Learning by Heart: Poetry comes to Physics

Part 1: Poetry by Heart This week at KEGS we published the latest in our Learning Lessons series. This issue documents a fabulously exciting project masterminded by our Head of English, the esteemed Dr David Greenwood.  David and two colleagues, French teacher Alex Steele and Latin teacher Frank Garcia, all teach the same Year 7 class, 7M.  In the autumn term the boys in 7M engaged in a wonderful Poetry by Heart project linking the three subjects.

Poetry by Heart: A Learning Lessons Masterpiece
Poetry by Heart: A Learning Lessons Masterpiece

I thoroughly recommend reading the full article via our Learning Lessons blog and following the links to the clips of various recitals and rehearsals.  The philosophy is very clear – that learning poetry by heart adds significantly to experience of learning and, ultimately to the students’ appreciation and understanding of the material.  If you have ever found yourself saying something like ‘learning things by heart for the sake of it is pointless‘, this article and the clips may change your mind. There IS a sake. There IS a point. We launched the Poetry by Heart initiative in an assembly last term where I featured a couple of clips of my step-father reciting some medieval English and some Beowulf.  He is a retired professor of Medieval Latin with an astonishing library of poetry in his head that he can browse and select from whenever the right moment arises.

I even joined in to model the process with a rendition of the only poem I ever learned at school: Jabberwocky!   Here it is: (not word-perfect, but hopefully not too far off!)
Poetry by Heart was the extension of earlier projects focusing on reading aloud – our ‘Reading with the Ear’ and ‘Talking Texts’ projects, both of which are profiled in the Learning Lessons  archive. Part 2: Physics by Heart Recently, I have been thinking a lot about how best to teach some of the less confident students in my A level Physics class.  I am repeatedly frustrated by their resistance to retaining concepts beyond the few lessons in which we explore them in depth.  As we learn about more ideas, they seem to find it difficult to build a conceptual framework that keeps things in order such that they can make connections.  At a more basic level, they seem to forget the fundamental equations and waste a lot of time and effort trying to dredge up basic definitions, units and equations every time we need to use them. One of my most well-worn teacher clichés is “I’m not asking you to KNOW; I am asking you to WORK IT OUT”.  This applies to any number or questions where students have given me the ‘I don’t know’ brush-off when invited to answer a simple question.  But with some of my students, I am starting to think that I need a new approach – influenced in part by the Poetry. My normal approach to teaching would be this: Screen shot 2014-02-02 at 15.53.52For most students that works reasonably well.  They grapple with the concepts, explore them in various situations and, in so doing, learn things such that they can recall them later as they need to.  They then revisit each set of ideas prior to a major assessment or exam, filling in the gaps.  The idea is that it is easier to learn and remember something at a deep level if you understand it at a deep level first.  That’s been a pretty solid foundation for most of my teaching. However, I have found that the less confident students are operating on shaky ground too much of the time. Their basic physics vocabulary isn’t secure enough; they mix things up and morph ideas together. For example, they might start talking about Force and Energy as if they are the same thing; Momentum and Force are lazily interchanged; current and charge or  power and energy are similarly fused into a mush of confusion.  They write R = I/V and don’t realise it is wrong.  They might even think that Joules, Watts and Newtons are more or less the same thing – or have a guess. This gets more confused as the ideas are more sophisticated. Gravitational Potential (V, units J/kg) and Gravitational Potential Energy ( units, J) become intertwined with each other and Gravitational Field Strength (g, units N/kg). Some students are virtually tossing a coin to decide whether to measure the gradient or work out the area under a g vs r curve to find a change in potential. Asked to find the mass of a planet, they calculate this to be 8 x 107 kg and don’t flinch because they don’t automatically reference this to the mass of Earth = 6 x 1024 kg, thereby realising they might be a few powers of 10 out in the calculations. When asked for the units of the universal gravitation constant, G = 6.67 x 10-11 Nm2kg-2, the units are not secure so they have work them out each time from the equation, which costs time. It could be that students have become too reliant on their ability to look things up on the internet or on the fact that most of the equations and constants they need are given in a formula book during the exams.  Knowing things off by heart is not part of the deal and they know this all too well.  My feeling is that it is actually the weaker students who suffer the most because of this, not the strongest – who have other resources to draw on. I’ve decided that my students would benefit from more explicit emphasis on learning by heart.  I am about to become a driller-killer for units, equations, quantities, definitions and graphical methods.  I am going to test my students on basic formulae and units early on, asking them to learn them by heart before we have explored their application. Here is the new insertion: Screen shot 2014-02-02 at 15.54.48We are going to chant, recite, and regurgitate until the students know the basics so well, they will never forget.  Just like Jabberwocky: it might not make sense, but you won’t forget it. My thinking is that, with these things securely learned, we will be better placed to apply the ideas to different scenarios with less confusion and more confidence. For example, in maths or physics, students need to know how to use the suvat equations:

suvat equations.  Derivations first? Or shall we learn them by heart?
suvat equations. Derivations first? Or shall we learn them by heart?

