The Twelve Physics Pracs of Gove (Part One)

It’s not often that a DfE publication makes me feel like Kent Brockman, the newsreader from The Simpsons.

I’d like to remind them that as a trusted TV personality, I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground sugar caves.
Kent Brockman: “I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords.”

This feeling stems from reading the “Use of apparatus and techniques – physics” section from the DfE’s April 2014 Subject Content for AS and A level Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Psychology publication (p.23).

I had the rather novel feeling that it’s actually a sound list: and I, for one, welcome this intervention from our Govean-apparatchik overlords.

Why do I welcome this? Well, I feel that all too often we lose sight of the fact that, at its heart, Physics is, and must remain, a practical subject, the foundation of so much of the modern world.

Miroslav Holub’s poem “A Brief Reflection on Accuracy” paints a haunting and disturbing picture of what could be described as an entirely postmodernist, deconstructed and relativist (rather than relativistic) universe:

A certain soldier

    had to fire a cannon at six o’clock sharp every evening.

    Being a soldier he did so. When his accuracy was

    investigated he explained:

I go by

    the absolutely accurate chronometer in the window

    of the clockmaker down in the city.

   [ . . . ]

Oh, said the clockmaker,

    this is one of the most accurate instruments ever. Just imagine,

    for many years now a cannon has been fired at six o’clock sharp.

    And every day I look at this chronometer

    and always it shows exactly six.

[ . . . ]

So much for accuracy.
And fish move in the water, and from the skies
comes a rushing of wings while

Chronometers tick and cannons boom.

Without the grounding supplied by the art and science of measurement, I believe that we would all inhabit a castle-in-the-air universe as outlined above by Holub (whose experiences as an immunological research scientist are said to have influenced much of his poetry).

Is Holub’s nightmarish scenario even a remote possibility? Would we ever be in a world where “chronometers tick and cannons boom” but no-one actually checks the actual time by, say, looking out of the window to see if it’s daylight or not?

As with most nightmares, it’s probably closer than you think: “The sleep of reason brings forth monsters” as Goya suggested, and the steps that produce the monsters are often small, seemingly-harmless compromises of apparently little consequence.

One of my Y13 students, who has been attending a number of interviews for Physics courses, reports that some university departments have told him that “We spend a lot of the first year teaching students how to write formal laboratory reports as we find many of them have not learned how to do this during their A level courses.

Whaaa-aat? I nearly fell off my lab stool when Sam* told me this. In my opinion, that is unconscionable. “Oh, yeah,” Sam went on, “some of the students there said things like ‘Oh, our A level course content makes it unsuitable for practical teaching’.”

Opinions like that, if they genuinely reflect the views of the schoolteachers involved, are steps on the road to bringing forth monsters. Of course, it may not seem like a big deal to either the students or the teachers who are probably following what they see as a reasonable path of little resistance. But it is a big deal, it really is.

“And what did you say, Sam?” I asked.

“I said that we do a formal write up with a full analysis of experimental uncertainties every lesson.”

“Do we, Sam? Every lesson? Really?”
“Yeah, well,” said Sam with a smile, “I lied about that, didn’t I?”

“Exaggerated, Sam. I think you mean exaggerated.”

“Whatever you say, sir,” said Sam.

More on the 12 pracs of Gove in a later post..

* not his real name

What About the Wombles?

# Underground, overground, wombling free # The Wombles of Wimbledon Common are we.

Teachers know that every school is the same, and yet every school is different.

Every school is the same in the sense that they are set up to do ostensibly the same job: most of them have classrooms, teachers, desks, timetables and other things of that ilk. Every school is different in the sense that the culture, expectations and unwritten rules of each and every school is absolutely, completely, insanely and utterly unique.

Even the language, cant and argot of each school is unique. Even for the staff.

In one of my previous schools, the staff codeword for a “bottom set” student was “womble”. Although some might view such terms as demeaning to the students, I believe that the Head of Science who originated it actually used it with genuine affection and humour (try saying it with a Scottish accent through a thick beard for best effect), and I`d like to think that we used it in a like manner too. (I think that it’s certainly less judgemental than “muppet”, although I’m not sure why.)

Teaching a class of wombles is a skill in itself. There are times when you feel like the best teacher in the world: wow, you say to yourself, nearly everyone got that idea — I am a teaching genius!

And then next lesson comes around. Remember what we covered last lesson? you begin with a confident smile, willing and eager to move on. Cue: thirty blank looks and slightly-furrowed brows and you can see the thought “Huh? We were here last lesson…? We did something last lesson…?” forming in their brains. And you realise that you are still at square one. Or, possibly, square zero.

Not that I am suggesting that we should give up. I am game to try and keep trying and keep on trying.

The point I want to make is simply that so much of educational discourse ignores the both the existence and the needs of the wombles.

Part of the problem is that education in the UK is still very narrowly focused on academic achievement: if you don’t get into Oxbridge then you’re a failure. Oh, and it’s your fault. And your teachers, of course.

I cannot shake the feeling that what are we going to do about the wombles? is a question that is not asked often enough. We concentrate on the A*-C grades (and anyone who can be cajoled or armtwisted into getting a C), and are seemingly content to allow those getting below those grades to think of themselves as failures.

Not too long ago, I set up a talk by an Oxbridge admissions tutor for a group of very mixed ability inner city kids. My oh-so-well-meaning aim was very “growth mindset”: you can achieve anything you want if you work hard. The tutor was genuine, funny and charming and so were the undergrads from inner city backgrounds that she brought along. But my little Dweckian-soiree achieved the exact opposite of what I wanted. Hearing that a few GCSE grade Bs won’t necessarily completely scupper your chances of entry to an elite Oxbridge college isn’t what you want to hear when even a grade D seems a distant unattainable dream. My students feedback was that the event merely confirmed what they thought: this isn’t for me.

Now just because I have filed someone in the “womble” drawer doesn’t mean that they will be unsuccessful. One of the more encouraging — and yet humbling — recurring events in a teacher’s life is meeting past students who have moved on. Some of them will be parents, craftsmen, artists, pilots, business owners, chefs, firefighters and police officers. And as they chat amiably with you about schooldays past, their passing references to their life and career begin to make you feel like the womble.

And very often, they have warm memories of you not because of anything that you did, but because you had a sense of humour and were kind on occasions, and above all else, you tried.

And then you realise that, actually, those were the reasons why you liked some of them more than many of the lazy, tiresome, arrogant jerks in the top set: the wombles were often funny, kind and frequently tried hard.

After all, the truth is that each and every one of us is a womble to someone else.

Salieri : I will speak for you, Father. I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint. Mediocrities everywhere… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you all!

Amadeus (1984) by Peter Shaffer