Why is Teaching Physics a problem? (and the shortage of Physics Teachers an even bigger one?)

Googling ‘physics teacher shortage’  shows there is a global lack of qualified physics teachers. Those teaching physics who actually have degrees in physics are often in a minority within this group. Female physics teachers with degrees in physics are rarer still.

A troubling aspect of this is that countries can get stuck in a feedback loop that spirals down. The lack of quality physics teachers leads to uninspired and unsuccessful students who don’t choose to do physics. Hence you get fewer physics graduates and so fewer specialist teachers and the cycle continues. Once physics starts being removed as an option then the rot has truly set in.

How can the cycle be broken?

There are no quick fixes to this complex problem. It would make sense to upskill those teachers who are already teaching physics to improve their own understanding. Physics is different from many subjects as the laws of physics are often counter-intuitive.

The Moon appears to orbit the Earth and indeed it does. It was believed that the Sun did the same thing A geocentric model with the Sun orbiting the Earth appeared to be supported by the biblical scriptures. When science comes up against a belief system, the belief system tends to prevail. Copernicus proposed a heliocentric (Sun – centred)  model, though the papers were published a year after his death in 1543. Seventy years later Galileo, armed with a telescope found more evidence to support this model but was banned by the Inquisition from developing it further.

“He is to abstain completely from teaching or defending this doctrine and opinion or from discussing it… to abandon completely… the opinion that the sun stands still at the center of the world and the earth moves, and henceforth not to hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatever, either orally or in writing.”

Bellarmine and the Inquisition’s injunction against Galileo, 1616
Scientists still have trouble convincing those with contrary beliefs that the evidence suggests that they are probably wrong. They need to be not only very knowledgeable but also have the ability to shake the belief system of the believer.  This is an everyday challenge for the teacher of physics. Passing on unquestionable knowledge as some kind of physics god does not change the beliefs of the students.
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For example:
If you drop a bullet at the same time that you shoot a bullet horizontally from a gun at the same height both bullets would hit the ground at the same time
How would you convince someone that this is true? (or if indeed it is true in the real world!)
In order to convince someone, you have to have a very clear understanding of what forces are and how they act. Most people have not grasped the fundamentals of forces and how they interact. It can be argued that you can reduce basic level physics  to:
Forces can be used to explain what happens
Energy allows us to predict whether something could happen.
If you look beyond a Solo taxonomy multi-structural understanding of physics which is how it is usually taught. A random topic order of Energy, then electricity then forces. You will never see the connections between concepts. Or really how few concepts you need to understand before physics makes sense.
Most of the electricity topic can be explained if you understand how forces act on charged particles. A great deal of the energy topic taught involves understanding that work is done when a force moves through a distance.
A good physicist isn’t necessarily a good teacher. The curse of knowledge and a lack of understanding may preclude them being effective. Similarly, a great teacher may not be a good teacher of physics if they don’t understand the fundamental links between concepts.  The reason for the shortage of good physicists is the shortage of good teachers of physics.
The only way out of this dilemma is to upskill the current teachers. To increase their level of understanding of the basics and how to teach them. To create communities that can support each other in developing best practice.
Another blog will follow on the gender balance in physics teaching.

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