Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Practical Work in Science Lessons

In this blog post I wanted to give myself an opportunity to consider practical work and think through the current state of my own practice. I am aware that I am probably better than I think I am at doing all the things that as science teachers we set ourselves to do. However, in that difficult juggling act of teaching I strive to reflect on all areas.

As part of my work in thinking about the key stage 3 curriculum I wrote myself a list of the techniques that I would expect students to be able to do at the end of key stage 3.

I am also reminded of a discussion about the separating salt from rock salt lesson, trying to persuade colleagues that if students get nothing else from the lesson they should be learning about how to draw scientific diagrams. There is no other lesson I can think of that uses quite the range of equipment in Year 7.

I understand from reading I have done and CPD sessions I have attended that it is desirable to have specific objectives when teaching practical skills as well as the objectives you would have when teaching knowledge. So I would like make sure we have an idea of the expectations of what students should be able to do with equipment, and not just general statements like 'fair testing' and 'name variables'.

I cannot be the only teacher who has no trouble when students are asked to use a stop watch. I have taken to repeating 'do not stop the stop watch' over and over during practical explanations, as a result of struggling with Year 9 groups. And I am now finding myself explaining how to read a stop watch after Year 10 and 11 students wrote down things like 00:15.34 as a recording for time. "That's what the stop watch says". Indeed, but what does it mean?

Don't get me started on setting up clamp stands!

Although I am probably only frustrated by one group within a class and only frustrated in a small proportion of lessons it is still enough to get me to think about the issue.

I have worked in a school that had competency booklets. What a blinking nightmare. How can I assess the work of 24 students there are then at the end of the lesson without specifically designing a 15 minute plenary that doesn't require my support while I go round and sign these booklets off with a comment, date and my name? It isn't all the practical in reality. Plus these competences were generic and designed around the parts of an investigation and therefore more subjective.

On top of that we had no scheme of work (quite usual in this school) and therefore matching a skill to a lesson was my choice and not mapped out. Perhaps if I didn't have so much thinking to do in the lesson planning... No one checked, no one talked about them, so I forgot about it.

I think in the 6 years since then technology makes it more practical for students to compile their own evidence of technical ability. And perhaps this could be assessed outside of a formal qualification framework?

I think it is important that students do learn to use the equipment properly and recognise limitations and appropriateness during key stage 3. I want my students to learn science from their practical work and I don't think this will be easy if they are grappling with the uses of the equipment too.

So, isn't what I say obvious? Well, yes. So why can't some of my Year 11 students adequately write down a time from a stop watch?

I think partly because the curriculum taught does not encourage the development and consolidation of practical techniques. One lesson on lighting a Bunsen does not make you an expert on heating for the rest of your school career. And partly because we are already doing too much in one lesson. A lesson on voltage is about making observations and drawing conclusions, interpreting diagrams, creating circuits, drawing circuits, using symbols and having a grasp of what voltage is, as well as using a voltmeter. Sometimes that voltmeter is actually a multimeter - how complicated.

What do I need to do?

Slow down and remember that teaching some of it well is better in the long run than teaching all of it badly.
Focus on the technique students are learning. Use starters and other short activities to establish basics like looking at scales before starting practical work.
Create video tutorials for using equipment to help introduce ideas in a clear way.
Question students during lessons about the techniques they are using, why it is or isn't effective as if that matters.
Encourage the reflection by students on their practical work by including it as part of lessons and takeaway homework tasks.
In the long term consider blogging as a method of keeping practical diaries.
But first I must get to grips with the new curriculum so that I can see the key places for development, consolidating and extending use of techniques.

I do think that practical work is important, not necessarily to help with learning or understanding of abstract scientific concepts, but because students should not take things as face value. It is through experimenting that scientific discoveries are made or confirmed, and students should experience that as authentically as possible.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Nurture 14/15

I have thought about this and there is no way I can describe my year in only 5 things without skirting over a lot of things. So I will do 14 and cut down my aims for next year to 5. 

It always seems that I do a lot, but this is because I say 'yes' to as much as possible. 

14 from 2014. 

1. Getting Married. 
We got married on the 30th August. It was quite a surprise when Richard agreed to tie the knot back in January. We have been together since January 2006. It was a lovely day and a fantastic experience to be able to publicly acknowledge our love, which we are not that good at doing. In October we had a blessing in Northumberland followed by a meal in the village hall, that was a really nice occasion with all the people I knew when I was little.

