9 Simple Steps to Revolutionise the Teaching of Primary Science

Definition of Science : the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.

Teaching science at primary level can cause stress for many teachers who feel their science knowledge isn’t sufficient to do a good enough job. Interestingly the research in the UK  has shown that although Primary teachers feel less confident about their delivery, they often do better than their secondary counterparts- The ASE Report is  here. Reasons given  for higher performance were

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The Fine Art Of Avoiding Failure

Failure, what does it mean?

A lack of success in a physical or mental task

Failure could be  an  outcome failure – You have failed the exam,

or  a process failure  – You passed the exam but with a disappointing performance

Very young children don’t fear failure . They fall over many times as they try to learn to walk for example . They are naturally attracted to things that can cause injury.  They show little sign of risk aversion .  They seem universally attracted to six ‘dangerous’  things:

  • Heights – They love to climb, often going dangerously high
  • Going fast – Swings and roundabouts they shout to go faster
  • Dangerous tools – They love a sharp knife or scissors
  • Dangerous elements – Fire is fascinating !
  • Rough and tumble – Play fighting runs the risk of injury
  • Getting lost – Hide and seek and wandering off

All of these things are thrilling, but also have potentially dire consequences if they go wrong.

As we get older we tend to become more risk averse. The pain (sometimes literally ) of failure looms larger in our lives. High stakes testing in early education makes both process and outcome failures a real possibility. Fear isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless it becomes out of proportion and causes  performance anxiety that is limiting.  Then we turn to failure avoidance.

How to be brilliant at failure avoidance.

We all have taught students who put far more effort into avoiding failure than in trying to be successful. What are their key strategies?

  • Do nothing – this is quite simply the perfect fail safe mechanism. If you don’t do anything you cant possible get it wrong. This is commonly used by disengaged boys and high achieving desperate to please girls.
  • Feign indifference – I really don’t care, so I wont try. In doing this you can easily hide your true ability. Failure is from lack of effort, not through any personal inadequacy. This can be extended in more interesting ways by becoming outwardly hostile.
  • Blame external factors. Other people – My teacher is useless ! Situations – The equipment is really poor quality ,  State of mind – Im tired. There are unlimited options here for the advanced skills failure avoider.
  • Copying others.  A low risk strategy. If I do the same as others then I cant fail relative to them. So I buy my designer label clothes as they are the safe option.  I copy a friends homework
  • Cheating – Given the option of appearing really good falsely or being quite good in reality. The failure avoider will choose the short term gain even though their inability to do it themselves will probably unravel at a later date.
  • Lie – A much easier solution than telling the truth. Failure avoiders are short term fixers, we’ll just get this problem sorted regardless of the long term consequences
  • Procrastination – Making decisions is always accompanied by a sense of loss. We now have less options than we did before.  By not making a decision I cant get it wrong !
  • Ignoring the problem. Reality is far less important than our perception of reality. Lets live in our fantasy world because reality sucks!
  • Disappear – Just don’t turn up for the challenge !

Its great being a failure avoider because you don’t have to take responsibility if things go wrong. In your mind you’re still doing ok !

So how many of the strategies above do your students use?

How many do you  use  ?

Please add any more ideas in the comments

Next post will be – How to change the mindset of a failure avoider !





Summary of my Science and Physics Posts

Teaching Physics Topics 

Essential Resources for Physics Teachers http://neilatkin.com/2014/11/23/essential-resources-for-physics-teachers-please-add-ideas/

Teaching reflection of light  http://neilatkin.com/2014/04/10/10-cool-ideas-for-teaching-reflection-of-light/

Waves and Sound http://neilatkin.com/2013/08/20/teaching-waves-and-sound/

Heat Transfer http://neilatkin.com/2013/12/30/science-teachers-10-ideas-for-heat-transfer-lessons/

Teaching Forces http://neilatkin.com/2015/07/27/teaching-forces-misconceptions-and-how-to-overcome-them/

Rant about the state of science teaching  http://neilatkin.com/2014/08/21/where-has-the-science-gone-from-our-classrooms-13-ideas-to-bring-it-back/

Link to Pinterest Physics teaching support – Please note this as well as this blog will be continually updated so please add resources and ideas


Teaching Science – Generic Blogs

Short Guide on improving practicals http://neilatkin.com/2015/10/26/a-short-guide-on-how-you-might-teach-science-more-effectively/

Three Act Science http://neilatkin.com/2015/05/03/three-act-science-alternative-approaches-to-science-teaching/

Please add other links in the Comments below

A Short Guide on how you might teach Science more effectively

The intention of this soon to be series of blogs is to clarify what good Science Teaching is and how to become a better Science Teacher.

