No more Gradgrind: opening up physics for all


The Policy Consortium’s Andrew Morris, a former physics teacher, and currently President of the Education Section of the British Science Association, responds to recent media coverage of gender and physics by exploring the shortcomings of physics education more broadly.

Women and physics is once again in the news, thanks to an extraordinary coincidence: a male physicist at CERN suspended for misogynistic remarks just as a female physicist triumphs at the Nobel awards. Is simultaneity really an illusion?

It’s an unfortunate fact that this gender issue never goes away, even when it ducks momentarily below the media horizon. A recent report from the Institute of Physicists underscores the perennial nature of the problem, showing not only that girls drop out of physics as soon as they can, regardless of ability, but that the problem is considerably worse than for the other science subjects. A mere 8% of girls who have physics amongst their top GCSE grades choose to go on to “A” level in the subject, whereas in chemistry and biology the corresponding progression figures are three and four times higher, respectively.

In recent years I have been running science discussion groups in adult education centres, bars and cafes for people – overwhelmingly women – who were disenchanted with their experience of science at school yet remained curious about the subject. It’s become abundantly clear to me how strong the desire to explore and understand the natural world can be, despite negative experiences of science at school. The Institute of Physics report rightly advocates strategies to combat negative stereotyping and to present STEM subjects more actively to women, but I am not sure these alone will do enough.

My suspicion is that many, many people, not just women, feel particularly distant from physics as it comes across in education. Yet their fascination with the subject outside the school context tells another story. The rise in popularity of TV documentaries on cosmology, electricity, materials, sound and colour, for example gives us a clue about this trend. My experience with science discussion groups reinforces this. In these discussions, science is not portrayed as a body of knowledge, presented in an orderly sequence according to an impersonal syllabus. Instead, it emerges from the questions and observations made by the participants, as an exciting, explorable subject.  Their questions lead into discussion of their beliefs and anecdotal knowledge until a point is reached at which the thirst for proper scientific explanation from a tutor becomes overwhelming. The red colour of blood in a cut knee (at odds with the blue colour in the wrist) or the extreme tides at Blackpool act as launchpads for enquiry, which rapidly lead on to underlying fundamentals: molecular structure, electromagnetic waves or gravitational theory, for example. Records of hundreds of such discussions show that fascination for physics among women is as strong as it is for biology or chemistry.

What matters is that motivation to learn surges when topics are negotiated and the teacher – taught relationship is truly interactive. As a recent report for the Education Endowment Foundation shows: “learning is more effective when prior knowledge is taken into account”. People “construct their own explanations for phenomena and these ideas may differ from scientific explanations .…. misconceptions can be uncovered through dialogue”

Is it necessary for physics, as it is represented in education, to be so constrained by 18th and 19th century ideas about the nature of science, emphasising the rigidity of classical laws, rather than the provisional nature of physical models? Does it have to flood young minds with piecemeal factual learning rather than exploring and debating powerful underpinning concepts? Could real life topics like the perception of colour or the effects of aspirin be allowed to run across the confines of physics, chemistry and biology? Above all, could learners’ personal life experiences and questions be given a part to play in shaping the discourse?

Using these kinds of approach has proved highly motivating for women in the groups I work with. Their learning approximates more closely the nature of science itself than the exam-syllabus version, embracing the uncertainty of the unknown, the excitement of discovery and the ambiguity of alternative explanations. It’s not physics itself that presents a real barrier to women (or to the countless men who also fail to take it forward at school) but shortcomings in its representation in education.  At the crucial 16+ stage the subject has to compete as an  “A” level option with others that connect more closely with young people’s lives and offer to engage them in genuine dialogue. It loses out.

So, with research and experience pointing to the need for radical reform, what is the solution? Current arrangements are deeply entrenched; there is no quick or simple way forward. More than half of today’s physics teachers are not qualified in physics; they couldn’t reasonably be expected to open up discussion beyond the confines of text book or syllabus. With the extreme shortage of physics teachers of any kind, the chances of having an excellent teacher (the key factor for effectiveness in education) are remote for many students. This shortage of course follows inexorably from the low take-up of the subject in the first place (plus the creaming-off of graduate physicists to more lucrative careers in finance). The vicious cycle will have to be tackled at root, starting with today’s teenagers.

If we are to face up to the radical change needed, a very long-term strategy is needed, to relate the subject matter more closely to lived experience and to allow for dialogue. Professors of physics education, examiners and teachers will not be able to achieve this alone; demand for a new type of physics education will have to come from those suffering under present arrangements: the employers who can’t find vital skills, the parents whose children turn away from exciting career options and above all, the ordinary citizens who, in their millions, miss out on the excitement and enlightenment offered by the subject.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and not of any organisation with which he is associated. 


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