Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Teaching "Science"

A very interesting article from The Independent about teaching physics in UK's high schools, especially at the A-level. It describe how, if you're a physics teacher, you are lumped into a more general specialization called "Science". Thus, you might be asked to also teach a biology and chemistry (but not mathematics) as a second subject, something many physics specialists may have very little interest (or knowledge) in.

The shortage of specialists may partly be because they’re forced to generalise. Prospective physics teachers also have to learn how to teach one of the other disciplines that come under the catch-all umbrella of “science”.

It was with laudable aims, including increasing uptake at A-level, that this one subject was formed out of three separate areas more than 20 years ago – but it had this unintended consequence, too. “Both schools and teacher-trainers were thinking in terms of a subject called ‘science’,” explains the Institute of Physics’ director of education and science, Peter Main. “So if you wanted to teach physics, you were a science teacher.” 

It can lead to subjects being taught by, essentially, the wrong teacher even where there is a specialist available. “There is this paradoxical situation where in some schools you’ve got physics specialists teaching biology, and in the same school you’ll have biology specialists teaching physics,” adds the institute’s head of pre-19 education Charles Tracy, a former physics teacher. “It’s often just slackness in timetabling, where it’s easier to say there’s a subject called ‘science’ and it doesn’t matter who teaches it, rather than trying to allocate specialists to teach their topics.”
They are trying to address this by initiating a program where a physics teacher can also specialize in mathematics and teach mathematics. This make a lot more sense, because a physics teacher should have quite a bit of mathematics skill and knowledge to be able to teach that subject at the A-level. Certainly, the physics specialist would not be so adverse to teaching mathematics, something more familiar to him or her than chemistry or biology.

It would be interesting to see if this is the same situation with teaching in US high schools. How many physics teachers have to teach other science subjects, just because he/she has been tagged with a "science teacher" label? Are you a science teacher having to teach a science topic that you did not specialize in?



MFamulare said...

I can give you a few anecdotes from New York City. I'm finishing a physics PhD now but I was a high school physics teacher before that.

First, nothing was as official-sounding as the UK situation you describe, but I believe this kind of forced cross-disciplinary despite lack of expertise thing is common in the US. It certainly was in NYC circa 2004.

New York State certification is subject specific at the secondary school level. I was officially certified as a grades 7-12 Physics teacher. The letter of the law as I understood it was that teaching outside of the certification without additional qualifications (x number of credits, secondary cert) was in violation of state standards.

I student-taught at a small public school that only offered physics once a day so they couldn't justify a physics specialist. The guy who taught the class was an excellent biology teacher, but he knew little physics and felt awful about the situation. The crazy thing was he was my training "mentor" because there were no official "Master Teachers" in NYC at the time with physics certification. Which is ridiculous, but it was that way because physics is not required for graduation and so there's a lot less infrastructure for support. By November, I was teaching every class even though I was a student teacher.

From my experience as a private tutor, that situation was fairly common (minus the student teacher). Smaller schools typically cannot offer 5 periods of physics to allow them to hire a specialist. Sadly, the more common choice is to not offer physics at all if that's the case. Otherwise, someone has to teach it regardless of their specialty, and the Department of Education looks the other way.

I almost took my first job at a particularly, achem, famous, achem, performing arts high school. This was a fairly large school (2400 students). I would have had split my teaching load between physics and chemistry, despite having no real background in chemistry. The issue here was that enrollment fluctuates slightly from year to year. There was an excess of 10th grade, requiring two extra chemistry classes.

That's the typical situation in larger schools when the issue comes up. One teacher ends up "on the bubble" because of the demographics.

You'll notice that, as in the UK article, I don't mention physics teachers crossing over to math. In public schools, I never saw that happen because the math and science departments are separate administrative entities with separate Assistant Principals (at the larger schools), support staff, and faculty meetings. It's bureaucratically impossible.

In the private schools, it's fairly common to have a math teacher running a physics classroom (although, sadly, the reverse is rare). Again, this is because of the school size and the number of periods in the day they can offer physics. Sadly, the number of students I tutored who were led to believe that kinematics involves 50 equations, where the ones with the -g and the y are different than the ones with a and the x.....

Despite all of the above, I personally got lucky. I landed a job at a large math and science school and got to teach physics full time. It was great. I only left because I knew I wasn't done with my own education and wasn't ready to do "the same thing" for 40 years yet.

And thanks for your blog. I've never commented before, but I've been reading for years and have consistently felt enriched by your writing on undergrad education and the life cycle of the professional scientist.

ZapperZ said...

Wow! Thanks very much for your comment. I appreciate hearing first-hand information "from the trenches", so to speak.

I also suspected that in many schools, the bureaucratic mess in having a someone teaching both math and physics would be hard to overcome. The people who decided on school policies, etc. have no clue on the fact that math-physics is closer to each other than physics-chemistry and physics-biology. As mentioned in the article, they are all lumped as "Science".

As some point, somebody needs to wake up and smell reality. I can understand not having the resources to have a specialist in each of the field. But to not make the most efficient and effective use of what you already have simply compounds the problem even more. They could hire ONE person, and that person could tackle both math and physics courses, and I would think, solve a lot of their manpower issues. Hire another person to do chemistry-biology, which has more in common with each other at this level.

The problem isn't difficult to solve. It just requires someone with some insight to solve it.


gx304 said...

This suggestion is very close to the reality in Germany. In schools leading to an university qualifying exam (Gymnasium), teachers have a qualification comparable to a master's degree. The most typical combinations for science teachers are maths/physics and chemistry/biology (sometimes also combined with geography). But then, thankfully these subjects are taught separately (I had physics from year 7 until 13, chemistry from 9-13, and biology 5-13). There's a trend now towards more interdisciplinarity, but thankfully so far subject specific courses seem safe and the qualification of teachers is very high (e.g., one of my former PhD students, who has done a very good thesis on black hole astrophysics, is now a school teacher; such carreer choices are something that is fairly common in Germany).