Monday, 15 December 2014

GCSE without any practical assessment

I feel like a massive hypocrite. I wasn't unhappy about the introduction of the idea of 12 core practical skills into A-level that would only be assessed as pass/fail. I thought that it would allow more freedom to teachers regarding practical work. Although I qualify that, as I did also say that really it would have been better to go back to the free practical project that we had pre-2008. It was the change to controlled assessment that killed practical in A-level.

If I was a university I would want to see the log book of the student, I would insist that the student 'pass' the practical part to get in. (What about a student who doesn't pass, but gets an A? I would want to know why, poor teaching, illness extreme lack of organisation or laziness or maybe an impairment of the student or teacher absence. I think this situation would be rare). The pass/fail and log book of the practical work could actually help keep teachers honest about the experiences of the students. As I say particularly if universities may ask to see it.

I also reckon that if a student can answer an A-level question working out how to calculate the emf induced across an aeroplane wing or workout whether a circuit with a particular capacitor could crate a vibration quickly enough to produce a sound of a certain pitch, then they can probably read a thermometer, use a stop watch and even a micrometer and oscilloscope.

However, things are different at GCSE. At GCSE it isn't (always) about the child, the headline figures are more important. Assessment drives teaching and floor targets drive teachers to the limit. Why are teachers going to bust a  gut sorting the practical investigation skills of GCSE students when it doesn't make any contribution to the final grade? If we were gaming the system before then we sure as hell will be now.

Example tasks from A-level physics "Use a stop watch or light gate for timing", "Correctly construct circuits from circuit diagrams". Firstly, how many schools have enough equipment for everyone to be able to do this independently? If anyone at Ofqual (or anywhere else) thinks that this is suddenly going to make heads who are cutting back on staff and fixing holes in roofs to increase the science department capitation they are living in cloud cuckoo land. So how can even the most honest of teachers realistically say that a student can construct a circuit when it is likely they will work in pairs? What about those two students who have messed around during the lesson and clipped crocodile clips onto each others blazers? What about the under pressure NQT who can't get a class to be quiet to explain what to do? What about the student who is off and misses a practical? What about the students who ask 'what is the point of this'? 'will anyone care if I fail'? (Only the deputy head). What about the student who has to work with the weaker student and therefore does all the work? What about the student who copies the person they are working with? What about the students who point blank refuses?

More over what about the student who takes another piece of work to 'copy up'? What about the lost lab books? What about the teacher who fills folders with blank pieces of paper and claims they have done what they should have (Yes, I have come across this teacher), what about the teacher who is really struggling with workload and struggling to be organised? What happens when a teacher falls ill? What happens to the class that has the list of supply teachers? What happens when the technician fails to supply the right chemicals so the experiment does not work? What happens when the department runs out of money and can't afford to do a particular practical? What happens when teacher illness means there is restricted time for practical? How will the head of department track all the work? Will it be possible to mark this work formatively and allow students a second chance - it doesn't sound that way at A-level.

Are schools really going to take it seriously when in reality no one is checking? Can-do tasks anyone? I know from examiners that students got 24/24 in can-do tasks and 0 for science in the news, how likely is that really?

The current system doesn't create that same level of issues if classes are shared. The controlled assessment is a team effort, it does not need to fall entirely on the shoulders of one member of staff unless it is designed that way (Triple science). To my my mind the new suggestion adds to work load with no added benefit for students. One year GCSE courses mean that all the core science coursework has to be completed at the end of year 10, it is less likely to walk.

I really think that the administrative burden of controlled assessment and lab books needs to be considered.

However, I am not advocating that we keep the controlled assessment. And unlike A-levels I am not even suggesting that we return to the circumstances of the previous specification. That had massive issues too. It all did. Encouraging a wider range of practical activities is a good thing, although I do wonder if there really will be a wider range of practical activities or if resistance of a wire and sodium thiosulphate will once again be the staple of all science investigations.

I would suggest one of two things. Either we scrap the idea of assessing the practical aspect of practical work, or we accept that students can get a high score in it.

To understand the next part you have to realise that the GCSE specification that I follow has statements divided into low, medium and high demand.

