GCSE science is now officially bollocks.
But then we knew that way back…
Why is it bollocks? Well… There are many schools of thought here. There is a school of thought that this is an inevitable result of the “everyone gets a prize” mentality of not just Labour but the Tories before them. And of course if it is a choice between making education better and just lowering standards then one is much easier to achieve than the other.
But I think there are other reasons as well… This government pathologically cannot understand a distinction between education and indoctrination. Hence they stick into the curriculum everything from stem cells to nuclear power as “issues”. This is a fail. It is an inevitable fail when the politicos are in charge and see everything through the lens of public policy.
When I was an undergrad I flicked through a rather odd book from the ’70s (the typography was very ’70s and the cover art looked like a Slade album) that I happened upon in the stacks of the George Green Library, University of Nottingham. It was written by a whacked out Berkeley hippy and called “Conceptual Physics”. It was a textbook aimed at the “physics for arts students market”. The introduction contained something fascinating. It dissed the idea that PFAS should avoid the math and go with wordy descriptions of the “cool stuff” (QM, GR, Cosmology etc.) This old Berkeley hippy got it. He really did. The most important point in physics education is to teach the kids that they themselves can handle the mathematical and experimental apparatus and get answers. Because the moment someone can work something out for themselves the power they feel is transformative. And that is not going to happen by having kids who don’t know the first bloody thing about atomic nuclei doing PowerPoint presentations on “Whither UK energy policy in the C21st – nuclear: threat or menace?”.
It was semester five, during a matrix mechanics lecture, that QM really fell into place and I really got Copenhagen. I didn’t get there by studying “issues” but by going down and dirty into the engine room of calculating, deriving, proving…
And that is how it should work. And that is why this doesn’t surprise me…
But purists complain that this approach results in the squeezing out of “proper” science, adding that efforts to make the subject seem relevant and trendy had not attracted more students to it.
To anyone even vaguely smart the idea that something like physics or chemistry or biology or even history or geography has to be “made relevant” is ludicrous. These basic areas of knowledge are so bleeding obviously “relevant” as to defy rational explanation as to why they are relevant. If some character came up to me and asked me, “Nick, why should I know a bit of the the old chem?” I’d be flabbergasted. It’s just one of those things which is absolutely vital in order to get any kinda handle on how anything whatsoever works.
I see things very differently from the DfE (The Department for Education). I see education (especially science education) as providing kids with a toolbox and not with pat answers. Obviously GCSE level exams can’t turn anyone into a scientologicalist but it can give a basis to work with. And even if those kids (and most won’t) don’t ever become scientists or engineers or medics or anything like that they will still have that basis of understanding of something of the Universe. They have the one fixed point that Archimedes was so keen on. Otherwise it’s just blather and utter nonsense.
It is not about “issues”. Neither is it about “vocational skills”. It is about that moment when a theory is “got” and becomes part of the learner’s understanding of the world. It is about the vertiginous glory of understanding. Without that it is simply rote learning of a collection of mandated crap. It might as well be the recitation of the Qu’ran or Ed Balls’ shopping list. Because education, if it is about anything worthwhile, (and it usually isn’t) is about teaching the student how to find out for themselves and the first step towards that is the immense boost of confidence a student gets when they work anything out for themselves. Maybe it’s only a drill calculation or a boiler-plate experiment (probably involving tickertape) but that doesn’t matter because there will be time yet for finding flaws in the theory of relativity or designing Large Hadron Colliders.
At a deeper level still we have fundamentally lost the plot with education. We now see it entirely in terms of qualifications which naturally carry entitlements. Exams and marks and grades matter but what really should matter is actual learning. And we have lost that conception. It has been buried alive under relentless testing, the national curriculum, league tables, box-ticking and the demented Children’s Crusade for uniformity of outcome.