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Dumbing Down....or Smartening Up?

I'm always interested in the arguments about whether or not a syllabus is being dumbed down. I don't think there's any argument that the Leaving Cert physics syllabus covers less technical detail now than it used to. But that's not really the same thing as saying that students are covering less technical detail than they used to. And its the distinction between those two points that makes the conversation interesting.

I was prompted to think of this when somebody put up a link to this site on the sharing science group - which makes it easier to access this data-base. Which has compiled all of the STEM-based state exam papers going back to 1925. And I used it to find the exam paper I would have sat when I did Leaving Cert Physics in 1983, asking myself the question: is a 2022 student facing a dumbed-down exam compared to my gang back in the 80s?

There were certainly some challenging questions back then. Students were asked, for example, to derive an expression for the pressure of a gas from the kinetic theory equation. And there's a bit about polarisation in Daniell and Lechanché cells. And there's one about the earth's magnetic flux density and the angle of the dip. All of these would inarguably be beyond even the best -prepared student in 2022, and that would seem to support the idea that the course has been dumbed down.

But that's really only a valid point if a decent proportion of students could answer those question in 1983 - and I think that's the part of the discussion that can get forgotten. Because I'm pretty sure that most of those very technical questions were either ignored by the vast bulk of students in the 80s, or answers were simply written down as learned off by heart, with little understanding. (I think I was in the former group). Overall, looking back on a few papers from the 80s. I would say there was more technical detail requested of the student - but that there was less problem solving and therefore less understanding required. So, is that dumbing-down, or smartening up?

Having said all that, there were one or two interesting problems thrown in there, like the one pictured above. Which I've just put in front of a 5th year class to see how they would get on with it.

Initially, it was a disaster. Nobody was making any progress. There was a lot of squinting and frowning, and staring into space in bewilderment. It would have been tempting to smile knowingly and tell them they they wouldn't have been able to cut it back in the day.... but when I clarified the diagram, and tied it in a bit better with the information in the question, things improved and, inside 10 minutes, about half of them had it figured out. Which I think speaks quite well of the class of 2022, or 2023. And if dumbing down means presenting students with better diagrams and more clearly expressed questions, I'm all for it!

This is my solution, for what its worth....

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