I went to a session run by the examiner for the controlled assessment of our GCSE, He talked about areas that he would expect students to score highly in, risk assessment and drawing tables for example. I would agree with him - some areas are easier than others. In exam some questions are easier than others - you only need to read the examiners report to see the questions described by how many students were able to answer them.

Why can't it be the case that students do better in areas of practical work than aspect of the exam. There is a lot more to remember for the exam and you complete the exam in one go. Students can have their controlled assessment broken down skill by skill to ensure they are comfortable with it. I know what is in the controlled assessment, I can teach to the test so to speak. We can do similar practicals before hand and I have certainly developed teaching activities that train my students to automatically hit 5/8 sections within the controlled assessment with ease.

Why can't practical work be low demand work? Why does the spread of marks have to be the same as an exam - it isn't the same thing.

This is especially true now that we have terminal examinations. Students don't need to get a grade or UMS score for each exam/module. Totals can be considered instead. These totals can then be spread over the percentage of each grade ofqual decide they want to give out.

So what does this mean would I do? I would have a number of experiments (15, 18, 21 as it can be divided by 3!) and from that students would submit 9 tables of results or simple observations/conclusions. From them the teacher would judge the level of competence with the equipment given, the score would be 1, 2, or 3 depending on the quality of the results and the experiment.

The UMS marks of this would contribute 10% - why 10%? Because that would be a grade, it could not be ignored, yet it would not make that much difference overall.

I would still include references to experiments in the exam, thereby making it necessary to complete all the experiments. Or at least, to make a persuasive case to management for practical equipment. I actually think that it would be possible to complete an exam on practical work without ever doing the practical work. I think that there is evidence to back this up - schools used to give the back up data to who cohorts in the 2006 specifications and students would still do alright in their controlled assessments.

We need to decide if practical work is important to science in the UK. And we need to do it urgently. If we think that it is then we need to think about the way that our accountability system, how our financing of practical work and how our pedagogical approaches support it.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Review of Activate Scheme of Work

I have been meaning to review Activate for some time now. I felt like it was a big leap of faith to buy into the scheme and I wasn't entirely sure I was doing the right thing. At first glance he scheme seemed very worksheet heavy, I was disappointed that the presentations are online and in a form that I cannot edit easily and the scheme seems to go at a tremendous pace. However, I am very pleased I did choose it.

So far we have taught cells, particles and forces.

I have taught almost every lesson as per the scheme work. I have used the presentations and been happy with them. I have used the worksheets and found them well thought out and constructed - although 3 worksheets for one experiment does always seem excessive and my students' books are getting fat. My technician doesn't seem to have any issues with the teacher/technician notes.

Some of the activities are imaginative and the questions make the students think. I am pleased with the way the scheme has developed the graphing skills of the students, giving scaffold and slowing removing it part by part. It was useful to help me assess the level of my students without over complicating things in the first place.

I have watched two videos that are made for the scheme and I think they are really good. I like the way they sum up what they are trying to get across at the end of the clip. They are short and to the point, which I like too.

I have used the online tests with my students and there are mixed reviews from the girls. They have had a bad experience with Geography not working well so are not so keen to do all the tests I set for Science. The tests are hard, however they do help to focus the learning of the girls onto the key points and highlight correct use of vocabulary. They also cover all areas, so I am finding it important to closely cover the scheme of work so that the girls can access the tests.

The girls are not using their access to the online textbook as much as I would like. I don't use textbooks much, so it is probably my influence. The internet connection at school isn't great so the slowness of the response also means that we don't use the online book. However, I do think it is preferable to them carrying a big textbook around and when BT do (eventually) connect the fibre optic cable - maybe that should be 'if' - I think that we will start to use the book more. What I do find disappointing is that the resources for each lesson/double page spread are not associated easily with the corresponding page of the textbook. This means that students can't easily find the presentation to follow on their own device. They have to search through menus of resources. I think this is something OUP should work on. I would love for the girls to be able to do some of the interactive tasks themselves rather than wait their turn to use the computer.

The proof will be in the understanding the girls have when they reach GCSE. I want more students to be confident and want to choose triple science. Even after two and a bit years I have not managed to crack this. Perhaps I never will, but it is an aspiration.

I should add as a note that I was observed teaching one of the lessons, and I stuck to the scheme of work. I was able to get it to fit to the 5Es without any struggle and the Head was very happy with the lesson. (Outstanding).

