Friday, 26 July 2013

"We already do that" and "Teacher Proof"

I am 56% of the way through Tom Bennett's book teacher proof.

I have to say that I am feeling smug. It seems to me that I have been a teacher the same length of time that he has, give or take. However, as a member of a science department I have never found myself taking on board any of the ideas Tom is dismissive of. Mainly thanks to cynical heads of department and lack of enthusiasm once part of the science teachers (including me).

Imagine the science staff meeting.
"Is everyone here?"
"Angela hasn't got her cup of coffee yet, she's coming though"
"I'll start without her, she'll catch up. I have been asked by the deputy to add initiative X to the agenda, but I think that we already do that".
"Yeah, coz we do practical work so do learning styles/group work/multiple intelligences"
"We definitely do the nature multiple intelligence because in year 8 we go outside and count daisies."
"And we do data logging, so we already get students ready for the 21C"
"We do CASE" *furtive look as we no one actually does the CASE lessons* "so we are doing thinking skills and learning to learn".
"So what about thinking hats?"
"I wrote it into the lesson about whether we should build a nuclear power station in the middle of town, so we have it in a scheme".
"Right, so I can tell the deputy that we do all this stuff?"
"yes", "definitely", "yup", "yes".
"Great, carry on as normal".

And we did. It seems to me the "we do practical work" defence has protected many science departments from trying to implement a terrible initiative.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, 19 July 2013

I am a science teacher, I have joined twitter, now what?

You've signed up to an account.

Choose a @ name that isn't too long. And get a twitter app on your mobile device.

Now follow some people. I recommend @viciascience, @needhaml56, @lgolton, @kdwscience, @a_weatherall @bio_joe @asober @DrDav @agittner @cleverfiend @stuartphysics @lornamonroe @MaryUYSEG @teachingofsci and @mrsdrsarah as a starting point. Also follow organisations like @theASE @tesScience and @ITEfaraday

There are some lovely people like @hthompson1982 @natkin and @teachingtricks who will do what they can to help other teachers too.

Now start tweeting. But what can you tweet?

Links would be the first suggestion: to an interesting science or education story, to a great website or teaching resource, to a blog post, or just anything that you find interesting.

Photographs and images would be my next suggestion. A funny or interesting science image or cartoon. A photograph of your students work, a display you have made, a slide from a PowerPoint you are proud of. Be wary not to post photographs of your students if you are unsure the school has the relevant releases from parents.

A comment on an incident that has happened to you, particularly if it is positive. A comment on a news story.

Another thing to realise is that you are connected to a network of around 700 UK science teachers and even more abroad as well as numerous science and science education organisations you can ask a question or for help.

And lastly, of course you can retweet the tweets of others and reply to their tweets.

If you want your tweet to have a wider audience than just your followers then include a hashtag in your tweet. I recommend #asechat #scichat or #ukedchat then people who filter ALL tweets by hashtags will be able to see what you have to say.

Do set up saved searches of hashtags like #asechat so you can browse them yourself. You can find new people to interact with that way too.

Welcome to the world to the UK science teacher community on twitter.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Using a Stick to Make Changes in Education

When it looked like 100% of the assessment of GCSE science was going to be examination based I was dismayed. "Science is a practical subject and we will lose that if the assessment doesn't reflect this".

In 2005 I went to an event for all the science teachers in Dudley and Wolverhampton LAs. I didn't make notes, but I do remember it was someone from York as the National Science Learning Centre was mentioned a lot. The speaker said that assessment is what drives the taught curriculum and that there were issues in how to assess 'how science works' part of the upcoming GCSE science. (The 2006 GCSE where double science was split to core and additional and 'how science works' was introduced). *at least this is what I remember hearing.

I found this quite powerful, and it did/does reflect my practice. I teach to the test. To this day I teach to the test: why would I not look at the hoop my students have to jump through and aim them as clearly as I can in the right direction?

However, it also made me feel like a tiny cog in the wheel. What I do, how I do it and what my students get out of it, is dictated by the skill of exam writers.

At the end of June I went to the ASE celebration conference in Hatfield. As part of that I attended two sessions host by AQA. We were looking at threats and possible solutions to science education in the next ten years. The audience had to suggest policies to address these threats. The topics picked were linked assessment and STEM. As part of the discussions there were suggestions put forward of how to 'encourage' schools to adopt the policy ideas being proposed: the responses were 'ofqual', 'league tables', 'ofsted' etc. All the things that are used as a stick against schools.

