An alternative perspective on the physics teacher shortage

At present there are two issues in physics education making media headlines. The first, the  critical shortage of specialist physics teachers in England; the second, the persistently low number of girls choosing A level physics.  Is it possible that these two, seemingly separate issues might, in fact be linked and that by making inroads into one it may help to improve the situation in the other?

Girls and Physics

The Institute of Physics have been investigating and working on the problem of gender imbalance for many years and it was as a physics teacher in 2006 that I became aware that this was an issue of concern beyond my own classroom and department.  And so the low uptake of girls in physics is by no means a new phenomenon but it remains a stubborn problem to shift.  Despite a plethora of interventions and initiatives designed to address this issue, the participation rate of girls has remained at 20% of the total over recent decades. The issue is deeply rooted in society at large and within the physics community.

Physics teacher shortage

It is startling to realise that one in five 11-16 secondary schools do not have a single member of staff with a physics or physics related degree (IOP 2013),. In December 2014 the UK government committed £67 million (DfE 2015) to a range of initiatives to designed to increase the number of specialist maths and physics teachers, and subsequently a number of initiatives have been announced to address the problem (Teaching Subject Specialism Programme, pre-ITT Subject Knowledge Enhancement, A level grants initiative to name but three). What is clear is that there is a significant supply problem that starts with A level choice.  Startlingly, physics is the 4th most popular subject for boys yet the 18th most popular subject for girls (IOP 2013).  Clearly if we were to balance up this situation, the supply chain would be boosted.

The link

In business if, for over 40 years we had failed to ‘sell’ our product to an identified market, despite best efforts, surely we would question what is it is that we are trying to ‘sell’. So much of the debate around the issue of girls and physics is centred on the market (that is girls) and not the product (physics).  So, is something wrong with ‘physics’?  Is what we understand to be physics fundamentally gendered? Are we trying hard enough to adapt, change, and be open to alternative approaches to physics itself?

An imaginary case study

What follows is an imaginary case study drawn anecdotally from conversations with physics teachers and students over the years. Imagine Alice, a Year 10 girl who, through the enthusiasm, passion and subject specific, gender aware pedagogical expertise of her (idealised?) physics teacher, thinks she may be interested in taking the subject at A level. Having resisted the strong pull (or push!) towards medicine (and therefore biology and chemistry A levels), she goes against societal norms and chooses physics. Her interest in the subject remains strong throughout her A level studies especially towards the end when, finally, after 7 years of secondary education, the big picture of physics becomes clear.   It becomes time to think about university applications.  What she really wants to do is learn more about physics, a deeper understanding of its concepts and how it explains the physical world and the interactions within it, its history, how it has played its part in the advancement of society,  etc.  Furthermore, inspired by her physics teacher and also her interests out of school, she thinks she would like to be a teacher.  What she doesn’t want to be is a ‘physicist’, nor is she particularly motivated by what she perceives will be the increasingly abstract and mathematical representations of the physical world that a traditional physics degree would largely consist of.

And so what does Alice do?  She may opt for primary teaching, abandon the physics and choose a completely different degree course, she may choose to study what she identifies as physics related subjects such as engineering (not a bad thing in itself, engineering has its own gender battle to fight).  In any event, we stand a very good chance of losing Alice from the physics teacher supply chain. We also lose her potential to become that passionate, ‘expert’, inspiring physics teacher that so influenced her.

Here at Sheffield Hallam University we do offer an alternative through our undergraduate routes into teaching in mathematics, science and D&T. There is also a small but growing number of other institutions now also (re)instating these courses.  But beyond that,  I do not know of degree programmes out there which offer the opportunity to learn about physics (physics studies, perhaps?)  Could such awards be the very thing that we need to hold onto the Alices?   With more Alices making it as physics teachers, might we improve both the quantity and quality of the physics teacher workforce, thereby inspiring a new generation?  Would such awards create a virtuous cycle of growth?

And all this, of course, would not just be for girls!

Heather Wain is a Principal Lecturer in Physics Education and Head of secondary Undergraduate ITE provision. She has a particular interest in physics teacher recruitment, gender issues in physics and physics education research.