I look forward to continuing with the scheme and developing its use within the department.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Conferences on a Saturday

On Saturday 15th November the ASE West committee (I am the chair) ran their half-day science conference at Bath Spa University.

An excellent conference, if I do say so myself. I am proud that we held it on a Saturday and I proud that we were able to make it free to members and only £10 to everyone else.

Around the same time OldAndrew was having an outburst about Wellington College moving their Festival of Education wholly into the week. I can see both sides of the argument.

From Wellington College's point of view I know that it is easier to get speakers and attendance is higher during the week. Despite what Andrew and others might feel there are a lot of teachers out there who will not give up their own time for conferences and other CPD. A lot. The ASE conference is not well as attended when it falls in the holidays from time to time, for example.

However, we need events to be held on Saturdays and in holidays.

If you are restricted in the CPD you can have access to at school then you need another avenue. I have certainly been in this situation. SLT favourites able to go to courses and feedback at Thursday evening sessions you have the 'option' to attend. In house CPD thought to be all you need, because it is important to stick to the ethos of the academy, which is sufficient apparently. I don't want my CPD to be restricted by an agenda that I am not consulted on.

I don't really have the answer though. If the motivation is to reach more people and therefore earn more money then the needs of those teachers who want to search for their own CPD in their own time, with their own money, are not a priority.

To teachers: if you are reading this and thinking "I won't be allowed to go, it is during a school day", ASK. Ask and you might be surprised. I have been and continue to be. I have been able to go to the ASE conference for the last three years and I am going again this year. But if I had not asked then no one was going to offer.

To conference organisers: please do consider those of us who are coming to your event independent of our school What we gain will be fed back into the system and the fact that we came at the weekend probably makes it more valuable to us. If you can afford it please think about your potential audience, their budget, location and time.

To Andrew: sorry, I won't be signing your petition Wellington College have a point if their intention is to have more visitors.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

What Does an ICT Savvy Student Look Like?

I need to start thinking about where I am going regarding the use of ICT in my classroom and not just about solving the issues in front of me. Within science education I feel that I have moral purpose and understand the place of my subject within the curriculum. But what about the other parts of my job; the pastoral side and (prominent for me at the moment) the ICT side.

As I have said before our school have asked the students to each bring their own iPad to school. There are a few students who haven't, but they usually do have devices of some sort. As predicted by a lot of the articles about BYOD that I have read there is some issues over the level of use of the devices within lesson. I agree that as a parent I would be concerned if my child had a £400 device and was not using it effectively. But what does using it effectively mean?

When the scheme was first announced by the chair of governors at a speech day he spoke about 'skills for life'. Our Saturday lesson programme has been transformed for key stage 3 into PHSE lesson taught by the pastoral staff in the hope it will give them skills and knowledge for life. The iPad 1-2-1 scheme is also supposed to give the students the 'skills for life' in an increasingly technological world.

I actually like this idea better than introducing iPads to improve learning. I read all the time that there is no evidence that ICT will make much different to the learning. For many members of staff incorporating ICT into lessons is going to be a stretch. On top of all the curriculum change embracing new technologies and creating the resources to go with them is going to be a lot to ask.

For me technology is a great way to keep myself organised and I hope that the students will pick this up too.

So what does a tech savvy student look like?

I did some research about the use of ICT in business. The vast majority seem have stories about the transformation of their business by being able to reach customers better. The others seem to say that by designing an app helped communication within the company. That didn't seem to apply to the students.

Instead I wrote the following aims: students live in an increasingly technological world, where businesses, organisations and individuals are using advances in ICT to communicate, collaborate and organise. Students need to be aware of the benefits and risks of this as well ash the practicalities of using technology.

In no particular order, a 'technologically advanced student' will be:

  • using RSS feeds, twitter, social networking apps, instapaper, read later, to collate potentially useful information and resources for later use. They may even do this in collaboration with others
  • accessing alternative forms of media such as podcasts, video and blogs. They will probably do this in short chunks. This may be related to work, but also related to the interests of the students.
  • sharing, communicating and collaborating on work projects over distance and time using electronic devices. This may be communicating with other students, but also will be communicating with teachers.
  • organising time, resources and work using shared calendars, email and folders that sync across several devices and maybe shared with many others.
  • able to manage their workflow
  • aware of their own digital footprint and act according when using social media.
  • able to produce a range of media to be consumed inside and outside school. This maybe in conjunction with school work, charity work, social work or to raise awareness of an issue. This will involve blogging, video, podcasts, documents, images, infographics, websites, GIFs, and presentations. 
  • supporting others in their use of electronic devices.

