The state of Victorian physics

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Last week, I attended a physics conference organised by the Science Teachers Association of Victoria (STAV). It was a curious affair – as all physics teacher conferences are – and I was, as ever, left with the feeling that I had just attended a revival meeting for a religion I don’t quite believe in.

Don’t get me wrong, I love physics. And that’s the problem.

You see, Victoria has recently rewritten its senior physics curriculum to make it groovier and funkier. We no longer have unit titles that describe what the unit is about. Instead, we have facile questions such as, “How do things move without contact?” or, “How fast can things go?” [my emphasis].

The logic of such a change is obvious. Physics is really dull, right? So by changing the titles of units into questions we’ll make it more engaging. Students will find the learning irresistible. It’s all about inquiry. Drama and history classrooms will be mothballed as kids flock to a new, funkier, mutton-dressed-as-lamb physics.

You see, to take this attitude, you have to have both a pretty low view of physics and a predilection for constructivist teaching methods. Both stands are wrong.

Which is why it was such a breath of fresh air to read what Tom Alegounarias of the New South Wales Education Standards Authority had to say about the new physics syllabus that has just been published in that state. According to the Sydney Morning Herald:

“He [Alegounarias] said there would be more focus on the topic rather than the context. Instead of studying ‘moving about’ in Physics, students would learn ‘kinematics and dynamics’.”

Three cheers for that man.

You see, I distinctly remember the suggestion that one reason for the changes now impacting Victoria was to make physics more like the now defunct New South Wales course with its emphasis on ethics and the social impact of physics. So this new turn is most welcome.

While at the physics conference, we also spent much time discussing the requirements of the new practical investigation.

Physics students in Victoria have always had to complete an investigation but it seems as if some schools may have been squeezing this requirement in order to teach the students more physics.

So the latest Victorian physics syllabus beefs up this requirement with a series of more explicit regulations and insists that students must design and conduct an experiment themselves.

This is at odds with what we know from cognitive science – Year 12 students don’t have the expertise to make this a worthwhile activity – and is essentially an imposition of inquiry learning on all schools.


2 thoughts on “The state of Victorian physics

  1. The thing that attracted me most to physics (in which I eventually got my undergraduate degree) was the problem solving, the puzzling out of the answers to difficult problems. In college, a single problem could take hours to work out. When you finally figured it out, it was fun and enormously satisfying.

    Obviously, these curriculum writers have never experienced that kind of joy.

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