Silleebus changez

The HSC syllabus is changing in 2018 to better prepare students for university. It will, in short, focus more on maths, science and the structure of language. In other words, students will be taught numeracy and literacy. Radical. More physics, less basketweaving.

My prima facie reading of this news story makes me sing for joy – I’ve long thought that secondary education focusses too closely on how to make a triumphant grated cheese salad or the complex plot developments of Home and Away. In this vein, the news story informs us that the existing physics syllabus invites essays detailing the achievements of famous physicists, rather than learning the physics itself. This is journalism gold; Back in my day we learned maths etc., etc.,

It’s also where I grow suspicious. You see, this story appeared on the ABC. I’ve been noticing a slightly more government-friendly editorial bent on Aunty of late. Is simply copying a biography of a famous physicist off Wikipedia really enough to pass year 12 physics?

I guess it depends on how you define biography. Understanding the discovery of a physical principal, and then figuring out how to measure and predict it, is the basis of physics. Following someone else’s footsteps through this process could be useful – a student’s own journey of discovery. If however, the biography is a florrid herstory of thwarted potential and alarming burns then I can see where we fall off the rails. Don’t get me wrong, the history and philosophy of science certainly can and does include deep scientific understanding. Equally, however, there are sociological accounts that do not. I’d be interested to know exactly what the ‘old’ syllabus contained.

What I find particularly heartening about these HSC changes is the inclusion of statistics, and a refocusing on the basic mathematics that underpins simple equations. Recently I was quite surprised to learn that statistics is almost completely absent from year 12 maths. It may not be as sexy as calculus or other ‘obvious’ STEM subjects, but in fact it is the basis of much research – in physics and engineering, but also in the popular vocational areas of data-fiddling and medicine. It also assists with avoiding blatantly stupid follies ranging from homeopathy to pokie addiction. Bring it on.

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