Before we start looking at Science teaching we ought to look at the learners. What do we want our young scientific thinkers to be like?

There are lots of kids stage shows and adverts of the ‘Mad Scientists’ white coats, big hair and a bit crazy. I may be being a killjoy, but I see these as damaging stereotypes and most kids don’t relate to these scientists who are clearly so different to them.

Ask your students what they think scientists are  and what they do they think. According to Camilla Ruz for the Imperial College Science Magazine I,SCIENCE here   heres a picture of the ‘Zombie’ Sir Isaac Newton – drawn by a 9 year old. Scientists are white (dead?) male, white coat wearing, sociopaths with big glasses. They make potions, explosions and sometimes save  (Harry Potterish)  , or evilly try to  destroy the world.


This perception really isn’t helpful at all. I like to say that all scientists do is look for evidence and then make decisions on what they find. 

I had this discussion with a group of students  I taught when I hadn’t time to change out of my motorbike gear. I asked them to look at me scientifically  for evidence and make decisions about me.  The statements and questions were very astute :

“You ride a motorbike”  – ‘how do you know?’ – “you are wearing motorbike gear ” – ‘I might be a very careful cyclist’ – ‘What more information do you need?’ – “Have you got your keys?” – ‘Yes – look they are Honda keys. Is that more evidence?’ – “Maybe, but not really because Honda make cars as well” – ‘Where might you find more evidence?’ – “Look in the car park” – they look out of the window, there is a Honda motorbike – ‘Does that prove it? – “No, it might be someone else’s” – “We need to see if your keys fit it” ………

Having these discussions about everyday things can be more useful than in trying to do it in an abstract  scientific context. If scientists look at evidence and make decisions, is a doctor a scientist? What about a farmer, mechanic, lawyer, hairdresser, beautician? .. In fact can anyone think of an interesting job where the person doesn’t evaluate evidence and make decisions? …. There aren’t any !

When we teach you science, we aren’t just teaching you about radiation, evolution or chemical bonding. We are teaching you how to think better scientifically. This means whatever interesting job you do, you will be able to do it better.

So if we are all scientists.  What makes a good one? Get the students to decide

  • Curiosity- Don’t take everything at face value
  • Resilience – Thomas Edison’s 1000 attempts to make a lightbulb
  • Asking questions – `we learn from asking rather than answering
  • Learning from mistakes – evaluating
  • Creativity – no thats not just for the artists!

Guess what? – everyone can do that stuff ,so everyone can be a great scientist.

Want a more intellectual assessment – Nobel Prize advice is here

Scientific Method  for non scientists – Actually there aren’t any non – scientists we are all scientists

What does a skateboarder do  when she learns a new trick?

  • Researches what they want to do – watches others or online
  • Plans how they are going to do the trick
  • Risk assesses it (ok so this is not realistic for most skateboarders – it will mend eventually)
  • Try it out
  • Get feedback – Often in the form of brutal peer mocking and laughter
  • Evaluate what happened and modify in the light of the evidence
  • At some stage goes to hospital with something broken

This is the scientific method and is used by so many people who don’t consider themselves as scientists but in fact are !  See my blog on the science of slacklining here 

Footballing Scientists – and free resources !

I co-wrote some resources with Arsenal and the Institute of Physics . This was a paradigm shift. The Arsenal Footballers are amazing scientists as they clearly understand how the laws of physics apply to footballs. They may not be able to explain what they are doing in standardised scientific language but they know intuitively . Click on the image to get the free resource – or contact me for more information

iop foot

Practicals in Science

“Teaching Science without practicals is like teaching swimming without a pool”  

Is this true? Partly , but just having access to the pool doesn’t mean that you will swim well.  You need knowledgeable tuition, to be able to practise  lots  and to be given useful feedback.  A purely theoretical understanding of swimming isn’t likely to be that helpful in the real world, but you can still learn lots. Likewise mindlessly splashing about may be fun, but it isn’t efficient learning.

A useful report: Does Practical Work Really Work? A study of the effectiveness of practical work as a teaching and learning method in school science – Ian Abrahams and Robin Millar. here

This report is often cited by people claiming practical work isn’t effective.  What the report found on the study of 25 lessons that really only for one was the use of practicals deemed to be effective  in extending the learning of ideas. It isn’t that practicals do not aid learning, rather that most observed practicals in the study didn’t because they weren’t well planned.

