Friday, June 08, 2007

a physics teacher begs for his subject back

Wellington Grey, a physics teachers in the UK, has written an open letter about the conversion of physics in his country from a science of precise measurement and calculation into "... something else, something nebulous and ill defined"

He goes onto give examples from the new syllabus of "the vague, the stupid, the political, and the non-science." It's an impassioned and well written 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.
- a physics teacher begs for his subject back
Also worth looking at Wellington's blog entry on this, Asking for your help, which has attracted some great comments.

This is a big topic. Science and maths education seems to be polarising between a back to basics movement and soft sociological reform, often ineffectual "discovery learning". I believe there is a third way, that traditional science education can be reformed and still remain real science. Student designed computer simulations using software such as Etoys / Squeak could play an important role here.

I've written in my old blog about the decline of science education in Australia, as flagged by astronaut Andy Thomas.


Grey said...

Thank you for linking to my site.


Sylvia said...

Thanks for posting this, Bill.

It seems like a vicious circle. We teach math and science as a bunch of vocabulary words and algorithms, which convinces kids that it's hard and irrelevant. The kids grow up and worry that a new generation won't like math and science because it's hard and irrelevant, so they try to tie it in to things that seem more relevant (like global warming or other social political issues) and teach with debate and creative writing so kids who "don't connect" with math and science can relate.

Anyone with any aptitude for real math or science is left out in the cold as the precision and "hard fun" is diluted.

As a former math/science nerd kid, I remember looking on any attempt to get me to write or speak in class as a teacher trick, best ignored. Math and science classes were a haven for me.

All I can say is, "arrghh!"

artichoke said...

This post captures my attention Bill, is classic SOLO taxonomy- to discuss something with any rigour you need to have had opportunity to bring in ideas (unistructural and multistructural learning outcomes) and to have linked these ideas to the whole (relational learning outcomes) - without these learning experiences the extended abstract thinking involved in discussion will always disappoint - you cannot take the linked ideas and look at them in another context if you never got to bring them in, understand and link them in the first place.

I have too much evidence of what you describe from my day job - a shallow understanding of science is one of the drivers of my concerns about student learning outcomes from our fervent use of "inquiry learning".

Another concern is the level of understanding of biological, physical and chemical concepts shown by teachers in our schools. And I suspect that this is also a concern given the loosening of curriculum expectations in New Zealand in the new Draft curriculum.

Many teachers charged with scaffolding kids understanding about forces, particles, electricity, velocity, magnetism, energy, etc need scaffolding themselves. When they are given too much choice in determining just what their kids need they will avoid concepts that they do not understand well themselves and scientific literacy will take another dive

Bill Kerr said...

thanks for comments; Grey, Sylvia, Arti

There are now 102 excellent and alarming comments at Grey's site which I would urge others to read.

Summarising some of the issues:
- watering down, diluting, trivializing science and maths curriculum
- converting science / maths content into sociological content
- using discovery or inquiry based learning as a substitute for hard facts

This is occurring systematically in western education systems. (Not in developing countries who are serious about catching up to the west and actively promote the importance of maths, science and computing science).


A science teacher at school has identified the global problem as "Outcomes Based Education" and has been supplying me with critiques for some time.

Still busy on other stuff and cannot do this justice. But here is one of the critiques:

Outcomes Based Education and the Death of Knowledge by Richard Berlach

I have been handballed other papers on OBE too but still unsure about how much time I can devote to this issue.

Bill Kerr said...

check out the satirical new physics exam on wellington grey's site

oops, but one of the questions was on a real physics exam!!

D Holton said...

You wrote:
"often ineffectual "discovery learning"."

and 2 sentences later you wrote:
"Student designed computer simulations using software such as Etoys / Squeak could play an important role here."

Student-designed computer simulations - that IS discovery learning. Constructivism, constructionism, etc. You can't be both for constructivist approaches (such as learning with games, learning in microworlds and simulations...) and against it, like this Grey person is.

Bill Kerr said...

d holten,

Your blog is thought provoking

I agree that discovery learning *can* be well done and that it is a desirable reform to make science more interesting. So, I did try to draw a distinction between Grey's solutions (as distinct from his elaboration of a real problem) and what I see as the solution to students perceiving science as dry and irrelevant. What I'm trying to say is that discovery learning poorly done (sociological, trivialised science as described by Grey) will fuel the flames of the back to basics movement. Discovery learning has to be well designed (what I describe as a third path) and often it is not.

Happy to continue this conversation with more detail, if you want that.