A few months back, a blogging physics teacher by the (online) name of Wellington Grey caused a bit of stir by publishing an open letter to the DfES and AQA asking, actually begging, them to give him his subject back.
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 and the AQA board 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.
Please go and read the article in full, if you’ve haven’t come across it already, especially if you care about the state of education, and particularly science education in the UK.
Wellington’s comments on the parlous state of the physics curriculum made the BBC News, drawing this comment from the AQA:
“Our specifications meet the new requirements for science set by our regulator, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and are fully accredited.
“The revised requirements place a greater emphasis on ‘how science works’. This is the entitlement curriculum for every student: the focus is on scientific literacy with the aim of engaging all students.”
And this from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority:
“The new science curriculum and GCSEs provide a common core of science which all young people will need to understand the issues that will affect their lives. It also provides a thorough grounding for those who will continue studying science at A-level and beyond.
“The vast majority of pupils will continue to study the equivalent of two GCSEs’ worth of science: GCSE Science (the ‘core’) plus their choice of appropriate additional GCSEs.”
So neither have bothered to answer any of the criticism levelled at the new curriculum by Wellington Grey, or address the single most important issue, the systematic defenestration of mathematical rigour from the study of physics at GSCE level.
Why does this matter? Well, in the context of the science of physics it matters for the reasons that Wellington outlines here:
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.
If you were lucky enough to have studied physics back in the days when the subject meant something then you’ll know exactly what Wellington is driving at. If not, then perhaps I can provide an example to illustrate exactly what he means.
What follows are two examination questions taken from physics papers that candidates would typically take at the age of sixteen. The first is from a 2006 GCSE ‘higher’ physics paper, the second from a 2003 GCE ‘O’ Level paper. In both cases these are the examinations that a candidate would be expected to pass with a grade of C or better, in order to go one to study the subject at ‘A’ Level and to make the comparison even easier, both questions deal with the same basic topic – heat.
Let’s kick things off with the first part of the GCSE question –
Now that is a decent starter question in a physics exam. The diagram, itself, is a little superfluous but otherwise, to get the marks, the candidate has to demonstrate a knowledge of the principles of thermal conduction and how this functions at the atomic level – one would presume that the reference to ‘particles in the copper’ is intended to disguise the fact that the candidate needs to talk about atoms so as not to give them part of the answer, quantum theory being rightly beyond the scope of a GCSE course.
Part two of the question, however, demonstrates everything that is wrong with the GCSE syllabus:
That is not a physics question. In fact it does not test a candidates knowledge and understanding of physics in any material respect. Its a question that could be answered by anyone with a basic command of mathematics whether or not they understood the first thing about thermal conduction or not and nothing more, one in which all that’s required is that the candidate multiply the value of the annual saving in energy costs for each option, by five, subtract the relevant installation cost and then compare the results to see which gives the highest cost savings.
Okay, now here’s a comparable question on the same topic from the 2003 GCE ‘O’ Level paper.
Okay, so you’ve got two simplified diagrams rather than one, but the basic starting premise is the same – explain thermal conduction in terms of what goes on at the atomic – well, actually, molecular – level.
What follows by way of supplemental questions is, however, very different.
Now that’s a physics question.
You’ll notice that it manages to get in the same basic point about energy efficiency – part b(ii) – as the GCSE question, but does it in a way that forces candidates to think about their answer rather than having it spoon-fed to them and it asks them why the second heater is the more efficient with reference to their understanding of the physics of heat and energy.
And then to cap things off it asks candidates to demonstrate their knowledge of physics by way of making a number of straightforward but relevant calculations of energy use and efficiency.
Its also a much more challenging question and, therefore, a much better test of the candidate’s knowledge and understanding of physics, because that what it actually tests where the supplementary part of the GCSE question does nothing of the sort.
You have to say, therefore, that the GCE ‘O’ level is a more difficult examination and that, all other things being equal, a decent grade in such an examination would be worth more than an equivalent grade in the GCSE examination.
By any objective measurement you might care to apply, the GCSE question is substantially less challenging than the GCE ‘O’ level question, making the GSCE much easier to pass and much a much easier examination in which to obtain a higher grade, albeit one that is worth much less than the equivalent ‘O’ level for having been acquired via a much less challenging exam.
Whether that means that GCSE candidates are, overall, weaker than those who took the GCE ‘O’ level is more difficult to say – the GCSE examination question may not be fully reflective of the content of the GSCE course, so its at least possible that someone who studied for the GCSE could do as well in an ‘O’ level examination, although I have to say that I consider that a rather doubtful proposition in most cases, and given the pressures they face it would be a rare, committed and valuable teacher who looked to teach beyond the confines of the exam content when dealing with all but the most able students.
Regardless of what the government, administrators and teachers/teaching unions might have to say, its impossible not to conclude that the GSCE physics exam is substantially ‘dumbed down’ by comparison to the GCE ‘O’ Level – to argue that it’s just ‘different’ and tests different but equally valid skills and knowledge might wash in a less empirical subject but not in one where empiricism is the very heart and soul of the subject.
I don’t care what the AQA has to say about their examinations being properly ‘accredited’ and as for the QCA’s response that the:
‘vast majority of pupils will continue to study the equivalent of two GCSEs’ worth of science’
…well so fucking what?
From what I can see with my own eyes, two GCSEs’ ‘worth’ of science doesn’t amount to very much science at all…
…and whatever else you do don’t give me the usual bullshit about how hard kids have worked to achieve their grades as if that somehow gainsays any possible debate about standards, the content of the curriculum and whether a subject like physics is being dumbed down in order to create a false and unmerited picture of improvements in secondary education – the two questions cited about show damn well that it is.
The sickest joke in all this this is what the QCA’s own website has to say about physics:
Physics forms the basis of most modern technologies and is the key to future global well-being. Physics is the study of the laws that govern the physical world. It tries to understand the nature of basic things such as motion, forces, energy, matter, heat, sound and light. These are found throughout the universe, and so physicists study a wide range of topics. You might find a physicist smashing atomic particles together to find out how the universe began or you might find a physicist orbiting the Earth as an astronaut. Physicists also work in hospitals, designing new instruments or scanning techniques. Some physicists even create smaller and faster electronics for the next generation of computers.
If physics really is the ‘key to future global well-being’ then stop fucking the subject up by taking out of the curriculum all the content that is actually physics and let teachers like Wellington do what they do best, and just teach kids what they know.
I’ve been asked to upload the full exam papers, so here goes.
First here’s the AQA’s 2006 papers:
And now two GCE ‘O’ Level Papers, as provided by Cambridge University to the independent sector and to international schools:
Physics (paper 4) – this paper is provided as an alternative to carrying out a practical exam, i.e. testing experimentational skills.
See for yourself which you think in the better test of ability.