Developing your own understanding of Physics


One of the benefits of familiarising yourself with common student misconceptions is that it may help to develop your own knowledge too! 

In his 1986 article, Those Who Understand: Knowledge Growth in Teaching, Lee Shulman suggests we think about three, overlapping types of teaching knowledge. The first of these is content knowledge, which, for a physics teacher, might comprise things like knowing the relationship between electrical current, voltage and resistance, or knowing that objects fall under gravity at a rate independent of their mass. Having physics content knowledge is knowing about physics.

The IOPSpark misconceptions resources may improve your physics content knowledge by simply filling in any gaps you might have. With the growing need for physics teaching to be carried out by teachers whose specialism is in another subject, it is entirely understandable that some teachers of physics may find themselves grappling with their own misconceptions from time to time. Furthermore, even trained physicists have areas in which they are less confident. In either case, reading through the IOPSpark Misconceptions pages and, where necessary, taking a look at the Resources to Address This section for each misconception can be a great help. 

The second type of knowledge is what Shulman called pedagogical content knowledge, and it’s different from just knowing about physics: it’s knowing how to teach physics. It’s knowing which analogies you can use to explain a complicated idea; which illustrations you can draw on the board to help struggling students; and which demonstrations complement the physical concepts you’re trying to communicate to your class.

Since pedagogy must be adapted for different contexts, classes and students, the most useful pedagogical content knowledge will depend on who, where and what you’re teaching. However, consulting IOPSpark Misconceptions before you plan a lesson or curriculum can help develop your pedagogical content knowledge by encouraging you to reflect on how the activities you use in the classroom might relate to (or even enforce) certain misconceptions, and by making it easier for you to anticipate common student pitfalls and incorporate these into your lesson planning. It may be useful to revisit the Developing Pupil Thinking article from earlier in this series to remind yourself of how conceptual change can be encouraged. In particular, take note of how your planning process changes as you start to anticipate the misconceptions you might come up against. 

Shulman’s last type of teaching knowledge is curricular knowledge. Picture teaching as the task of taking a learner from point A to point B: If content knowledge is knowing where the points are, and pedagogical content knowledge is knowing how to get from one to the other, then curricular knowledge is about knowing not just one way of getting between the two points, but many. To borrow Shulman’s own analogy, much as an expert doctor will know a full suite of different treatments for a given illness, an expert teacher will be familiar with a wide variety of routes between points in the physics curriculum.

The IOPSpark misconceptions resources can help develop your curricular knowledge too: understanding the specific misconceptions you may encounter in your teaching will encourage you to reflect on how different misconceptions might require you to pivot from one intended path along the curriculum to another. It may also be useful to revisit the Developing Curricula article from earlier in this series.

Further Reading

  • Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15(2), 4-14.

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