So I go back to my considerations about practical work. Is the call for there to be a practical aspect to the GCSE science assessment because it is a genuine skill that scientists need to be ready for a job, university or college? Or is it simply that we are proud in the UK of our practical science culture and want to maintain it through using the stick of assessment. Do either of these reasons really require that we examine practical work?

I would really like to see a culture where we didn't need the stick to enforce a certain type of practice. If it is good for the students then that should be enough reason to do it.

It all comes back to the professionalism of teachers: do we deserve it? Should we be given the responsibility and see if the 'profession' can rise to it?Would practice actually improve for the better because we would be adding things to both to school life and to lessons that would have an impact that is not possible to measure in exams, but will benefit the adult that child will become and the society it will live in.

But, my thoughts always come back to the probability that teaching to the test is so ingrained in teachers that "Science is a practical subject and we will lose that if the assessment doesn't reflect this".

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Accountability and The Problems Line Managers Cause

I am accountable to myself and I like it.

In my current school I have not had a performance management meeting, targets or a even mentor assigned to me.

I have no direct line manager: I am accountable to as an individual as far as I can tell. As I am a curriculum leader I deal with the assistant head teacher for teaching and learning related issues and the director of studies (who is also the deputy head), for matters involving students. I don't find this a negative, these two members of management are accountable for all the exam results and as a result can be fair when dealing with individual subjects. They are also very understanding and supportive.

I am solely responsible for science, so I don't have someone who doesn't understand what is involved teaching science, or even what is involved in running a faculty, trying to effect the decisions I am making about the running of the faculty.

I have been in post 14 months now and for the first few I was waiting for others to tell me what to do. Nervous that if I made a change I should run it by someone else first. That someone would want to know what I was doing and why I was doing it and then ask me to submit forms. Don't get me wrong there's paper work to do, but I feel that I have autonomy that I have never experienced before.

Another head of science colleague of mine told me about her previous line manager. The manager was quite determined to make decisions that wold help improve Science, but these changes were structural or curriculum based and didn't move the department forwards. Her line manager was constantly asking her to change the make up the groups, mixed ability to setted and back again, change the timetables so new staff were teaching groups, move students from BTEC to GCSE and vice versa and enter students for exams, do mock exams, withdraw students from exams, change the way she was going to do controlled assessment and a variety of other hands-on decisions. Meanwhile the head of science was left spending her time making changes she didn't believe in rather than doing what needed to be done to improve the teaching skills of the teachers.

It is possible to argue that my colleague was not managed correctly. I would agree. But I also can understand why the manager would be so desperate to interfere as she too was accountable for the science department and being able to show the head what was done is always preferable on a personal level to saying we did nothing and we still got the same outcome.

I found the line managers in my previous school frustrating to some degree, but not to the same extent as my colleague.

As Head of Physics my line manager was the Head of Science and also an Assistant Principal. He struggled to balance the two jobs. Having no line manger himself he put in pace crazy schemes and methods of teaching. We rearranged the key stage 3 curriculum into nonsensical order and called it "innovative". The knock on when those students reached year 10 was a halving of the numbers doing triple science. We scrapped Core and Additional GCSE pathway, forcing all students who want to do art or media to choose BTEC, in the end a student was unable to get into her Primary education course because she didn't have GCSE science. Those are examples that spring to mind, there were an awful lot more. Most were not instigated by the Head of Science/Assistant Principal, but by a strong head of biology/key stage 3 coordinator who left before the damage was discovered; however the Head of Science/Assistant Principal tried to make the bad ideas work to save face.

In the school prior to that we all lived in constant fear of our line managers. Bullying was a problem from the very top of the school. I say we all live in fear, when we got a new head of faculty he took a much more relaxed view and was very honest and empathetic with the teachers and post holders in the faculty. He managed by not managing. He let us run with ideas and see where they took us. I imagine he took at lot of flack for not having us on a tight leash.

I appreciate that I am the expert on science education in my school and I am trusted to do my job.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

The aims of the science national curriculum (ks3)

Again I am looking at the proposed changes to the science national curriculum at key stage 3.

