Framing Future Physics Curricula

The IOP’s Curriculum Committee has been considering how school physics curricula can give students a rewarding experience of physics. Charles Tracy, IOP head of education, describes some of the thinking so far. 

Thankfully there is no appetite for major curriculum reform at the moment. Even the normal cycle of GCSE review has been suspended. However, we have been thinking about what an education in physics to age 16 should look like so that we can be ready for the next change. Not only should a curriculum provide lasting and detailed skills, knowledge and understanding, but also a positive view of the discipline and its cultural contribution.

We are proposing that the curriculum should be developed around big ideas and that these big ideas fall into three dimensions:   

A. The practices of physics (the disciplinary knowledge)
B. The explanations and ideas of physics (the substantive knowledge - i.e. the content)
C. The applications of physics.

There is only space here to scratch the surface of each of these. However, I will spend a bit more time on the practices because they are quite a new set of ideas. You can read a more extensive paper from September 2018's School Science Review.

A. What are the practices of physics?

Physics is based on some important, rewarding and highly valued ways of thinking. For example, it seeks deep understanding, strives for consistency, uses reason and logic, and aims to simplify descriptions. These ways of thinking are often lost in specifications derived from detailed statements of content, making it hard to draw them out in teaching and assessment - especially for teachers without a physics background. Therefore, we thought it would be worth trying to identify them in order to help teachers and curriculum developers to include them as an explicit part of teaching schemes.

Areas of practice

After some discussion and consideration, we categorised the practices into six areas in a way that will enable students to recognise the benefits of their experience of physics, whether or not they continue to study it.

  1. The characteristics of physics explanations
  2. The development cycle of physics explanations
  3. Procedural knowledge and empiricism
  4. Thinking and reasoning like a physicist
  5. Understanding and deploying physics models
  6. Seeing and exploiting the power of mathematical formulations

The practices of physics (within those areas)

There is plenty to be discussed about the detail of practices within those areas. However, for the sake of this article, the detail of the practices can be summarised by the following.


  1. ask questions and look for explanations that tend to be:
    • universal,
    • a synthesis,
    • unified,
    • based on evidence and reasoning rather than intuition alone,
    • based on the behaviour of constituent parts,
    • consistent (internally and across the discipline),
    • as fundamental as possible,
    • elegant and economical;
  2. develop explanations and refine them based on a combination of:
    • observation,
    • experiment and severe testing (3),
    • reasoning and argument (4),
    • modelling (5), 
    • prediction (6);
  3. observe, experiment and test ideas in which they:
    • isolate phenomena,
    • control variables,
    • make observations and measurements,
    • analyse and interpret data,
    • test plausibility of results,
    • develop and refine explanations;
  4. construct arguments by thinking and reasoning in various styles, including:
    • geometric and algebraic proofs,
    • logic: deductive & inductive,
    • categorisation,
    • probabilistic reasoning,
    • inferring history of evolving systems;
  5. think with and construct models based on:
    • simplified situations,
    • constituent parts,
    • their properties and behaviours,
    • predicting behaviour;
  6. use numerical and computational thinking based on a combination of:
    • approximation and order of magnitude calculations,
    • extreme case reasoning,
    • developing operational definitions,
    • algebraic reasoning,
    • proportion and inverse proportion,
    • ratio and compensation,
    • change over time,
    • rates and accumulation,
    • exponential changes.

The advantages of the practices

Because studying these practices is beneficial for all students, whether or not they continue with physics. Students will develop capability within a well-regarded set of transferrable skills whilst also gaining a lasting sense of the power and trustworthiness of physics ideas. Students should know that the ideas and explanations of physics can be accepted with confidence because they are the result of rigorous practices of physics - including severed testing over time. In our age of relative truths and a mistrust of expertise, this seems particularly apposite.

Our hope is that, making these practices explicit, will help teachers plan their teaching in a way that provides structured opportunities for students to experience and develop their capability within them. In time, we will provide more help with doing this.

B. What are the important explanations of physics?

For the sake of completeness, the list below shows our current thinking on the important substantive knowledge of physics - which we might refer to as the the 'big ideas of physics'. That is, the important ideas and explanations that students should take away with them from their physics education (through studying, in detail, the underlying content). They follow on from the big ideas about physics and its practices.

  1. The Earth is a planet orbiting the Sun – one of many stars in our galaxy
  2. All matter is made of small particles and this can explain many of its properties
  3. Waves carry information without causing a permanent change on the medium
  4. Objects interact with each other (by contact or at a distance) – giving rise to pairs of forces
  5. A force acting on an object causes its velocity to change; with no net force, v is constant
  6. An electric current is the flow of charged particles
  7. The energy of a system can be changed by doing work or heating it In any event, energy is conserved, but is also dissipated 
  8. Equilibrium occurs when two or more external influences are in balance (static or dynamic)
  9. Magnetism and electricity are linked phenomena
  10. Atoms are not indivisible – they have their own structure

C. What are the important ideas from physics and its applications?

Again, for the sake of completeness (and in brief), it is helpful to attach to the disciplinary ideas (1 to 6) and substantive ideas (7 to 16) some examples of how those ways of thinking and explanations can be applied - in other sciences, in engineering and in the world of work. What follows are some indicative ideas relating to the application of physics.

  1. Physicsideas can be applied in other domains of study within and outside the sciences.
  2. The consideration of society’s big questions and big challenges benefits from ideas of physics.
  3. Physics ideas enable engineers to improve our comfort and wellbeing by designing solutions to defined problems.
  4. Studying physics is preparation for many important, productive and rewarding occupations.

Watch Charles Tracy, Head of Education at the Institute of Physics (IOP), discuss what a school physics curriculum based on big ideas and the practices of physics and engineering might look like. 

Be part of the thinking process

This is an abridged version of a paper published in ASE journal School Science Review: Guidelines for Future Physics Curricula.

Visit our Big Ideas group on TalkPhysics where you can join the discussion.

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