2. Exam Results
I suppose any secondary teacher's year is made (or rocked) by the results students get in the summer. More so when you are a head of department and feel responsible for them all. The GCSE results we got were spectacular. Much higher than I expected. I put this down to the hard work and determined revision of our students. There is talk of 'mastery' in the education world, but my students do aim to achieve it and often strop at my when they don’t understand something. Nothing less is failure to them. It is fantastic, but demanding. A-level results were not as exciting. All the Year 13 students got what they needed to get into university, but I was hoping for two A* grades and there is still work to do with Year 12. I have spoken openly to many people about As results and many have experienced a level of disappointment and feel there has been an impact of the loss of the January examinations. However, terminal examinations made no difference to Year 10, they probably helped improve them!

3. Commonwealth Games, Sport and Glasgow.
We often watch cycling and went to see the UK national road race championships as they weren’t too far away this year. We also went to see the last stage of the Tour of Britain in London, as the stage that came to Bristol finished to early in the afternoon to see it live after work. The Commonwealth Games were a great experience, we saw weightlifting, boxing (I have never see live boxing before), hockey, team triathlon and the marathon. It was a great few days, and we were able to catch a lot of it on TV when we weren’t watching it live. We also really loved Glasgow and had a one day visit during October half term. I really wanted to go back and see the world championship gymnastics next October, but it sold out before I could afford it. All of this sort of makes up for not being able to get to the start of the Tour de France (but not really). We did catch quite a bit of the world cup on the TV, and I loved the winter Olympics and Paralympics.

4. ICT - 1
I really missed the laptop that broke on me in the summer of 2013, and I bought myself a macbook air in January. I wanted to add this to the list because buying a laptop was one of my nurture13/14 aims for 2014. In June I found it necessary to replace my original iPad and I know have an iPad mini on contract when the school asked the girls to each bring an iPad. It continues to be a bug bear of mine that ICT is so vital now to my work, yet it isn’t something acknowledged by schools or government. At school the ICT is not suitable to someone who works in many different locations. I use my laptop all the time, but have to log on to the school server to print and use the MIS as it is internet explorer only. 

5. ICT - 2
In the summer I was really excited by the prospect of the 1-2-1 iPad scheme at school. It seemed extremely timely as I was invited to an event in Bristol about creating video and helping students to create video. It was a light bulb moment and has impacted my practice during the past term. I really feel that I am making massive strides in being able to use the iPads to help learning. Apps such as explain everything, nearpod, iDoceo, quizlet, socrative, keynote, dropbox, evernote, iDraw and iMovie have been extremely useful. The girls at school recognise me as having a strong grasp of ICT and how to use it, which probably means I am above average. Since the summer I have had a good think about what a 1-2-1 iPad scheme really means, and I hope to help guide the school. I have thank my use of twitter and those who connect to share their vast knowledge who have given me the expertise and confidence to embrace the 1-2-1 iPad scheme. 

6. ASE
I continue to be involved in the ASE, and started my final year as an assembly member this September. I am incredibly proud of the conference we put on in November as a region. The most important thing is that our new CEO seems to have a good handle on ASE finances and where ASE fits in the big scheme of things. Hopefully all of this will mean that ASE can do more to support science teachers and science teaching in the UK and further afield. It is interesting that strong subject knowledge has come out as being very important in the effectiveness in teaching. I think this makes part of the case for the presence of subject associations. I wish I had more time to devote to ASE projects.

7. Curriculum Change 
Deciding what to do about the key stage 3 curriculum changes was a big part of my 2014. We are following OUP’s activate scheme and so far we are really pleased with it. I am able to follow it without that much alteration, which means the most to me. If I spend money on a scheme of work I expect it to save the same amount of time. I am really excited though by the online aspect of the activate scheme, once the fibre optic broadband is installed at school it should be much easier for the students to use and we can really get to grips with assessment.

8. Trips
This year I took the majority of the school to the Big Bang Fair. I took ten Year 11 students to Krispie Kreme Donut Factory. I took Year 7 to the Super-league Netball. It is so time consuming to organise trips, even those that are in the evening, however I am planning to repeat the Krispie Kreme and Netball trips in 2015. The Big Bang Fair I will do again, but probably not until 2016 or 2017 depending on the location. These were all in an attempt to get STEM on a stronger footing within the school, I have more to do on this in 2015. 

