The proposed Stage 6 Physics curriculum for New South Wales (NSW) has been lauded as a “return to science” and has been welcomed by science-education experts who regard the current curriculum as ‘soft’ and a ‘diluted’ version of physics (Robinson & Armitage, 2017).
In her 2017 Australia Day address, Professor Michelle Simmons criticised the “feminisation” of physics in NSW (Fitzpatrick, 2017). The use of the term feminisation refers to efforts whereby curriculum developers sought to make the current physics curriculum more appealing to girls by minimising rigorous mathematical problem-solving and replacing it with a qualitative approach. The new syllabus that will commence in 2018 will move away from this qualitative emphasis and the current ‘social-context’ approach to teaching physics and bring in a greater focus on content and quantitative rigour, including mandatory equation derivations and problem solving (Crook, 2017). Stronger emphasis will be given to learning scientific principles, theories and laws.
Topics with a descriptive nature, such as historical linkages and societal implications of scientific inventions will be largely eliminated (Physics Stage 6 Syllabus, 2017). While this has been applauded by critics of the current syllabus and University-based Physics educators, concerns about equity of access have also been raised. The concern is that an increase in quantitative rigour may perhaps lead to even sharper declines in physics enrolment numbers (Crook, 2017).
How valid are the perceived beliefs that the ‘dumbing down ‘of physics content by replacing mathematical focus with the life stories of scientists, historical development and societal impacts of their inventions, will appeal more to female students? Are male students naturally better at and inclined to problem solving, experiments and mathematical applications? Such perceptions exacerbate the ubiquitous gender stereotypes regarding the ‘masculinity’ of physics.
Results of my study conducted among 247 year 11 physics students (157 males and 90 females) from the Sydney metropolitan area did not support these claims. Male and female students who were continuing physics to Year 12 held high levels of interest value, performance perceptions and instrumental value (usefulness for personal career/study plans) in relation to physics, and there were no statistically significant differences for these values between the genders. Both genders displayed similar levels of high engagement with physics, and held low levels of stereotypes on the perceived masculinity of physics.
These observations were equally valid for students who were discontinuing physics, who possessed low levels of interest, performance perceptions and engagement with physics: they also held low stereotypical gender role beliefs. No significant gender differences were found. For the four modules in the current year 11 physics curriculum, in the majority of instances there were no consistent differences in how male and female students perceived the achievement motivational factors explored in the study.
When students were asked to rate various Year 11 physics topics based on their interest value, no significant gender difference was identified. Both genders indicated higher than average levels of interest in learning laws of physics, problem solving, experiments, relating to real life situations, contributions to humanity and the abstract nature of physics. However, regarding the much criticized topics such as ‘Lives of Scientists’ and ‘Historical Contexts of Inventions’, both genders displayed a marked lack of interest. This lack of interest was equally expressed by both genders.
Likewise, both genders described physics as “interesting, challenging, yet satisfying, and something that relates to everyday life” (male student, comprehensive school). Furthermore, participants’ qualitative responses tended to reinforce traditional views on the expected nature of physics. Students reported that they expected more mathematically oriented content, and ‘crazy calculations to experiments’ (female student, selective school) when they enrolled in senior secondary physics. Nevertheless, the enacted curriculum had ‘too much language orientation’ (male student, selective school). They wanted to see ‘less literacy, more scientific content’ (male student, comprehensive school). In relation to the historical and social contexts of inventions, and descriptive topics like The Cosmic Engine (a topic on Astrophysics), the majority found these ‘boring, dull and not useful’ (male student, Catholic school). Interestingly students gave a strong emphasis to the instrumental value of physics and tended to view the subject as a preparation course of STEM courses at university.
The results of my study support the argument that senior secondary physics students may prefer the content and quantitative analytical rigour proposed in the new curriculum and the removal of certain sections in the current curriculum. This endorses the changes prescribed in new Stage 6 Physics syllabus. However, the popular misconception that ‘dumbing-it-down- for- females’ might increase its attractiveness was not supported. Issues around whether the new syllabus may aggravate equity of access to physics will need to be examined once the implementation of the new syllabus begins.
Fitzpatrick, S (2017, January 24). Feminisation of science a disaster, leading quantum physicist Michelle Simmons says. Retrieved from http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/feminisation-of-science-a-disaster-leading-quantum-physicist-michelle-simmons-says/news-story/8a432da4bce81e4fb51d91da9bf7a98b
Crook, S (2017, February 22). New physics syllabus raises the bar, but how will schools clear it? Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/new-physics-syllabus-raises-the-bar-but-how-will-schools-clear-it-73370
NSW Syllabus for the Australian Curriculum. Physics Stage 6 Syllabus (2017) NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA). Retrieved from http://syllabus.nesa.nsw.edu.au/assets/physics_stage_6/physics-stage-6-syllabus-2017.pdf
Robinson, N & Armitage, R (2017, February 21). New South Wales HSC syllabus gets overhaul with more complex topic. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-21/nsw-hsc-syllabus-gets-radical-overhaul-year-12-teaching-changes/8288000
Dr Jessy Abraham is a lecturer in Primary science and technology curriculum in the School of Education at Western Sydney University, Australia.