Charles Tracy helps the IOP to champion physics education

20 May 2015

As the Institute’s head of education, Charles Tracy enjoys his work and it’s a job for which it’s “easy to get out of bed in the morning”, he says.

Charles Tracy

“The role allows me to work in the two fields that are interesting and important to me: physics and education, and I appreciate being in an environment where they are valued.”

Charles has oversight of all of the IOP’s education work, with a particular emphasis on policy. He represents the IOP’s views and concerns on such matters as the curriculum, the shortage of specialist physics teachers, the professional development of teachers and diversity, and he manages a set of programmes that address these concerns.

While IOP members are responsible for determining the Institute’s position on policy matters, Charles develops and guides that position through discussions with colleagues and meetings with representatives from other scientific bodies and civil servants, ministers and their advisers.

He says that current concerns include a lack of diversity in the subject, a shortage of specialist teachers, an over-emphasis on a content-based curriculum and an exam system that rewards the momentary acquisition of knowledge rather than deep learning and developing ways of thinking.

“We are doing a lot of work on how gender and socio-economic status (SES) affect the likelihood of students progressing to physics at A-level. To some degree, the other concerns play into those two,” he says. He argues that the need to enable and allow more girls and students from the lower SES groups to choose physics is a high priority.

Earlier in his career Charles was a teacher after completing a physics degree and an MSc in information technology. His last teaching post was as head of science at Hitchin Boys’ School. For a period he worked as a freelance author, writing textbooks, developing websites (he was part of a team that won a BAFTA for Channel 4’s Homework High) and contributing to curriculum development activities for the Nuffield Foundation. He also worked for a while for Hertfordshire local authority.

He joined the IOP’s staff initially as the project manager for the pilot of the Stimulating Physics Network, which successfully became a nation-wide project in 2009. He went on to become the Institute’s head of education.

For Charles, the issue of access to high quality physics education is incredibly important. When he’s not meeting people outside the Institute, Charles is keeping up with his own people. “Much of my role is about supporting and looking after the work of my excellent colleagues in the education department,” he says. The department’s work includes helping teachers directly through continuing professional development and with resources, publications and websites, supporting students (particularly those aged 16-19), stimulating the recruitment of more physics teachers, investigating diversity issues and strengthening the work of the IOP in higher education, including building networks and looking at pedagogy and conceptual understanding.

His own interest in physics began with enjoying maths and the elegant way that mathematics could describe, predict and help to explain physical behaviours. “For me, that is physics – not mathematics; there is nothing more satisfying than a physics explanation. I liked finding out what the sums told you about how the world works. I liked the consistency – the fact that you could always work your way to a consistent (and, in all likelihood, correct) answer no matter what method you used, at least at school level.

“I enjoyed waves and Fourier transforms and, after I had taught for a few years, the second law of thermodynamics and statistical physics, which at last began to make sense thanks to some clever curriculum development in the Nuffield A-level.”

Beyond this, studying physics has had an impact on how he thinks about the world, addresses problems, talks to people and contemplates life, he says. “Physics is an enriching and enlightening part of any person’s education: it provides so much more than just the content. That's why it should be taught well. School and university students have a right to expect teaching from someone who can provide a rich experience of the discipline – exemplifying its ways of thinking. If they are denied that experience they are being denied a major cultural element of their upbringing.”

Helping students to develop the competences that characterise physics is a fundamental part of being a physics teacher; if young people are taught to think in a scientific way, this will have knock-on effects in the wider world, he says. “It’s important for society to have people who can think and consider and wonder about situations, rather than just having kneejerk reactions to them.

“Education is one of the most important issues in the political system and physics has an important role to play within every young person's intellectual and creative development.”

Despite enjoying the job, he does not always find it plain sailing. “There are some aspects of policy that are not soluble and I do find that quite hard. You have to accept that the system will be flawed. It has aspects that are too far out of your control or too complex for it to be possible to reason your way to an answer. And that is frustrating.”

Away from the job, he takes pleasure in music-related pursuits, having learnt the piano, organ and double bass while at school. If he had not been a physicist he would have liked to have had a musical career. “I wanted to be the bass player in a rock band and was in a band with a well-known newsreader in my university days. We thought we were great but she called us ‘lamentable’ in a recent interview.” he says. He still fiddles about with synths and recording software at home but these days he mostly keeps his public rocking to performances at the IOP’s Christmas party.

  • IOP members or the nominated teacher at an IOP-affiliated school can influence the Institute’s policy by joining the Education Forum on the TalkPhysics website.