Physics: the new soft subject?

After something of a torrent of stuff (1) (2) filtering through the blogosphere on the subject of science exams, I feel I should add my two cents, as this is a subject I’ve been peeved about for a long time.

I’ve sat some very good exams in the past: good in the sense that those exams required me to think, and truly understand an aspect of the subject. As I said once, examples of such good exams are found in the field of competitions: olympiads, challenges, etc. The fundamental idea behind all of these exams is separating the exceptional from the good, a task which normally requires deep, searching and crucially original questions: the entire point of the unseen translation in classics is to test the ability of a candidate to solve a problem, not to bash it or quote a formula or set phrase you learn in the subjunctive to impress examiners.

I’ve also sat some very bad exams in the past (at this point a civilised, rant-averse reader may want to look away). The first question in last year’s Biology iGCSE was

why would people want to build a road through a forest?

to which I was tempted to write

because they are greedy bastards who want to destroy the environment

until I realised that the marker would probably fail to appreciate the sarcasm and the exact wording of my answer probably wouldn’t have been on the mark scheme anyway. One part of last year’s English exam was very literally making a summary list (in prose) of thirty things a text says; grammar for that question was apparently optional, according to the mark schemes of sample papers. What I think the setters of these exams don’t get is that there is a huge difference between a difficult paper and a paper on which marks are difficult to obtain. Since the 4th form, we’ve all been forced to tolerate having to write highly formulaic and long-winded answers to ridiculous questions similar to

why is pressure useful? [10 marks]

(not a real example but one which captures the essence of a poorly set question which has no clear indication of what is required of an answer) which attempt to cover all the points that may or may not be present on a mark scheme. The setting of vague wordy questions in science papers to make them deliberately more ‘tricky’ while not adding any extra science material inevitably leads to baffled and unimpressed science teachers being forced to teach in a style they are bursting to fight against: the style of teaching set phrases and the dreaded ‘exam technique’ which leads to exams easily doable by non-physicists. This unfortunate result of teaching ‘Physics the (i)GCSE’ rather than ‘Physics the science’ leads to a generation of uninspired and bored students who get the impression that creativity (in terms of original ideas and intelligence and unconventional solutions) is actively anathematised in the real world like it is in exams; such students (I included) end up being afraid to be original or deviate at all from what might be written on the mark scheme: lateral thinking becomes a bit like taboo. In fact knowledge of a subject outside of the syllabus might, as a direct consequence of the mark scheme, work against a candidate: I remember a Biology teacher desperately trying to make us unlearn something he had mistakenly taught us in a previous lesson because it was off the syllabus and would not be on the mark scheme with the likely consequence that we would lose marks for writing it. My Maths teacher once said

it’s always better not to have good ideas in exams

The sad fact is that he speaks the truth. Making life easy for examiners working from a mark scheme should not be the point of education, yet it is: I find myself far too often having to second-guess what the mark scheme says for a question (counting up marks and trying to write enough regurgitated points), rather than use my brain for once and work out a good solution. What someone said about blogging applies to exams too: “answers should be written, not defecated”. The mark schemes I’ve seen don’t seem to agree.

A pile of practice exam papers

A pile of practice exam papers. I think exams should be less about learning answers to questions, and more about finding answers to questions.

Another problem with the science education system in the UK is that exams require almost zero understanding of the subject. My Physics teacher conveniently furnished us once with an example of where an exam required students to take on trust a patently false fact: a short circuit turns off the bulb because ‘current takes the path of least resistance’. Clearly this is nonsense; the real reason is to do with internal resistance, however only at AS do we learn that fact. This lack of requirement of understanding leads to the disastrous consequence that students end up learning and regurgitating copious amounts of learnt facts, phrases, dates, names and definitions, an activity which, after a certain point I find (and think I am not alone in doing so) excessively boring and fundamentally unproductive. I think being confined to an essentially fairly basic syllabus while having to, as a result of the ease of the exam, score close to 100% to look different from less able candidates, is severely limiting on both teacher and student. These constraints have certainly taken their toll, certainly on me at any rate. I felt embarrassed to tell my relatives in Singapore last year what I was learning at school at that time. Potometers indeed. As I wander around the internet and tap into IRC conversations in #math and #physics, I feel increasingly inadequate in my knowledge of my subjects. I have never even heard of most of the maths involved in these conversations, and my woeful mathematical knowledge of forces and fields in Physics is still severely lacking (but I can recite equations at you all day long to prove my AS worthiness). And this is even after doing (a bit of) reading around the subject. If the international standard of science (on IRC) is so high relative to the UK, there is need for worry, and lots of it.

