A guru's guide to simpler physics

20th June 2003 at 01:00
LOOKING back over recent pages of The Big Heid Book - the photo album where I keep my TES Scotland cuttings - I find a tendency to rake over the past.

I think that there are two reasons for this. One is that not enough stupid things are happening in education to stimulate some Phil Harrass Private HMI articles, though there could be something in the offing about job-sizing. Second, this is my 20th year in the job, so by rights I must be about halfway there (wo-oh, livin' on a prayer).

In phase two of my career, I'm beginning to attach a lot of importance to the way people learn. Guru stuff. I've been on a few courses, listened to visiting speakers and tried out some ideas in the classroom. There are three types of learner - surface, strategic and deep. Apparently, there are not enough opportunities for deep learning in most lessons. I can't see anything to argue with in all of this but I wonder if the opposite is often true in physics.

A while ago I studied grade point average statistics and their correlation with attainment at Higher grade. My conclusion was that fewer than half of all pupils in the average school had a realistic chance of passing Higher physics at any level. Chemistry and a couple of other subjects were the same. The opportunities to succeed for the surface and strategic learners just weren't there.

Chemistry lecturer Douglas Buchanan, writing about his own subject in this paper a couple of weeks ago, talked about it having "relentlessly climbed the national ratings difficulty table". He suggested cutting some of the content and adding more investigative and practical work. Interestingly, the point was made that there is no dearth of A passes in chemistry, leading to the conclusion that you can either do the subject or you can't.

Surface learners need not apply.

But what if you only require a surface knowledge? Speaking more from gut instinct rather than a surfeit of information, my impression is that some of the "physics with . . ." courses on offer from "newer" universities do not require a deep, broad-based knowledge. Meantime, schools are adept at turning out a small number of pupils who are well-equipped to slip into a degree course at a more traditional establishment and probably over-equipped for anything else.

Aye, it's great to have the ability to take 400 words to say that Higher physics is maybe a wee bit too hard. With a talent like that, I could become a guru.

Gregor Steele's hairstyle is tending towards that of Kung-Fu's Master Po.

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