## It is important that the DfE publish correct science content in their GCSE subject content

Posted in Education with tags , , on June 28, 2015 by telescoper

You would think that the people in the Department for Education who draft the subject content for GCSE science would know stuff about science…

Sadly, it seems this is not the case…

Yesterday I posted this reaction to the publication by the DfE of the GCSE_combined_science_content (copy taken – original link here). Others, including @alby and @hrogerson have written and commented about this as well.

[Another update: in the comments Richard Needham from the ASE has reminded me that over the next few weeks QfQual will be using these documents to ratify the Exam Boards’ science GCSE specifications. Not a good situation.]

[An update: the DfE released the GCSE_single_science_content in another document (original link here). Some of the errors below including the kinetic energy formula have not made it into this document and the space physics is obviously only considered interesting enough for the triple scientists. I will check the rest.]

I thought it relevant to post some specific points (just from the physics section – which didn’t even appear correctly in the table of contents). Now…

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## Hannah and her Sweets: that EdExcel Examination Question…

Posted in Education with tags , , on June 5, 2015 by telescoper

You may or may not know that yesterday there was a bit of a Twitterstorm of students complaining about an “unfairly difficult” examination question on the GCSE Mathematics paper set by EdExcel.

This is the question:

There are n sweets in a bag. Six of the sweets are orange. The rest of the sweets are yellow.

Hannah takes a sweet from the bag. She eats the sweet. Hannah then takes at random another sweet from the bag. She eats the sweet.

The probability that Hannah eats two orange sweets is 1/3. Show that n²-n-90=0.

Not sure what all the fuss is about. Seems very straightforward. The question tells you that 6/n × 5/(n-1)=1/3 whence the equation follows by a trivial rearrangement. In fact I’m a little surprised the question didn’t go on to ask the students to solve the quadratic equation n²-n-90=0 to show that n=10…

I don’t really know what is on the GCSE Mathematics syllabus these days. In fact I never did GCSE Mathematics, I did O-level Mathematics which was quite a different thing. You can see the papers I took – way back in 1979 – here.

## Equations in Physics

Posted in Education with tags , , on April 10, 2014 by telescoper

Just so you know that our education system is safe in the hands of Michael Gove I thought I would pass on a couple of examples from the latest official guidance on subject content for GCSE Combined Science. These are both from Appendix 1, entitled Equations in Physics.

Example one:

kinetic energy = 0.5 x mass x (acceleration)2

Example two:

(final velocity)– (initial velocity)= 2 x acceleration x time

Neither of these is even dimensionally correct!

Such sloppiness from the Department of Education is really unforgivable. Has anyone else spotted any similar howlers elsewhere in the document?  If so please let me know via the comments box…

UPDATE: Monday 14th April. Apparently these errors in the document have now been corrected, but still…

## How should mathematics be taught to non-mathematicians?

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on February 25, 2014 by telescoper

This post from the estimable “Gowers’s Weblog” passed me by when it was originally published in 2012, but I saw the link on Twitter and decided to repost it here because it’s still topical..

Michael Gove, the UK’s Secretary of State for Education, has expressed a wish to see almost all school pupils studying mathematics in one form or another up to the age of 18. An obvious question follows. At the moment, there are large numbers of people who give up mathematics after GCSE (the exam that is usually taken at the age of 16) with great relief and go through the rest of their lives saying, without any obvious regret, how bad they were at it. What should such people study if mathematics becomes virtually compulsory for two more years?

A couple of years ago there was an attempt to create a new mathematics A-level called Use of Mathematics. I criticized it heavily in a blog post, and stand by those criticisms, though interestingly it isn’t so much the syllabus that bothers me as the awful exam questions. One might…

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## Credentialism and Overexamination

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2012 by telescoper

Only time for a quick post this morning as I have to go into the department to get my things ready for tomorrow, when the Autumn Semester starts and I have to begin lecturing (at 9am on a Monday morning). Anyway, the text for today’s sermon is provided by Ed Smith’s Left Field column in the New Statesman, the latest issue of which I read yesterday. His topic is the rise of credentialism and the resulting excessive amount of examination in the British school system:

It is now widely accepted that British pupils are excessively over-examined. Teachers are so busy focussing on examinations that there is little time left for education. Exam-led cramming has become the year-round norm – like an election campaign that consumes the whole political cycle. Exams are obviously necessary. But there is an optimal amount of assessment and it has been far exceeded. Grade inflation – notwithstanding this year’s controversial “crackdown” – is simply accepted as a fact.

It’s well said, and it’s not just the school system that suffers from disproportionate emphasis on assessment over education. It’s rife throughout the university system too, starting with the reliance on A-level grades as criteria for assessing students’ suitability for university study, through the “modular” undergraduate degree programmes with examinations twice a year for three or four years.

We examine far too frequently and the effect of this has been to turn the entire education system into a meaningless exercise in box-ticking.

It is an unfortunate irony: in our age of credentialism, exams have never mattered more. And yet they have never been more unreliable as gauges of academic quality.

