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Will NSW physics students learn what these lines represent? starsandspirals/Flickr, CC BY-SA

New physics syllabus raises the bar, but how will schools clear it?

The New South Wales Education Standards Authority (NESA) has just released the new Physics Stage 6 Syllabus along with those for the other sciences, maths, English and history.

The current physics syllabus, which dates back to 2000, has long been a point of contention among some teachers and universities. Most notably, last month Professor Michelle Simmons of UNSW attacked the “feminisation” (a disappointing use of the term) of high school physics during her Australia Day address.

This new syllabus, however, is being widely lauded as a “return to science”.

So what’s changed?

The new syllabus is certainly a return to more traditional content. It is explicitly more mathematical, with 82 equations compared with the current 40, with mandated derivations.

There is also a return to the fundamental physics of thermodynamics and optics. (You might make a quick buck investing in calorimeters and diffraction gratings, which were all thrown out of schools years ago.) Also, particle physics is mandatory rather than being optional (but alas, no simple harmonic motion as mooted in the prior draft syllabus, which is a shame, because I love it!).

Conversely, there is the loss of the much-decried social and historical contexts of the current syllabus. It should be noted, however, that the Science Teachers’ Association of NSW raised concerns that this could potentially lead to a loss of narrative from new teachers who are unaware of the historical linkages and societal implications.

The biggest difference will be in the nature of exam questions, slated for introduction in 2019. In contrast to recent questions such as: “Assess the impact of the use of transistors on society” (HSC 2012, Q25), a 5-mark essay-style question, students will most likely face questions like: “Derive the expression v=√(2GM/r) for escape velocity”.

Equity of access?

The current commentary would seem to imply that not only will these changes increase the rigour but also the number of students studying physics.

However, it’s quite possible that numbers will drop. While policymakers have declared their intent to lure back high-achieving students currently studying the humanities solely to play the ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) game, teachers have suggested that increasing rigour will mean net numbers will drop sharply.

So if academically stronger students will be attracted back to the subject, but the total number studying physics is predicted to drop, who won’t be taking physics any more?

Well, it won’t be children from selective schools that already run multiple HSC physics classes. Their numbers might even increase.

No, the students will be lost from regional, remote and low socioeconomic status schools that already struggle with small class sizes (many as low as one or two). If these schools lose just a few students, they will no longer be able to run physics at all.

If aspirational parents identify that a school no longer offers physics, they will send their children elsewhere, and so a malaise and residualisation of disadvantaged schools may proliferate. If we implement this new syllabus without safety measures for these schools, we will be complicit in widening the gap between the haves and have-nots.

Every child should have access to a physics education. It would be unconscionable that students capable of succeeding in physics cannot study it in this rich democracy just because they don’t live in the right area.

Wanted! Physics (trained) teachers

Compounding the already existing inequity of disadvantaged schools is the shortage of teachers trained in physics. There are not enough physics teachers period. But again, high socioeconomic and high achieving schools suffer from this shortage much less.

Recent analysis from the Australian Council for Educational Research shows that more than 20% of physics teachers are teaching out of subject (often retraining from biology or even physical education), and more than 40% of physics teachers are retiring in the next few years with nowhere near enough being trained in their stead. It would be both elitist and immoral to machinate reduced student numbers to address this teacher shortage.

We need a national strategy to incentivise, recruit, retain and train up enough physics teachers to address this impending disaster.

In addition, given the differences between the new and outgoing syllabuses, many new physics teachers, and most retraining teachers, will need to be brought up to speed with the new material. Conducting investigations into Malus’s Law, for example, is difficult if you’ve never heard of it.

In implementing this new syllabus, NSW must ensure that all physics teachers receive the necessary professional development and support to be in a position to deliver the new content.

This new high school physics syllabus should not be about attracting more and better students to study the discipline at university. Only a minority of high school students will ever go on and study it at uni.

A physics syllabus should be rigorous yet accessible – in the practical sense.

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