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Man enough to study Physics? What do New South Wales Physics students say? August 7, 2017

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Secondary Education.
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by Jessy Abraham

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.

Are we hard wired for self reflection? October 21, 2012

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Early Childhood Education, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
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from Dr Carol Birrell, Social Ecologist.

The practice of self reflection has had considerable attention and application in educational pedagogies (Bengtsson, 1995)[1]. The teacher as a ‘reflective practitioner’ is a model that has informed many subject areas across interdisciplinary divides, as has related research on the role of empathy in education (Arnold, 2005)[2]. The area in which I teach and research, Social Ecology, sees a central role for self reflection, wherein a self referential perspective is crucial to an ecological and experiential understanding of life.

Likewise, developing empathic education is an important part of pre-service teachers’ education from a Social Ecological lens. To bring these aspects to bear on what goes on in the classroom, immediately provokes an engaged pedagogy- not only awareness of self within the classroom, but also awareness of others and the dynamics of the whole group.

Most people have some sort of an inner conscious process of which they are aware and a much greater unconscious level of mental activity which is below awareness. In the university classroom, it is my experience that it is generally females who are most at ease with learning and practising reflection as a pedagogical tool. It is more of a challenge to get male students involved.

Why would this be so? Brain research has highlighted the differences between males and females and the way they learn and experience the world differently (Hines, 2003)[3], but sometimes simple causal factors are implicated. Many girls from a young age keep personal diaries. Of course, this is a gendered stereotype, similar to the one that ‘girls love horses’ but there is a widespread recognition of the accuracy here of a leaning towards ‘dear Diary…’ as an important part of normal everyday life for females.

I have observed that females take to more easily, ‘like a duck to water’, the practice of introspection as a pedagogical tool, whereas many males have to be coaxed and encouraged to first of all recognize, then articulate what goes on in their inner process.

Recent brain research provides another take on this interesting area and highlights our still forming knowledge on what exactly is consciousness and how human consciousness may be alike or distinctive from other species. A recent edition of New Scientist (New Scientist 21 July, 2012) pinpoints an area of the brain that may be linked with our inner life, regardless of gender. There are distinctive neurons called VENs (Von Economo neurons) found in the frontal areas of the brain, far larger than typical neurons and with a different shape. There is evidence to suggest that VENs are part of our inner lives, with an important role in detecting emotions in self and others: ‘Both areas kick into action when we see socially relevant cues, be it a frowning face, a grimace of pain, or simply the voice of someone we love.

When a mother hears a baby crying, both regions respond strongly. They also light up when we experience such emotions as love, lust, anger and grief’. As such, they may be interpreted as functioning like a ‘social monitoring network’ (p33).

In Social Ecology, this is referred to as a feedback loop, common to all ecological systems, which then allows us to adjust our behaviour to the circumstances. The body and its sensations, responding unconsciously to those events that are deemed to be the most ‘pressing’, and working through these VENs, may be all enlisted to respond to changes. This suggests that VENs are a key to a ‘sense of self’, a sense of our own identity, as well as a means of assessing ‘a continually updated sense of “how I feel now” (p34)’.

As a classroom teacher, we need to be constantly alert to the changing dynamics of our class/classes and the learning ecology that emerges. Our inner experience, once recognized and reinforced through an ongoing practice of reflection, alerts us to the interchange, the shifting flux within self, within a student, between students, and between teachers and students in that environment. This is highly sophisticated and complex work. I, for one, am glad to know that some very sophisticated and complex neurons are there to help the process!

References:     [1] Bengtsson, J. 1995, Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, vo1,no1.     [2] Arnold, R. 2005, Empathic Intelligence, UNSW Press, Sydney, NSW.    [3] Hines, M. 2003, Brain Sex, Oxford UniversityPress, USA.

Carol Birrell is a Social Ecologist and Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. She teaches in the areas of learning and creativity and education for sustainability in our Education Studies Major, and also in our Master of Education (Social Ecology) program.

‘You go, girls’ and female role models in a post gender world? August 15, 2010

Posted by Editor21C in Education Policy and Politics, Social Justice and Equity through Education.
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From Dr Susanne Gannon

Here, Susanne Gannon reflects upon the significance of Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, for young women, and whether it has made any difference to the roles that our youth-oriented media play in constructing female gender identity.

