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Teaching guide

by Chris Woodford. Last updated: December 16, 2017.

Explain that Stuff is a fun and friendly guide to the science that powers the world around us. Although it's mainly designed for informal self-learning, it can also be used to support formal teaching and home-schooling across the physical science curriculum for ages ranging from about 10 upward. It can be used by motivated students working independently, teachers planning classes and devising activities, and home-schooling parents working in partnership with children. This guide is designed to help you get the most from our site by showing how our articles map to a typical science curriculum.

Photo by Charles Oki courtesy of US Navy.

How to use this guide

There are many different science curricula in use around the world, and it's impossible to detail how a large website like this (with over 450 long articles) maps to all of them. Instead, I'm going to work through one typical curriculum document, highlighting the topic areas we help to cover and noting the relevant articles from our site that support the curriculum in each case. I've chosen to use the English National Curriculum for Science [PDF]. Don't worry that it's a UK document; it's clearly written and works well as a simple framework.

Please note that this website is not meant to be an educational textbook, so it doesn't slavishly follow the curriculum, ticking off each subject in turn; some areas (physical sciences—and physics in particular) are very well covered (because that happens to be my specialism), while others (such as life and earth sciences) are intentionally not covered at all. Please also be aware that there are many more articles on the website that cover fascinating topics you won't find on most public school curricula (such as computing, electronics, and the history of technology and inventions). If you're a parent supporting your child at school or a home-schooler, be guided by the curriculum but don't be overly constrained—and certainly explore beyond it if your students show interest.

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How you can use our articles for teaching and learning

Although some of our articles are strongly geared to recognizable scientific topics like light, energy, or magnetism, many of them introduce science "by the back door"—taking a familiar everyday object and carefully explaining how it works. One of the big complaints children have about science is that they don't see its relevance to everyday life; our articles help to address this using copious, familiar examples that package science in a friendly, relevant, and engaging way.

Teachers have been using our articles in many different ways. Some simply recommend articles as initial preparation or follow-up background reading for a deeper class activity or study. Others suggest students pick a favorite topic from a list of articles and write a short summary in their own words; that's a good way of making sure information is properly absorbed and digested. Another possibility is to ask pupils if they can figure out how an object or an appliance works, then show them the real explanation in the appropriate article. Or you could challenge them to invent the proverbial "better mousetrap": ask them to list the pros and cons of one of their favorite gadgets or inventions and then see if they can come up with something better.

If you're a home-schooling parent following a curriculum, one good approach is to look at the articles that support a particular topic area and work through one or two of them with your child. For example, if you're home-schooling a 12 year-old and studying electromagnetism, you could ask your child to make a list of gadgets and appliances around your home that use electricity and magnetism. Once that's done, pick one very familiar appliance—maybe a loudspeaker, an electric doorbell, or an electric guitar—and study it together. Read the article on our website, discuss what's going on inside the appliance, and relate it to the one you have in your own home. Quite a few homeschooling parents have told me they use the site to "brush up" their own understanding of a topic before they teach it to their children. That's partly why the "Further reading" at the end of the articles often includes separate lists of suggestions for older and younger readers: you can read an article yourself, then use one of the suggested texts at the end with your children or pupils.

Which grade levels we support

The Wikipedia article on Educational stage is a good overview of the different grade levels in different countries and how they map to one another. Broadly speaking, this website supports curriculum learning for ages 11–18 (US grades 6–12, UK keystages 3–5), though bright pupils below age 11 will be able to tackle some of the simpler articles (and most articles will be of interest to adult readers too).

If you're interested in only one specific age range, you might like to skip straight to the relevant part of the notes:

Child online safety

We have taken trouble to ensure this website is as safe and suitable for children as we can possibly make it.

Please note that most pages on this site contain carefully selected links to other sites for further reading. That doesn't mean sneaky advertisements: it means links to BBC News or New York Times articles, books listed on Google Books that will take you further into a subject, carefully checked YouTube video demonstrations, and so on. Although we have done our best to link only to reputable, dependable sites, and we check our links regularly, the web is a dynamic place, and we are not responsible for the content of other sites.

