When sociologists design physics courses

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A couple of years ago, I was attending the Science Teachers Association of Victoria physics conference where there was a discussion of the new VCE physics course that was about to be introduced. This new course – which moves into Year 12 this January – was explicitly designed to force teachers to do more inquiry-based learning. One of the School Assessed Coursework tasks that teachers are required to set has been specified down to the tiniest detail to ensure that students have to design and complete their own experiment.

This idea is obviously flawed. Year 12 students are not PhD students and gain little from designing experiments – they don’t have the appropriate expertise. As Paul Kirschner would explain – it confuses the practice of professional scientists with the best way to learn science.

At the conference, there was then a speculative discussion of where future revisions to the physics VCE may take us. This was the first time I heard about the physics course in New South Wales and how – incredibly – the number of mathematical questions there had been dramatically reduced. This fact was noted favourably and as a possible future direction for Victoria.

Why would anyone butcher a physics course in this way? What replaced the actual physics?

The answer to the first question is that it was a misguided attempt to convince more students – and girls specifically – to study physics. The answer to the second point is that physics questions were removed in favour of more factual recall questions and more questions about the ethics of building nuclear power stations and so on.

This was obviously a disastrous set of ideas but, as with all bad ideas in education, they get a run for a least a few years before people wake up and realise what’s happening. It now looks like New South Wales has had enough of its Sociology of Physics Course and is planning to move back to something more normal.

And what has happened in the interim? Universities have had to start teaching high school physics and everyone, including the girls taking the physics course, have suffered from and complained about its content.

This is a cautionary tale. Educational experts such as subject associations and curriculum authorities cannot be trusted to make the right choices. People tend to complain about political interference in education but if you take politics out of education and leave it to the experts then we are talking about those folks who turned physics into geography. Before you know it, entire states will be teaching elementary maths through interpretive dance and teachers will be assessing children on an ethical skills rubric.


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