I’ve felt for some time that in my discipline, Physics (and Astronomy) A-levels are virtually useless as indicators of the suitability of a student for doing an undergraduate degree. Some of the very best students I’ve ever had the pleasure to teach came into my university with modest A-level scores; and some students who came in with perfect grades at school never adjusted to the different, more independent type of study required of an undergraduate.

As Ed Smith points out, the increased emphasis on examination grades hasn’t expanded opportunity either.  It may appear to be fairer to base university entrance or award jobs on examination results rather than, say, interviews, but this has just led to a system that can be easily gamed – private tutors, cramming, re-sits to improve grades, and so on. He rightly concludes that the “correlation between exam results and intelligence has been steadily weakening”.

So what’s the alternative? Smith mentions the admissions process at Harvard University, which famously ignores high-school grades and relies on its own interview system. Interviews can be very biased if carried out in an inappropriate way. Subjecting a young person to a 30-minute grilling  in a room with a complete stranger can be enormously stressful for applicants who are shy, and would also play into the hands of those whose educational background has involved specific training for such ordeals. But one thing I’ve found by talking to students face-to-face is that it doesn’t take very long to identify precisely those things that the examination system does not: imagination, enthusiasm for the subject,  and a flair for thinking on your feet:

One teacher told me with regret that she had to advise her most academic pupil not to display her full intellectual range: in order to secure all the ticks, first you have to stop thinking freely.

If you don’t believe this, take a look at this GCSE Science Examination. A truly intelligent student would struggle to find any correct answer for many of the questions on that paper!

This is why we still place so much emphasis on interviews in the postgraduate admissions system: we take it for granted that all applicants for PhD places will have good undergraduate degrees. What marks out an excellent candidate for a position as  research student, however, is not the ability to pass exams but a mixture of creative flair and almost obsessive determination to surmount the difficult challenges involved in independent research. The correlation between these characteristics and degree results is by no means strong.

The problem for a UK University in adopting the Harvard approach is that credentialism is now running the system. Students apply to universities largely on the basis of their predicted A-level grades, lowering their sights if their predicted grades would not be expected to get them into a more “presitigious” department. But departments that take in students with low A-level scores also get marked down in the league tables for taking in “weaker” students. We’re all aware that A-levels are basically useless, but both sides are  bound so tightly into the system that there seems to be no escape.

So what’s the answer? I don’t know if there is one, but I’d love to see what would happen if all universities abandoned A-levels and instead set their own entrance examinations and interviews. It would be a huge amount of work, but it would make a refreshing change if universities could gather useful information rather than relying on the uninformative guff produced by the national examination boards.

And here is Smith’s closing remark that rings very true to me for personal reasons,

There is a further dimension to the problem of credentialism. It encourages life’s winners to underestimate their good fortune and to over-rate the extent to which they deserve their success. Far from advancing talent over privilege, credentialism has strengthened the grip of people already at the top.

## English Language O Level, Vintage 1979

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , on August 26, 2012 by telescoper

Judging by the furore surrounding the last-minute marking down of GCSE English Language examinations this year, I thought it might be interesting to put the old scanner to work and show you the English Language examinations I took at age 16, way back in 1979. In those days the GCSE hadn’t been invented yet, and instead we had two different systems GCE  O Level (which I took) and CSE. Anyway, these be the papers what I sat.

The one thing that surprises me a little in retrospect is the considerable emphasis on poetry in the second paper, which I now think would belong more in an English Literature paper. However, there’s no doubt that my schooldays instilled in me a lifelong love of poetry and for that I won’t complain at all…

I’d be very interested in any comments about the difference in style and content between these and modern-day GCSE English Language.

P.S. If you’re wondering what happened to Page 2 of Paper 1, it’s completely blank so I didn’t scan it.

## Gove Agreement

Posted in Education, Politics, Uncategorized with tags , , , on June 25, 2012 by telescoper

I’ve had the same worry about finding myself in agreement with Michael Gove, at least on a few things; see here, for example. Anyway, this piece makes some very good points about the corruption of the GCSE system.

What do you do when someone with whom you basically disagree, says something sensible? Michael Gove has placed me in this situation three times now.

Firstly he abolished the Qualifications and Curriculum development Authority (QCDA).  Secondly he pointed out at that school IT lessons are at best uninspiring. And now he has gone and acknowledged that our system of competitive exam boards has driven down GCSE standards.

You may not have noticed this because he also called for GCSEs to be replaced with ‘O’levels. I sympathise with his motivation – to raise the bar for the most academically able pupils – but I think he is wrong on this. It would be enormously disruptive, enormously divisive, and there is actually nothing inherently wrong with GCSEs.

The problem with GCSEs lies in the ‘almost corrupt‘ link between publishers and their ‘pet’ exam boards. The BBC…

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Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on June 21, 2012 by telescoper

I woke up this morning as usual to the 7am news on BBC Radio 3, which included an item about how Education Secretary Michael Gove is planning to scrap the current system of GCSE Examinations and replace them with something more like the old GCE O-levels, which oldies like me took way back in the mists of time.