The framework is a great tool for thinking about what learning will take place:prac 1

A: What did the teacher want the students to learn

B: What was the activity / practical that the teacher had planned

C: What did the students actually do – This is the first success criteria and in the study this is what the vast majority of teachers focussed on.  This is the realm of the observables.  Did the students follow the correct procedures, use the apparatus properly, get the right results. These are usually fairly low level objectives and usually do little to improve conceptual understanding.

D: The second learning outcome is in the domain of ideas. What did the students learn from the practical that actually helped  their conceptual understanding. This is not only  a considerably conceptually higher level  expectation than the observables , but also much harder to measure.

If the domain of objects and observables – (what equipment they use and what they measure ) doesn’t link with the domain of ideas (conceptual understanding )  then it is likely the practical will have little impact on learning.

prac 2

Before you do a practical, use this model to really think about the learning and how you can apply good pedagogy.  What is pedagogy?  See Steve Wheelers’ Blog here

Essential resources for Physics Teachers is here 

A really useful book by Tom Sherrington is here 

SCORE – Getting Practical Resources for Primary is here

3 Act Science here 

Great Videos from Alom Shaha here

Please contact me through twitter or through the comments on what ideas you would like included

Please follow this blog to be informed of the rest of this series

Resilience – Why do our youngsters lack Resilience? – What we can do to help them

Do you find your students (or your children)

  • Often give up too easily?
  • Lack initiative?
  • Deal with failure badly ?
  • Blame others when things go wrong?
  • Want you to solve their problems?
  • Fear failure, so use avoidance strategies?

They are possibly lacking in resilience

The American Psychological Association defines Resilience as:

Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.

Research has shown that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary. People commonly demonstrate resilience. One example is the response of many Americans to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and individuals’ efforts to rebuild their lives.

Being resilient does not mean that a person doesn’t experience difficulty or distress. Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity or trauma in their lives. In fact, the road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress.

Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.


I decided to ride up a mountain on a borrowed bike this morning. Setting off optimistically up a 2050 foot climb, I soon realised it was going to be tougher than I’d predicted – Being realistic has never been my forte. Negative thought processes almost immediately appeared, blaming external factors – ‘It’s too hot, the bike is too heavy, the gears are too high,’ (It was an old 1980s road bike with dodgy ancient tubular tyres and those horrible biopace chainrings – info for those cyclists geeks) ‘No one knows I’m challenging myself, I’ll just turn back’.

I nearly stopped several times but kept going, mainly because I wanted to write a blog on resilience and didn’t want to feel hypocritical. Then my thoughts started looking for excuses to do with my own failings – ‘I’m not feeling too well, haven’t ridden for a while, maybe I should just turn back’. Then a guy on a much better bike than mine burned past me, obviously because he was on the better bike! – he was under much greater pressure though as he couldn’t blame his bike if he failed. I plodded after him, then he stopped for a cigarette ! – ”Thats it I’m not letting this mountain beat me if a smoker can get up it” It was hard, it hurt, voices in my head were telling me to stop – ‘Whats the point? ‘ but I made it.
Did I feel good? No, I felt terrible, exhausted! Then the great feeling came, I had conquered the mountain (or more precisely my own demons) , I could write this blog, but more importantly, I had a long downhill blast that I had earned.

Why do so many of our students give up, or scream for help when the going gets tough?

In Psychology Today Dr Peter Gray writes

Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges
College personnel everywhere are struggling with students’ increased neediness.

A US College found that emergency calls to Counseling had more than doubled over the past five years. Students are increasingly seeking help for, and apparently having emotional crises over, problems of everyday life. Recent examples mentioned included a student who felt traumatized because her roommate had called her a “bitch” and two students who had sought counseling because they had seen a mouse in their off-campus apartment. The latter two also called the police, who kindly arrived and set a mousetrap for them.

Faculty at the meetings noted that students’ emotional fragility has become a serious problem when it comes to grading. Some said they had grown afraid to give low grades for poor performance, because of the subsequent emotional crises they would have to deal with in their offices.

This mirrors what huge numbers of teachers around the world have said to me. Students lack independence and require constant handholding and support. Teachers are having to deal with this lack of resilience. Our students don’t expect to struggle at all, if they do, It’s our fault for not teaching them properly. Failure in a test is seen as a catastrophe, not something you can learn from, but something you can blame someone for. With the ever-present pressure of exams teachers are stuck in a situation where we all too often cave in to their helplessness (and they know we will!)  and so the neediness cycle continues.

