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Less 'drudgery', more 'glamour': Stephen Hawking's successor demands changes to formula for maths and physics teaching

News | Published in TES Newspaper on 25 March, 2011 | By: Stephen Exley

The "drudgery" and "boredom" of learning basic maths and physics is turning a generation of school pupils off the subjects, according to one of the word's leading scientists.

String theory pioneer Professor Michael Green is calling for a new national curriculum that attracts pupils with the "glamorous" side of science.

Professor Green, who in 2009 took over from Stephen Hawking as Cambridge University's Lucasian professor of mathematics - dubbed the most famous academic chair in the world - also wants better teacher training to improve the standing of the profession.

He told The TES: "We need to find some way of constructing a curriculum which appeals to kids, and to get teachers trained properly.

"By and large, if you get a good physics degree, you will not become a teacher, unless you have a particular urge. It's not a high-status job. If it were, it would change the nature of what it's like in the classroom."

Professor Green - one of the founders of string theory, a complex theory of particle physics - described primary school maths as "tedious" and "something you have to get through".

"You can't imagine (maths') beautiful elegance and way of describing the world at that stage," he said. "When (pupils) go to school and choose maths, they don't know enough about the subject and the way it developed. Some of them don't want to know.

"I never understand why anyone wants to do maths, having been exposed to it before the age of 10 - the drudgery they are exposed to. It's difficult. I see it with maths, and there's a real problem with physics, to convince (pupils) that science isn't geeky, especially girls."

Teaching the basic principles of physics is "fairly boring", Professor Green admitted. "That can't be changed, but it could somehow be presented differently. People could be made more aware of the glamorous side of physics, the nature of the universe."

Guest speakers should also be encouraged to visit schools more often to bring the subject to life, he added. "If I had to find a way of teaching which would keep them interested at that level, it would be very, very difficult. Teaching a whole course about basic things in maths without (the pupils) losing interest completely is a challenge. I'm finding that with my daughter."

Students should study a broader range of subjects beyond GCSE, Professor Green argues, to keep their future career options open.

"One of the extraordinary things in the British system is that you can drop subjects almost as soon as you start," he said. "We drop subjects en masse after GCSE. I have always felt that is absurd."

Professor Green described the A-level system as "failing, in a sense", due to "grade inflation" making it difficult for universities to identify the strongest students. But he gave his backing to the Government's English Baccalaureate benchmark of academic rigour.

The EBac is awarded to students who obtain good GCSEs or IGCSE in English language, maths, two sciences, a foreign language and history or geography.

"I think it is quite sensible to make that a minimum requirement. I personally think it's a fantastic idea," Professor Green said.

Annette Smith, chief executive of the Association for Science Education, said: "I sincerely hope the national curriculum will be made smaller so teachers have more freedom to make science more exciting and interesting. We do need better training so that scientists are better prepared for the classroom."

'Maths will be tougher under new curriculum', page 20

MICHAEL GREEN CV

Born: 1946

1957-1964: William Ellis School, London

1964-1970: Churchill College, Cambridge; a first in theoretical physics, followed by a PhD in elementary particle theory

1970-1978: Postdoctoral research at Princeton, Cambridge and Oxford universities

1978-1993: Lecturer and professor at Queen Mary, University of London

1993-present: Cambridge University: 1993, John Humphrey Plummer professor of theoretical physics; 2009, Lucasian professor of mathematics.


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Comment (4)

  • Dear Prof. Michael Green,
    I agree with you in most of the points in your above story. So I suggest you to see some of my comments on the Physics World, UK, listed below.
    1) My comment of 08 February 2010, http://physicsworld.com/blog/2010/02/is_uk_school_physics_suffering.html
    2) My comment, 29 June 2010, Newton's thinking at 60+, http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/43054
    3) My comment of 13 September 2010, http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6057597
    4) My comment of 03 March 2011, Pseudo-Foucault pendulum, http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/multimedia/45277

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    12:50
    25 March, 2011

    Dileep_Sathe

  • Quote: "We need to find some way of constructing a curriculum which appeals to kids, and to get teachers trained properly.''

