We could do the show right here

isaacbook-cover

This book is brilliant.  I also hope that it’s really important.

The Isaac Physics project does many good things to support physics teaching.  The book Mastering essential pre-university physics is one of the best.  It’s an unusual book, and I sort of hope it’s the future.

It’s not a textbook, as such.  The main part of the book is a series of systematic exercises giving lots of practice using the key equations in A level physics courses.  Whilst these are linked to questions in the Isaac Physics MOOC, the questions work offline as well.

Compared with most A level textbooks, two things strike me about the questions.  First, there are lots of them (a dozen or so for each relationship).  Secondly, they stay relatively simple for much longer than most in texts I’ve seen.  In recent years, the pressure has been to move quickly to “higher order” problems as soon as possible.  This pressure reached a peak when Ofsted were on their “measurable progress checked every 20 minutes” kick a few years ago, and things aren’t as manic as that now.  Even still, the idea of practicing- deliberately doing lots of one thing until you are good at it- feels counter-cultural.  It’s also the thing that I’m sure is part of the gap between where many of my students are and where they could/should be.

That’s not the only unusual-in-a-good-way thing about this book.  It is the first book I have taught from that isn’t tied to a specific curriculum or specification.  It’s just the sort of physics that is commonly taught at post-16, in an order that makes sense to the authors.  It feels like a solid set of building blocks, but with implicit permission to select and arrange according to local need.  Too many GCSE and A level science resources seem to get this the wrong way round; the scheme of work is robust (and hard to deviate from), but too many of the individual activities aren’t up to the job.

In short, this book is great.  It also costs one pound per copy.  That is the possibly important wider message: printing books is really cheap these days.  Having done some not-very-in-depth research on the internet, one pound for a 100 A5 page, black and white properly bound, properly printed book looks about the going rate for a run of a few hundred copies.  Colour is more expensive (by a factor of about 4, which sort of makes sense), but most of the time, colour isn’t needed.  It’s very tempting to put the many worksheets, experiment instructions and the like that go with a typical science course into a single student workbook that looks like a book, and doesn’t lead to a blizzard of paper.  The savings in glue sticks alone would be huge.

There’s more.  We’re looking at resources for new GCSE courses at the moment, and part of me is getting cross at the lavishness of the production.  I want to say to publishers yes, I know that your book design is colourful and engaging, but it’s also expensive, and I’m not sure it’s worth the extra cost.  It’s nice that your course has an online version of the text, but if the book was cheaper, we could afford to lend every student a copy of the text, and they wouldn’t need the online one.  This book shows that it doesn’t have to be this way; a book made of black ink on white paper can still be a brilliant medium of teaching.

Finally, Mastering essential pre-university physics started life with some successful teachers sharing something that they had created for their classes which turned out to work well.  There are other channels for this, of course., but I hope that combining low-cost publishing with a teacher sharing community is the way forward.  If teachers are going to reclaim their lives and sanity, we need more resources which have been created and refined by real testing in schools.

Teachers in schools.  We could do the show right here.

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