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A physics teacher begs for his subject back

nick cowen, 13 June 2007

Echoing many of the problems our latest report The Corruption of the Curriculum has examined, Wellington Grey writes in an open letter to AQA and the Department for Education:
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 and the AQA board 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 vaguely worded. Every section starts with either the 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 question 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 tuners 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.
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 as 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.
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.
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 rigors of physics have 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.
Wellington Grey
(this letter first appeared on the authors website at , and has drawn significant interest on the web – we welcome comments and experiences from other teachers of science, or any other aspect of the school curriculum).

8 comments on “A physics teacher begs for his subject back”

  1. Dont forget the 2 areas of excellence we have left to offer as a country is financial services and education….
    oh wait! We’ve failed at one and we have been destroying the other for some time!
    I am also a ‘fizzics’ teacher by the way.

  2. I’m an American physics teacher and love my job. I make my classes challenging, empirical, and interesting. Your problem is this: you teach in a country with a nationalized, one-fits-all curriculum. Emigrate to this US. Find a physics teaching job. Make it your own without anyone breathing down your neck. School districts will be so grateful to have a good physics teacher, that you can teach whatever you want.

  3. I spent 30 years in enginering on an oil refinery and then retrained as a science teacher after redundancy. Well in the end why i left was the simple fact that I spent far too little time teaching Physics, and no one in the whole educational system seemed to want me to teach it either. The other teachers found it onerous, the technicians didnt like trying to repair the equipment, I spent considerable time going into other classes getting electrical circuits working or making minor repairs. What has happened is knowledge of basic physics has drained from society. You cant make something interesting if you don’t thoroughly grasp it.I disagree a little with Grey when he says that precision is the major attraction of physics. It never was for me, it was power. The power of this secret knowledge that could make wires glow and describe how cannon balls flew and laser beams worked. A science class is competing with the best computer games around to capture a childs imagination. It can do that easily if properly done, real science in the real world, performed by a master of that subject, will beat any computer game for interest. I wanted that knowledge. I imagine there arn’t many teaching the subject who are confident enough to make a wire glow without thinking some child will die if they make it too much fun. Fewer still who would think up a way of firing a cannon ball and predicting its path without going into a Health and Safety melt down. Unless of course it was in some sanitised lesson plan booklet, where the cannon ball was made from a ball of fluff and propelled via a pupils blowing on it (correctly attired in full protective clothing ofc). An exaggeration of the fun to be had in most modern physics lessons? not much of one really.

  4. I whole-heartedly suppport Wellington Grey’s comments. A cursory look at the AQA Teacher’s book gives information on scientists littered with errors. Apparently Lord Rutherford won the 1909 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for discovering the nucleus. In fact he won the 1908 Nobel prize for Chemistry for his work with Frederick Soddy on Nuclear Transmutation! Henry Cavendish was the first to prove Newton’s Law of Gravity. In fact he used Reverend John Michell’s equipment, after he had died, to find the mean density of the Earth. Later experimenters used his work to find the value of G. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were two radio astronomers looking at radio galaxies when they discovered the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. I wonder then, why Bell Telphone Laboroatories were paying them as engineers to improve microwave reception for transatlantic satellite links? No wonder the course is rubbish!

  5. I am also a Science teacher, and although not a Physicist, I share your despair at the diluting of Science in the vain attempt to make it accessible to the masses! I teach Chemistry and Biology and feel that the objectivity of Science and been replaced by a need for pupils to use language in a way that requires an eloquence not always seen in even the best Scientists. AQA have replaced proper Science with newspaper Science. Pupils are switching off, Science teachers are looking for ways out of teaching or jobs in private schools so they can teach the IGCSE. Like you, I came into teaching because I love my subject, but the Science has gone to be replaced by a hazy approximation to proper Science in order to appease a government think tank that is trying to make it appeal to the masses. Not everyone loves Science, but these new courses will switch off our brightest and best young Scientists of the future. We will have to look abroad or to the private schools for future Scientists. One size fits all does not work and will not do any favours to state school children trying to get on University courses in the academic Science subjects. I, for one, will be tutoring my own children in the traditional art of Science if they show any desire to pursue Science further than secondary school!

  6. I cracked open the physics text books after 9/11, because I had a gut feeling it was an inside job, and wanted to confirm. Six years later, almost there. My 100% serious suggestion is emigrate. With degrees in physics and economics/business (and clearly writing skills) you have opportunity coming out of your ears. And don’t limit yourself to English speaking countries. With that background back in the ’70’s, I would easily be a university professor with tenure at a top Japanese university. But Japan is no longer quite what it was for seeking your fortune in the colonies. Forget PC, tuck in your ego and enter “University lecturer, Shanghai”. Because the Asian century has begun.

  7. From the other side of the pond, this post still resonates. Civitas itself seems an answer to the deep question raised by the absurd (even absurdist: is someone recording this for t. v.?) standard Grey is now supposed to use: the question of truth, scientific method, and objectivity. The erosion of standards in support of truth, scientific method, and objectivity threatens all schools and all universities–to the extent, that is, it has not already occurred–in the humanities as well. There is not a subject in the U. S. that has not been dumbed down in the name of some -ism. Should anyone think that applies only to what students study, recall the Sokel hoax some ten years back, which placed a funny and wholly fictionalized ‘article’ in a mainstream, peer-reviewed, academic journal. There is not a region in the fifty states untouched by corrupt and stultifying political correctness and multiculturalism. The U. K. appears to imitate spastic-left movements in America ten to twenty years after the fact. The WWW and the digitization and miniaturization of information and the media could speed that misfortune up. How long before England, given its fast-shifting demographic, has forced upon it an Islamic science to compete with Newton and Crick?

  8. This dumbing-down process has been going on for a long time in many other subjects. One of the main motivating forces behind it seems to be the desire to hide differences of intellect between pupils. If a pupil is asked to give an opinion on some matter, this is quite easy to do even if he is unintelligent. Having to remember complex facts on the other hand tends to sort out the bright from the dim, and this does not sit well with a modern educational ethos under which “all are capable of achieving something”.
    There are other factors of course: certain ‘issues’ are more PC than others for instance, so these are the ones on which pupils will be asked to comment.
    In addition, it is important to remember there is still a lingering belief amongst ageing Marxists of the need to ‘deconstruct’ society prior to the revolution, by removing all prior factual knowledge from the minds of the young. The Soviet Union itself went through this phase during the early 1920s.

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