Saturday, 15 August 2015

Unintended consequences

Making changes in any walk of life often leads to unintended consequences.  This seems to be especially true in education, particularly for the party in power. Recent governments have had one main lever with which to change school behaviour: accountability measures a.k.a. League Tables

For example, take the laudable ambition that as many young people as possible achieve a grade C at GCSE English and Maths to support them in their future careers.  What that has meant in reality is schools have focused their attention preferentially on English and Maths for the D/C borderline students.  No point focusing on those working at a grade or two below D (they might not reach that C), and no need to push those at C or above (they've already reached the required level).

Or how about coursework controlled assessment?  Real life rarely takes place under exam conditions, so what a good idea to ask students to produce work in more realistic situations, and allow them to draft their work (because that's what they'll have to do if they produce reports at work).  Sadly, what happens is that students draft, redraft, re-redraft and so on until they have produced a piece of work that is the best possible grade it might be.  Which leads to controlled assessment which doesn't differentiate between students at all, and which skews the mark balance of the overall qualification.

So many apparently good ideas in education have these unintended consequences because nowadays, not doing well in those League Tables for even one year can lead to a summary dismissal of Headteacher, governing body and academisation in a short space of time.  Even though Ofqual quite helpfully point out (pdf) that even if everything is kept the same there will be natural variation in the results of a school from year to year.

Which brings me to Progress 8, Triple Science, and A-level Physics.

Progress 8 is, I think, an excellent attempt to encourage schools to focus on supporting all young people.  At its heart progress 8 will rewards schools for every grade improvement that their students make; from F to E or from A to A* (of the appropriate numerical grades).  However, the potentially unintended consequence is that there is little benefit to a school, of allowing students to take more than 8 GCSEs, no matter how many GCSEs students take, only the best 8 will count for accountability purposes.  Actually, that's not quite true, a student must sit English Literature and English Language if the best English grade is to be double weighted. So what do I think are the likely unintended consequences of progress 8 for Science*?

  1. The number of students taking three separate sciences from 2017 will decrease.  When a student has only got a choice of 6 subjects, using three of them for separate sciences could be seen to be too narrowing - especially as A-levels teachers can't assume that students have all taken the separate sciences, so must use double science as their starting point**.
  2. The number of students taking Physics at A-level will decrease as the number of students taking GCSE Physics also decreases.  This will be exacerbated by more schools allowing students to take only 3 A-levels, and given the gender imbalance in the number of students taking AS into A2 physics, likely to lead to a decrease in the number of girls taking A-level Physics. 
I hope I'm wrong, but I suspect that I'm not going to be.

*I also think that there will be a large rise in the number of U's in English Literature (or possibly English Language given the greater focus on SPAG in the new GCSEs).  Students don't have to pass both qualifications for the double weighting, just enter them so there could be the temptation for schools to enter students, but not teach the qualification.

** An interesting piece of analysis from the National Pupil Database would be to see how many students studying A-level sciences did separate sciences and how many did Core and Additional science.

UPDATE: Thanks to Frances Wilson (@fflwilson) who directed me to research carried out by Cambridge Assessment in 2013 (pdf pg 15) which showed that around 46% of students taking triple science at GCSE went on to study A-level sciences compared with 13% of students taking core+additional.

Helen Rogerson @HRogerson pointed out that the year 13 who have just received their A-levels were in year 9 when the Ebac was announced. Some schools altered their curriculum offer following this.  This could explain the slight reduction in the number of entrants for A-level Chem, Phys and Bio seen in the results this year.  Yet more unintended consequences.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Is Physics hard, or hard work.

Something that I have been pondering over the last couple of months is how should we talk to students about Physics?  Should we tell them that it's hard?

As part of a summer school at Think Physics, I shared the comments from the IOP discussion workshop 'Science: It's a people thing' with some Year 12 girls who were studying A-level Physics or Level 3 Engineering.

One of the comments in the workshop is:

"Physics is really hard.  If you want to get good grades, you are better off doing biology or chemistry'.

Quite a few of the girls disagreed strongly with this comment.  We had an interesting discussion about why they thought that biology or chemistry were as hard, if not harder, than physics.  Mostly they thought that Biology could be harder because of the sheer volume of information that they had to understand, whereas Physics could be harder because you had to understand some counter-intuitive ideas.

I would tend to agree with them.  I think that by the time you have got to A-level, most subjects are hard to do well in - certainly those in the Russell group's facilitating subjects list.

On the other hand...

Back in 2008 research carried out by the CEM centre for SCORE showed that, given the same starting points at GCSE, students did better in some subjects than others.
Taken from: Relative Difficulty of examinations in different subjects. Coe et al (2008)

This data in this graph was taken from examinations taken prior to 2008, just before Ofqual was being formed.  Given the large number of changes currently working their way through the system, it would be interesting to carry out a similar study now, and perhaps in a couple of years. (There is mention in this article that the work was repeated three years later with similar results - but I have been unable to find any publications with the new data.)