Dr Gray theorises that much of this has to do with the lack of free play experienced in childhood. Children rarely have to make decisions for themselves away from adults, so therefore when they reach adulthood they are poorly prepared.

What elements of play might be missing?
Ellen Sandseter, a professor at Queen Maud University in Trondheim, Norway, has identified six categories of risks. These are:

Heights: Most children love to climb whether on climbing frames or trees. Shouting excitedly’ look at me ‘ often to the horror of parentis who would not have allowed them to go that high
Rapid speeds: Even tiny children love swings and want to go faster, then scooters, bikes, skateboards etc.
Dangerous tools: It isn’t random behaviour that causes children to be drawn towards the knives, drills and other things that parents immediately move out of the way (A Swahili proverb state: If a child cries for a knife give it to them – they will learn)
Dangerous elements: All children are fascinated by fire, are drawn to deep holes or fast currents
Rough and tumble: Play fighting and chasing each other. They seem to prefer being chased and being thrown around rather than being the ones in control
Disappearing/getting lost: Hide and seek gives the thrill of separation at an early age. As they get older they make dens and find places away from adults if they can.

Looking at these I realise I climb and coasteer, ride a fast motorbike, love my chainsaw , am a pyromaniac, do judo and Thai Boxing and rarely know where I am going – Can anyone recommend a good psychotherapist? But we take risks not to escape life, but to prevent life from escaping us.

We are living in an increasingly risk averse ‘safe’ society ,by overprotecting our young people are we actually damaging them?  Is there much adventure in our children’s lives?
Children allowed to explore, learn from small painful episodes (or larger ones) and failures. They learn that in play fighting, hurt can happen without intention.  They discover how to regulate their own behaviour and response to being hurt. They learn how to assess risk. How to balance the reward of the thrill, with the actual danger. They can learn from failure, take responsibility for it and hence build their own resilience.  They learn to deal with unpredictable events and not to fear the unknown.

Without these learning experiences they may become adults incapable of making decisions for themselves, paralysed by irrational fear.

Resilient people tend to have the following characteristics:

Optimism: There is a clear link between optimism and resilience. The most resilient people tend to be those who feel when faced with adversity that things could be worse. This is certainly true of survivors in shipwreck situations
Faith and/or spirituality: Having a belief in an external deity or a belief in yourself that things will get better. Having a strong moral compass
Humour: Being able to reframe the situation and either laugh at it or at yourself. Always look on the bright side of life!
Social support: There is huge amounts of evidence that cancer survival rates for example go up when that person has strong and supportive friendship groups.
Can Learn from Role Models: Resilient people take responsibility and action learning from others who have been in similar situations

Resilient people tend to feel they have a measure of control, or that its all a journey and a new learning experience is taking place.

800x600-zendog (1)

Does the online world help our young people?

Many students can escape this scary real world into an online world of gaming. Your failures happen away from people you have to meet every day. There is a sense of order and predictability in the game and you can learn in safety without damaging social repercussions. There are lots of benefits to gaming – evidence Players show huge resilience in that they fail,learn from that failure and try again. Does this translate into the real world? I fear not but maybe that is just my own non – gamer bias, then I watched this:

You may want to try this  SuperBetter

Other children turn to a virtual online social media world that is potentially hugely rewarding or damaging. People present on sites such as Facebook an airbrushed, perfect life. Had a wonderful day …., what a perfect husband/friend/parent/child .. We get a rose tinted distorted window into the worlds of others . You can control what others see, but not how they react to what you show them so there is a high stakes and often high fear . The evidence from researchers  appears to show it makes us unhappier and almost certainly wont improve your resilience.

The team found that Facebook use correlated with a low sense of well-being.

“The more people used Facebook over two-weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time,” they said. “Rather than enhancing well-being… these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.”

Does Facebook infantilise us?  Lady Greenfield thinks so here  Im not a big fan of these, but you can test yourself here:  howinfantilizedareyou.com

What can be done to help our young people in a resilience crisis?

Understandably some schools have adopted the approach that the results are the only thing that matter and hands are held all the way through to the end of school. Thus the job is done in getting the students the qualifications needed (and in some schools this is what the parents have paid for and expect )

The work of Carol Dweck and her Growth Mindset has revolutionised some peoples lives

Some strategies for teachers: 

Have a clear definition of what you want your students to be like that is achievable by all and not simply based on performance. Resilient, creative, risk taking etc.
Deal with helicopter parents ,  encourage them to let their sons/daughters to make decisions for themselves. To be clear what the damage that frailty can cause and to buy into your vision of an outstanding student.
Encourage students to look at failure in a different way. Let them fail in low stress environments. For example get them used to pre-topic tests as a simple diagnostic tool – you need to know what they know before you teach them a topic. Or simply a question they shouldnt be able to answer yet and get them to consider strategies for answering it.

