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GCSE Physics

dgdclynx
Grafter
Posts: 187
Registered: 05-04-2007

GCSE Physics

I thought I would paste in this post from uk.local.county-durham cos I think it shows the way that scientific education in this country is going....
Time we all supported our schools, teachers, & stood up for our
children?
A sorry tale of where we went wrong, when the world started going
backwards with modern ideas!
GHGJGFTI7
                        ****************************************
A physics teacher begs for his subject back: An open letter to AQA and
The Department of Education
http://tinyurl.com/2xlj26
http://www.wellingtongrey.net/

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
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CategoryCheesyigital_audio_players
  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
overexposure.
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.
http://www.powersof10.com/ ;
Conclusion:
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.
Sincerely,
Wellington Grey
http://www.WellingtonGrey.net/
10 REPLIES
Community Veteran
Posts: 38,246
Thanks: 934
Fixes: 56
Registered: 15-06-2007

Re: GCSE Physics

Unfortunately I am old enough to remember the rigorous scientific training I received at O and A level which allowed me, later in my career as a mechanical engineer, to understand and discuss with experts the environmental constraints and effects of various treatment processes for gaseous and liquid emissions including the thermodynamic and chemical processes involved in such treatments. This even included the effects of incineration of the solvents given off in industrial paint processes on the environmental discharges.
None of this was covered in my O or A level syllabus but the fundamental principles were taught and understood which allowed me to understand and select the correct treatment processes for each application.
I despair at the dumbing down of the whole syllabus and comparing the level of knowledge of many of the recent UK graduates with their French and Austrian equivalents it is clear that the problem only starts at O level.
mikeholmes
Newbie
Posts: 8
Registered: 01-05-2007

Re: GCSE Physics

Interesting letter.. Im 22, so it wasnt THAT long ago that I was doing GCSE Physics myself and I dont remember covering any of the course matter complained about in this letter.
I dont think we ever discussed politics directly, or global warming and Id have been gutted if my GCSE results relied upon a preference for apple hardware!
As far as I can remember we did lots of stuff with light boxes and glass prisms. I remember doing some study to do with space and calculations relating to predicting where stars would appear in the sky over periods of time also broader discussion on doppler red shift and the expansion of the universe etc.
I always enjoyed physics at school, although I was never very good at maths.
Unlike the other sciences physics was engaging and sometimes suprising, sometimes even quite poetic.
dgdclynx
Grafter
Posts: 187
Registered: 05-04-2007

Re: GCSE Physics

The problem to my mind is that right across the curriculum every effort is being taken to minimise mathematics because kids dont learn their tables any more and are computationally illiterate without a calculator. So mathematics is a nogo area. So now in physics we see the elimination of equations and formulae. What on earth are they thinking of.
dgdclynx
Grafter
Posts: 187
Registered: 05-04-2007

Re: GCSE Physics

Oh dear. I just took a look at his website and he gives the impression of being an American nutter. I shouldnt have posted. Sorry.
Community Veteran
Posts: 6,111
Thanks: 1
Registered: 05-04-2007

Re: GCSE Physics

Interesting debate. I'm 20 so I completed my 'double-award science' GCSE four years ago, and I also went on to take A-level physics - albeit using Edexcel rather than AQA. I chose to take an A-level in physics for the precise reason that this letter-writer discusses: to better understand how, quite simply, everything around us works; to gain insight in to the things that most people just take for granted (e.g. apples falling from trees etc.). During our A-level we encountered all sorts of things - from SHM to wave-particle duality - but more importantly, we experienced them too: we were frequently given demonstrations by the teacher which the class would then use to form conclusions using good old formulae, and every so often we would conduct entire experiments ourselves. This meant coming up with a plan, debating the pros and cons with whomever you were working with, carrying out the experiment, looking at your results, analysing/graphing them, then drawing conclusions. And it was that way that we really got to understand what was going on in the world of physics (and chemistry too to some extent)... frankly, the physics course the letter-writer describes sounds more like geography than physics! (Although for what it's worth, I took a GCSE/A-level in that too...)
dgdclynx
Grafter
Posts: 187
Registered: 05-04-2007

Re: GCSE Physics

I regret calling the letter-writer 'an American nutter' after I took a look at his website. He is probably ok.
Alecto
Grafter
Posts: 2,886
Registered: 30-07-2007

Re: GCSE Physics

What matters is that everybody can "pass" so nobody is a "failure".
Such is the pathetic loser society we have built for ourselves.
Why the hell everybody is supposed to be "equal" is beyond me, but that's what you now have to pretend.
Watch its results in the forthcoming World Athletics Championships in Japan where our lottery-funded no-hopers, who never stood a chance, will do their best and tell us why they didn't win.
wilsden_bob
Newbie
Posts: 1
Registered: 07-08-2007

Re: GCSE Physics

Do any of the examining bodies have representatives from the academic community or real-world engineers and scientists. If they do,I can't believe they would let this happen.If we have any AQA or EDEXCel members in this forum could they please comment.Silence suggests tacit approval..
oddjob
Dabbler
Posts: 22
Registered: 15-08-2007

Re: GCSE Physics

I took maths, physics and chemistry all to A level standard about 30 years ago with a plan to become an electrical engineer. Unfortunately fate took a hand. I'm doing something completely different.
I agree with the OP about exactly WHAT science subjects should teach. Not the quasi-political glib "all embracing" rubbish.
Like the OP to me science = precision.
I now have a 13 year old trying his hardest to love science the way both his parents do but has to suffer the bland teaching given by the school. It will not, in my view, aid his desire for a future career in IT.
We also have a very bright 8 year old daughter and we fear for her sanity at secondary education level.
Not only does she have a talent for maths (I like to think inherited from her parents) but she has a superb French accent and loves the language. That's another area being pummeled to death by the state national curriculum so we are already paying to private tuition in French for her.
As Alecto so eloquently puts it ... Why the hell everybody is supposed to be "equal" is beyond me but that's what you now have to pretend.
Beyond me too.
madswitcher
Grafter
Posts: 235
Registered: 01-08-2007

Re: GCSE Physics

Like Oddjob, I took my O and A levels some time ago (about 40 years ago!) and I am not surprised by the lack of basic understanding of how our world actually works and how we got here. The ever increasing dumbing down of the Physics curriculum to an air-fairy politically-correct 'discussion', just make me gobsmacked. 
Physics = This is how things work - factual (as far as we know)
/soapbox off
Mike