Thinking like a physicist

To develop curricular frameworks is to translate from the worlds of the professional physicists to an education in physics.: It's not thinking as a physicist; instead, it is thinking like a physicist.

Physicists have made many changes to the way they represent and intervene in the world to test their thinking. They measure progress against generating reliable guides to action in the lived-in world. Still, even that progress cannot be completely extracted from the environment of ideas, desires and actions of its day. So progress itself is a local, not global, measure. Physics, as practised, is a messy, pragmatic activity: historians of the sciences have shown that there is no scientific method.

In the absence of such a descriptive account, this is a purposive translation, not a fictional description. All translations require some interpretation, but also an intent to be faithful to the original. What emerges should preserve much of the essence, so plausibly be an account of physics as is, yet still be fruitfully intelligible to the intended audience.

Here is a pedagogical representation of physics to guide curricula and the development of learning sequences intended for children. It's a didactical transposition of physics.

From thinking with and about the three facets, children might gain:


Physics makes sense of the world through a set of interrelated practices

Physics is based on some critical, rewarding and highly valued ways of thinking. For example, the community of physicists seek elegance, coherence and consistency, depending on the interplay of creative intuition, reason and experiment, and aim for parsimonious descriptions of great scope.

Develop a distinctive account of the world, describing by idealising and quantifying. Reimagine the world prioritising accounts of broad scope and few kinds of constituents. Think creatively to suggest patterns beyond what you notice or record, aiming for coherence with existing accounts in physics, and seeking the most widely applicable descriptions. Support your suggestions with well-founded reasons based on empirical observations. Test the patterns by deriving predictions, then intervene to design experiments to check those predictions. Analyse the data from the experiments critically, checking for possible uncertainties or mistakes in measurement or supporting reasoning to achieve a defensible provisional account. Be prepared to defend your account against alternative interpretations, and challenges form other data, established patterns within physics. Use your idealisations and quantifications to derive observable predictions from numerical, algebraic or geometrical models. Expect challenges based on internal coherence and consistency with established scientific knowledge.

In short:

Representing: reimagining, idealising and quantifying.

Predicting: seeking and exploiting testable regularities.

Intervening: arranging, recording and testing.


Physics has developed three explanatory schemas, drawn on in different topics

Explanations in terms of systems: Facets of a whole (explanation resting on the whole).

Electric circuits function as loops: consider the whole loop to understand the circuit. Once the loop is complete changing something over here can affect something over there. This working at a distance, controlling the power by varying the components, permits remote action and communication over great distances.

Waves and fields describe at-a-distance influences: use magnetic loops to act at a distance, and vary these loops to create new electrical loops. Describe periodic variations which are mimicked at a distance using the idea of a wave(source to detector). Describe processes using waves to account for remote action and communication over great distances, without leaving permanent changes between source and detector.

Explanations in terms of patterns: Abstract patterns (explanation resting on patterns).

Use energy descriptions(calculated changes from measurable physical quantities), to generate general constraints, predicting what might happen, or revealing what cannot happen.

Extend this pattern-seeking account to discussions of other patterns shared with mathematics, including dynamic or static equilibrium, compensation, constraint and accumulation.

Explanations in terms of constituent parts: Whole in terms of parts (explanation resting on the parts).

Describe the universe in terms of its parts, treating each as a particle by changing scales. Aim for simplicity and parsimony. Predict the motions of galaxies, stars and planets using universal laws, connecting force acting on a part to the change in motion of that part. Identify the forces between pairs of particles by looking at pairwise interactions: gravity at large scales.

At smaller scales use atoms as particles: account for many of the properties of tangible matter using forces(include contact forces) in place of the interactions between atoms. At still smaller scales, predict many of the properties of atoms in terms of their constituent parts. At all scales, recognise that the parts may differ in significant ways, so add properties to the particles as needed, ensuring the additions result in testable effects(perhaps from changes in motion as a result of a force.)


Physics is strongly coupled with other intellectual, societal and cultural endeavours.

The practices and explanations of physics are part of an endeavour to understand the universe and make it more hospitable. For example, engineering, biology, economics and sociology all draw on such practices and explanations. Such exaption is evidence that studying physics is preparation for many meaningful, productive and rewarding occupations.

The practices and explanations reflect a way of attaining actionable and reliable knowledge: satisfying human curiosity and enabling effective action. Current and past interests and intentions continue to influence both practices and explanations. Physics remains provisional, but tested and therefore reliable.