My previous blog post on the aims is here:

There has been changes from the February document to the current one.

In February this paragraph was written under the title 'Purpose of Study':

The current draft is exactly the same, however it misses the last sentence.

I still don't like the first sentence of the purpose of study. I think it was wise not to call the separate sciences biology, chemistry and physics as the lines are very blurred, and I think it marginalises geology, astronomy, ecology etc as specific disciplines.

I am also left wondering about the omission of the last sentence. Is it irrelevant as we would teach lessons in the context of application anyway? Or has it be omitted because the wording isn't great: "the specific applications", which specific applications? I do think that it is important that in science lessons we are teaching students about the links between science and their lives, without this we are not preparing them for the science based decisions they may have to make.

The aims of the science curriculum have not changed at all.

In the light of the aims, my concerns about the omission of the last sentence of the purpose seem unfounded as preparing students for a scientific and technological world seem linked to the third aim of the curriculum here.

I think that I would have liked to see 'curiosity' in the aims. Students should not just answer questions, but learn to ask them too.

As key stage 3 is not assessed by an exam the aims do not need to be restricted to things that can be assess using a written exam.

I still like the aims of the 2008 PoS best:

I agree they are wooly, but they are admirable.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, 12 July 2013

Skills vs knowledge

There seems to be a debate about skills vs knowledge. I don't really want to enter that debate, but it seems that I cannot avoid it.

It is even part of the discussion around the aims of the new national curriculum, with a lot of those responding to the consultation asking for an increased focus on skills in the aims.

Where do I stand? Firmly in the middle. It may well be that it is through indoctrination as much as anything else. But when I reflect, I believe that a balance always has to be struck.

If you want to see my conclusion skip to the bottom. My reasoning is in the middle.

When considering knowledge over skills:

It is not easy to assess all types of skills. Students will be measured and assessed by public examinations for the foreseeable future. I witnessed a debate about this recently, while a good proportion of the room thought they would like to see more teacher assessment in class they also all agreed it is impractical while we have the current accountability system. Can we write an exam that assesses these skills that is also sufficiently different year on year? That is hard. For some skills (collaboration) extremely difficult. So in science we have to teach 'facts' that will make up the majority of the assessment. Writing exams that are sufficiently original that test facts is also not easy. But it is possible.

Also, I have a responsibility to help produce the scientists of the future. The universities are not going to be happy with me and my science teacher colleagues if I deliver students who can read a thermometer, draw a line graph, work in a team and speak in public, but don't know that energy is conserved or Newton's Laws of Motion.

There is much agreement in the science education community that we should teach key ideas, but not what those key ideas are. This was a quote from Robin Millar at the ASE summer conference. I think that it backs up the assertion that knowledge is a key component in the science curriculum.

The biggest indication to the volume of knowledge that science teachers teach must be in key stage 4. The science national curriculum is worth one GCSE and to go on to study further science, you need to have covered at least two GCSEs worth of content. Other subjects (not even English, which is also worth two GCSEs) gets the same amount of curriculum time at GCSE.

A last comment on knowledge: I was asked by a PE teacher if it would be possible to teach the level 6 year 7 students in a group with the level 6 year 8 and 9 students. My instant reaction was 'no'. But why? Knowledge and exposure to topics. Year 7 go though foundation topics on cells, particles, chemical reactions, energy and forces (amongst other things) and the knowledge they acquire then is important to understanding the other topics.

In summary, I have to teach knowledge, and I do teach knowledge. I would never dream of not teaching knowledge.

What about skills?

Science has its own set of specific skills, a way of thinking if you like, that it takes to be a scientist. At least this is what I believe. If not STEM graduates would not be in such demand by other areas and careers. Would it be perceived as hard if it were easy for all to access it? Both logic and creativity is required for science.

I believe that the skills I teach when nudging my students towards being scientists are transferable skills. For example, looking at evidence and drawing conclusions or more importantly the skills needed for inquiry. Whether I teach them in a way that means they are transferable is up for debate, but the intention is there.

I am convinced of the importance of teaching inquiry skills. Human endeavour is defined by inquiry. Striking stones together to make fire, redesigning the vacuum cleaner, calculating g all require the skills related to inquiry. Questioning, trailing, looking at a problem from different angles, analysing, making connections, judging relevance, negotiating.