In Maths use dan Meyers 3 Act Maths here, in science try my  (being developed) 3 act science. here
Teachers need to model failure and how to react to it by failing themselves
Using strategies outlined in Visible Thinking Routines get students to look at dilemmas and difficult decisions and practice reframing and dealing with problems  here  You can just  add – ‘What might happen if? ‘ questions
For a way of breaking down barriers you might try the ‘Yes factor’ outlined below
One interesting thing is my high school principal like to use the “Yes Factor” when she runs a post-suspension meeting with a student and his/her family. How does she do this? She always starts with “Today we are here to resolve the matter so that you can come back to school. In the last few days you probably have thought about what you have done. We would like to talk about this now so that we can move on and not to dwell on this matter any more.“Today we are here”, “to resolve the matter”, “so that you can come back to school”, “In the last few days”, “you probably have thought about what you have done”, “We would like to talk about this now”, “”we can move on”, “not to dwell on this matter any more” are all the “Yes Factors” and undeniably true as everyone in the post-suspension meeting tends to agree with that. When people agree with what you say with the first few statements at the beginning, it is more likely that they will also agree with some suggestions you are going to bring up. find out more here
Some Strategies for Parents:

Try to let go and give them some freedom to explore their 6 risky behaviours and allow your partner to do the same (maybe not hand them the knife!)
Let them solve problems by themselves, you may suggest strategies and ways of tackling the problem, but try not to influence their decisions too much.
Talk through how you make decisions yourself, weighing up the pros and cons of different approaches.
Discuss films and decisions the characters made and the consequences.
The film Inside Out provides great opportunities for opening discussions
Talk about what happened at school. Not by using the question. ‘What happened at school today ?’ that normally generates a monosyllabic response – 25 questions you can use instead are here
For teens here are 28 questions here  though don’t have a high expectation that it will bring forth much. We can but try!
Learn basic counselling skills -Ideally on a course with a tutor but there are plenty of online courses for example here 

What do we mean by Grit?


What have you found works to improve resilience = either your own or other peoples?

Please add comments and resources below


The Magnificent 7 apps every PE Teacher should use

Part of the Magnificent 7 series of simple strategies that can significantly add to learning. If I could only use 7 these are what they would be

Key points:

  • Only use technology when it does something you cant do without it.
  • It has to cost much less in terms of effort to learn/money than the benefit (Think of the original Dartfish – fantastic concept but too complex/ too long to set up etc so hardly used )
  • It has to be reliable and be able to work offline
  • Preferably free

These tools are subject to change so please watch and add comments – what would your top 7 be?

(1) Video delay – Simply delays transferring the video for a preset time . So you see what happened 10 seconds ago. Great for self analysis  of tennis serves/golf shots etc or for analysing with the students what they are are doing with them able to see their own performance. Note these do not keep a recording so are for on the fly support

Lots of them reviewed here  they all do a similar thing . Put your phone/iPad on a tripod or simply hold it . Film the students doing high jump/long jump etc. Then they run round to you and you can talk them through their performance

(2) iMovie – This really is a fully featured video editing app . Slow mo , add music, split screen comparisons

Full tutorial

(3) iDoceo 4 – A fantastic racking and assessment app for PE  You can use it offline for registers, lesson planning and recording progress – nice video here

(4) Dartfish – Great analysis app that can enable you to show with data what is really happening on the sports field. Its also perfect for cross curricular maths as the data can be exported


(5) Padlet – Simple idea but fabulous way of sharing visual information with the class. Post videos up directly for peer feedback.  One option is to turn on moderate posts and you can broadcast a game with photos and commentary to parents (like the BBC ones) if you use the stream option.

A post by @ictevangelist is here

An example of its use in PE is here

(6) Bleep test – Where technology really makes a difference !

Lots of them reviewed here

(7) Twitter – If only for instantly informing parents / students/ schools  of changes to fixtures twitter has real value . Create your own Personal Learning Network (PLN) . The global community of PE teachers is brilliant. To see my list of PE teachers to follow go to here  Please feel free to contact me to add more people worth following

Showbie is awesome for tracking progress and narrowly missed the list

Sprint Timer is another great one

Tutorial here https://iteachpe.wordpress.com/2013/06/01/how-to-use-sprint-timer-application-for-athletics-time-trials-in-pe-2/