They may go further and:

  • produce their own app
  • learn how to code
  • investigate computer networking
  • build their own computer
  • use ICT in another enterprising way

I would admit that it isn't necessary for students to be able to do all of these things for their learning, or even their life. But I do think that it is important that students are aware of all the implications and ways that ICT can be used.

The next steps are working out how we get there? Do we use technology for learning? Should we be restrictive and prescriptive about the way that technology is used in lessons? What about outside lessons and in extra curricular activities? Will practice change as a result of technology and what will the behaviour of our students in lessons look like? How will these changes impact on their employability? Is it even possible?

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Nicky Morgan and Workload

In this article it is stated that Nicky Morgan wants teachers to spend more time teaching and less time on paper work.

This statement scares me.

What I want is to spend less time teaching so I can spend more time preparing and marking. I don't do any unnecessary paperwork, I can't remember a time when I did.

I need schemes of work. I need time to prepare the 7 years of new ones that will be coming in within the next three years. I need to time to ensure we are properly risk assessed for each of these - unnecessary paper work?  I need time to set up the new trackers for the new assessment that will come with the new changes. I need time to work on the appraisal of staff that has become more important now that it is linked to pay and all that entails. I need to complete forms about students with statements, I need to give information about students who are applying for access arrangements. I need to give information for UCAS references. I need to fill in written lesson requests. I want to complete a planner and mark book. I want to complete a review of the exam results and I feel I should have a plan of action for the year to work from.

I want to teach less. I enjoy teaching, I enjoy standing in front of my class. I enjoy talking to them about their learning. But I enjoy it more when I am properly prepared. I enjoy it more when I can think and speak because I am not surviving on 5 hours sleep per night. I enjoy it more when I know the tasks I have prepared are meaningful and not just being used because they are all I have. I don't want to have to tailor my lesson to a CGP sheet just because its the only resource I have with the time available. I want to have the time to adapt my resources given what I know about my students' learning from the previous lesson.

Teaching is exhausting. Teaching when you are under prepared is stressful and exhausting.

If Nicky Morgan thinks that the answer is Pearson Co writing schemes of work we can all buy into she couldn't be more wrong. I estimate it will cost £250 per year group per GCSE subject and £300 per year group per A-level subject to buy into the subscriptions for schemes of work. Somewhere in the region of £20,000 per year on schemes of work that aren't actually very useful. Even with online testing it doesn't take away from the fact that the teacher still has to mark work and review what the child has done. Open questioning cannot be marked by a computer. Writing of schemes will still have to be done - especially in science, where we need to have thought about the risk assessment for what we are doing in our own context.

I want is for government to consider how they bring in changes to the curriculum. Does it all need to be thrown up into the air? Can it be changed in small chunks where need is identified? This would mean a couple of lessons could be rewritten and resourced rather than 7 years worth of teaching in the space of three?

But I also want is for government to consider the length of PPA time. How many hours should I teacher be working in a week? How long should it take to plan a lesson, and how long should it take to mark work? Input all of this and workout how many hours per week a teacher should teach for.

Something like, if you teach a class for two hours per week it probably takes a hour to mark their books, and another 40 minutes to plan the lessons. (If you already have a great scheme of work). Add to that 50 minutes per week spent in staff briefing, one hour spent in a staff meeting, 40 minutes per week spent on break time duty and hour doing a club after school, with 30 minutes preparing it, and 25 minutes per day of registration. This means we are looking at 6 hours per week unavailable to teaching. If we are to work 40 hours per week 34 is available to teaching and preparing for teaching. By my calculation 55% if that time should be in front of a class, which is 18.5 hours.

This leaves no room for dealing with any pastoral or staff related issues. No time for referencing, exam entries, carers advice, coaching a fellow teacher, CPD, peer observations, report writing, replying to emails from parents, organising rooms for open evening, parents evenings, concerts and plays, organising a tutor group assembly, organising trips and talks.

