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Error carried forward: why we need to be vigilant even about textbooks

24 Feb 2022
Taken from the February 2022 issue of Physics World where it first appeared under the headline "Error carried forward". Members of the Institute of Physics can enjoy the full issue via the Physics World app.

David Marshall on finding errors in school science syllabuses and exam papers

a page of maths and a broken pencil
(Courtesy: iStock/malerapaso)

A question in a Year 9 exam paper for 13–14 year olds states that a scientist places a plotting compass next to a current-carrying coil with a soft iron core in it and notices a deflection. The core is removed; the deflection stops. The student must explain why.

The real answer is that whoever wrote the question never did the experiment, and hopefully wasn’t a physicist. Neither provenance nor author for the paper could be found. Well, these things just turn up. An information sheet also says that naughty old Copernicus had been detained because of his belief in a Sun-centred solar system. Not Galileo Galilei then? Never mind. We scientists spotted it, we talked about it, it was corrected.

Move forward a few years: a shiny new textbook for a new AQA AS-level physics course. Calculation questions and answers: one wrong, two wrong – just a blip, surely? 10 wrong, 15 wrong – best to let the publisher know. A groan down the phone from Nelson Thornes: “You haven’t found loads of mistakes have you?” Well, one or two and a factual error about particle decay. “Can you send a list to us?” To their credit, the publisher sends out a list of errata quickly plus a correction concerning the particle problem. All’s well in science teaching again.

One wrong, two wrong – just a blip, surely? 10 wrong, 15 wrong – best to let the publisher know

The same curriculum: an exam practical. Students lift one end of a water-filled tray to measure a water wave in it. In the paper, they’re asked what might affect the measurements. Seven write “the height the tray is dropped from”. The marking scheme indicates no mark for that. I ring the local AQA branch, curious to hear the justification. The representative makes statements mirroring my argument for awarding the mark, but says that the committee agreed that the mark shouldn’t be awarded. Confused – and not alone – I append a letter to the marked papers opining that the pupils’ answers were correct. The good people of AQA have a change of heart and award the mark. Once again, we scientists spotted it, we spoke about it, it was corrected.

2020: we are presented with samples of a new primary-school curriculum, developed by an academy in Surrey. It is “a fully resourced, intelligently sequenced, knowledge-rich curriculum, informed by the best research evidence available…written exclusively by practising classroom teachers, assisted by subject experts, academics, senior leaders and leading educationalists”. Wow.

“What do you think?” we’re asked.

“Colourful” and “engaging”, some say. But I’ve been here before – I won’t praise this one prematurely.

Three weeks later, we try it out. My seven-year-old pupils read aloud that the Earth’s mantle is liquid rock. “Er. No, that’s a mistake,” I tell them. I let them read on. Another mistake. Wiechert and Gutenberg are positively spinning in their graves. Plan B. There’s a BBC Bitesize link too – the mistake is included there. I let my school know. Little happens.

I watch the curriculum developers in a recorded webinar describing their rationale. I’m told the authors “leaned on” their secondary colleagues’ expertise and primary teachers are not specialists but “generalists”. After this downer I look through the science materials; the downer becomes a headlong plummet.

Among errors in English, I read that light “bounces”. I also read that Mars has no atmosphere, comets are both large space rocks and dusty balls of ice and that Copernicus (back again) published his heliocentric universe theory on his deathbed because of the pesky Catholic authorities. My review isn’t positive.

The headteacher asks if I can let him know what errors I’ve found so he can pass them on. I’ve pointed out some, but how much time have we got? I’m not paid for this – presumably the academy is.

In the same academic year, I find further items that appear to have been copied and pasted from American websites. I let our school trust’s director of education – an Ofsted inspector – know of the issues by e-mail. No reply from him. We teachers are asked to comment on the school’s curriculum. One must be honest, though I do see some mistakes have been corrected, such as imperial units replaced by metric ones.

We’re then told that Pearson has “bought” the curriculum, for geography and history at least. Their web-bumf says they’ve been working behind the scenes with the academy in Surrey. Surely Pearson will listen? Nelson Thornes and AQA did. A person called Jhon says “Hello there. We fear we are unable to provide a direct contact yet” and offers a marketing link I’ve read before. I tell him I’ve pointed out mistakes going back over a year, that they’re still there and I want to tell someone directly. Someone from customer services says “We need some more information: please can you let me know your school and its complete address?” Been here before, too. I say no, explaining how long the process has taken.

So, we scientists spotted it, made little progress for a year and a half, and expect that for many UK pupils taught in 2020–2021, the mantle is liquid, light is bouncy and Mars has no atmosphere. Poor Copernicus’s reputation trashed, too.

But what’s this? An e-mail from Alicia, senior curriculum manager for primary content at Pearson. I detail several errors. She replies “Your current materials are supplied by the academy. We will be taking over from them soon. I will make sure that our team is aware of these points so that no errors are carried forward.” Pearson to the rescue. Perhaps, soon, all will be well in science teaching again.

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