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.

IsaacNewton1-209x300

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

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