Currently teachers will teach around 22 hours per week. If Nicky Morgan was able to reduce this to 18 hours per week I believe it would make a positive impact on teacher workload.

I can't see it happening though. At the moment an 8 form entry Year 7 group would require 200 hours of teaching per week, which would be 9.09 teachers. Teaching 18 hours per week would be 11.1 1 teachers per week. So £40k per year extra just for Year 7. Multiply that up through 7 year groups and it would be 14 extra teachers. We're looking in the region of £300k per school. Any head got that to spare in their budget? Thought not.

Ah well, Nicky Morgan can expect stressed and tired teachers to complain for a while yet.

Sunday, 28 September 2014


I was recommended Nearpod by a colleague at school who's daughter had suggested it to her. I love it and I think my students really like it too. Or at least the ones that I have used it with. When we get fibre optic broadband installed I will use it with all my classes

It is an app for tablets, but it also works on chrome or safari on a laptop.

What is it?

It is an app and website that allows you to send your presentation to the students' devices. You give them a code and they enter it to find your presentation.

So what?

That's not all, you can add interactive slides where students feedback to you. If you subscribe (and pay) for the premium version you can link to external websites too. For me this is the real power. I explain something to the group and immediately they answer a question that helps me to understand how well they grasped it. I can change my teaching then and there.

For example, I gave a demo of a longitudinal wave then the group copied notes from a slide on nearpod about longitudinal waves. They then answered the question 'what is a longitudinal wave?'. Most of the answers said 'a wave that vibrates backwards and forwards'. True, but not specific enough for GCSE level. I can go back and ask questions about how to improve the answer. I can even then share an example of answer (anonymously) that I have received from the class.

I had a student come in late to a lesson. I whizzed through the nearpod slides she missed at the end of the lesson and she took screen shots to copy up later.

A lot of students struggle copying notes from the board. Having the presentation next to them will help this process. Being able to take screenshots instead of copying will also help. (Although I feel the revision guide is good enough notes, I want my students thinking in lessons instead of mindlessly writing. My students don't agree).

Any drawbacks?

At the moment nearpod isn't working as well as I would like. The adsl internet and the number of switches between my room and the backbone means that there can be quite a lag between me forwarding the slide and it registering on the iPads. Without enthusiastic students I can see the lessons being difficult.

I can't measure the impact, but for me it means less paper and the potential of better transitions. In homework mode (£££) it could encourage independent work and flipped learning. I am excited.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Monday, 15 September 2014

Practical work in A-level

I haven't quite taught two full weeks of classes yet, due to INSET and start of year timetable giving out mornings etc. However, I am already thinking ahead to next September and what I will do differently at A-level.

My first year 12 lesson involved using a micrometer and measuring small stuff. We wrote down our measurements on scrap paper as, while using a micrometer is an interesting step forward, the measurements are not needed for future reference. What if I need those measurements next year, how will I get students to record them?

In today's lesson we looked at density (using Archimedes buckets to measure volume - badly) and the impact of upthrust on the value on a Newton meter. We calibrated the Newton meters first. Again, I wrote the measurements on the board and we compared the different values. Realising the volume was the factor affecting up thrust.

In year 13's lesson last Tuesday we spent an hour experimenting using the air track writing the minimum down to calculate change in momentum and seeing how far our conservation of momentum calculations were out. The girls levelled the track, learned to use the timers, set up the light gates and evaluated the issues with the track. Next time year we will need to record it as evidence.

Although I am using practical work to illustrated scientific concepts and help the students see how they are arrived at, the work they write does not illustrate this.

I am going to have to change my approach in September 2015. My first step will be selecting a revision guide I can trust. I won't be writing notes for exam work. I will incorporate reference to revision guides into my lessons, these will be the notes. I will buy transparent post-it notes or some such to help the students annotate their work.

I would like to have a practical write ups in a note book and any practice questions in a file. But what will the practical write ups look like? I have never taught it at a-level, and I don't believe I was taught it myself.

I know everyone else is in the same position. But today's lesson made me reflect. I need to carefully think about how my approach to practical works needs to adapt and change this year to ensure my students get the 'pass' mark they need in a-level physics experimentation.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Tetbury,United Kingdom