Ages 7–11: Keystage 2, grades 2–6

Although our articles are not really written for children under the age of about 10, bright young students could certainly tackle some of the simpler ones—and, of course, there's no reason why parents and children shouldn't read and work through things together. If you're helping a younger child with homework or home study, you could read the articles we've recommended as a backgrounder for yourself and then explain the key concepts in simpler terms your child can understand.

1. Life processes and living things

Living things in their environment

Protecting living things and their environment

For this age group, concrete examples of environmental problems and solutions work better than abstract ideas. So you'll find it easier to work with familiar topics like pollution and recycling than with more abstract ideas like environmentalism, which can be discussed with older students.

Microorganisms

2. Materials and their properties

There are numerous articles on our site exploring all sorts of simple materials (wood, metals, glass, plastics), as well as not-so-simple ones (alloys, composites, and self-healing materials). For younger age groups, the emphasis should be on recognizing different materials, understanding the similarities and differences between them, and appreciating that the properties of different materials make them suitable for different uses.

Grouping and classifying materials

Basic materials
Other interesting types of materials
Properties of materials

Changing materials

Separating mixtures of materials

3. Physical processes

This is our first simple introduction to physics: electricity, light, sound, and basic forces. For this age group, it's good to keep things concrete and practical. Focus on safe hands-on experiments with electricity (simple practical electric circuits with lamps and batteries), magnetism, light, and sound; there are plenty of examples of things around the home that use all four. Make sure that you relate forces to easy-to-understand ideas like weight and falling (don't get bogged down in abstract ideas of what forces are or how they "act at a distance").

Electricity

Forces and motion

Light and sound

Other topics for younger students

The articles flagged in green on our A-Z index are best for younger readers. Simpler articles popular with this age group include:

Ages 11–14: Keystage 3, grades 6–8

1. Life processes and living things

Living things in their environment

We learn that humans and the environment are interdependent, how the environment can be protected, and the importance of sustainable development. For this age group, we can start to explore different types of pollution and touch on some of the controversies of environmentalism (for example, is it always worth recycling things or is it sometimes better to treat waste in other ways)?

2. Materials and their properties

Classifying materials

We begin to understand how different materials have different properties and how a substance such as water can exist in different states at different temperatures and pressures. Although we have few articles about chemistry, some of our articles do touch on states of matter, the properties of materials, and changes of state.

Solids, liquids, and gases
Elements, compounds, and mixtures

3. Changing materials

This area explores physical, chemical, and geological changes.

Chemical reactions and effects on the environment

4. Patterns of behavior

Mostly focused on chemistry, this area explores metals and their simple reactions. It also introduces acids and bases, measuring acidity and alkalinity, and everyday chemical reactions. Although there's relatively little chemistry on our website, we do have articles covering most common metals and how pH meters work.

Metals

Acids and bases

5. Physical processes

The core of the physics part of the curriculum, this section introduces fundamental physics concepts like electricity, magnetism, forces, light, and sound. As with younger age groups, these topics are still best introduced through concrete examples such as everyday electric circuits (flashlights, intruder alarms, doorbells).

Electricity and magnetism

What are electricity and magnetism, how are they connected, and what practical use are they?

Examples of electromagnetism

There are plenty of everyday examples of how electricity and magnetism work hand-in-hand; it's great to explore and compare different electromagnetic appliances in the home.

Forces and linear motion

In this section, we learn how pushing and pulling forces sometimes produce motion and sometimes don't and how the size of a force relates to the amount of motion it produces.

Dynamics (unbalanced forces)

By this stage, students are starting to explore motion in a quantitative way.

Statics (balanced forces)
Gravity
Frictional forces and air resistance
Force and rotation
Force and pressure

Light and sound

We discover that light and sound are two different kinds of energy in motion and compare their similarities and differences.

The behavior of light
Vibration and sound
Hearing

The Earth and beyond

Here's an opportunity to cover some basic space science.

Energy resources and energy transfer

It can be quite hard to define energy in a scientifically rigorous way that makes sense to young students; and it's often best to relate it to concrete everyday examples instead (the energy in food, for example, or how much energy electrical appliances use).

