GCSE Physics

On Monday I found myself in the company of experts reviewing GCSE physics questions. I’m always amazed people didn’t choose to study physics at university and incensed when people tell me about how boring they find it. Well, looking at GCSE papers you can see why. Within very few of the examples we look at can you find any ‘interesting’ physics, whether it be recent discovery, exciting development or just simple Newton’s laws. There’s no freedom for the young scientists to be creative: they’re guided step-by-step through dull, two-mark questions, and even when there’s a space for ‘discussion’ they’re given marks for writing down keywords.

Without specialist physics teachers, life at school is tough. The new linear A-Level curriculum has an increased practical component that takes longer to work through, meaning that some AS students haven’t finished their course yet (and it’s the Easter holidays). Next year most state schools are telling their year 11 cohort that they have to choose 3 subjects at AS-Level that they’ll continue to A2 (no fourth subject, that you may drop in year 13). This isn’t good news for physics. For most students, physics rarely makes the top-four, and it’s even less likely for girls. We’d lose the ‘I’ll give it a go’ numbers too, who often find they enjoy it so much (it is very different to GCSE physics, I promise…) they study it the next year too. Lots of the people I meet who work at the home of physics, the IoP, came to it later in life than you’d think.

In most questions a context/ re-world scenario was introduced, only to be lost in the scaffolding below it. In almost every case the ‘scientific principle’ was revealed in the question itself, requiring only back-of-the-envelope number crunching to get a full-mark answer. Questions about forces consider bricks and wooden blocks and those focussed on centres of mass involve balancing metre rules. There are questions where you can get full marks without any grasp of basic physics, and times you’d struggle to get one if you thought outside the box. Obviously it’s much more fun (and satisfying) for a bunch of physicists to write challenging questions, but what’s challenging is to write accessible questions for the whole population.

Interestingly, the Scottish Highers are much more creative. There are errors here with standard form and numbers of decimal places, but the physics is obvious and presented in paradoxes for the students to overcome. There’s a real mismatch between these more ‘authentic’ questions aimed at higher-ability students and the hum-drum rubbish for the lower ability. Pre-16 students are a different level of maturity to A-Level, and they can’t really be critical of their own work. Instead you can present them with concepts in the third person, “Jess thinks that the ball with move this way. Do you agree?” Could the GCSE move toward a two-part exam, testing breadth in a multiple choice paper and depth in open ended discussion? Watch this space…

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