A recent Guardian blog was from a 16 year old who felt that Physics at A-level had little to offer her. Sadly the Guardian weren’t interested in the response, so I’m posting it here.
It’s a basic principle of science that anecdotes are not data. Sadly the personal story shared by Sarah is one example supported by wider evidence. There are undoubtedly many reasons why students, male and female, drop physics at sixteen. Things are better than they were, since the low point in 2007 when less than 28000 chose it as an A-level subject. But female students still make up only 20% of sixth form physics classes, despite GCSE results that are as good or better. This is frustrating for students, for teachers and certainly for politicians.
So why should anybody, male or female, choose Physics for post-16 study? The reasons are the same as for any subject; for interest and for usefulness. I can’t imagine not finding physics fascinating, but then you could argue I’m one of the success stories.
I start the school year by turning out my pockets and challenging students to recognise the science implicit in our lives. It stretches from the metallurgy of my keys and wedding ring to drug trials for painkillers, from the link between the shape of my lenses and my prescription to the magnetic coding on my credit card. And that’s before we consider the many facets of mobile devices, from electronics via touchscreen engineering to the EM spectrum and orbital mechanics for the satellites that carry the signals. Science really is everywhere, physics certainly as much as biology or chemistry. From the big, abstract picture to the uses we take for granted day to day, physics is mind-blowing.
In practical terms it’s also a hugely useful, facilitating subject even if you don’t plan to use it directly in the scientific, medical or engineering worlds. Yes, rocket scientists (actually usually engineers) need physics. Yes, it provides an important grounding for medicine. But the skills you learn provide many other benefits in a wide range of courses and careers. When able students choose other subjects we as teachers inevitably feel we missed making that clear enough. Sometimes students making A-level choices don’t appreciate that the courses are a stepping stone, not an end in themselves.
There is a big imbalance in the number of male and female students who choose Physics at A-level. This is not new, and it’s not going away by itself. I think – and more importantly, the data shows – that there are several possible causes worth considering. Unsurprisingly, some of these factors are more difficult to address than others. Many subjects have a gender imbalance, some much worse than physics, but as a physics teacher I have a personal stake. I often describe changes in education happening at different levels.
Nationally, there are some really big issues affecting education across all subjects. Representations of scientists in the media are improving, but Brian Cox isn’t the only reason students choose Physics. The Wellcome Trust raised many issues in their 2011 report about young people’s views on science education. Programmes of study and the exam specifications need to be considered for their impact on a range of diverse students. The type of school makes a difference – although this is nothing to do with academies or free schools. Students with attached sixth forms make up more balanced classes. Girls are more likely to choose physics in independent schools, especially if they are single sex. These findings, along with several of the other links, form the backdrop to ongoing projects at the Institute of Physics to improve UK Physics education. There are often other political choices to be made, from funding of teacher training to rebuilding school facilities. The Royal Society recently published their Vision for science and mathematics education, This is ambitious and far-ranging, considering how we might develop teaching of these subjects over the next twenty years.
School leaders and governers need to consider what affects student choices for A-levels across subjects. The evidence, despite claims to the contrary, suggests that the rapport between teacher and student is generally much more important than the gender of the teacher. Having specialists teaching physics well to younger students also makes a big difference. A school with no Spanish teacher has the option to offer other languages instead, something that doesn’t apply to the sciences. Of course local authorities and academy chains make choices at this tactical level too.
And I can change things in my classroom, with my students. I can ensure examples and textbooks feature male and female physicists. I can make clear links to social implications of the physics we study, something which has been shown to improve engagement for all but girls in particular. I can point out when individuals or the class are making assumptions; for example in a recent question describing the movement of a skydiver, 22 out of 28 in the group used male pronouns for no reason they could explain. I can try out different arrangements of practical groups so boys don’t dominate the hands-on aspect. These aspects are about good teaching methods. At the same time they’re hugely important and completely overwhelmed by the bigger picture.
If I were Sarah’s teacher, I would tell her that Physics is hugely relevant to daily life and always will be. It’s a beautiful subject with fascinating implications. It is a vital part of many careers and studying it provides many future options. I would never criticise a student’s choices – it’s their life, not mine – but I hope their decisions are a truly informed choice. A lot of teaching is helping students to overcome their misconceptions. I hope that we as teachers can do a better job of offering that informed choice to more students across the UK.