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Neducation

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.

26 Comments

  1. Ian B says:

    Superposition of quantum states and the collapse of the wave function are descriptive of the informational state of the observer, not the underlying ontological reality. Until we can find a deeper conceptual model which is both causal and consistent with the Bell Inequalities, we’re going to be philosophically hamstrung in interpreting QM. Einstein was fundamentally right: Copenhagen must be incorrect because it can’t be true.

    Or, to address the same issue in GCSEspeak-

    “Stuff is made out of little bits of stuff. Discuss a citizens strategy to prevent a nuclear power station being built”.

    Higher question paper:

    “Stuff is made out of little bits of stuff called atoms. Discuss a citizens strategy to prevent a nuclear power station being built, and describe which government agency you should report your neighbours to because they antisocially criticised your roof mounted wind turbine”.

  2. NickM says:

    Disagree Ian.

    I have been edging towards MW recently but CI is still beautiful in a devastatingly bleak way*. And it teaches a very important lesson… Is it a wave, is it a particle? Both are human constructs placed onto reality. It is something but waves and particles are just models. Reality is thankfully possibly subtler not only than we know but maybe than we can know.

    I’m really not sure where you are going with the Bell Inequalities. As far as I know they nixed the EPR paradox. Check out Bertleman’s socks. It is possible to correlate without communicating. Hence no violation of SR.

    *Which I have a weakness for.

  3. HSLD says:

    There is a place for non-technical books on QM. They allow maths dunces like me to get a little insight into a subject which is fascinating.

  4. Ian B says:

    “Reality is thankfully possibly subtler not only than we know but maybe than we can know.”

    It’s that nihilistic bleakness that is a troubling aspect of Copenhagen. It says “you can’t understand anything deeper, don’t even try”. That seems to be a curious attitude for physics to have taken- as it is the science which inherently seeks to understand the deeper reality. It doesn’t just say “there is a thing called gravity that makes stuff stick together”, it asks “but what is gravity? Why does it make things stick together? Why does the universe have gravity rather than no gravity?”

    There is an underlying, deeper reality. We must seek it out. Copenhagen seeks to draw a veil across that; it’s almost akin to the religous viewpoint “you can’t question God. God just is“.

    A long while ago it struck me that Copenhagen is a very early-twentieth-century modernist perspective. It was a time of philosophical turmoil in general in which old certainties were replaced by subjective interpretations. Copenhagen is a reflection of that mindset- the young bucks of QM replacing the “old guard” of classical physics, replacing objective theories with a philosophical subjectivism. There’s also an element of conceit in it; it says “we have written the fundamental theory; you may not look any deeper.” I think it’s not very helpful.

    And I think it’s created a mistaken ideology that it’s enough to have a theory that works, without really understanding why it does, or what it is describing. A theory that works is good- and I’m not saying it doesn’t, QM is an immensely powerful and successful theory- but not wanting to know what it’s describing seems mystifying to me. Getting beyond the math to a physical description would seem fundamentally important to me if I were a physicist. That mindset used to hold in physics- for instance trying to describe particles as vortices in the ether. That idea was wrong, but it was a search for a physical model. With Copenhagen QM you abolish that. THere are just things that do stuff, and you have a great (general) mathematical description of what the things do, but you don’t give a fig about what the things are or why they do it. You’re told that’s beyond you. Just do the math.

    But I don’t think you can get any further without thinking about what the things are and what they do. Relativity brought is into a deeper stage of what things are- gravity became bendy space for instance. The next question down is “but what is space”? And people have just sort of pushed that to one side because the math works.

    QM is a great statistical theory of bulk properties, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the conceptual leap into declaring that that which we cannot individually see or predict doesn’t effectively exist is the wrong leap IMV. The theory itself was developed on the basis of experimenter ignorance, so it shouldn’t surprise us that it incorporates that ignorance, and incorporates experimenters. To then declare that experimenters are somehow a physical fundamental of the universe is turning the cart into the horse. Quantum uncertainty describes the uncertainty of macroscopic physicists. It must be erroneous to blame the particles themselves for being uncertain. It’s not so much a question of violation of SR. It’s a violation of common sense, which was basically Einstein’s point.

