Thursday, 4 October 2012

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.