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June 11th, 2007

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05:10 pm - Wellington Grey ...
The New Physics Exam, from Miscellanea, an irregular webcomic about science and things. I'd recommend going through the whole archive, there aren't too many of them, and they're amusing.
He's also written an open letter to AQA and the Department of Education, protesting recent changes in physics at GCSE level in the UK, and this plea for help in spreading the letter around ... so I am.

From the open letter :
The thing that attracts pupils to physics is its precision. Here, at last, is a discipline that gives real answers that apply to the physical world. But that precision is now gone. Calculations — the very soul of physics — are absent from the new GCSE. Physics is a subject unpolluted by a torrent of malleable words, but now everything must be described in words.

In this course, pupils debate topics like global warming and nuclear power. Debate drives science, but pupils do not learn meaningful information about the topics they debate. Scientific argument is based on quantifiable evidence. The person with the better evidence, not the better rhetoric or talking points, wins. But my pupils now discuss the benefits and drawbacks of nuclear power plants, without any real understanding of how they work or what radiation is.

I want to teach my subject, to pass on my love of physics to those few who would appreciate it. But I can’t. There is nothing to love in the new course. I see no reason that anyone taking this new GCSE would want to pursue the subject. This is the death of physics.

Current Mood: calmcalm

(7 touches | En garde !)


Date:June 11th, 2007 07:19 pm (UTC)
Linking to your post... I've got at least one person on my flist who might be interested but isn't a mutual flist member.
[User Picture]
Date:June 11th, 2007 10:09 pm (UTC)

Say *what*?

I did Nuffield Physics, which is its own particular kind of pain, but still... We also did Maths, Pure and Applied.

...a friend of mine went on to work in power generation systems, and was later to be found musing thus: "The Applied maths was all about inextensible strings over frictionless pulleys, and after working on mine-shaft systems, I can tell you that that isn't applied maths. Applied maths isn't about inextensible strings and frictionless pulleys. It isn't even about extensible cables and pulley friction. It's about whether the cabel winder will still work under fifteen years of birdshit."

That, and what happens when a steel mill "cobbles", are the kinds of things that make kids sit up in physics classes.
[User Picture]
Date:June 11th, 2007 11:33 pm (UTC)
"Write a short story about the mix-up"?!?!?!?

And again, ?!?!?!?

I have, granted, done written answers to Physics questions. But they were more along the lines of describing how nuclear power is generated. And they had some maths in them IIRC (it was a long time ago. The last time I studied physics was 1991. I didn't do very well, not least because I also was legal to drink and living away from home for the first time.)
[User Picture]
Date:June 12th, 2007 12:38 am (UTC)
It's definitely happened here in South Australia, where the Physics high school course actually reads more like a History of Physics course. A decade ago (when I was last teaching physics at university) the gap between high school and university level physics courses was one of the hardest to bridge, and there really wasn't much more we could do to simplify the course.

There are a number of factors that lead to this. Firstly there is a great lack of qualified physics teachers in high school (teaching is often considered to be the third choice (after research then commecial applications)). Secondly there are increasing restrictions (both financial and safety) on practical work in high schools (and to really understand physics you have to see and measure what happens yourself and how it applies to things that happens to you and explore the world around you; otherwise you are just manipulating mathematical formulas with no real understanding of what they mean [and this is plainly evident if you look at the answers provided by students in their matriculating SSABSA exams]). Thirdly mathematical and "physical" literacy starts too late in the curriculum. Our primary school teachers receive little or no exposure to science in their training, so is it any wonder that they pass this bias on to the children in their care, during one of the most important formative years of childhood learning.

This is my experience (admittedly in a state often considered to have one of the worst educational systems in Australia). YMMV and I hope it does.

Good luck with the fight!

[User Picture]
Date:June 12th, 2007 04:49 pm (UTC)
I see the problem slightly differently.

Physics as an academic discipline and an applied research area will always be "high-bar" -- it's demanding, conceptually and mathematically, there's no getting around it.

IMO the real problem with a "science in society"-type curriculum is not that it "dangerously" or "misleadingly" encourages students to debate issues without concrete knowledge. This is a red herring. School should be about encouraging learners to ask questions, and teacahing / explaining how meaningful answers may be derived. Obviously, this argument is about the latter of those two points.

The real problem with a science curriculum that is not focused on developing mathematical and scientific literacy is that it effectively achieves a type of social engineering in the discipline. It ends up making a selective academic subject like physics even less accessible to the general population. The bulk of kids who get the teaching they need to do well in the subject and pursue it at a higher level will increasingly come from selective grammars, comps in wealthy middle-class areas, church schools, or independent schools that cost thousands of pounds a year to attend.
[User Picture]
Date:June 12th, 2007 04:57 pm (UTC)
I forgot to add that there is exactly the same issue for modern foreign languages in the UK.

Research-intensive universities here are constantly being castigated by the media for not being more "accessible" and for not admitting more students from government schools. The problem once again being that since less and less government schools are offering languages, or are failing to provide good-quality language tuition at GCSE level, the candidate pool for university applicants wishing to read MFL has a) shrunk significantly and b) developed a noticeable bias towards independent schools.
[User Picture]
Date:June 14th, 2007 03:09 pm (UTC)
Yes, exactly! We need to teach if we want people to be able to learn. Just giving up on our end essentially ensures that we will select for people who don't see any point in teaching, while leaving otherwise capable people ill-equipped and possibly resentful.

The myth of the genius is particularly pernicious here, I think, but that's a rant for another time.

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