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Hard science

How can teenagers hope to study physics, when the educational establishment thinks that abstract thought is beyond them?

David Perks

Topics Politics

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How’s this for an insult from a surly teenager: ‘Sir, don’t you know Einstein is dead’? Personally, I don’t mind being goaded into a debate about the relevance of fundamental science by a 14-year-old. That’s my job as a teacher: to show the young the error of their prejudices and open their eyes to the world around them. They don’t have to thank me for it, but a great many of them do.

It becomes a different matter when I have to listen to BBC Radio Four’s flagship current affairs programme Today proclaiming that physics is dead as a school subject. Today was reporting on research by the University of Buckingham, which showed that the number of A-level physics students has dropped by 38 per cent since 1990. As Lord May, president of the Royal Society, put it: ‘The government needs to wake up to the problems facing science education.’ With a large number of physics teachers within sight of retirement age, there could be hardly anyone left qualified enough to teach the subject in the state sector.

But all this hand wringing in public has done nothing to address the problem facing physics as a school subject. There is a tacit assumption among educationalists that young people are just not interested in studying the hard sciences anymore. Asking young people to study a science rigorously and develop a disciplined approach to their thought is almost seen as tantamount to child abuse within some educational circles. Instead, the priority is that children enjoy their lessons and see the relevance of what they learn, in order for them to be engaged.

Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, now explicitly asks schools to survey the attitudes of pupils towards their lessons. They are asked if they found particular parts of the subject difficult: the implication being that difficult bits are taught badly. The truth is that physics is a demanding subject and, if taught well, it will challenge young people to think abstractly and reshape their view of the world around them. Instead of asking whether young people are interested in physics we need to turn the question around. Do we, as a society, believe it is worthwhile trying to give the majority of young people a basic science education?

Too often, the myth promoted by the government and others is that school physics is boring. Whether they try to blame dyed-in-the-wool teachers who have a dry academic approach to the subject, or the fact that the syllabus is full of irrelevant facts, such critics of physics miss the point. We live in a society that has already abandoned its belief in science and knowledge, and sees this reflected in young people. It is our lack of belief in the necessity of studying the hard sciences that makes it impossible to answer the question every young person puts to a new science teacher: ‘Why do I need to learn this? I am never going to use it.’

I have known some great science teachers. The best have always been the least conventional people, entirely confident in the value of what they are doing and completely determined to ignore the childish ignorance of their charges. They may not necessarily have been the best-educated people themselves, or have had the clearest understanding of physics, but they conveyed an enthusiasm for their subject and could show the power of physics to explain the world around us. The best teachers always stray off the syllabus and teach what they want to teach because they are interested in it. They engage their classes in a conversation, always hoping to see one or two young minds light up.

All of this is still possible now. Most people have ignored the slow increase in the numbers of pupils at GCSE opting for triple award science, which at least offers them a decent foundation in physics, chemistry and biology compared to the diluted modular science courses most pupils have to suffer. Parents and pupils know the value of a good science education if they get the opportunity to have one.

But it would be naïve to ignore the trend against science today. It is becoming increasingly difficult for teachers to believe in their subject and, more importantly, in its value for all the children they teach. We live in an age in which science is undermined constantly, and presented as an elitist and arrogant claim on truth. Universities are riddled with the notions that science is just one truth among many and that learning science is nothing other than indoctrinating youngsters into accepting the validity of scientists’ claims. This crude sociological critique of science claims that science should be knocked off its pedestal, and that kids should be taught the limitations of science, rather than the laws of science.

The new Key Stage Four programme of study for science is divided equally between ‘How science works?’ and ‘Breadth of study’, and actual scientific content. The new Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) GCSE criteria say that pupils should be given the opportunity to ‘develop a critical approach to scientific evidence and methods’ (1). But this is not an enquiry into the philosophy of science – it is an appreciation of the risks associated with the use of science and technology. As the GCSE specification for ‘Twenty-first Century Science’ explains, the subject will be approached through ‘contemporary, relevant contexts of interest to candidates’ such as ‘Is it safe to use mobile phones?’ and can pupils ‘identify, or propose an argument based on the “precautionary principle?”’ (2).

From 2006, when the new GCSE comes into effect, pupils will have their science lessons re-orientated around the concept of risk. For example, they will be asked to develop a simple appreciation of the claims made by science and those against science in relation to current, controversial claims made against science and technology. How teachers or pupils will manage to do this in the science laboratory is beyond me.

Even worse, is the insidious way that the scientific method is being reinterpreted for young people. The laboratory experiment, long a bone of contention for the sociological critics of science (3), is being sidelined. On the back of claims that the science coursework is either plagiarised, done by parents or taught by rote by teachers, the idea that pupils can do any valid investigative work in school science has been undermined over the past couple of years (4). But if there is one thing a pupil could expect to get from his or her science class it was an appreciation of the scientific method by carrying out practical investigations. Yet this is being downplayed in favour of assessing the validity of claims made in newspaper articles about the risks of mobile phones to our health, and so on.

So don’t blame physics teachers for the decline in A-level physics. Just look at how society views science. What chance do the youngsters have of seeing the power of physics to comprehend even the merest glimmer of what Einstein saw 100 years ago? How can we begin to inspire a new generation of physicists if we believe young people are too stupid to comprehend even Newton’s laws of motion?

David Perks has taught science for 20 years and is currently head of physics in a large comprehensive school in Tooting, South London.

(1) GCSE criteria for science, QCA

(2) Twenty First Century Science Suite, Science A

(3) Laboratory Life: the Social Construction of Scientific Facts, Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, 1979

(4) Moves to curb coursework cheating, BBC News, 22 Nov 2005

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Topics Politics

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