    I have no doubt that Professor Michael Green is an expert in String Theory but when EXACTLY did he become an expert in secondary education? I presume he has some EVIDENCE on which to base this 'theory' of his or at least run his ideas past other experts in the fields on Maths Education or Initial Teacher Education. To put this in perspective Professor Michael Green would be rather upset if a religious creationist wrote an article saying string theorists had got it all wrong, there was no anomaly cancellation in type I string theory and the Green–Schwarz mechanism didn't exist, saying they needed to be TRAINED PROPERLY in rope theory; can Prof Green not see that those who actually work in the fields of Maths Education &/or Initial Teacher Education may see his uninformed opinion as of little value?

    Quote: 'Professor Green described the A-level system as "failing, in a sense", due to "grade inflation" making it difficult for universities to identify the strongest students. But he gave his backing to the Government's English Baccalaureate benchmark of academic rigour.'

    Firstly he has sold his 'soul' to the Devil known as Gove and secondly could he offer the evidence on ''grade inflation'' for scutiny by those who see improved examination systems & are willing to trade evidence with him. Am I the only person who gets fed up with Gove'itis; a disease of the mind which renders anyone an instant expert in fields they know nothing about?

    Quote: 'Teaching the basic principles of physics is "fairly boring", Professor Green admitted.'

    That just about sums this up. Professor Green doesn't 'get' teaching at all. Like Gove he views knowledge in terms of hard or soft, boring or not boring. If Professor Green is a boring person then I can't alter that but I can assure him that there are many teachers in this country who aren't boring people. They can take a subject which Professor Green finds 'boring' and teach it in the most unboring way. There are many teachers in this country who understand teaching and the first thing we understand is: It isn't ABOUT the subject knowledge.

    Quote: 'Professor Green, who in 2009 took over from Stephen Hawking as Cambridge University's Lucasian professor of mathematics - dubbed the most famous academic chair in the world - also wants better teacher training to improve the standing of the profession.'

    Given that Professor Stephen Hawking was a REAL professor doing REAL research into things he didn't just make up. As a representative of the community of Initial Teacher Educators I want better training for holders of the Lucasian professor of mathematics title; I don't want Gove-clones!

    Quote: "I never understand why anyone wants to do maths, having been exposed to it before the age of 10 - the drudgery they are exposed to. It's difficult. I see it with maths, and there's a real problem with physics, to convince (pupils) that science isn't geeky, especially girls."

    Sexist as well as limited in outlook as well as easily led (by Gove) as well as an instant expert!!!!! Why doesn't he just point out that ethnic people have natural rhythm and go for a triple whammy? By some strange chance is Professor Michael Green located somewhere on the Asperger's scale?

    Next Gove will wheel out Ann Widdecombe to help with RE lessons, the pope to teach sex-education and Michael Winner to help with discipline by repeating 'behave yourself!'

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    17:01
    28 March, 2011

    Brooke Bond

  • Quote: 'Guest speakers should also be encouraged to visit schools more often to bring the subject to life, he added. "If I had to find a way of teaching which would keep them interested at that level, it would be very, very difficult. Teaching a whole course about basic things in maths without (the pupils) losing interest completely is a challenge. I'm finding that with my daughter."

    Guest speakers who can engage kids rather than talk at them are few & far between & are not, in my experience of maths, the way forward. Too often guest speakers 'show off'.

    Just because Prof Green can't explain basic maths idea to his own daiughter doesn't mean that the maths teahing profession can't. I'm still astounded at the ridiculous nature of this article.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    16:18
    30 March, 2011

    Brooke Bond

  • Non-constructive criticism from an intensely theoretical physicist trapped in the Cambridge bubble, no doubt.

    How do other countries succeed in producing large numbers of talented physicists (and scientists and mathematicians)? By lauding their talents, paying them respect and applauding the contribution they make to society. How do we treat physicists? We call them eggheads, cut their funding and tell them they don't know how to teach (and what they do teach is boring).

    What sort of message is the Lucasian professor of mathematics giving when he tells the world that the fundamentals of his subject are boring???

    Prof Green - say something positive about physics and physicists!

    Physics is brilliant!

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    21:15
    31 March, 2011

    alatinpunkcircle

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