8 responses to “An alternative perspective on the physics teacher shortage”

  1. Julian Spence Avatar
    Julian Spence

    I was looking at blogs elsewhere and came across the pressures against recruiting physicists to teach; they included having to teach other sciences in secondary school – rather than a more liked physics with maths approach to the discipline.
    Perhaps the teaching of physics should start earlier; I liked your thought experiment with Alice. Perhaps one for her younger sister?
    And perhaps a corollary for her bother(s)?
    I seem to remember visiting Portugal – where I was told that many more women do physics and go on to teach physics too. Not too sure how much this is a UK issues – which would imply UK got itself into a poor state.
    As to inspirational models – I saw a video on Dorothy Hodgkin (crystallographer & Nobel Laureate) – not sure she was happy with role models but was inspirational.
    And, too, I think that the matters are, as you suggest, linked.

  2. Leesa Johnson Avatar

    Interesting post-Heather and the ideas which you have shared with are awesome. It’s true that in the physics department there is less number of the female role in the field of physics subjects, we can see that almost physics tutors are male.

  3. Claire Holder Avatar
    Claire Holder

    A sad but true tale. A colleague of mine (the only physicist our school has had for many years now) left the profession this week after only 3 years to work in industry. Despite her having been offered various incentives by the government to train there was very little, if anything, offered to persuade her to stay in the profession. Why would she stay in teaching when she could work in industry for a far higher wage, with far fewer pressures and the ability to leave the job at the door knowing her evenings, weekends and holidays were her own. Regardless of the issue of fewer women studying physics in the first place, there needs to be more done to encourage them to train as a teacher and to keep them there.

  4. Gemma McMaster-Float Avatar
    Gemma McMaster-Float

    The ‘Physics study’ route would certainly be a good approach, particularly with a focus on teaching physics. Perhaps completing a Masters degree as part of the PGCE Physics course, following the two year social work Masters model. Having completed both a PGCE and a Social Work Masters, I feel that the two year social work masters left me more prepared to go out into the professional world than the PGCE did. Furthermore it provided me with a much broader and deeper understanding of the situations in which I would be presentedand and more equip with the tools required to become a succesful practitioner. This is partly due to the greater amount of academic study involved in a masters degree, but also because of the longer work placements. The longer work placments and complementary assignments gave more oportunity for reflective practice; a proven succeful approach to professional developement. Furthermore, the time allocated to completing a dissertation enabled me to reflect more critically on a specific issue which I identified iduring my first placement; taking this greater understanding into the second placement.
    By providing a Masters level Physics PGCE, it would enable students to explore the subject in more depth, meanwhile focusing on pedagogy and the learning environment. It would also enable prospective teachers to gain the Masters Degree which has been presented as an ideal standard for teachers, however difficult to attain due to the heavy work-load they undertake merely doing their every day job. This would also mean that students could study a complementary subject at degree level; broadening their knowledge base whilst not having to complete a more complex physics degree. It is often the case that people with physics or mathematics degrees find that their expertease is much sought after in professions which offer much higher salleries and a lighter work-load than that teaching. This of course is another issue for consideration……

  5. Chris Kirton Avatar

    Interesting post Heather. An alternative route into physics teaching would be a good idea. Could there be the possibility of outreach between Universities and schools aimed at exciting students – mainly girls – during the latter years of study in secondary school? It may have an impact of some girls’ perceptions of physics at a higher level?

  6. pat morton Avatar
    pat morton

    Hi Heather – good post. I wonder what happened to the Imperial College (I think) trial physics degree that had a teacher strand or combined degree…it was a year or two ago. Could be worth following up?

    1. Brad Mellor Avatar
      Brad Mellor

      Good Afternoon Heather, I enjoyed reading the post and the case study. I personally think there is a lack of female role models in the fields of physics and physics related subjects. Take for example Dr Brian Cox, a great example of a ‘cool’ role model to young males wanting to take physics. Not only does he look ‘cool’ but also played in a semi famous band (D’ream). To address the issue of females, why not look toward the pinnacle of engineering, physics and sport that is watched and adored the world over, Formula 1. There are a growing number of women appearing in the paddock and rightly so! If the institution of physics could get them to be interviewed and share their experiences, this should inspire more young women into this field.

  7. David Owen Avatar
    David Owen

    Enjoyed this post Heather! The creation of physics studies or physics education courses sounds like a useful avenue to explore.

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