Saturday, April 04, 2009

British High School Physics exam is 'too easy and fails to prepare students'

Physics A-level has become so undemanding that it leaves British students the worst prepared in Europe to take degrees in the subject, an academic has claimed. Gareth Jones, a retired professor, said teenagers had been ‘short-changed’ by the removal of difficult maths topics such as calculus from A-level syllabuses. He also said shortages of specialist physics teachers were worse here than in other countries, leading to gaps in students’ knowledge.

Professor Jones is one of five academics who questioned staff at 120 universities in 21 European countries on the state of physics students’ knowledge. He said that in most countries, there was generally a ‘growing gap between what has traditionally been expected and assumed of new students by university physics departments and the preparation in physics and maths that they have received at school’.

But he said the drop in standards was particularly acute in England and Wales. ‘It seems that the shortage of specialist physics teachers with degrees in physics is greater in England and Wales than in other European countries,’ he said. ‘Also significant is that the physics school curriculum is less mathematical here than in other European countries.’

A-level physics courses, he said, were increasingly expecting pupils simply to regurgitate information, rather than getting them to use their understanding to reason their way through problems themselves. He said: ‘Students are more or less guided through the answer. Not very much careful reasoning is required.’

They no longer required the teaching of calculus in any depth, he said, and the level of maths needed for A-level physics was now ‘really quite low’. In drawing up the exams, boards could not assume that students were studying A-level maths.

The physicist and emeritus professor of Imperial College London, added: ‘If students are being taught little of this at school, then they are being shortchanged and receiving poorpreparation for careers in physics and engineering and for university courses in these subjects.’

His concerns were highlighted in a report on a seminar at Cambridge University on the teaching of mechanics in schools. The seminar heard that mechanics was the foundation for university physics study but up to 40 per cent of maths students were only given the chance to take one paper on it from the six they sit for A-level maths.

His findings follow the admission last week by Professor Alan Wilson, a former senior civil servant at the then Department for Education and Skills, that he was ‘astonished’ to learn that at least one major exam board no longer required calculus for A-level physics. Writing in the Times Higher Education supplement, Professor Wilson, now based at University College London, said there had been a ‘dumbing down’, even from the 17th century.

Also last week, the Government’s exams watchdog found the standard required to achieve A grades in A-level physics had fallen since 2001, while backing claims that GCSE science has been ‘dumbed down’.


Canadian Pro-Life Students Demand Public Apology from School

The acting president of the St. Mary's Students for Life, Joseph Westin, has asked that the university apologize for allowing a group of pro-abortion protesters to disrupt and finally stop a university-approved pro-life presentation last month. The presentation was given by Jose Ruba, a founding member of the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform.

In February LifeSiteNews reported on the disruption of Ruba's presentation by a group of abortion supporters who, less than a minute into his talk, entered the room and began shouting down the presentation. Campus security did not stop or remove the protesters and when Halifax Regional Police arrived, a university official shut down the presentation.

Joseph Westin is demanding an apology from the school for violating freedom of speech rights and for giving a misleading account of the university official's actions in a press release posted on the University's website.

Westin said the press release gave the impression that university officials merely moved the presentation "on campus somewhere else." However that account is false, he stated in an Atlantic Catholic report.

The university statement reads that, "protesters were asked to stop disrupting the event, but after more than an hour and a half, the presentation was relocated to a nearby location ... Relocating the event, though regrettable, allowed the speaker to complete his presentation."

Westin explained that, "Really, they stopped the presentation, and we decided to leave and go to the church; if the church was not there we wouldn't have been able to continue." "They made no effort to provide another building or venue for us," he added. "They're claiming that they moved us to another building. But they didn't. They stopped our presentation."

Mr. Westin said that St. Mary's Students for Life pro-life group is looking for a retraction of the press release as well as a public apology from the school for the way they gave in to the group of protesters. "They're not dealing with it at all," Westin said. "They're pretty much sweeping it under the rug. They're trying to get rid of it. The people who were breaking the law should have been dealt with and stopped, not us."

