Electrical Circuit
Electricity and Magnetism

Helpful and unhelpful ideas about electric circuits

Teaching Guidance for 5-11 Supporting Physics Teaching

Thinking about what they bring – some ideas to build on: some not

The key challenge of this episode is to lay the ground work for developing a model to reason about electric circuits, so that children can explore their thinking. As it takes time to develop and apply a functioning model, its a good idea not to just tell them how it is. This is even more so if they can neither see nor directly experience what they're trying to model. The model will eventually need to account for the working of electric circuits in terms of charges, current, energy and resistance. That's what expected of children from 11–14 years old.

As children start their exploration of electrical loops, they are already using a wide range of electrical appliances confidently, and very often extremely competently. They take for granted that these things must be switched on, cost money to run, can work from batteries or from being plugged in, can be dangerous and so on. Through these experiences of using electrical equipment, these children will have developed some ideas about how electrical appliances work.

We asked a group of 11-year-olds about their understandings of how electrical appliances and electric circuits work. What they had to say makes for interesting listening! Download clip below.

From these video clips and from research, that has been carried out more widely, it seems that children of this age, typically have the following kinds of ideas about electric circuits.

Right Lines: Complete circuit; no gaps; battery stores energy; electric current is a flow; charge travels; add a battery for brighter bulb; extra battery gives more energy; battery runs out of energy

Wrong Track: Battery stores electricity; electricity from both ends of the battery ; electricity used up; battery runs out of charges; battery runs out of electric currents; shorter connecting wire needs less electricity.

Some of these ideas are consistent with a sound model of electricity and we refer to these as being along the right lines: complete circuit; no gaps; battery stores energy; charge travels; electric current is a flow; add a battery for brighter bulb; extra battery gives more energy; battery runs out of energy.

Others are not consistent with this view and see the children going down the wrong track: battery stores electricity; electricity from both ends of the battery; electricity used up; battery runs out of charges; battery runs out of electric currents; shorter connecting wire needs less electricity.

One obvious point is that children do arrive with understandings of electric circuits, which are along the right lines and can therefore be built upon in subsequent teaching. It's worth keeping these in mind as you plan your own work, so as to guide their thinking off down the right lines.

Try diagnostic questions

Our experience suggests that there is not a big variation in the views that youngsters of this age bring to their science lessons.

Nevertheless, it is a good idea to probe the understandings of your pupils at the start of any lesson sequence or module, and so we have provided three diagnostic (think again!) questions, which you might use.

Support Sheet


Here are some responses of 11-year-old pupils to the simple circuit think again questions.

Support Sheet


The pupils had just started secondary school and had received no teaching on electricity in the secondary school. These are the verbatim responses of the pupils complete with one or two spelling mistakes!

Resources

Download the video clip for this activity.

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