Six Big Ideas in Physics

Throughout my 21 years of teaching, physics teachers have been in short supply. There have always been science departments with no physics specialist.

Statistics show the situation is getting worse.

The National Audit Office (2016) has published results showing 28% of physics lessons are taught by teachers without relevant post A-level qualifications. This is an increase of 7% in the last 4 years. Only 71% of physics teacher training places were filled in 2015.

The shortage of physics teachers has led to the development of new routes into physics teaching for non-specialists. The DfE lists 30 university-based subject-knowledge enhancement courses (SKE). There are currently 52 school based physics teacher subject specialism training (TSST) programmes across England.

In the short term, however, most gaps will be filled by chemistry and biology teachers. These colleagues understand the concepts, but often lack the historical context of the ideas. This is important because physics is not simply a list of facts; it is the story of how we understand the universe. The story behind the big ideas is engaging and important.

Big Idea - Electricity
Electricity – a key idea in Physics

So I am writing a book. It explores the historical development of six ‘big ideas’ and provides suggestions on how to teach each idea using practical work, models, assessment and text. My big six are:

  • Particles
  • Action at a distance
  • Motion
  • Energy
  • Electricity
  • Space

I have a contract with Routledge and a deadline that is starting to look tight. I  want to use this blog to keep me on track – feedback will be gratefully received.

I am currently writing the electricity chapter – I will share sections on this blog. I would greatly appreciate feedback.

Best wishes,




  1. Good luck with this Ben! The book sounds like it will be great. I was planning on writing a Physics teaching book myself, but have only ever got as far as the outline stage. Although yours has a very different approach to what I had in mind, the 6 Big Ideas and historical context sounds like a great way forward. Think my proto-book may be redundant!

    Let me know if you need a fellow physics teacher to read through for you. Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’d love to keep the project going. Most of the CPD I deliver in school is Physics for Non-specialists training, so my thinking was to put together a book based on the stuff I do in schools (very much GCSE focussed) I was hoping to write a chapter before the term started, but that’s not happened. I may try to make a start today, but with school tomorrow I’m not optimistic! 😉


  2. The lack of specialist physics teachers is much worse than I realised. Sometimes I worry that we are papering over the cracks. On the other hand, I’ve been delighted with the commitment and enthusiasm of the maths, chem, bio, pe … teachers filling the gap. There are some great teachers moving into physics, at least for part of their time.

    The book is a big commitment – I’m starting to worry about deadlines. Thanks for your support. I’d recommend getting your resources online at least – you’ll keep the copyright, so it can turn into a book later.

    Hope school goes well. I’m in this afternoon. Deep breath!


  3. Hello,

    I think that one may want to consider revising and expanding Alan Lightman’s “Great Ideas in Physics” (out of print). These ideas are:

    1. The Conservation Laws
    2. The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics
    3. Special Relativity
    4. Wave-Particle Duality

    I am teaching a course that is based on these ideas, but also expanding/revising to include

    5. Gravitation (and General Relativity), Electromagnetism, Strong and Weak forces
    6. Cosmology
    7. Waves
    8. Newton’s Laws

    in no particular order here.


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