Sunday, 4 March 2012

Physics education vs Science Education

I am a member of the Institute of Physics, have a physics degree and I mainly teach physics, however I consider myself a science teacher. I would say that my love of teaching is greater than my love of physics. Although I find that science principles and laws just work intriguing and that physics underpins everything interests me greatly. My students look at me strangely when I get excited by physics when principles "just work".

On Saturday I heard the President of the Institute of Physics ask for members to investigate the state of physics teaching in their local school. He indicated that he would like all members of the IoP support physics education.

During the talk we were shown facts about how there is an ever increasing number of students doing physics and a record number of physics trainee teachers, but these numbers are not enough. The upshot is that the IoP believe that there is still work needed to improve the headline figures like the number of schools with physics graduates working as teachers and ensuring all schools offer physics A-level as quite a few don't.

Sir Peter Knight would like to know:
How many students at your school sat As and A-level physics last year?
How many of the students sitting A-level physics are girls?
How do you encourage students to think about choosing A-level physics?
How many specialist physics teachers does your school have?

Once members have answered these question we are to email the answers to

The message behind these questions, or at least the one I heard, is that we need more physicists in the UK and the way to achieve this is to have more physicists teaching in school.

I think that it is absolutely vital that we have well trained, knowledgable teachers. However, I am not convinced that using physics graduates is the only way, and I am certainly not convinced that a good grounding in university physics makes for a good teacher.

As a teacher of science I see physics in the context of science. I want my students to see science in everyday lives. I don't teach physics because I passionately believe that everyone should love it and want to study it. Do I owe it to physics in the UK to shift my views?

When I consider the ASE presidential address and Robin Millar's points on "science for all" I am conflicted between teaching and encouraging the physics graduates of the future and teaching scientific literacy for the masses. Are the two possible and/or compatible? Maybe they should be, but I don't believe we have achieved it yet in the English education system.

Having said all of this I really appreciate all the work that the IoP are doing to support physics education. I never regret paying my £100 per year membership fee because I know they are doing good work. And since I started teaching in my school we have had 3 students apply to do physics at university, so maybe I am already doing what the IoP would like.

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