    Some clever bastard one day will stand back far enough to figure out where the conceptual error has occurred. Not me of course, I’m far too dim. But somebody’s going to do it.

  5. By making the subject “relevant” you turn Science into a tool of Propaganda, conveniently avoiding the risk of teaching the fundamentals that would enable minds to question the dissonance they perceive in the orthodoxy.

  6. Infidel753 says:

    This (I mean the bollocks thing, not the quantum discussion in the comments) sounds like pretty much the kind of stuff that was going on with education here in the US during the 1980s or thereabouts. People do eventually lose patience with it and refuse to put up with it. Note Ofqual’s objections to “dumbing down” in the linked article, and the tone of most of the comments there. Bollockization is already being challenged.

  7. Nick M says:

    Ian,

    Beyond a hint of logical positivism there is no wider philosophical or political implications to QM. Common sense is not God. More generally though… I think you’re on the wrong track. Current physics does look deeper but not in quite the same way. Stuff like E8 and Superstrings are not really about particles or waves but about symmetries and the like. The point of truth has in a sense moved beyond stuff.

  8. Ian B says:

    Beyond a hint of logical positivism there is no wider philosophical or political implications to QM

    Not QM in general. It’s just a scientific theory, a useful description of part of reality. But Copenhagen is drenched in philosophical implications.

    Stuff like E8 and Superstrings are not really about particles or waves but about symmetries and the like. The point of truth has in a sense moved beyond stuff.

    And that is what is troubling. Physics is inherently the science of stuff.

  9. Nick M says:

    What is “stuff”?

    An atom is mainly bugger all.

  10. Ian B says:

    You’d have thought it was the purpose of physics to figure that out.

  11. Nick M says:

    Well it has been figured out and it’s bugger all.

  12. I do like this. Especially this part, which I couldn’t agree with more:

    “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.”

    The only thing I’d point out is that it’s even worse than you’re imagining – DfE isn’t DfE anymore – it’s DCSF. That’s the Department for Children, Schools AND Families.

    You see this as wonderful, child-saving, joined up service delivery – or as the next step towards our all-inclusive Brave New World. Any thoughts?

    For those of us who would seek to circumvent such an “education” and get on with the real stuff as you describe, it’s looking increasingly likely that we’re going to have to comply to national government frameworks for education, welfare, health etc. whatever we do and wherever we do it. For our own good, of course.

  13. Ian B says:

    No amount of bugger all will combine into something that is more than bugger all.

  14. Nick M says:

    OK but an atom feels like more than bugger all because of the forces. And what are forces except the result of (sometimes broken) symmetries. And is that not more beautiful than stuff behaving in an Aristotleian manner?

    I raised beauty because you, Ian, raised philosophy.

    It’s either science or it’s philosophy and if it ain’t science (and therefore about experimentally verifiable truth) then it might as well just be aesthetics. (Or in the case off Kylie – see above – the closely related field of assthetics).

  15. Nick M says:

    RP,

    Thank you for steering the ship of kitty kounting state back onto something like topic.

  16. CountingCats says:

    It’s either science or it’s philosophy

    Not true, and you know it.

    Science is a philosophy, a worldview. And the most fecund philosophy ever derived.

    Wanna revise that paragraph?

  17. CountingCats says:

    From the article,

    Mike Cresswell, of the AQA exams board, said he was disappointed that the regulator did not address the inevitable conflict between the need to create a scientifically literate population at the same time as training world-class scientists.

    What conflict?

  18. Nick M says:

    No way CC!

    Science is not philosophy. Science ultimately has experiment at base. What does philosophy have other than the vague muntering of vague Greek cunts? And depraved Krauts?

