Let’s get Physical

In defence of separate science teaching in schools.

David Perks

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Topics Science & Tech

It is the accepted wisdom that schoolchildren find science irrelevant and difficult – which makes it all the more pleasant to discover that sometimes children not only enjoy science, but do it very well.

My faith in physics teaching was restored in August this year, when the GCSE results at my comprehensive school shot through the roof. And this occurred just after we had returned to teaching separate science GCSEs, after spending a considerable number of years teaching a modular combined science course. Far from being traumatised by hours of physics lessons, not one of our pupils got less than a C and most got As and A*s.

The same cannot be said of most state schools. Statistics from UK examination boards show that the number of pupils taking physics is only matched by German in its rate of decline. Modular science is now the most science that young people get at school. Of course there have always been combined science courses – but they were usually reserved for weaker students who were unlikely to go on to A-level. Now, most A-level students start with a modular science background.

Why do state schools think that diluting science is the only way forward? It is a common perception in educational circles that science is too difficult for most children to grasp. In the 1970s and 80s, educationalists studied scientific concepts such as energy and force, which are necessarily abstract. They found that children carry around with them their own frameworks for understanding the natural world, and that their ideas are based on experience and misconceptions picked up from work they do in the classroom. Some argued that the resilience of pupil’s ad hoc conceptual frameworks suggested that teaching has almost no effect on the pupils’ underlying thought processes – leading to pessimism about the ability of teachers to challenge pupils’ misconceptions.

Instead of challenging children’s understanding of the natural world, science is now taught with the idea of making the natural world more relevant to them. Modular science courses are packaged around themes meant to connect with pupils, such as the environment and renewable energy, in the hope that by relating science to everyday life would make more sense to pupils.

This preference for the concrete reality of everyday life over theory and abstraction dominates educational practice. Yet science is based on a set of abstract ideas. It has to be, in order to deal with the counterintuitive behaviour of the natural world. You cannot explain electricity without introducing the idea of charge and charge carriers – but try explaining what charge is. Electric charge is an abstract model used to explain electricity. In order to understand electricity a pupil needs to know, not only that charge exists, but also that it is a model.

Once a pupil makes that leap of imagination, a whole new world of ideas opens up. When we move from understanding everyday life to grappling with an abstract system of ideas, we can really appreciate the power of science. If we avoid dealing with the problem of moving pupils towards a more powerful way of thinking about the world, we avoid teaching them science. Many teachers try to use analogies that relate the flow of electricity to water in a pipe, or a model train on a track – but the more you try to make an abstract idea concrete, the more you stop children appreciating the difference. In the end, you have little choice but to demonstrate to them how powerful the ideas are.

To do this effectively, the subject needs to be taught by a subject specialist. If you are going to bridge the gap between a pupil’s misconceptions and a scientific view of nature you have to be able to revisit your own understanding in an imaginative way. It is usually the case that teachers only really understand the subject they learned at university when they come to teach it. Effective teaching is based on a love of the subject.

All of this should be obvious to anyone in educational circles. Yet it sometimes seems that many teachers and educationalists have forgotten these basic facts. Discussions about science teaching are dominated by the idea that more people need less science. The current vogue is to teach science as ethics rather than teaching the science itself. Teachers increasingly offer a kind of consumer appreciation of science, designed for people who are worried about genetically modified food but who have little interest in learning about genetics.

At the festival of the British Association for the Advancement of Science on 8 September 2003, president Sir Peter Williams warned us that not enough people are carrying science through beyond GCSE. We are in danger of running out of scientists in the future, Sir Peter argued, claiming that everyone should continue studying science up to 18 or 19. He argued that this would help produce ‘the 18 or 19 year-old who is equipped to deal with, say, the deep ethical issues in the world of science’.

The truth is, if you want scientists you have to educate them to the highest standards. If scientists don’t believe in science education for its own sake, rather than for the pursuit of ethical arguments, then there is little hope for the science students of tomorrow.

Thankfully, not everyone has given up on the value of science teaching. I work with teachers who take their subject seriously and who are allowed the space to do so by our school management. As a result, we can get on with the challenge of teaching young people to think scientifically about the world. The power of our teaching is immeasurably improved because we are subject specialists – a rare thing these days.

If parents want to know how to spot a good state school, just ask whether the school teaches separate science subjects. If they do, your children will have far more chance of learning to think abstractly by the end of their GCSEs, and some of them might end up at university studying science or possibly even become scientists. For the rest, I wouldn’t count on them remembering how to wire a plug correctly, let alone trust them to know what electric current is.

David Perks is head of physics at a London secondary school.

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Topics Science & Tech

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