, I participated in two more of the IoP’s Virtual Physics Staffroom online 40-minute1 Zoom meetings. On the 22nd May, the focus was on practicals and skills development, and the 29th saw a session focused on the pedagogy of blended learning.


The session was hosted by Jennie Hargreaves and began with a demonstration of the Marvin & Milo “Balloon in a bottle” activity by Allan Reid, who had been cut short in the last meeting by the Zoom time-out1. In breakout groups, we discussed ideas for doing practical physics, or at least, develop practical skills as far as possible in a blended or remote learning context. We shared ideas for resources to support this, including Colorado’s PhET, Marvin and Milo, and IoP Spark (there’s also ophysics).

It was recognised that parents should be involved if possible, and that pupil choice is given, rather like primary colleagues are doing with learning grids, in which a dozen activies are available to choose from, according to pupil interest and available resources. Risk assessment was also mentioned, and is clearly something that teachers should (as always) be including in their planning.

As always, collaborative development features strongly in physics education in Scotland and mention was made of the usual channels of SPUTNIK, TalkPhysics, and the resources spreadsheet2 which enables teachers to quickly find exisiting resources for each course in the SQA Physics catalogue.

Sustainable blended learning

This session was hosted by Malky Thomson and Martyn Crawshaw, with David Vincent managing the back-channel. This is an effective model for sessions like these, allowing the presenters to do that well, without missing pertinent and useful prompting and feedback from the floor.

Malky introduced the session and its aims, and gave us a definition of “blended learning”. I like this proper teachery approach, which quickly enculturates delegates who perhaps are new, or who have different interpretations of these terms, at the same time as adjusting variations in the herd to the common understanding.

Breakout # 1: engaging pupils

We were split into groups of about 4 or 5 teachers to consider a couple of questions.

  • Should we be using the same pedagogy, or flipped learning?
  • How to engage and motivate pupils?

Now, I think these could have been any questions on the topic, and the groups would have done the same thing, which is to share experiences and current strategies and frustrations with remote teaching experience so far. The post-breakout discussion had every groupd report back, and common features were reflected across the board: that some kind of flipped learning model is being tried with varying degrees of success in engaging young people. What is noted is that there are more pupils doing the tasks than are admitting to it, and this is evident from the synchronous sessions where progression in understanding, for example, is evident, through the quality of the dialogue and feedback.

The range of tools being deployed in the various online solutions includes the usual powerpoints, question and e-text books, video (either created by the teachers or found online), quizzes and so on. Heriot-Watt’s Scholar is clearly also in use, and some are making use of Isaac Physics with certain groups. The IoP’s TalkPhysics community resource is also greatly valued and appreciated by physics teachers across the country.

A huge concern for teachers is also their awareness of how the move to remote teaching is further disadvantaging the poor. This theme returned again in the second breakout and discussion.

Breakout # 2: next actions

Concerns exist in relation to inconsistencies in policies that have had to be drawn up quickly. Across the country, different schools and local authorities are implementing very different rules, for example, some have banned online synchronous teaching entirely. This can only be a super-risk-averse stance on child protection akin to banning playground use.

The calls from this session included:

  • asking for consistent, perhaps central, policy on online teaching and learning;
  • the SQA to make clear their intentions for changing course content or assessment in the coming session, and to do it quickly;
  • access to technology and infrastructure, especially for the poorer families;
  • training in the use of technology for learners;
  • training in the use of technology for teachers;
  • collaborative resources development

The latter of these is something the physics teaching community is very good at, and perhaps needs the IoP to help again in co-ordinating that effort in the same they have before. Malky Thomson dropped an excellent quote in our session:

“curate, not create”

This is a nice mantra to help teachers and educational leaders understand that it is a massive waste for teachers to duplicate effort in making resources, when a distributed effort will boost quality, increase availability of teacher time, and impact attainment across the country.

Notable points

It was clear from the breakout groups and discussion that there are huge differences across Scotland in the experience pupils are having. Unions are voicing concerns that teacher workload is no less than in normal circumstances and that to ask them to operate a full timetable once schools open, and then in addition provide online session is not reasonable. “Contact time” should include online teaching and be limited (for the same reasons) to the 22.5 hours in SNCT agreements.

Broadly, teachers are finding that they have about a third of their pupils engaging online. Whilst all of the issues are not known, some suggest that one significant issue is of pupils knowing how to use the technology. Another, surely, is in having access to it.

Child protection is a concern, and yet again3, nowhere in any of these online platforms do you see links to CEOP or other agencies to support children at risk.


The Blended Learning session was recorded. You can find it on YouTube.

  1. 40 minutes, because that is the maximum duration of a Zoom session using a free account. They unceremoniously kick everyone out once the meeting is over, and who can blame them?  2

  2. The link to that can be had from the community, on SPUTNIK or TalkPhysics. 

  3. I’ve mentioned this before