    Science both pre- and post- dates philosophy. It’s a different thing.

    Philosophy is not a world view. If that’s all it is then it’s a complete waste of fucking time. Or at least merely interesting.

  19. Ian B says:

    Cats, to udnderstand that sentence, you have to read it with the Newspeak™ dictionary, in which “literate” is defined as “observes the world in a progressive way”. Progressive science isn’t science as we know it. It’s the search for evidence which supports progressive beliefs. Since normal science sometimes discovers things which contradict progressive beliefs, it’s clear that one cannot be both scientifically literate and scientific at the same time.

  20. El Draque says:

    My head hurts.
    A mere social sciences graduate can’t grasp this clever stuff.
    But – anyone remotely curious about origins of things, ought to be fascinated by physics and biology.
    School science – or any science to which children are exposed – needs to arouse curiosity, or nothing will come of it.
    Mine was aroused by the astronomy sections of a simple encyclopedia, I learned then the planets’ names and sizes.
    Result? A life-long interest in physics (though I have no mathematics to speak of).
    And the thought experiments are fascinating – like Uncertainty, Schrodinger’s Cat, or Hardy’s Paradox (as reported in the Economist recently).
    I just wonder how anyone can’t find it interesting – usually however, I empty the pub in the process.

  21. Pa Annoyed says:

    Science is Natural Philosophy. And Copenhagen certainly has a lot to say about ontology.

    In a sense, the Copenhagen/Everett argument is pure metaphysics, because being interpretations of QM, they make exactly the same predictions and are experimentally indistinguishable. The only reasons for picking one over the other are aesthetic and utilitarian.

    And there are a few philosophers who know physics. They’re not so famous, and not so popular with the trendy intellectuals, but they exist.

    Just for fun, a few exam questions from the GCSE as it should be:
    1. If position is defined exactly, momentum is infinitely uncertain, so it is not possible for the position to collapse to a point when you observe a particle. What decides what it does collapse to?
    2. How does partial measurement work in the Copenhagen picture?
    3. How does the delayed choice quantum eraser experiment work in each interpretation?
    4. When a single electron passes through two slits, does the ‘cloud of probability’ at one slit electrostatically repel that at the other? Can they ‘see’ each other?
    5. How and why is the process of observation similar to the phenomenon Normal Modes of vibration?

    Anyway, I’d like to raise the intellectual tone a bit from such dumbed-down easy physics questions. Here’s another take. (Quality, eh? Don’t miss all their hot political news, either.)

  22. HSLD says:

    I like Feynman’s popular works, he can explain all this stuff to me as if it makes sense.

    I don’t think that Schrodinger completely understood the nature of cats though. They don’t like being shut in boxes with vials of poison, unless you tell them that they must not go in there – at which point they will gladly hop in, just to spite you.

  23. Nick,
    I understand what you’re saying here, but how can you make the ideas in your post more relevant?

  24. NickM says:

    Relevant to what? My original post was about dumbing down science education and it’s turned into a discussion of the philosophy of QM.

    Which I guess at least shows that some folks know something about physics.

    That “something” was not damning with faint praise.

  25. CountingCats says:

    Alan was being tongue in cheek. His entire comment was meant to be the sort of tripe that a modern teacher might write.
    I understand what you’re saying here, but how can you make the ideas in your post more relevant?

  26. Pa Annoyed says:

    Nick,

    The bit about dumbing down science education was something we are all so obviously going to agree with that it’s hard to think of anything to say about it. And our rage becomes inarticulate, if we let ourselves dwell on it. So we talk amongst ourselves about what was and what is being lost, as veteran warriors do when they hear their country surrender, with those who understand; while we still can.

    What more fitting defiance can you think of than to do physics; to think about it, to enjoy it?

    (I mean, the obvious thing to do would be to go out, find a kid, and teach them some physics. But of course you need to pass security checks before you can work with children these days…)

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