As a Science teacher, we are often required to teach outside our specialism. As a Biology teacher, I usually quite enjoy the variety of this but there is always one topic I look forward to the least; electricity. I have been to many a CPD session and had multiple conversations with more Physics-minded colleagues about how best to teach this. I understand it to a high GCSE standard, but still a part of me thinks there is magic going on in those little wires. Consequently, I find myself relying on the same models in my explanations year on year. There is comfort in knowing you have a certain way of explaining a concept, that you think makes the most sense. The issue comes when what you think makes the most sense doesn’t always translate into the best understanding for students.

One of my first lessons of teaching electricity involves trying to explain to students the concepts of current, potential difference and resistance. Without these basics, the rest of the topic will be inaccessible to them. My preferred method has always been to model the charge and components of an electric circuit using student volunteers. Students (usually begrudgingly) get out of their seats and walk around the room picking up Lego bricks and delivering these to their classmates. I might change the layout of the room to create a series or parallel circuit and certain students will be required to do some counting out-loud. In my head, it is going to be a fun, interactive activity that takes an abstract concept and turns it in to something tangible for students. In reality, I have a group of grumbling teenagers shuffling around a room not always knowing what is going on and feeling quite embarrassed.

Covid-related guidance this year put an end to this explanation model and it has been a revelation! I genuinely thought I was helping students learn in the best way possible. It may have done the trick for some students but what I’ve found (and it sounds so obvious now) is that the more models and ways of explaining ideas to students you can use, the better. I’d previously thought too many models might confuse students, but they all have their pros and cons. Some make sense to some but not others. Often this depends on their prior knowledge and any misconceptions they might hold.

This term I have been teaching electricity to two low prior attainment Year 10 classes. My approach has been to spend more time examining models with them. There are plenty of well-known models for electricity; the water pump, rope circle and bread delivery to name just a few. Because some of these make the least sense for me, I hadn’t necessarily used them all before. However, what I’ve found is that by dedicating more time to explaining these models and encouraging students to evaluate them, my students have a far better understanding of electricity than I would normally expect by this point.

This has led me to question the models that I use in other areas of my teaching. Am I just using them because that is what I have always done? How well are the models linked to students’ prior knowledge? Is there another model I can use in addition? Perhaps it’s time to remodel my own approach to explanations.