The situation in the UK probably stemmed from something that happened a generation ago which meant that education standards were radically lowered. One of my Physics teachers (in fact the same one I’ve been talking about throughout) told us that half the members of the Physics dept aren’t actually qualified teachers! Apparently, generally speaking, in the UK people who train to be Physics teachers simply don’t know enough physics to teach us and would ‘get ripped apart’ (to use his words) in a school like ours. So the root of the problem may be that in state schools they are obliged by law (I think) to recruit from that pool of trained physics teachers rather than trained physicists. The problem then propagates into today’s education sector from the lack of science teachers who actually know science. Public sector education ended up with the short end of the stick, and the government has been forced to make exams accessible to people who haven’t got access to proper teaching. My hypothesis thus provides a perfect explanation for Ken Zetie’s post: you now don’t even need to be taught Physics to pass a Physics paper! Britain has found the ultimate solution: eliminate the need for teachers altogether. Well done, Gordon – you’re a genius! To make things even better, Gordon in his infinite wisdom has decreed that 50% of Britons need to have a degree, successfully defeating the entire point of university degrees (in the employment world): to create an academic elite. Brown is now giving away invitations to join a group of the ‘academic above average’, scrapping the ‘academic elite’. I personally don’t really see the point.

There is light at the end of the tunnel however. The current Physics course that we’re doing at AS has been very well chosen, despite the fact that the front cover of every exam paper looks like it’s in Welsh (it’s a Welsh board). The syllabus covers lasers, cosmology, a bit of quantum physics and particle physics; topics which allow an enthusiastic teacher like Mr Sammut to expand the boundaries of the teaching scheme and teach in great detail how and, crucially, why things _really_ work. Tying in with a point made in TomTurnerUK’s post, voluminous and broad textbooks are actually a fantastic way to encourage learning (though I agree that teaching straight out of a textbook is a sin). The textbook we’re given is an IB textbook, and covers everything from special relativity to Feynman diagrams in non-trivial detail – certainly in more detail than we need for AS. My opinion is that a textbook should be taken by the student as a recommended resource for expanding his knowledge outside of the classroom, and if a good book is used in that way, it can be extremely effective.

Our (quite) large Physics Textbook covers far more than the syllabus requires and is an excellent resource for learning Physics outside of the classroom

Our (quite) large Physics Textbook covers far more than the syllabus requires and is an excellent resource for learning Physics outside of the classroom

Anyways, despite a glimmer of hope, I still fear for the UK. And for the US for that matter, after reading this: apparently only 53% of adults in American scientific organisations know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun. Now I don’t feel so bad about not understanding Black-Scholes. Theo and I were joking about the LHC breaking down and a hypothetical situation in which there are just a few non-scientist technicians standing around with multimeters and headtorches scratching their heads, which was clearly not the case at the time. I dread to think of a possible future in which that joke becomes reality.

I should probably also put a disclaimer on my blog like Tom, come to think of it, but I’m too lazy to do it now. Don’t start flaming me or my school or my cat (I haven’t got one anyway) in the meantime.



3 Responses to Physics: the new soft subject?

  1. kirk says:

    ‘One of my Physics teachers …told us that half the members of the Physics dept aren’t actually qualified teachers!’

    The PGCE is the qualification your teacher speaks of and it is not required for Independent schools, only Maintained schools.

    The only requirement to teach a subject should be a deep understanding of a subject and an ability to pass on that knowledge.

    The PGCE does not give this. Be proud our teachers are not ‘qualified.’

  2. tomturneruk says:

    Disclaimer … Hee Hee, I just don’t want a detention like those guys who left anti Livingstone comments on a Boris group during the elections. I feel that although a degree is more important than a PGCE, a PGCE should be desired, even at independent schools.

    I feel very strongly about this and I would be willing to support the school and take this further, but it looks like Dr Stephen has got there first!

  3. Andrew Simmons says:

    Perhaps the Feynman diagrams in Physics for IB are “non-trivial”, but only in the sense that Feynman diagrams in themselves are “non-trivial”. Even understanding the most basic diagrams (photon capture, for example) requires a knowledge that photons have mass, and the basic laws about their absorption.

    I however, find the lack of attraction diagrams irritating, and the lack of proper colour explanation unhelpful (although admittedly, the seeds for further research are planted- the CERN website has a few sets of lecture notes etc which are very helpful)

    EDIT: where by mass i mean an implied mass due to the fact that they have a momentum :)

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