A physics curriculum that includes practices and big ideas

"How can we design a curriculum that provides an authentic and worthwhile experience of physics for all students, for all pathways – including those who don't go into physics and engineering?"

This is the question that the IOP's curriculum committee set out to answer when it was set up in 2013. In June 2020, IOP head of education Charles Tracy was invited by the Royal Academy of Engineering to give a webinar to discuss the committee's emerging position.

He discusses the two main pillars of their approach - the practices and big ideas. 

Big ideas aren't about the detail, they're about the impression studying physics left.

"Big ideas would identify what is truly important, the sorts of things people would still retain from their education five years after they have stopped studying physics," Charles explains. "They might underpin the sort of cultural conversations you would have about physics. They wouldn't be about the detail, they'd be about the impression physics left with them."

The content of physics in 100 years won't look like physics now - but the ways of thinking will be the same.

The practices of physics, that include 'thinking like a physicist', are about emphasising the be-able-to-do (disciplinary knowledge) part of physics rather than the should-know (substantive knowledge) part of physics. Charles goes on: "Physics is not solely the content; it is based on a well-developed set of ways of thinking. The content of physics in 100 years won't necessarily look like physics now; but the ways of thinking and arriving at that substantive knowledge will be the same. This disciplinary knowledge is still knowledge - it isn't skills. It is knowing how to develop an explanation based on a model, how to do a practical, and how to solve a multi-step numerical problem.

He suggests this approach will go on to answer one of the most challenging and commonly posed questions to teachers: "Making the details of these practices explicit will also help people see the purpose of their studies, particularly those who aren't going on to study physics."

Watch the whole webinar below - and listen out for some classic physics jokes from the online chat!

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