A Slice of Humble PISA: Back to Basics For Us All…?

Over a period of two or three years the scholarship boys were crammed with learning as cynically as a goose is crammed for Christmas. And with what learning!  . . . At St Cyprian’s the whole process was frankly a preparation for a sort of confidence trick. Your job was to learn exactly those things that would give an examiner the impression that you knew more than you did know, and as far as possible to avoid burdening your brain with anything else.

— George Orwell,  Such, Such Were The Joys [emphasis added]

Perhaps enough ink and bile have been spilled and projected over the recent PISA ranking that you may feel that no more needs to be said. Perhaps you are correct. However, this post is only tangentially addressed towards this.

In this post, I want to mention a nagging worry that has been growing in my mind for a number of years concerning science education in the UK. The feeling I have is that we are not getting the fundamental basics of science education correct.

At times, I feel that we are inflicting a St Cyprian-style (so memorably described by George Orwell in the quote above) of science education on the majority of students. Now, I am not approaching this from the angle of “things-were-so-much-better-in-the-old-days-before-all-this-grade-inflation-malarkey”. Rather, I am going to lay out some items of concern that I have.

Item the first: I was recently reminded of an old (1984) textbook called A First Physics Course by R. B. Arnold. I remember I had a class set of these in my very first classroom. It was written as a guide for Y7-9 students and was crammed full of neat experiments. For example, the section on magnetism showed how to magnetise a needle to make a compass (not as easy as you might think — how can you make sure the north seeking pole is at the pointy end?) and then a bunch of other enjoyable experiments (well, I enjoyed them anyway).

Compare this with a more recent textbook: say, the recent Collins KS3 scheme. The material covered is similar in many ways, and the design and full-colour illustrations are attractive — however, the emphasis on hands-on practical experience is entirely gone. Instead, the students are expected to extract information from diagrams, video clips and text rather than getting a chance to experience the phenomena for themselves. (I am not suggesting that the Collins scheme is a particularly bad example, by the way, rather I am using it as a typical example of modern educational publishing.)

I cannot help but feel that without the vital hands-on experience of actually using real magnets in a variety of situations (not just the 2-like-poles-repel practical suggested in the modern textbook) then students are merely getting a St Cyprian-style cramming session rather than a true learning experience. I cannot help but feel that many of the textbooks and — dread words! — revision guides that we use nowadays cater for a wide but superficial acquaintance with scientific knowledge: “learn exactly those things that would give the examiner the impression that you knew more than you did know.

Item the second: look up the word density in the Collins scheme, or most other KS3 schemes for that matter and you get . . . zilch, zero, nada, nothing. This is sad, because I think the concept of density is an excellent example of how we can process physical measurements to get a surprisingly useful quantity.

The class measures the mass of 100 cubic centimetres of water and then divide the mass by the volume to find the density, the mass per cubic centimetre. Big deal. What can they do with that? The answer — everything. Can we weigh the world’s oceans? Sure, if we know the volume: mass = density x volume. Can we estimate the mass of a human head (preferably without removing it from its owner)? Sure: find the mass of a human being (easy) and the volume (tricky but not impossible), calculate the average density of a human being, then measure the volume of  the head  (again tricky but can be done with a bucket of water, a towel and a show-off volunteer) and use the mass = density x volume equation.

Students get concrete, real world experience of mathematical manipulation of a quantity that can be felt (compare the weight of 1 cubic centimetre of lead with 1 cubic centimetre of wood)  and yet is essentially an abstract quantity: a window on a wider world, so to speak. Who could ask for anything more?

Item the third: someone, somewhere who really, truly should know better thinks that the art of precise measurement is trivial. To the best of my knowledge, there is no KS3 or KS4 course that currently gives this noble but neglected skill its due acknowledgement. I despair of A-level students who cannot use a metre rule to produce simple readings of length of sufficient precision without intensive coaching. (“Avoid parallax error, read to the nearest millimetre, not the nearest cm” and so on). It’s also quite a laugh watching students use measuring cylinders too — although if you want a real belly laugh try asking them to adjust a simple laboratory stand and clamp: generally speaking, students will tighten and loosen the screws at random.

Digital natives? Perhaps. Mechanical idiots? Definitely.

I suspect that at the root of it is the British class system: the thinkers are generally regarded as superior to the do-ers, and all too often practical skills are classified as ‘merely’ mechanical and menial, and not worthy of the attention of a true professional.

Sadly, the truth is that opinions such as this  will produce dilettantes rather than rounded, competent professionals. And even more sadly, I believe that the dilettantes have taken over the asylum…

To learn a mystic formula for answering questions is very bad. The book has some others: “gravity makes it fall;” “the soles of your shoes wear out because of friction.” Shoe leather wears out because it rubs against the sidewalk and the little notches and bumps on the sidewalk grab pieces and pull them off. To simply say it is because of friction, is sad, because it’s not science.

— Richard Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (1990), p.180

3 thoughts on “A Slice of Humble PISA: Back to Basics For Us All…?

  1. Alan Lyall December 20, 2013 / 10:00 am

    So it isn’t just me then. Thank God for that.
    I am an amateur teacher with a volunteer youth organisation.
    One of my 18 year olds was very angry with me when I suggested that air had density. He told me that only liquids have density and everything else has mass. He was serious too. I thought I was going to get punched.
    As to the lack of mechanical ability: I believe that everyone, including the “do-ers”, are being systematically deprived of the skills needed to “do”. I find it astonishing that so many on the “Left” support this. Marxist de-stabilisation, or just sheer bloody-minded stupidity? I don’t know.
    I gather that “raising self esteem” is a big issue. My youngsters (especially males) see their cack-handed inability to perform simple tasks as a personal failure. That makes me very sad for them, and very angry at the idiots who deprived them of a proper childhood. They have been prevented from doing things. They have never seen a Meccano set, repaired a bicycle puncture, played with model aeroplanes or taken anything to bits and put it back together again. Most of their parents haven’t either.
    I am told that this attitude makes me a “sexist” (one teacher accused me of trying to turn children into “Nazi mass murders”). Apparently playing with things, as opposed to people, is dysfunctional. Children should not be interested in nasty boyish things like engineering and science.
    I suspect that “the people in charge” are, if you will pardon the expression, a bunch of useless arty-farts who couldn’t change a tap washer. And would be mortally offended at the suggestion that they should bloody well learn.
    Oooh. That makes me so angry I could thrown the phone down!
    Mr Angy from Purley

    • e=mc2andallthat December 23, 2013 / 11:30 am

      Thanks for the comment, Alan. I could be called “Mr Angry” myself when I think about these things. As you say, I’m glad “it isn’t just me!”

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