The life and times of a physics teacher (Warning: May contain sarcasm)

The answer lies with the question…

The year is 2008. We’re in a class room. There is a fresh-faced teacher with dubious taste in clothing at the front of the room attempting to explain how a transformer works and a class of teenagers attempting to have sex with each other (I don’t mean literally. I mean in the long run).

Me: …so it’s a bit like having a moving magnet near a coil of wire…

Diamond: Why?

Me: Because remember when you pass current through a wire it creates a magnetic field and when the current is alternating the magnetic field is moving.

(I make some sort of flipping motion with my hand that some students giggle at)

Angel: Why?

Me: Good question. ‘alternating current’ means current that goes one way…and then another. It does this 50 times a second.

Crystal: Why?

Me: Well that’s to do with where the current is generated. At the power stations they make current by turning magnets in coils of wire.

Everybody: WHY?

You get the idea. 

I knew that lesson had gone badly…a giveaway was when I looked up from my long-winded explanation to see most of the class asleep except for the few that were mumbling ‘why’ on rotation. They had won the battle. If you can get a teacher talking for long enough it means not doing any work. Where had I gone wrong? Kids are supposed to be curious. Curiosity didn’t kill the cat, curiosity created Shrodinger’s cat. I was very confused.

The answer lies with the question.

Around the same time I met someone who blew me away with how thoughtful and intelligent they were in conversation. It took me a while to realise that it was down to the type of questions he asked. Where most people might say ‘oh yeah?’ by way of an input this guy would say ‘but didn’t that affect how you saw the painting?’ Bam. There it is. He didn’t have to know anything about paintings or have read an article about how moods affect perceptions of art…he just had to have been listening to what I was saying before and make a few links.

His conversational style had a profound effect on me. I tried it out. I practised it. I became a better conversationalist. I learnt more from other people. Finally, I also realised the implications for teaching. It’s embarrassingly obvious that mindlessly asking the question ‘why’ is not a skill but for some reason we expect our students to be able to ask intelligent questions without any training. These days I don’t let my kids ask ‘why?’ or ‘is this right?’ or ‘what’s the answer?’ but it would be unreasonable to expect them to figure out the right questions by themselves. So I start their questions for them;

Question you want to ask… How to start an intelligent question…
Why? Is that because…?
Is this linked to…?
Does that affect…?
Does that mean that…?
Is that why…?
So if we change…would…happen?
Is this right? I think this is right because…

I’m not sure this is right because…

What’s the answer? Is the answer…?
What do I do? Do I need to…?
I’m going to… (This is more for confidence building)
What’s the meaning of life? Would you like a cup of tea?


This chart is on the wall in my classroom. You don’t have to be a teacher to see if this works – try it out on your friends*!

*Disclaimer: If this causes you to lose friends please remember that you took relationship advice from a physics teacher. You are as much at fault as I am.

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This entry was posted on 23/10/2012 by and tagged , , , , , , .
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