9. Conferences/Events/Festivals
My year always starts with the ASE conference, which as always was fun and informative as ever. It was extremely useful starting point on my work on the KS3 curriculum changes. I also went to Pedagoo South West, Research Ed West MidlandsResearchEd, the Festival of Education the tweet up at York University in the summer and an event on creating and using video by Teachit. I have hear Jon Butterworth, Alice Roberts (twice) and Ian Stewart all speak. I also helped to organise our own ASE regional event at Bath Spa University in November. For the second year we went to the Cheltenham Science Festival and had another great day and we went to the cycle show at the NEC. 

10. My Kindle
This time last year I wrote that I had read 31 books on my kindle, this year I have 76, so I have read a lot more books. Although probably not more words as last year I read the ‘song of ice and fire’ books and this year I haven’t read anything as nearly as long. Although next year I think I will read the “wheel of time’ series. I LOVE my kindle, it is an opportunity to escape from teaching and make my mind think of other things.  

11. Discoid Eczema  
I have really failed to look after my skin this year. At the start of the year my eczema meant that I could hardly bend my fingers. If I didn’t go home to reapply the emollients then I wanted to itch my legs all night and my back is often red, itchy mess as I can’t see it to know when it needs extra treatment. I don’t want to use the steroids all the time, but at the moment it seems that I can’t avoid them. It has really been a big feature of my year as it has made my life so uncomfortable and it is such a pain that I can’t use soap of any kind.

12. Step-daughter
We continue to be delighted with the progress of Richard’s daughter. She started Year 10 this year and seems to be thriving. She informs us that she had the joint best report in the whole of her year, (with her two friends). At the moment she wants to go to Cambridge to study Linguistics. Although she is considering St Andrews. I bought her a book of short essays on the subject of linguistics, which she read in a week and it is being passed around her friends apparently. We are so relived that she is interested in things and making her own mind up about everything including her social life (a Eurovision party where she designed a menu based on foods from around Europe).

13. Last years resolutions
Err, not so good. The house still remains undecorated, my hair has an increasing number of grey streaks and I am not yet 9st 7lbs. I didn’t go the arboretum enough and I can’t describe myself as organised. Although I did get a laptop, Year 13 did well, went on the trips and we enjoyed the commonwealth games. 

14. Being Opinionated
My blogs on the Royal Society Vision and on the new arrangements for the assessment of practical work have got me noticed. A blog post on the financial commitment a teacher makes also got retweeted by the Guardian and viewed many times. I have been interviewed over the telephone for various things too. I do find myself quite negative and miserable, though. Although being asked to present to the governors at the end of the summer term was a great opportunity to be positive about all the things that we did as a department. I got a hug from the deputy head, so I must have been good. 
It is always a surprise when people want to hear what I have got to say, I hope that I represent science education in someway as I anticipate others face the same struggles. Although mainly I just want to represent myself. 

Aims for 2015

1. Writing with purpose
My blog needs more attention and direction. I would like it to show what I feel and my vision and I don’t believe that it does. I have strong feelings about things and I want to be able to describe them in a rational way. 

2. At home
We only have one plan for the this year - getting Richard qualified and ready for Paris-Brest-Paris in the summer. It really is the culmination of ten years of cycling so that he is ready for this challenge. My main hope is that some of his colleagues recognise the achievement, it will mean so much to him. I doubt it though. We did say that we would take Richard’s daughter to Oxford to see the city and to go to the Imperial War Museum as we haven’t been for a while. When Richard is out cycling I want to work on things around the house and get over my fear of gardening. 

3. Bringing a conference/an event to Westonbirt
The head has seen me help organise activities outside of school and has invited me to replicate this in school. We certainly have the space. I need to think about this in order to bring together something valuable. It is a real compliment to be trusted with this. 

4. More curriculum change
The next task at school is to embed the changes to KS3 and do more to look forward to the changes at KS5. I think that the department will need some help to develop the idea of a lab book as will the students. The changes at GCSE concern me greatly, I don’t think that the specifications will be ready towards the end of 2015, again giving teachers and publishers less and less time to prepare a good scheme of work. 

5. What is next?
I love my school and working there. But I also feel the pull of a new challenge. I don’t know what that is yet and I fully expect to see myself working at Westonbirt in a year’s time, partly because I want to see through the curriculum changes and develop my use of 1-2-1 devices in the classroom and partly because it is a fabulous school and I believe in what we do. But I need to prepare myself for what is next. Would I get an assistant head position from where I am? Do I want one or do I want to stay more closely tied to science education? Would being an assistant head affect that? Am I good enough? Do I want to stay as a teacher?
But I also think that to look to the future I also need to consolidate. Think about what we/I/the department do really well and make the most of those things. Ensure they stand out as excellent and don't get lost amongst all the change. 

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.