Skip to main content

Physics lessens (sic)

The book is for teachers, but primary
children need to get why physics is fun
There has been much talk in the news of late, thanks to an IoP report showing how few girls are taking physics at A level. The fuss arises because we are in serious need of more physics graduates for science, engineering and business alike. This seems to be the prime driver per se. As one of my daughters pointed out, you don't hear much moaning about how few boys take textiles at A level, so it's more about utility than equality. (Which is fair enough.)

However, I think if we want more people doing physics A levels and degrees (and we do!) we need to address the rot much earlier. I've just reviewed a physics book for primary school children. As a book it's fine, but the content, driven by the curriculum, is rubbish.

The first problem is that it is pure Victorian science. We teach primary school children the basics as they were understood well over a hundred years ago. There are two problems with this. You don't teach them English by giving seven-year-olds classic texts, you use modern catchy stuff - but we still get the dull old droning stuff about friction and mechanics and such. Mechanics is important stuff, of course, just as Shakespeare is in English - but why not start with the weird and wonderful stuff to grab their attention? The other problem is that you want to get the fundamentals in place. What the curriculum fails to recognise is that all the fundamentals of physics changed in the twentieth century.

The second problem (in part because of that Victorian viewpoint) is that what we do teach often verges on being wrong. So, for instance, electricity and magnetism are treated totally separately. Light is often just considered as 'rays', but after that purely as waves. Mirrors, we are told, flip left and right. No they don't. And so on.

Those who justify the current crappy curriculum have two arguments. One is that the children can't understand complicated stuff like relativity and quantum theory and modern cosmology and particle physics. This is just, to use the technical teaching term, bollocks. I don't often resort to bad language, but I have to here, because the premise is so offensive, condescending and ridiculous. I regularly expose primary children to all these areas and they lap it up. It's where all the exciting stuff is, after all. It is perfectly possible to teach relativity, for example, in a way that eight-year-olds can totally get it.

The second argument is that the teachers in primary school don't understand complicated stuff like relativity and quantum theory and modern cosmology and particle physics. This is certainly the biggest barrier to effective teaching of physics in primary schools. Most primary teachers do not have a science background. They are more comfortable with potato prints than Large Hadron Colliders. They will certainly need some handholding to get them past their own blockages until they too realize this stuff isn't complicated and scary at the level they will be presenting it.

The first step, I would suggest, then, is to change the primary school science curriculum and to re-educate primary teachers so they can do physics justice. I have a rather nice little book, Getting Science which gives primary school teachers the basics they need - but without that curriculum change we haven't a hope because most won't bother. It's not what they are supposed to teach.

Let's be clear about this. At the moment, primary school children, who could be fired up with excitement about physics are taught that it is mostly rather dull stuff about materials and friction and forces, with an uninspiring bit of light, sound, electricity and magnetism thrown in. If instead they were taught it was the most amazing, mind-boggling stuff, full of particles that can be in two places at once, and time travel, and big bangs creating a universe that is 94% missing... maybe, just maybe, fewer children would drop the subject as soon as they could.


  1. Talking about this yesterday with my daughter who is doing a Physics degree.Her role model was "a middle aged,balding Iraqi."

  2. @vrj5556

    Ok, I give up, is it

  3. Let not your sword rest in your hand. My six year old daughter and I would love to read your physics book for primary kids.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Why I hate opera

If I'm honest, the title of this post is an exaggeration to make a point. I don't really hate opera. There are a couple of operas - notably Monteverdi's Incoranazione di Poppea and Purcell's Dido & Aeneas - that I quite like. But what I do find truly sickening is the reverence with which opera is treated, as if it were some particularly great art form. Nowhere was this more obvious than in ITV's recent gut-wrenchingly awful series Pop Star to Opera Star , where the likes of Alan Tichmarsh treated the real opera singers as if they were fragile pieces on Antiques Roadshow, and the music as if it were a gift of the gods. In my opinion - and I know not everyone agrees - opera is: Mediocre music Melodramatic plots Amateurishly hammy acting A forced and unpleasant singing style Ridiculously over-supported by public funds I won't even bother to go into any detail on the plots and the acting - this is just self-evident. But the other aspects need some ex

Is 5x3 the same as 3x5?

The Internet has gone mildly bonkers over a child in America who was marked down in a test because when asked to work out 5x3 by repeated addition he/she used 5+5+5 instead of 3+3+3+3+3. Those who support the teacher say that 5x3 means 'five lots of 3' where the complainants say that 'times' is commutative (reversible) so the distinction is meaningless as 5x3 and 3x5 are indistinguishable. It's certainly true that not all mathematical operations are commutative. I think we are all comfortable that 5-3 is not the same as 3-5.  However. This not true of multiplication (of numbers). And so if there is to be any distinction, it has to be in the use of English to interpret the 'x' sign. Unfortunately, even here there is no logical way of coming up with a definitive answer. I suspect most primary school teachers would expands 'times' as 'lots of' as mentioned above. So we get 5 x 3 as '5 lots of 3'. Unfortunately that only wor

Which idiot came up with percentage-based gradient signs

Rant warning: the contents of this post could sound like something produced by UKIP. I wish to make it clear that I do not in any way support or endorse that political party. In fact it gives me the creeps. Once upon a time, the signs for a steep hill on British roads displayed the gradient in a simple, easy-to-understand form. If the hill went up, say, one yard for every three yards forward it said '1 in 3'. Then some bureaucrat came along and decided that it would be a good idea to state the slope as a percentage. So now the sign for (say) a 1 in 10 slope says 10% (I think). That 'I think' is because the percentage-based slope is so unnatural. There are two ways we conventionally measure slopes. Either on X/Y coordiates (as in 1 in 4) or using degrees - say at a 15° angle. We don't measure them in percentages. It's easy to visualize a 1 in 3 slope, or a 30 degree angle. Much less obvious what a 33.333 recurring percent slope is. And what's a 100% slope