Energy resources
Conservation of energy

Ages 14–16: Keystage 4, grades 9–10

This is a much more challenging age group: students at this level study the same broad areas of science but in somewhat greater depth, taking a more quantitative, critical approach, and questioning the limits of science. It's particularly important that we take more trouble to explain to older students why science is relevant and worth their time. Surveys in the UK show that almost half of nine year-olds enjoy science because they think it will be useful in life, while only 35 percent of 14-year-olds share that view. Keep things engaging using plenty of familiar, everyday examples!

1. Life processes and living things

Living things in their environment

While younger students may have a fairly black-and-white view of environmental issues (pollution is always bad, recycling is always good), older students can explore the gray areas too. Why has pollution happened and could it ever be justified if it led to economic gains that helped to reduce poverty or improve health? Does pollution affect different social groups disproportionately? Is sustainable development an achievable goal?

2. Materials and their properties

Younger students learn that different materials have different properties; older students can begin to relate these properties to the inner structure of different materials. Materials science is very easy to present in a dull way, so choose interesting and dramatic examples (superglue, bulletproof glass, self-healing materials) to make the point.

Classifying materials

Atomic structure

Changing materials

Some everyday examples of how we use physical changes in materials to do useful jobs:

Useful products from organic substances
Useful products from metal ores and rocks
Changes to Earth and the atmosphere

3. Patterns of behavior

Although our site contains relatively little chemistry, there are two articles on neon and xenon lamps (illustrating examples of how noble gases can be used) and a number others covering everyday metals (including their basic chemistry, extraction, and common uses).

The periodic table

Chemical reactions

Rates of reaction

Reactions involving enzymes

4. Physical processes

This section extends the same basic physics topics we've covered for younger age groups. School physics textbooks have a tendency to run through a list of abstract-sounding areas (forces, energy, motion, waves...) that may have no apparent relevance to everyday life, so try to tackle the material in a familiar, everyday context. For example, you can teach quite a lot of the basic physics of waves by talking about surfing; sport (including swimming) is a great way to introduce forces and motion; and there are plenty of everyday examples of things like static electricity (photocopiers, laser printers, and power station pollution scrubbers). Remember: students of this age are questioning the relevance of studying science to their lives, so keep it concrete, engaging, and interesting!

Electricity

Circuits

Students of this age are starting to explore more complex circuits and will need to understand the distinction between basic electricity (a simple source of energy) and electronics (a way of controlling electricity).

Mains electricity
Electric charge

Forces and motion

Force and acceleration
Other forces

Waves

Characteristics of waves
The electromagnetic spectrum
Sound and ultrasound
Seismic waves

Energy resources and energy transfer

Energy transfer
Work, power, and energy
Electromagnetic effects

Radioactivity

Obtaining and presenting evidence

Equipment

We have many articles covering scientific instruments and test equipment, including:

Experiments

Older students (ages 16–adult)

For older students, the curriculum becomes richer, deeper, and more diverse and there's a greater emphasis on critical thought and self-study. Older students will begin to encounter interdisciplinary sciences like psychology, which combine widely different aspects of the earlier curriculum.

From the feedback I get from high school (A-level) students, it's pretty clear that students of this age have reached the stage where they can pick and choose articles that are most relevant to the topics they want to study, and I'm not going to offer specific recommendations. One area where older students like to use our articles is for background reading in preparation for things like science, engineering, and inventing contests. For example, if you're going to develop some kind of gadget that uses trip switches, you could learn how they work in our background articles about reed switches or Hall-effect sensors before setting out on your own experiments.

Study techniques

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If you liked this article...

... you might like my books. My latest one is Breathless: Why Air Pollution Matters and How it Affects You.

Covers of four recent books by Chris Woodford.

Please do NOT copy our articles onto blogs and other websites

Articles from this website are registered at the US Copyright Office. Copying or otherwise using registered works without permission, removing this or other copyright notices, and/or infringing related rights could make you liable to severe civil or criminal penalties.

Text copyright © Chris Woodford 2013. All rights reserved. Full copyright notice and terms of use.

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Woodford, Chris. (2013) Teaching guide. Retrieved from https://www.explainthatstuff.com/teaching-guide.html. [Accessed (Insert date here)]

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