The new NSW HSC (stage 6) physics syllabus, and “feminisation”

I’ve been working on a textbook for the new NSW stage 6 physics syllabus, and today the final version of the syllabus was released by NESA (the organisation formerly known as BOSTES).

It’s hard to know whether to be amused or angry at the commentary going on in the news about it, and comments made by various of my academic colleagues.  Or both… for example, one colleague has been vocal for years in criticising the previous syllabus because it didn’t prepare students well for study of physics at university. (I saw him on TV not five minutes ago doing it still.) That’s a fair point, but then not all that many people go on to study physics at university. So should we really have a course that only suits those who do want to go on to physics at uni? Well, BOSTES/NESA thinks so.

The new syllabus is a return to the last-but-one; dry, lacking in historical or social context and, frankly, pretty boring. Apparently it’s rigorous, except for the errors like “apply the law of conservation of mechanical energy”. Not a good look… especially as BOSTES was told several times that this was just plain wrong (including by me, within the consultation period).

So how am I, as a textbook writer compelled to follow the syllabus, supposed to deal with that?

The reality is that 16 years ago the syllabus went from boring, rigorous, context free and based firmly on classical mechanics from hundreds of years ago to broad, modern,  and socially situated, with a bit less mathematics. Not no mathematics, just less.  That move was strongly influenced by Sydney Uni physics academics, particularly those involved in education research and first year teaching. The aim was to create a syllabus suitable for all physics students, not just those who wanted to be physicists, to educate a broader population of students about what physics is and what its good for, while still teaching them some physics content…

I was at Sydney uni in 2000-2001, and at UNSW in 2002-2003.

Guess who really hated the context-rich syllabus….? Yep, the UNSW physicists!  Now it’s gone back to rigorous and boring, with no historical or social contexts, partly driven by… that’s right, the UNSW physicists!  Well, they’ve made the pendulum swing back…    pity they didn’t manage to convince BOSTES to get the content right… but at least it’s formulated to put off anyone not bent on studying physics at uni, which is presumably a good thing.

The thing that bugs me most though are comments by Prof Simmons that the previous syllabus was “feminised” because it included essays and social contexts etc, and not enough mathematical rigour. Apparently we need to do hard things, and that includes mathematics, but not writing…

Having taught physics for many years at UNSW, USyd and ANU, I have had VERY few students who could write an essay (or in some cases even a sentence) as well as they could solve an equation. Simmons is an excellent physicist, but is a research-focussed academic with enough grant funding that teaching is something she doesn’t have to do.

When I was in 4th year physics at uni, there was a discussion about the gender problem in the department in the tea room, and the suggestion was made (by the only female staff member, later made redundant) that something should be done to encourage women to stay in physics. The head of department suggested that as long as we’re helping minorities like women, why don’t we let in stupid people as well? (How many things are wrong with that?) I guess that would be people who can write essays, and want to know what the point of physics is…

The system really hasn’t changed in 20 years, and comments like Prof Simmons’s are helping keep it the male-dominated domain that it is, and making it harder for young women to make their way in it. And not just young women, but anyone who thinks a bit differently. But maybe they’re just too stupid to do physics anyway…

I think I’ll go and reread my autographed copy of “They’re not dumb, they’re different” by Sheila Tobias, and then maybe post it to my colleagues at the Kenso campus.




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