Should A level physics be open to any student?

I’ve been thinking recently about entry requirements to A level courses. Physics in particular as that’s the one I have direct experience with but I’m sure much of the same arguments apply to other subjects. I’ve been wondering if entry requirements should be loosened, tightened or if they are about right. This leads into the wider question of should A level physics be open to any students, or just the really bright ones who are also good at maths? I’m not expecting I’ll be fully decided after writing this, but I hope to order my thoughts a bit more coherently. And quite honestly, I’m stuck at home with a 2 year old with chicken pox. Plenty of time to think 🙂

Physics is a wonderful subject. From the amazingness of quantum mechanics and particle physics to the explanation for stars and their life cycles (teaching this to year 13 recently has made me be re-amazed at how we can describe and explain such phenomenal things like red giants). Physics is so much more than basic mechanics and electrical circuits (not that there’s anything wrong with enjoying learning about these things!). At A level you start to get a feeling for what is almost laughingly called ‘modern physics’ i.e. post 1890s or so . This can only be good for people especially those that feel physics at school is BORING!

Studying physics can give an understanding of the ideas behind modern technology. It’s a kind of modern world literacy. If you are going for an MRI isn’t it great to understand what’s happening? More people studying physics leads to greater general scientific literacy and this is good for human kind. This idea reminds me of Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World. A phenomenal book showing how science can be useful for avoidance of pseudoscience, amongst other themes.

Recently UCL dropped the requirement to have physics or maths A level to get onto engineering courses. This is aimed at getting more women onto their courses. It supports the idea that universities feel they have to teach it all again to get them to the right standard anyway (very anecdotal data collection for this fact), so not doing them at all is no barrier to the right, hard working students. I do believe that A levels are not so awful at preparing students to study STEM courses. I admire UCLs efforts, but have to believe a student who has done physics A level will be at an advantage compared to one who hasn’t, though clearly it isn’t a total barrier to success. This supports letting anyone on to the course,because for the right students they don’t really matter anyway…

I fundamentally don’t like telling people what they can and can’t do (within reason, I’m not that sort of parent or teacher with no rules). People can be surprising. Just because they don’t seem to be a model student at 16 doesn’t mean they can’t change. Shutting doors on people in this way goes against my natural leaning to see the good in people. There’s something of John Locke, oh fellow old fans of Lost, about this that I like.

If a student works hard they can get good results. A physics A level can open doors to many careers. It shows you have logical, analytical skills. These can be applied to many things and this is attractive to employers. If someone starts the course with less than the desired GCSEs and proves they are capable of doing well. Then this seems a good idea. There’s some big ifs in there though…

In reality, the students who start the course with lower GCSE grades usually struggle. They lose confidence and could be doing something they excel at that suits them better, rather than feeling like a failure with every U they get. I don’t have any large data to back this up, just several years experience with different classes. It’s so demoralising to have this constant stream of U grades and I will them to get more marks and earn a grade. This leads me to think that the students who perform in this way are the ones who perhaps don’t have a great work ethic. This is they key to greater success at A level. So could be a reason to have higher entry requirements, but this doesn’t stop the bright lazy ones getting through, and is a barrier to the hard working students who didn’t do so well at 16.

I have to admit, it’s great teaching students who excel at A level physics. They don’t exactly seem to require my presence a lot of the time, but teaching bright students, who are interested in your subject, who work hard, read around and ask interesting questions, and possibly go on to study physics further, is lovely.  Some would argue that A levels are just preparation for university anyway. From a selfish point of view, this type of student pushes me to have better, more up to date subject knowledge, and I love having to look things up I might not know a lot about to start with. We’re getting dangerously close to some sort of intellectual snobbery here… but…

Physics has a long history of intellectual snobbery. It’s one of the most up itself subjects (rightly? 😉 ). Physicists can seem quite pleased with themselves a lot of the time. So maybe perpetuating this is great! (I don’t truly think it is )

I can admit here though that I’ve felt that pride when someone finds out what you study for A levels, or uni, or whatever level you’re at, and the reaction is positive and a bit ‘oh, wow! physics! that’s hard, you must be clever’. Hmmm not really, *secret inside grinning*. Ha ha! Maybe I want that for my students? Maybe I’ve just got ishoos.

So what’s the answer?

Let anyone in and split them into ability classes? I don’t like this idea for many reasons. Have a general science/physics literacy (or philosophy) A level? This sounds like something that has existed or does exist. I like the idea of removing some more of the maths and focusing on concepts and ideas and maybe the historical development of physics. More like a humanities A level. Aimed at those who are sure they don’t want to go further with physics, but who want to know more. This is something I’d like to teach.

For what it’s worth, I think anyone should be able to study physics beyond GCSE level, but they should know what they are getting into. Even the most mathematical students will have to work hard, read around the lessons and do plenty of practice to get good at answering physics questions. If you haven’t got As from GCSE physics and maths then you should know you’ve got some work to do. If this sounds like an enjoyable, challenging prospect then sign yourself up!

Regardless of your past performance, if you aren’t that into it and don’t want to work hard, then please don’t bother coming along. It will be a miserable experience for us both. 😉

I don’t want to end on a negative point. So to xkcd to show how knowing some physics can be a lovely thing…

Or it at least lets you get the joke 🙂



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