Is Mass the same as Weight? Wales thinks so…

We have been following the changes happening in the Welsh Education landscape. First with the introduction of the Literacy and Numeracy Framework and now with the proposed new programmes of study for Maths and English that go up to KS4, we have noticed one thing that to many may seem innocuous, but is making purists cringe and shout in rage. In fact, both the Numeracy Framework and the Maths PoS seem to treat mass and weight as if they were the same thing, but are they? We’ll come back to that later, but first lets take a look at where we found these worrying statements.

First of all the ‘Element’ “Length, mass/weight, capacity” within the ‘Using measuring skills’ strand is present in both documents from the foundation phase to KS4. Writing “mass/weight” clearly shows the two terms are treated as equivalent from the outset in these documents. But digging deeper into these documents confirmed suspicions with skills statements like “weight/mass: use 5g, 10g and 100g weights” (LNF and Math PoS Yr3) and “use weighing scales with divisions to weigh objects to the nearest 5g, 10g, 25g or 100g” (LNF and Math PoS Yr4).

So, why does it matter? One physicist told us,

Quite simply because mass and weight are two very different physical quantities. Mass is an intrinsic property of anything made of matter and a quantity associated to an object that doesn’t change no matter where in the universe that object is. Weight, however, is a force generated by the gravitational pull of a planet on an object near its surface, so 1 kg on earth is the same kilogram on the moon, but its weight would be only about 1.6 newton on the moon, i.e. much less than the nearly 10 N weight the same 1 kg mass would have on the surface of the earth.

This very important distinction is thoroughly assessed in GCSE Physics exams, but in Wales they seem to be happy to introduce this common misconception early on and expect science teachers to deal with it later instead of nipping it on the bud from early years.

Not all teachers have an A-level in Physics and it is certainly not reasonable to expect them to be able to appreciate the difference between mass and weight. Using sentences like the ones quoted and suggesting an equivalence between mass and weight by using mass/weight in official education documents can only show that the authors of these documents don’t really understand the important difference between mass and weight and, even more worryingly, that insufficient research and consultation was done when these documents were written. Such a misconception can be transmitted to pupils, who will carry this misunderstanding through into their own learning.

According to the Learning Wales website “The National Literacy and Numeracy Framework (LNF) has been developed to help achieve our aim that the children of Wales are able to develop excellent literacy and numeracy skills during their time at school”, but to us introducing misconceptions doesn’t seem a really effective way of achieving that.

We approached Learning Wales for comment, but have declined to reply.

Teachers, across the UK, have been helping to clarify the difference between the two all morning…


Exclusive article: (c) UKEdChat, 2014

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About UKEdChat Editorial 3188 Articles
The Editorial Account of UKEdChat, managed by editor-in-chief Colin Hill, with support from Martin Burrett from the UKEd Magazine. Pedagogy, Resources, Community.

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