Dumbing down? No way - and the revised Higher physics proves the point further

28th September 2012 at 01:00
Latest moves in teaching the subject show the clear expansion of its universe

A couple of years ago, I was overcome by a strong desire to see the 1977 Higher physics papers. My attempts at these exams resulted in my only B for any physicsy assessment at that level and it was in the days before you could appeal to have a grade upped. Not making any effort to answer the perfectly reasonable question "why does it still hurt?", I became involved in a debate on the fabulous Sputnik physics teachers' forum set up by the Institute of Physics in Scotland. (More than two-thirds of Scottish physics teachers subscribe to this. In your faces, chemists and biologists.) Within a day, a helpful teacher had scanned the documents and sent them my way.

Two things stood out. First, there were slightly more applications-based questions (pick five from eight) than I remembered and correspondingly fewer of those asking the candidate to describe an experiment. Second, I was shocked at how dumb the multi-choice section was when compared with the papers of today. Yes, there were more questions and the syllabus was a bit broader, but "Which of these is the symbol for a transistor?" C'mon. My General kids could have done that. True, recall questions like that have largely been shunted into NABs, but please don't tell me we've dumbed down.

Had you looked at the 2011 Higher paper and compared it with that of 1977, you might have been forgiven for thinking that not much had happened in 34 years of physics. Where was particle physics? Astrophysics? Students see this sort of science on television, so why is it missing from the classroom? This isn't the same question as "Why don't we study Fifty Shades of Grey in Higher English since so many people are reading it?" (Interesting geek fact - 50 is indeed the approximate number of monochrome tones the average human can distinguish. I looked it up.)

Step forward the new, revised Higher physics, studied by a group of early- adopters for the first time last session. It has astrophysics, cosmology and particle physics, but there's much more to it than that.

A half-unit called "Researching Physics", piloted some time ago with real pupils and a teacher who wasn't one of the "usual suspects", engages students in genuine investigative work around a cutting-edge topic. Open- ended questions that would have undergraduates scratching their heads leap out from the exam paper. CfE-friendly, designed by a panel made up mostly of teachers and former teachers, well liked by academics because of the skills development aspects and, reportedly, well liked by early adopters both young and old, it appears to be something of a success story. I'd probably still have got a B in it, mind.

Gregor Steele likes the new Advanced Higher physics, too.

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