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Dr Lawrence Cattermole wins best Doctoral thesis prize

Dr Cattermole (Graduate School of Education) has been awarded a prize for the exceptional quality of his Doctoral thesis which explored the teaching and learning of school physics. 

The prize was the winning entry from the Faculty of Social Sciences and Law, one of just six awards made each year to University of Bristol postgraduates. Lawrence’s thesis entitled ‘Teachers, Students and Ideas Caught in the Tangled Webs of School Physics Knowledge’ was chosen by members of the Research Degrees Examination Board, which oversees the exam process for research awards.

Lawrence was jointly supervised by Professor Sibel Erduran and Professor Rosamund Sutherland. Professor Sutherland commented:

“The overall aim of this study was to contribute to the debate on how to improve the teaching and learning of school physics. The research interrogated the role of teachers as primary providers of meaning for students. Investigating teachers’ interactions with ‘ideas in physics’ led to a study built around self-contained teaching sequences, where each teacher was video-recorded teaching approximately six lessons as well as being interviewed about those lessons.

The starting point for Lawrence Cattermole’s analysis was what teachers do and say in the classroom, and the multimodal resources they use to communicate meaning (for example diagrams, pictures, experiments, explanations). In all of the lesson sequences analysed, problematic meaning-making resources were identified as being offered to students. For example, simplifying and confusing Newton’s Laws and representing the force of gravity as both a push and a pull, using simplified language and visual representations. The study showed that very often simplifications in school physics can lead to complications. For example, the use of use of the phrase ‘just speeding up’, as a simplification of the concept of acceleration, can complicate the meaning of related concepts such as resultant forces.

The research also showed that the physics curriculum, policy instruments, the assessment structure and textbooks all contribute to a tangled web of school physics knowledge in which many of the fundamental ideas of physics are lost. The research approach of representing in diagrammatic form the potential scientific meanings offered to students and using this as a basis of developing teacher’s awareness of the problematic scientific knowledge they are offering to students could be readily transformed into a valuable tool for teacher training. “