Physics : RIP

Both the BBC and Guardian this morning are covering a story raising concerns about the health and survival of Physics in schools. If there is any truth in this research, and unfortunately I rather suspect there is, then Physics teaching in schools is in fairly grave trouble. But then, this can be said of most science teaching in general. Why?

My initial training was as a physicist and, I have to say, that the experience was invaluable preparation for what I do now. Science gives you a set of tools for thinking well, as well as a way of looking at the world in a sceptical (in its best sense; read some Carl Sagan, if you’re interested) way. The only problem is that, well, it’s hard work. It’s like maths; it only really becomes fun and rewarding when you reach a level of proficiency where the problems are interesting enough to solve. Getting to that level involves a long and arduous slog practising how do do it.

Perhaps in our consumerist society we have lost the notion of delaying gratification to gain a greater sense of satisfaction later. It doesn’t help that the teaching of science in schools is in a parlous state. With older teachers leaving the system and many fewer coming up to replace them, finding good teachers with enthusiasm for their subject becomes increasingly difficult. I remember doing experiments at school that probably wouldn’t be allowed now for “safety” reasons. As a result much of the frisson and excitement has also disappeared. And so what are we left with? Well, not very much actually. And that is also part of the problem.

And what are the solutions? There are no quick fixes. Teaching generally is not an attractive option right now, with the government continuing their effective campaign of deskilling. Many science graduates I knew went out into industry and make a far better living than if they were to teach. Others. like me, went into computing (where things in many ways are not a great deal better). The common thread is that science is not really a viable career path. Low salaries and low esteem dog science in this country, where we seem to be dogged by a mistrusting philistinism when it comes to science. It doesn’t help that science has a very thin grip in the media. The quality and breadth of science writing and journalism is actually very poor (I’m with Ben Goldacre on this one), so it’s difficult for people to become engaged with science properly. The sad part is that most people have some interest in science, or at least how it affects their lives.

In the end, all of these factors combine and we are left with a culture that doesn’t value science (even though it has an increasing reliance upon it), an education system that doesn’t equip our children to think in any useful way and that almost actively discourages them from pursuing it.

The only surprise, it seems to me, is that Physics has managed to hold on for this long.


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