The pro-life group is also calling for an investigation into the St. Mary's Women's Centre, which Westin claims organized the protest.


Don't spare the rod

Comment from Australia

Overwork, large classes and poor pay are issues that worry new teachers. But according to a recent Australian Education Union survey of teachers across Australia, the other issue at the forefront of their minds is classroom behaviour. The 2008 survey, which drew 1545 responses, ranks disruptive students second on a list of 11 issues - rating 66.1 per cent, compared with 68.5 per cent for concerns about workload, 62.9 per cent for pay and 62.6 per cent for class sizes. Of even more concern is that the figure on behaviour reflects a jump of more than 10 per cent compared with the 2007 survey. At the secondary level, the issue is ranked number one, with a rating of 71.4 per cent.

Victorian school leaders also see disruptive students as a serious issue. The president of the Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals, Brian Burgess, recently criticised the Brumby Government for weakening the power of schools to deal with the problem.

Australian teachers and principals are not alone in expressing anxiety about the damaging effects of classroom misbehaviour. In Britain, a recent teacher survey found that 45.5 per cent of those interviewed said challenging behaviour was a daily event and nearly two-thirds agreed that student behaviour had grown worse since they had started teaching.

Disruptive behaviour does not just undermine learning; equally damaging is its effect on teacher morale and wellbeing. According to one newspaper report, cases of stress leave for Victorian teachers have risen from 125 in 2006 to 170 in 2008. Beyond the cost of WorkCover claims, many qualified and committed teachers leave the profession early because of the anxiety and stress caused by disruptive students. It needs to be noted, too, that many beginning teachers are also concerned about aggressive and demanding parents, with 86.5 per cent saying that their training had not adequately prepared them for dealing with what many teachers describe as the angry parent syndrome.

What's to be done? At a time when teachers are told that they must solve society's problems - from drug and alcohol abuse to sex education, self-esteem and wellness training, road safety, diet and, following Black Saturday, bushfire prevention - it's time to say enough is enough.

Parents are primarily responsible for raising their children and for instilling discipline and respect for others. It should be no surprise that children who are indulged, spoilt and turned into prima donnas at home cause disruption at school. So-called helicopter parents - the ones always hovering around, interfering and giving advice - should realise that they need to stand back, give children responsibility and allow teachers and schools to set and enforce their rules free from interference.

Based on the AEU beginning teachers' survey, it is clear that pre-service teacher education needs to be more effective in equipping teachers to cope with classroom realities. When asked whether their training had prepared them to deal with particular groups of challenging students, such as those from non-English speaking backgrounds, those with disabilities and those from dysfunctional backgrounds, nearly 70 per cent said "no".

Inquiries into teacher education have recommended that more time be given to practical classroom experience, with less emphasis on educational theory and more on what constitutes effective, research-based classroom practice.

Most baby boomer teachers my age will remember the '70s and '80s, when formal discipline went out the window - along with the strap and school inspectors - and classroom rules were negotiated, teachers were called by their first name and a student's rights had priority over those of the group.

One response to unruly behaviour, advocated by Britain's Office for Standards in Education, is a return to traditional discipline and a more authoritarian school environment. Comprehensive schools in disadvantaged areas have received positive reports after taking up such an approach. In drawing a clear line between life on the streets and what is accepted in the classroom, schools have banned hoodies and gang colours, introduced formal assemblies, clear rules that are enforced quickly and consistently, and strict uniform regulations. Many inner-city US schools have also turned behaviour around by enforcing strict rules and by promoting a school culture that rewards effort and success.

Compare such approaches with what takes place in many Australian schools, where discipline procedures are convoluted and bureaucratic. It's often assumed that teachers are at fault and parents are only too willing to take their children's side in any dispute. In one notable example of how difficult it is to enforce discipline, a Victorian teacher failed to intervene in a schoolyard fight between a group of girls, most likely because of what would have happened if he had manhandled one of them.

Research shows that, along with a rigorous, properly defined curriculum, teachers are the most important factor in successful learning. To be effective, teachers need to be well paid, well resourced and to be given the power to maintain discipline in the classroom.


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