Less 'drudgery', more 'glamour': Stephen Hawking's successor demands changes to formula for maths and physics teaching

25th March 2011 at 00:00

The "drudgery" and "boredom" of learning basic maths and physics is turning a generation of school pupils off the subjects, according to one of the word's leading scientists.

String theory pioneer Professor Michael Green is calling for a new national curriculum that attracts pupils with the "glamorous" side of science.

Professor Green, who in 2009 took over from Stephen Hawking as Cambridge University's Lucasian professor of mathematics - dubbed the most famous academic chair in the world - also wants better teacher training to improve the standing of the profession.

He told The TES: "We need to find some way of constructing a curriculum which appeals to kids, and to get teachers trained properly.

"By and large, if you get a good physics degree, you will not become a teacher, unless you have a particular urge. It's not a high-status job. If it were, it would change the nature of what it's like in the classroom."

Professor Green - one of the founders of string theory, a complex theory of particle physics - described primary school maths as "tedious" and "something you have to get through".

"You can't imagine (maths') beautiful elegance and way of describing the world at that stage," he said. "When (pupils) go to school and choose maths, they don't know enough about the subject and the way it developed. Some of them don't want to know.

"I never understand why anyone wants to do maths, having been exposed to it before the age of 10 - the drudgery they are exposed to. It's difficult. I see it with maths, and there's a real problem with physics, to convince (pupils) that science isn't geeky, especially girls."

Teaching the basic principles of physics is "fairly boring", Professor Green admitted. "That can't be changed, but it could somehow be presented differently. People could be made more aware of the glamorous side of physics, the nature of the universe."

Guest speakers should also be encouraged to visit schools more often to bring the subject to life, he added. "If I had to find a way of teaching which would keep them interested at that level, it would be very, very difficult. Teaching a whole course about basic things in maths without (the pupils) losing interest completely is a challenge. I'm finding that with my daughter."

Students should study a broader range of subjects beyond GCSE, Professor Green argues, to keep their future career options open.

"One of the extraordinary things in the British system is that you can drop subjects almost as soon as you start," he said. "We drop subjects en masse after GCSE. I have always felt that is absurd."

Professor Green described the A-level system as "failing, in a sense", due to "grade inflation" making it difficult for universities to identify the strongest students. But he gave his backing to the Government's English Baccalaureate benchmark of academic rigour.

The EBac is awarded to students who obtain good GCSEs or IGCSE in English language, maths, two sciences, a foreign language and history or geography.

"I think it is quite sensible to make that a minimum requirement. I personally think it's a fantastic idea," Professor Green said.

Annette Smith, chief executive of the Association for Science Education, said: "I sincerely hope the national curriculum will be made smaller so teachers have more freedom to make science more exciting and interesting. We do need better training so that scientists are better prepared for the classroom."

'Maths will be tougher under new curriculum', page 20

MICHAEL GREEN CV

Born: 1946

1957-1964: William Ellis School, London

1964-1970: Churchill College, Cambridge; a first in theoretical physics, followed by a PhD in elementary particle theory

1970-1978: Postdoctoral research at Princeton, Cambridge and Oxford universities

1978-1993: Lecturer and professor at Queen Mary, University of London

1993-present: Cambridge University: 1993, John Humphrey Plummer professor of theoretical physics; 2009, Lucasian professor of mathematics.

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