The sudden ascendance of Julia Gillard as Australian PM in late June took most of us by surprise. Many women like me, who have worked for gender equity in education for some years, have been further surprised by the ambivalence of our feelings and of the complex community reactions to what should be a remarkable historical moment. While Australia was the second country in the world to give (most) women the vote in 1902, it took another 41 years until the middle of the second world war until women were elected at the Federal level in 1943, and 106 years from suffrage until we had our first female Prime Minister. Next weekend’s election will decide whether or not we will have our first elected female PM.

Many would say, particularly since the election was announced and media attention has mostly turned to polls (and even, on occasion, to policies), that gender is now irrelevant. In a post-feminist world, a world where ‘girls can do anything’ as our IWD slogans put it, or of ‘girl power’ as the magazines put it, personal success is shaped by each individual girl making the most of her opportunities. Some academics argue that this ‘individualising’ discourse, characteristic of neoliberalism, makes it more difficult to recognise the impact of social and institutional factors that impede girls’ success (see for example, new work by Jessica Ringrose in the UK). On the other hand, gendered role models – whether they are firemen who read books or women who become politicians, or electricians – are popularly seen as beneficial in their capacity to expand young people’s horizons.

In order to examine this complex context and how it is playing out, I’ve collected popular media texts directed at women and girls particularly in the three weeks between the Gillard ascendancy and the gazetting of the election. My archive includes all the major women’s and girls’ magazines, and some news articles. I’d love to hear directly from girls about their initial responses to the female PM but university research protocols mean that ethics procedures are too time consuming so for the moment I have kept my gaze to materials in the public domain. The article “You go, girls: Gillard’s rise to top hailed as an inspiration” in Sydney Morning Herald (June 28th) is one of few that focused on girls’ responses to Gillard. Whilst the headline, supplied by a subeditor, reinforces the new PM’s gender, the three girls interviewed simultaneously celebrate and dismiss this factor. Though Matilda sees this is a very significant event, she notes that she does not expect Gillard to do anything differently as PM and so “Gender is not an issue in that sense” and she stresses that “As an 18-year old female today, I have always believed that I can do anything my male counterparts can, and now I know that that really is true”. Lauren also notes that this merely reinforces what she already knew: “Julia Gillard being appointed Prime Minister hasn’t inspired me or allowed me to see the world in a new perspective. I suppose I felt like women were already equal to men here in the Western world… I already knew that a woman could be the prime minister of Australia. Aren’t you being sexist if you’re shocked or surprised that a woman has made it to that position?”  Finally, Rayan finds her immigrant origins at least as significant as her gender: “She is inspiring for young females from migrant backgrounds… whether you are a student, graduate or a mother then you can be a leader. It shows you can have lots of disadvantage but still get to the top. No matter where you come from, where your parents grew up, no matter the obstacles, we can get somewhere in life.”

Keen to see what they had to say, I had my newsagent put aside the new editions of Dolly and Girlfriend. The July edition of Girlfriend hit the stands after the ‘coup’ with an editorial focusing on ‘firsts’ and stories focusing on first kisses and first jobs. Nothing about firsts in the PM department, though plenty of ‘good news’ about the Australian tour of the teen stars of the newest Twilight movie. The August issue keeps its focus on who and what matters most in the teen celebrity world. The August Dolly, which landed next after the ascendance of Gillard, firmly ignored the JG factor as well, though in Dollyworld (wearing my truly fabulous free new headphone beanie) I learned a lot more about the hottest new boy stars on TV and readers’ secrets than I ever intended to. Meanwhile some of the women’s magazines were in a frenzy: promising us the “real Julia” (Who and New Idea) several weeks before she did, sending in the stylists (Grazia), and producing souvenir editions (New Idea, Women’s weekly). More on those later, and the contradictions embedded within those stories, as I wade my way through them. For the moment I feel like I’m oscillating between worlds.

The context for my interest in the Julia Gillard factor and in looking at gender and young people is a planned visit to Canada next month to develop a project on neoliberalism and girls with Marnina Gonick in Nova Scotia, an expert in the emerging field of ‘girl studies’, and Jo Lampert of QUT, Brisbane.  Both of these scholars will be visiting UWS in mid 2011 for a one-day seminar on this topic. Please email me directly if you’d like me to let you know the details.

Susanne Gannon is a prolific publisher on issues of gender and social equity, and also coordinates the Master of Education (Leadership) program at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.

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