When the PLTS were revealed to me, I was not unhappy. It did not present a great change in my practice. Constructivist teaching of science already expected and practised many of the skills outlined.

(The independent enquirer skills and creative workers are ones that are needed to do well when it comes to scientific investigations. Team working skills are necessary for carrying out practicals as equipment means that students will often have to work in teams.)

The longer I teach core science, the more I appreciate its value. Core Science is (was) part of the curriculum because we want to give students the knowledge AND skills to be scientifically literate in the 21C. We live in a technologically progressive world and without the skill of being able to analyse media reports or advertising claims about science and technology they may be fooled. I wouldn't describe being scientifically literate as 'knowledge', it is more of a skill, a skill linked to inquiry (asking questions). Although, I would not deny that an underpinning knowledge of ideas such as cells, diffusion, energy, etc is vital to grasping the concepts and making choices also.

I teach skills, I will continue to teach skills and I feel it my duty to teach skills. I do it in the context of the students experiencing real science and gaining knowledge first hand in the way that these discoveries were originally made. (Maybe not that authentically).


At the top of this blog post I wrote that it is not easy to assess skills. What the exam boards write in specifications has to be assessed at least once in the life of the specification: every statement has to be examinable. However, the 2011 science specifications are striving to assess skills.

At GCSE you can pass the exam with only knowledge. 25% of the knowledge if you use my exam board. Although this is becoming less. However, you can also access some GCSE questions with a few skills and little knowledge.

But at A-level you cannot. I can pump you full of all the equations of motion you can take, but if you do not have the skills you will mostly likely fail, or at most expect a D grade. In fact you need a certain level of skills to access the knowledge in the A-level science specifications in the first place.

What skills are they? Firstly you have to be able to read and decode the question. Ask questions about the question if you like. Then you have to be able to relate it to an area of physics, (easier because you can work back to the topics being examined by that paper). Then you need to be able to make an abstract visualisation of what you are doing. Finally you have to apply the laws of physics, which may mean manipulating mathematical equations, it may mean structuring your thoughts and ideas logically.

Example GCSE questions:

Example A-level question:

This type of question is why I agree with the idea and construct of SOLO taxonomy. What are the physics ideas needed, how do they link, how do they apply to this circumstance.

However, as a teacher I not only have a duty to my students to support them in passing an exam, but also to my country in educating young people with the skills necessary to survive in a technologically advanced society. The 21C does change how we approach school education, for example no longer can someone open up a car engine or radio and see how it works.

As a science teacher I feel that teaching knowledge and skills are equally important. I teach skills in the context of the knowledge. The two are inextricably linked.

*Hopefully I have not horribly contradicted myself too many times.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Confusions in the latest draft of the draft national curriculum

I consider myself to be an experienced science teacher, but the latest draft of the draft national curriculum is still confusing me!

I will write another post later comparing changes, but for now I want to focus on the statements within the national curriculum that I am left wondering what they are getting at.

The reason I want the outcomes to be made stronger is that Gove is asking for us to have more rigour in our national curriculum. If that is the case then the outcomes have to be clear, or we will inevitably try to fit what we have always done into the new framework instead of using the new curriculum as the starting point.


-the structural adaptations of some unicellular organisms.
here, I think it is my subject knowledge that is at fault. I don't really know much about unicellular organisms other than they exist. Perhaps This statement is linked to them having to digest food outside the cell and then absorb the broken down chemicals and things like that? Perhaps it is to do with the size of the cell to give optimum surface area to volume ratio! Or perhaps it is linked to where they can be found? Perhaps this links to bacteria? Hopefully it will make sense to someone.

- biomechanics and the interaction between the skeleton and muscles, including the measurement of forces exerted by different muscles.
This was in the last draft, and I wasn't aware of the practical activity that is described here at that time, and I am still none the wiser to be honest. Hopefully the textbook publishers will know what this means and make a worksheet I can buy.

- reproduction in plants, including flower structure, wind and insect pollination, fertilisation, seed and fruit formation and dispersal, including quantitative investigation of some dispersal mechanisms
It is the investigation part of this statement I am wondering about. Is there an investigation I have not heard of, or is the rigorous national curriculum really suggesting we do a paper helicopters investigation?