The value in knowing these off by heart is that students will be more likely to notice when they have got them wrong.   It is obviously important to know where the equations come from and to be able to apply them to different situations but if you know them by heart, S = ut + ½ at  or v2 = u – 2as are obviously wrong and you are less likely to make mistakes.  The deeper understanding could follow later. So, that is the theory.  Physics as Poetry, coming soon to a classroom in Chelmsford. Here is a sample Y13 basic knowledge test:

Some basics to learn my heart.
Some basics to learn my heart.

Post-script: For those familiar with Martin Robinson’s fabulous Trivium 21st C (as featured in this review post) I wonder if this approach could be an example of Trivium in action: Grammar (learn the basics very solidly without too much debate); Dialectic (explore it all from different ways and see how it works); Rhetoric (express and explain the ideas in a range of formats).  I think it is.


  1. Taught my eldest Newton’s Laws when he was 2. Reasoning its just sounds to him and he likes learning sounds much like nursery rhymes so might as well make them useful sounds. Then as he got older associate those sounds with concrete examples like driving the car. By 9 ish he could relate newton’s laws to most everyday situations. Similar reason I wrote this book for him. https://theingots.org/community/microcosm. Got bored with reading Topsy and Tim over and over so thought why not read something that will be of benefit later over and over and write it also on a level to be interesting/amusing to the adult reader.


  2. My experience is exactly as you describe. I think your ‘standard model’ for teaching A-Level Physics is about the same as mine and, like you, my experience is that students’ basic knowledge is often too insecure to cope with any move into new contexts (which is the essence of harder exam questions), or re-use after a week or two on the next topic. Often they would more or less get the learning done during exam revision but the quality of their practice during the year was so damaged that all you could see on the run in to the exam was the first part of an improvement curve that needed another couple of months to translate into significant grade changes.

    I have tried teaching the recall knowledge first and found it difficult to motivate students this way round but that may reflect my skill set rather than an absolute barrier. I think they really need time to see the benefits of the recall work and it’s a bit chiken and egg; if they can’t see the benefit then they learn recall knowledge slowly because they don’t put the time in outside lessons; because they learn slowly it’s hard to wait until they can see the benefit.

    I think it’s particularly hard for the students that managed fine at GCSE with recall knowledge they just picked up without really trying.

    I think where I ended up was with a model that emphasised recall knowledge as part of ongoing regular revision. So starting with key concepts and explanation, then a brief focus on essential recall knowledge, then application, then regular revision but of the recall knowledge rather than the application, then exam preparation re-focusing on application in exam questions. At least, that was the model – I’m not sure how well I implemented it.

    Some recall knowledge looks like application to the students working at lower grades e.g. I would categorise block on a slope as recall (mgcostheta / mgsintheta) and then draw it the other way round and “in Australia” and equally I would have two resistors in series or parallel as recall too with very simple but varying numbers (6.0V supply and 12ohm resistors for example). For these examples, the recall-based questions can be followed by ‘why?’ so they’re recalling Kirchoff’s Laws etc. too.

    If you can get them excited about the units for G, even better. I had moments of inspiration with stuff like this but it was pretty intermittent. However, that’s just reminded me of something. I’m going to post about David and “poo lies over America” – maybe your students will like this too…

    Best of luck and I will be very interested in how you get on.


    • Thanks for this great comment. We’ve been wrestling with the same issues. At this point my plan is to pepper my lessons with basic recall tests…mixing up topics, making it fun…but then, every so often to spring a longer test in them. Essentially I want learning for memory and recall to be more explicit. Let’s see! Look forward to reading about David. 🙂


      • A similar strategy is to break the syllabus up into “can do” statements eg I can solve straight forward problems using kinematic equations. (Teach them the equations and then ask them to provide the evidence that they can confidently prove they are secure against that statement. They can attach the evidence to a web page and see if their peers and you agree. Once they all claim to be secure give them a test or have one they can self-assess against, eg in Moodle.


  3. My kids enjoyed listening to Flanders and Swan “the first and second law of thermodynamics,”: several versions on youtube.


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