So, what should teachers tell students?  Is Physics hard?  Or is it hard work?

What A-levels should schools recommend students on the basis of this graph?  When the report was published there was a suggestion that schools would encourage students to take subjects at the left hand side so that they maximised their grades (and schools maximised their average point score per entry).  That is one of the downsides of the results based accountability culture in schools.

There isn't a great deal of difference between any of the sciences, so why do some schools apparently encourage girls into biology?

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Beautiful Balancing

Last night I was out and about at the Newcastle-Gateshead Late Shows.  This is an evening event across the city, when venues open their doors in the evening, and do things just a little bit differently.

Think Physics has been working with The Holy Biscuit to develop an exhibition based around the Sun called 8 Minutes 20 seconds.  This was open for the Lates, so I was sort of working, although the Holy Biscuit staff and Northumbria Uni students Jane, Jaclyn and Lucy did all the hard work on both nights!

During my wanderings round other venues, I went to a show by Forma Fortis, an acrobatic trio from Germany, two of whom are based in Newcastle at Circus Central.  The show they presented was both wonderful and nerve-wracking.  You can see a small snippet on this video.

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Forma Fortis
Image from Circus Central via Twitter

What struck me about the show was how a knowledge of physics was vital in the act.  All the balances obviously required careful planning and placement.  Each time, the centre of mass of the three acrobats was through the body of the 'strong man'. By doing this, the acrobats were able to hang-out on either side without collapsing.

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'Standing' on the tables at the Mining Institute
Image from the Mining Institute via twitter
Here's a short video explaining the phenomenon in more detail.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

I know, let's have a competition!

There seems to be a bit of a theme when external organisations try to engage with schools and young people.

Image by Nemo-3736

I can picture the scene...

Somewhere in a glass meeting room, some very serious people are sitting round, trying to work out what they should do to meet their corporate social responsibility targets let young people know about their company/institution/product.

'I know', says one, 'lets have a competition.  That's bound to get schools involved.'

'Fantastic!' replies a colleague. 'What a great way to enrich school life.  I loved entering competitions when I was at school.'

And so a competition is launched.

And schools do enter.

But perhaps not all the schools, and maybe not the ones that might need company support and engagement the most.
. . .

To be honest, I'm conflicted about competitions as public engagement.  It feels like it ought to be an easy way to engage with schools.  Choose a topic, publish a few rules, name a prize and you're away. Indeed, I'm involved in a competition with a local organisation.

And yet...

It would be fascinating to analyse the winners from the various competitions that are held each year.  I wonder if  schools with supportive parents and low pupil premium numbers predominate (BP Ultimate STEM competition, National Science and Engineering Competition) or maybe grammar schools (or ex-grammars which are now academies National Engineering competition for girls).

Certainly, if I was running a large scale competition to engage with schools, I'd want to look very closely at exactly who is entering and whether the competition was attracting a particular demographic of schools.

I'd also think about when the deadline for my competition was.  The middle of May is not a good time for secondary schools to do anything other than prepare for exams (Looking at you, Generation Green).  Schools have other things to be thinking about.  Many teachers run after school revision, so even if your competition is aimed at a lower age group, it's likely that the teachers will be involved in this and have little time to support extra-curricular activities.

My conclusion?  I don't know.  For those schools that enter, I'm sure that entering competitions may be a good way of enriching the curriculum and of real benefit to their students.  But there are far more schools that don't enter, and they may be the ones that actually it would be better to try to engage.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

It's a girl thing - not.

Today is international Women's day.

Cue a flurry of articles in newspapers and on twitter about girls and STEM.

Science isn't just for boys - The Independent

Five myths keeping women out of science careers - The Guardian

Want to be a scientist? It's not just for boys - Public health England

And the government has helpfully launched a campaign with the hashtag #notjustforboys

Perhaps it's just me, but this makes me unutterably depressed.  Not just about the lack of gender equality in STEM, but by the deficit model of female participation that all these things promote.

The question seems to be 'Girls aren't doing STEM, what's wrong with girls'.

I think a better question would be 'Girls aren't doing STEM, what's wrong with STEM?'.

And actually, the premise on which both questions are based, is somewhat flawed.

If we look at the number of male and female studying A-levels in 2014 we see that girls do study science and STEM in large numbers - as long as its biology, chemistry, maths or psychology.

And what about undergraduate degrees? There are more women studying medicine and dentisty than men.  Even at university, women are studying STEM.  Unless, of course, its the physics and 'TEM' part of STEM.
DfE, SR 45/2014 Education and Training Statistics for the United Kingdom, 2014, issued 06 November 2014

So the question should not be 'why aren't girls doing STEM?'.  They are.  We should be looking at where some parts of STEM are failing to attract girls.

And a facile hashtag which suggests that there's something wrong with girls, isn't going to help.