Doing Physics

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.

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6 thoughts on “Doing Physics”

  1. Very well said. I do eleven that a certain amount of bias exists from people who have already found the joys of studying and teaching science, especially physics. However the fact that science drives pretty much every aspect of our daily lives should be emphasized more in lower levels of schooling, in my opinion. Increases in school and teacher funding are also major factors in making students enthusiastic about science. Keep up the good work and I hope the best for the future of education.

  2. One concern I have is that there is a common assumption that girls will be particularly interested in the “social implications” and “applications to everyday life”. There is a risk of gender stereotyping here – as a female, I don’t like a presumption that I’ll be more interested in the “social” bit any more than I’d like someone assuming I might prefer arts subjects to sciences due to my gender. Also, whilst I know this is with the best intentions(!) and may work for some, as someone who always did (and still does) love the theoretical and abstract aspects of maths and science rather than the applications, that would have seriously turned me off as a sixth former.

    I’d also question whether what you really need is specialists in lower school, as much as people who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the subject. Some general science teachers may be excellent physics teachers without being technically specialists – you don’t need a physics degree to inspire and stimulate 12-13 year olds. Of course, you do need to only have people teaching physics (and chemistry, and biology) who are willing volunteers to do so – forcing specialists in other sciences to teach their least favoured area can’t be good.

    1. Thanks for commenting!

      Yes, overcoming stereotypes is really important. For your first point, the idea that social implications of science will help the engagement of female students (and males too, just not as big a difference) isn’t an assumption. It’s based on the interviews and data collected by, among others, the Girls in Physics report from the IoP.

      The issue with specialists is a tricky one. A lot depends, as you say, on the teacher’s knowledge and enthusiasm. The difficulty lies with misconceptions – particularly in the teaching of electricity, for example – which then make it much harder when students tackle harder material later on.

      A fair bit of research shows that students lose interest and enthusiasm in science during ks3. Some of this applies across their subjects, but science takes a particular hit; having confident teachers of physics helps to reduce this.

      I’ll add some links to the research once I’m on a desktop, not a phone. Thanks for contributing.

      1. Thanks for your detailed response, Ian.

        I do appreciate your point about the engagement research. However, I’d be interested to know the profile of the students it works best on. At my school (a girls school), the top A-level scientists seem commonly (though not invariably) to feel the way I did about application, social relevance etc. Perhaps they are freer from the female stereotype of having to be into the “caring” or “softer” side through not being in a mixed environment?

        My own experience (as a maths teacher) regarding specialists is mixed. A one school I taught alongside a colleague with distinctly indifferent GCSEs and A-levels but who had a maths degree, and another with a degree in a non-maths subject but an A at A-level. The latter gave every appearance of knowing her subject better, enthusing the kids more and generally being, for the ages they were teaching, much better at the job.

      2. It’s a few years old, but the Girls in Physics report from IoP has a useful executive summary. Of course it’s not as simple as girls preferring social implications and boys being content with the abstract concepts! The summary suggests that many students find the contexts useful, and that this effect is greater for girls than boys. It would be interesting to know if there’s a ‘type’ of student who particularly benefits (or contrariwise, suffers) from this approach. More recent research has examined the effect of single-sex schools and these do seem to boost numbers past 16. Anecdotally – I’m sure I remember reading this in one of these reports, but can’t now find the page – the female physics students from all-female classes were more confident when they worked in mixed groups. Perhaps this was because they had established themselves in their own minds as competent? Students’ ‘self-concept’ is an interesting idea and it’s one we covered ages ago in the first SciteachJC.

        In terms of specialism, there are two (simplistic) models. One is that specialists will use better examples and avoid misconceptions when teaching their own subject. The other is that material we have struggled with ourselves is what we can then teach better, being better acquainted with difficulties. These are obviously opposing ideas! I can’t lay hands on physics examples now (and need to head for registration!) but a recent article from the RSC was interesting.

      3. I guess I’m with those who think you need to be confident with the subject yourself – I am just unconvinced about the “specialist” bit as a way to achieve that, as in my example with the maths teachers. Having a degree does not ensure mastery of the subject – and come to that, nor does not having one imply you’ve ever struggled with it.
        I should admit to a bias – whilst I now have a chemistry degree, I spent some time teaching chemistry without one. During that time, I’ve helped out “specialist” colleagues with degrees in it who were unconfident in some areas, helped kids prepare for Oxbridge entry and had enthusiastic and successful classes. Not saying this to blow my own trumpet – just to make the point that it isn’t always that simple to assess who knows their stuff!

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