- the adaptations of leaves for photosynthesis
- the relationship between structures and functions of leaves, including the chloroplasts and leaves

Is the second statement not covered by the first? Maybe I don't know enough about biology?

- chemosynthesis is bacteria and in other organisms
This is a topic I know little about, so I better get researching so that I can come up with a decent activity for the students. I assume that really what is meant by this is that the government want young people to know that photosynthesis and digestion are not the only way to get the energy and nutrients that we need.

- mineral nutrition in plants, to explain the full role of nitrogen
I am actually looking forward to this, growing plants with and without nitrogen fertilisers to see the difference (if it will work). What I am wondering about is that I have never heard of it called mineral NUTRITION. I think I need to look up the meaning of the word nutrient.

- aerobic and anaerobic respiration in living organisms, including the breakdown of organic molecules to enable all the other chemical processes necessary for life
I get aerobic and anaerobic respiration, they allow us to move and help heat our bodies, what I don't get is what they have to do with the second part of the statement. In fact the second part scares me. As a non-biologist what are all the other processes necessary for life? I might be able to guess as making enzymes in the pancreas and producing hormones to regulate blood sugar levels, and chemicals are needed to get nerve messages to flow in the synapses. But I can't remember any of that having to do with respiration from my A-level biology.

- the importance of biodiversity
I think that this is an obvious one, but I am not actually sure why it is important. I better check on Wikipedia!

-the identification of pure substances
Does this mean generically or specifically? E.g. Does it mean that I should be teaching students how to identify water and carbon dioxide, or how you would use boiling point to identify what a colourless liquid distiller from a mixture might be? It can't be referred to a generic descriptors because above is the statement: the concept of a pure substance. I feel that this statements getting at some kind of practical or investigation, but I am stuck at what.

- the Periodic Table: periods and groups; metals and non-metals
I am not worried about the metals and non-non metals bit. I assume the groups and periods reference means that students will need to know groups go down and periods go across? Above is a statement saying the principles underlying the Mendeleev Periodic Table, which implies that specific knowledge of the properties of the groups is not necessary, but that they have things in common is.

- the chemical properties of metal and non-metal oxides with respect to acidity
What is this supposed to mean? The general pH of metal oxides (some don't dissolve) or that metal oxides act as bases? Non-metal oxides? Well dihydrogen oxide is neutral, but carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxides can become acids. But they themselves don't contain hydrogen, so may add a misconception when I get to GCSE and explain all acids contain H+ ions. Except sulphur dioxide though miss, you taught us that in year 8.

- properties of ceramics, polymers and composites (qualitative)
Is this to show that we do have complex materials? I think that there is a lot of scope here and my only concern is knowing the extent to go to.

- the composition of the Earth
(This is different from structure). I don't know the answer to this one either. There is a lot of water and iron is involved. Off to Wikipedia I think. Hopefully Earth Learning Idea will solve this for me.

Oh physics, why so hard?

- energy calculations using measures of change in the energy associated with elastic deformations, moving or vibrating objects, heating materials and chemical changes involving fuels.
There is no mention of equations here, but if students are to have a real feel for these changes in energy then shouldn't they do real energy calculations using real data? In which case they will need energy = mass x specific heat capacity x temperature change etc. in which case this needs to be taught in year 9. Otherwise I believe the energy topic will be boring.

- relative motion: trains and cars passing one another
In relation to what? Should students just know what relative motion is? Or should they be able to explain why a head on accident is more dangerous than a rear shunt?

- work done and energy changes on deformation
Involving calculations? I can't really work out what the students are expected to be able to say/do in relation to this topic. I would guess the students could compare areas underneath the force-extension graphs they draw for one of the other topics.

-potential difference, measured in volts, battery and bulb ratings; resistance, measured in ohms, as the ratio of potential difference (p.d) to current
It is the statement about bulb ratings that is confusing me. Our bulbs have ratings, but really that is to tell you the maximum voltage before they will go 'pop'. Is this what it means?

I want to stress that this is not my full analysis of the draft NC, just the statements that leave me with confusion about what I might actually teach to cover that topic.

What I really want are outcomes, not topic statements. What are my classess expected to be able to do and say? How can we get standardisation if we do not know the depth to go to. I image that it will force us to the publishers to find out what their lesson plans say.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Rudgleigh Ave,Bristol,United Kingdom