[Offtopic] Physics in the UK

Cameron Bell bell.cameron.p at edumail.vic.gov.au
Wed Jul 4 18:50:56 EST 2007

Bit of a long story from a UK IT teachers list, but I can't help feel 
the same is happening here...

A physics teacher begs for his subject back: An open letter to AQA and
The Department of Education



I am a physics teacher. Or, at least I used to be. My subject is still
called physics. My pupils will sit an exam and earn a GCSE in physics,
but that exam doesn’t cover anything I recognize as physics. Over the
past year the UK Department for Education http://www.dfes.gov.uk/
  and the AQA board http://www.aqa.org.uk/  changed the subject. They
took the physics out of physics and replaced it with… something else,
something nebulous and ill defined. I worry about this change. I worry
about my pupils, I worry about the state of science education in this
country, and I worry about the future physics teachers — if there will
be any.

I graduated from a prestigious university with a degree in physics and
pursued a lucrative career in economics which I eventually abandoned
to teach. Economics and business, though vastly easier than my
subject, and more financially rewarding, bored me. I went into
teaching to return to the world of science and to, in what extent I
could, convey to pupils why one would love a subject so difficult.

For a time I did. For a time, I was happy.

But this past academic year things changed. The Department for
Education and the AQA board brought in a new syllabus for the
sciences. One which greatly increased the teaching of `how science
works.’ While my colleagues expressed scepticism, I was hopeful. After
all, most pupils will not follow science at a higher level, so we
should at least impart them with a sense of what it can tell us about
our universe.

That did not happen

The result is a fiasco that will destroy physics in England.

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.

Specific Complaints:
My complaints about the new syllabus fall into four categories: the
vague, the stupid, the political, and the non-science.

The Vague:
The specification provided by the AQA (available at their website)
is http://aqa.org.uk/qual/pdf/AQA-4462-W-SP-08.PDF vaguely worded.
Every section starts with either phrase ‘to evaluate the possible
hazards and uses of…’ or ‘to compare the advantages and disadvantages
of…’ without listing exactly what hazards, uses, advantages or
disadvantages the board actually requires pupils to learn. The amount
of knowledge on any given topic, such as the electromagnetic spectrum,
could fill an entire year at the university level. But no guidance is
given to teachers and, as a result, the exam blindsides pupils with
questions like:

Suggest why he [a dark skinned person] can sunbathe with less risk of
getting skin cancer than a fair skinned person.

To get the mark, pupils must answer:

More UV absorbed by dark skin (more melanin)
Less UV penetrates deep to damage living cells / tissue
Nowhere does the specification mention the words sunscreen or melanin.
It doesn’t say pupils need to know the difference between surface dead
skin and deeper living tissue. There is no reason any physics teacher
would cover such material, or why any pupil should expect to be tested
on it.

The Stupid:
On topics that are covered by the specification, the exam board has
answers that indicate a lack of knowledge on the writer’s part. One
questions asks `why would radio stations broadcast digital signals
rather than analogue signals?’ An acceptable answer is:

Can be processed by computer / ipod [sic]
Aside from the stupidity of the answer, (iPods, at the time of this
writing, don’t have radio turners and computers can process analogue
signals) writing the mark scheme in this way is thoughtless, as
teachers can only give marks that exactly match its language. So does
the pupil get the mark if they mention any other mp3 player?
Technically, no.          Wikipedia
   currently lists 63  different players. Is it safe to assume that the
examiner will be familiar with all of them? Doubtful.

If the question is not poorly worded, or not covered in the
specification, it will be insultingly easy. The first question on a
sample paper started:

A newspaper article has the heading: ‘Are mobiles putting our children
at risk?’ A recent report said that children under the age of nine
should not use mobile phones…

The first question on the paper was:

Below which age is it recommended that children use a mobile phone in
emergencies only?

This is the kind of reading comprehension question I would expect in a
primary school English lesson, not a secondary school GCSE.

The Political:
The number of questions that relate to global warming is appalling. I
do not deny that pupils should know about the topic, nor do I deny its
importance. However, it should not be the main focus of every topic.
The pupils (and their teachers) are growing apathetic from

A paper question asked: `Why must we develop renewable energy
sources.’ This is a political question. Worse yet, a political
statement. I’m not saying I disagree with it, just that it has no
place on a physics GCSE paper.

Pupils are taught to poke holes in scientific experiments, to
constantly find what is wrong. However, never are the pupils given
ways to determine when an experiment is reliable, to know when an
experiment yields information about the world that we can trust. This
encourages the belief that all quantitative data is unreliable and
untrustworthy. Some of my pupils, after a year of the course, have
gone from scientifically minded individuals to thinking, “It’s not
possible to know anything, so why bother?” Combining distrust of
scientific evidence with debates won on style and presentation alone
is an unnerving trend that will lead society astray.

The Non-scientific:
Lastly, I present the final question on the January physics exam in
its entirety:

Electricity can also be generated using renewable energy sources. Look
at this information from a newspaper report.

The energy from burning bio-fuels, such a woodchip and straw, can be
used to generate electricity.
Plants for bio-fuels use up carbon dioxide as they grow.
Farmers get grants to grow plants for bio-fuels.
Electricity generated from bio-fuels can be sold at a higher price
than electricity generated from burning fossil fuels.
Growing plants for bio-fuels offers new opportunities for rural
communities. Suggest why, apart from the declining reserves of fossil
fuels, power companies should use more bio-fuels and less fossil fuels
to generate electricity.
The only marks that a pupil can get are for saying:

Overall add no carbon dioxide to the environment
Power companies make more profit
Opportunity to grew new type of crop (growing plants in swamps)
More Jobs
None of this material is in the specification, nor can a pupil
reliably deduce the answers from the given information. Physics isn’t
a pedestrian subject about power companies and increasing their
profits, or jobs in a rural community, it’s is about far grander and
broader ideas.

My pupils complained that the exam did not test the material they were
given to study, and they are largely correct. The information tested
was not in the specification given to the teachers, nor in the
approved resources suggested by the AQA board. When I asked AQA about
the issues with their exam they told me to write a letter of
complaint, and this I have done. But, rather than mail it to AQA to
sit ignored on a desk, I am making it public in the hope that more
attention can be brought to this problem.

There is a teacher shortage in this country, but if a physicist asked
my advice on becoming a teacher, I would have to say: don’t. Don’t
unless you want to watch a subject you love dismantled.

I am a young and once-enthusiastic physics teacher. I despair at what
I am forced to teach. I have potentially thirty years of lessons to
give, but I didn’t sign up for this — and the business world still
calls. There I won’t have to endure the pain of trying to animate a
crippled subject. The rigorous of physics been torn down and replaced
with impotent science media studies.

I beg of the government and the AQA board, please, give me back my
subject and let me do my job.


Wellington Grey


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