The Twelve Physics Pracs of Gove (Part Two)

A true-devoted pilgrim is not weary
To measure kingdoms with his feeble steps

–William Shakespeare, The Two Gentlemen of Verona

 

A picture [of reality]  . . .  is laid against reality like a measure  . . .   Only the end-points of the graduating lines actually touch the object that is to be measured  . . .   These correlations are, as it were, the feelers of the picture’s elements, with which the picture touches reality.

–Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus 2.141-2.1515

 

What they say of disc jockeys is also true of teachers: that someone, somewhere will remember some of your words forever; or, at least, for the duration of their lifetime. The downside is, of course, that you never know which of your words are going to be remembered. The wittily-crafted, near-Wildean aphorism pregnant with socratic wisdom — probably not. The unintentionally hilarious malapropism that makes you sound like a complete plonker — almost certainly.

To this day, I still remember Dr Prys’ sharp and appropriate response to a flippant comment (possibly from the callow 6th form me) about whether the scientific constants listed in the data book were truly trustworthy: “Look,” he said, “people have dedicated their whole lives to measuring just one of these numbers to one extra decimal place!” True devoted pilgrims indeed, mapping out the Universe step by tiny step, measurement by measurement.

I have written before on what I consider to be the huge importance of practical work in Physics education. Without hands-on experience of the hard work involved in the process of precise measurement, I do not believe that students can fully appreciate the magnificent achievement of the scientific enterprise: in essence, measurement is how scientific theories “touch” reality.

I am encouraged that parts of this view seem to be shared by the writers of the Subject Content guidance. (All hail our Govean apparatchik overlords!)

Of course, this has to be balanced with the acknowledgement that (as I understand it at least) teacher-assessed practical work will no longer count towards a student’s final exam grade. Many are concerned that this is actually a downgrading of the importance of practicals in Science and thus a backward step.

Sadly, they may turn out to be right: “We have to have this equipment for the practical/controlled assessment!” will no longer be a password for unlocking extra funding from recalcitrant SLTs (and from the exam budget too — double win!)

And, undoubtedly, some “teach-to-the-test” schools will quietly mothball their lab equipment (except for the showy stuff — like the telescope that no-one knows how to use — that they bring out for prospective pupil tours).

That would be sad, and although the DfE have, to be fair, nailed their pro-practical colours to the mast, we all know that the dreaded Law of Unintended Consequences may have the last laugh.

I would say it all depends on how the new A levels are actually put together. I will be attending some “launch events” in the near future. I will blog on whether I think we can expect an Apollo 11 or an Apollo 13 at that time.

In the meantime, I will be setting practicals galore as usual, as I’m old-fashioned enough to think that they give a lovely baroque feel to a scheme of work…

Look at me, I design coastlines, I got an award for Norway. Where’s the sense in that? None that I’ve been able to make out. I’ve been doing fiords all my life, for a fleeting moment they become fashionable and I get a major award. In this replacement Earth we’re building they’ve given me Africa to do, and of course, I’m doing it will all fjords again, because I happen to like them. And I’m old fashioned enough to think that they give a lovely baroque feel to a continent. And they tell me it’s not equatorial enough…
–Slartibartfast, from The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

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6 Comments

Filed under Assessment, Education, Philosophy, Physics, Science, Society

6 responses to “The Twelve Physics Pracs of Gove (Part Two)

  1. Marvin

    I’ve always felt that
    “reality is on the blink again”.

  2. RequiresImprovement

    When I first heard the plan, it seemed fox-like in its cunning; here is a list of things that need to be done, but they won’t count towards the actual final mark. Advantages: there shouldn’t be a need to teach to an exam board’s foibles (OCR, I’m looking at you here), and there won’t be a need to tiptoe through the minefield of how much preparatory support to give.
    After the GCSE English Lit pallaver, I’m a bit more cautious. If exam boards go down the “what’s the minimum we can get away with” route, the whole thing could be pretty pointless, which would be a shame. The other thing that I’m not clear about is the status of the practical endorsement on the final grade. If enough universities and employers make it clear that they expect to see the practical section passed, it would make it very hard for schools to ignore it, however tempting it could be to save the money and time.

    • I agree, especially with your comment about teaching to an exam board’s foibles (OCR, all of us are looking at you here). Your point about the actual status of the practical element result and whether employers and uni’s will expect a pass (assuming it’s pass/fail) is well made. Let’s see what the exam boards say at their “launch events”…

  3. Pingback: They Wouldn’t Let It Lie: The Twelve Physics Pracs of Gove (Part 3) | e=mc2andallthat

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