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alleged physics ‘teacher’ complains about watering down standards

article archives at abelard's news and comment zone for other news article pages, visit the news archive page (click on the button to the left)
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to article startThis is the ninth in a series of documents that analyse manipulative writing techniques used by reporters, and others, in order to promote their own political agendas.

islamic authoritarianism

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alleged physics 'teacher' complains about watering down standards - wot about da kidz?

context:
An alleged physics ‘teacher’, Wellington Grey, has written an open letter complaining that he is not allowed to teach a separate subject, but must show how his ‘subject’ interacts and is connected to the real world.

 

separation of subjects is not good - the auroran sunset
Education in the good old days was separated into ‘subjects’ that were completely distinct and unrelated, at least so the teachers claimed. Thus the ‘victims’ ended up possibly memorising a whole volume of useless facts which they could not relate to anything in the real world.

At the very best, basic experimental techniques were taught. However, these techniques were totally divorced from any explanation or understanding why you’d want to do these experiments in the first place, or what to do with the experimental data once you have it.

Fast forward to the modern world.
Teachers in British schools are now beginning to teach slightly saner fashion. For example, the modern physics curriculum puts great focus on on the major science-related problems of the day - for instance, climate change and nuclear power. Further, the students are taught and tested on their understanding of the political, economics and social implications of various science-based results. They are also taught to think about, and learn to discuss clearly, science in the context of policy decisions.

Of course, those who just loved the rote learning and ‘easy answers’ of the old system, hate the complexity and the necessity to make decisions based on imperfect knowledge that is inherent in any real world problem. The alleged teacher below is effectively saying that he would rather play mindless mental games than teach his students about the real world and its complexities.

 

from abelard
I scanned through this a few days ago and recognised it as in the ‘utter tripe’ category, so left it, expecting no informed person to take it seriously. But I have been dismayed to see it surfacing in net media as if it has content.

So I’ll do sommat not yet covered.
Time to go into deconstruction mode!!

I am a physics teacher.

And, in my view, totally incompetent in that role.

Or, at least I used to be.

Wise of you to leave.

My subject is still called physics.

Oh you didn’t. Shame.

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.

Doubtless you’ll now bore the pupils....if you are indeed genuine. However, I cannot believe a person educated to teach in the modern world could be so very far behind the curve.

That did not happen

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

Yeah yeah.

The thing that attracts pupils to physics is its precision.

Then you don’t know the meaning of ‘precision’. All measurement is approximate.

Here, at last, is a discipline that gives real answers

No it doesn’t, that is religion.

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.

Maths is also malleable.
The words of maths are malleable.
The symbols of maths are malleable.

In this course, pupils debate topics like global warming and nuclear power.

Some of the very most important areas for a modern person to be able to approach, and this is GCSE level, not a physics or maths degree.

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.

Science progresses via discussion, that inevitably includes ‘rhetoric’ and ‘points’.

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.

How on earth do you suppose they learn to understand but by steadily refining their ability to discuss, under the guidance of an able teacher?

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.

Nah, you want ‘real answers’, you already said that.

Specific Complaints:

At last...

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

What well and precisely defined categories you do set up!!

The Vague:
The specification provided by the AQA (available at their website) is vaguely worded.

This document looks fine. It is just the sort of thing that should be being taught. At long last an expectation is being introduced that the pupils think rather than just parrot back, right/wrong, yes/no ’answers’.

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:

Oh, you want your little hand held - that figures.

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.

So what?
The purpose of any reasonable exam is to test the grasp of the subject.

That means asking the unexpected.

The quality of an ‘answer’ to any such wide question can indicate how far the candidate has probed, or been taught!!

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.

How dreadful.

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:

You just don’t get modern education, in place of parroted ‘answers’.

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.

So, you don’t want scientists who can read for comprehension?

Your attitude is typical of those who used to divide human knowledge into ‘subjects’. Sane modern education is about a rounded understanding.

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.

Don’t be daffy. The young are teaching and pestering their parents to greater ecological awareness.

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.

Society is political. Humans are political animals, as Aristotle realised. About time you caught on.

The decisions are political. The students are expected to become thoughtful and informed citizens.

That is not achieved by separating knowledge into simplified easy ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ‘answers’.

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.

Then you are teaching incompetently. Why am I not surprised at that. Learn some stats, and learn to teach it.

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 b 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

You’re supposed to be teaching about global warming, dummy.

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.

Don’t be ridiculous.
It is vital that pupils understand the politics and economics of decisions to made by them and their representatives!! It is vital they learn to discuss these problems.

It is about power companies. It is about how power companies make decisions. Those decisions are political and economic. They are also about lobbying and rhetoric as they attempt to maximise profits against the interests of citizens. It is about politicians and their rhetoric/spin, and the sinecures they are offered by businesses to promote company interests. It is about the pressures on physicists working for grants or oil companies and being pressured to spin their ‘results’.

You don’t live in the real world.

Fortunately, it seems that increasingly the examiners do.

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,

you’re supposed to keep ahead of 15 year-old pupils who are also studying for 10 other first-level exams.

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.

The biggest problem to which you are bringing attention is your own naivety and lack of relevant training as a teacher.

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.

And doubtless, like me, they would make some assessment of your ability.

And then not take much notice of your ‘advice’.

I am a young and once-enthusiastic physics teacher.

You sound like you’re an old man.

I despair at what I am forced to teach.

No-one is ‘forcing’. You can go get another job.

Yet you use language so very sloppily, while whingeing about the alleged ‘precision’ of ‘physics’.

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.

Neither will pupils have to tolerate your narrow world view. So, it’s gain all around.

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

‘Your’ subject. So you also own physics.
Give us a break.

Sincerely,

I’m so glad you’re sincere. Sincere is good!


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