There is a particular angle to this in Wales, because Michael Gove doesn’t have responsibility for education here. That falls to the devolved Welsh Government, and in particular to Leighton Andrews. He’s made it quite clear on Twitter that he has no intention to take  Wales  back to O-levels. Most UK media sources – predominantly based in London – seem to have forgotten that Gove speaks for England, not for the whole United Kingdom.

This is not the central issue, however. The question is whether GCSEs are, as Michael Gove claims, “so bad that they’re beyond repair”. Politicians, teachers and educationalists are basically saying that students are doing better; others are saying that the exams are easier. It’s a shouting match that has been going for years and which achieves very little. I can’t add much to it either, because I’m too old to have done GCSEs – they hadn’t been invented then. I did O-levels.

It does, however, give me the excuse to show you  the O-level physics paper I took way back in 1979. I’ve actually posted this before, but it seems topical to put it up again:

You might want to compare this with a recent example of an Edexcel GCSE (Multiple-choice) Physics paper, about which I have also posted previously.

I think most of the questions in the GCSE paper are much easier than the O-level paper above. Worse, there are many that are so sloppily put together that they  don’t make any sense at all. Take Question 1:

I suppose the answer is meant to be C, but since it doesn’t say that A is the orbit of a planet, as far as I’m concerned it might just as well be D. Are we meant to eliminate D simply because it doesn’t have another orbit going through it?

On the other hand, the orbit of a moon around the Sun is in fact similar to the orbit of its planet around the Sun, since the orbital speed and radius of the moon around its planet are smaller than those of the planet around the Sun. At a push, therefore you could argue that A is the closest choice to a moon’s orbit around the Sun. The real thing would be something close to a circle with a 4-week wobble variation superposed.

You might say I’m being pedantic, but the whole point of exam questions is that they shouldn’t be open to ambiguities like this, at least if they’re science exams. I can imagine bright and knowledgeable students getting thoroughly confused by this question, and many of the others on the paper.

Here’s a couple more, from the “Advanced” section:

The answer to Q30 is, presumably, A. But do any scientists really think that galaxies are “moving away from the origin of the Big Bang”?  I’m worried that this implies that the Big Bang was located at a specific point. Is that what they’re teaching?

Bearing in mind that only one answer is supposed to be right, the answer to Q31 is presumably D. But is there really no evidence from “nebulae” that supports the Big Bang theory? The expansion of the Universe was discovered by observing things Hubble called “nebulae”..

I’m all in favour of school students being introduced to fundamental things such as cosmology and particle physics, but my deep worry is that this is being done at the expense of learning any real physics at all and is in any case done in a garbled and nonsensical way.

Lest I be accused of an astronomy-related bias, anyone care to try finding a correct answer to this question?

The more of this kind of stuff I see, the more admiration I have for the students coming to study physics and astronomy at University. How they managed to learn anything at all given the dire state of science education represented by this paper is really quite remarkable.

Ultimately, however, the issue is not whether we have GCSEs or O-level examinations. There’s already far too much emphasis in the education system on assessment instead of   learning. That runs all the way through schools and into the university system. The excessive time we spend examining students reduces what we can teach them and turns the students’ learning experience into something resembling a treadmill. I agree that we need better examinations than we have now, but we also need   fewer. And we need to stop being obsessed by them.

## Results and explanation (via Gowers’s Weblog)

Posted in Education with tags , , on August 26, 2011 by telescoper

I thought I’d reblog this because it pertains to my earlier post from today…

I’ve had a healthy number of responses to my question from the previous post. In case you are reading this post without having read the previous one, I shall continue after the fold, because if you read on it will render you ineligible to participate in the little experiment I am conducting. Every year in Britain, at round about this time of the year, we have the same debate. The GCSE and A-level results come out (these are taken at the ages of 1 … Read More

via Gowers’s Weblog

## Are exams getting easier?

Posted in Education with tags , , , on August 26, 2011 by telescoper

With the publication of this year’s GCSE results there’s been the usual clamour about “dumbing down” of educational standards. So are these examinations getting easier or not? I can’t answer that question because I’m far too old to have done GCSEs. The examinations I took at the equivalent stage of my school career were O-levels. But, being an inveterate hoarder of useless articles, I kept the exam papers that I took, so what I can do is put up and example the O-level papers I took (in 1979) and let you decide. I thought the Mathematics one might be of interest, so here it is or rather here they are, because there were two 2-hour written papers; there was no coursework component, so these counted 100% of the final grade.

If you’ve done GCSE mathematics recently, have a look and see what you think!

(You can click on the images to make them bigger if they’re difficult to read…)

I’d be interested in any comments you might have, especially if you’ve actually done GCSE Mathematics (recently or a long time ago). I suspect the most obvious difference is that in my day we did much more geometry…

I might put up the Physics papers if there’s enough interest!