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

Three Act Science – Alternative approaches to Science Teaching

Three act science is based on the work of Dan Meyer see his TED Talk here  who created three act maths in order to get students to think about and engage in maths – rather than simply follow sets of processes in order to get the ‘right’ answer.

Dan felt that his students had the following issues

Meyer students lack


Any science teacher will recognise these as the same problems we face. Students wait for us to help them and give up if we don’t,  We think they’ve nailed it at the end of the lesson only to find that at the start of the next lesson they are mystified when you mention the concept again. If an exam  question is worded slightly differently to the ones they have practiced they are completely flummoxed. They ask us to prepare them for exactly what will come up in the exam and blame us if it doesn’t.

Professor Guy Claxton in his latest book Educating Ruby   has the idea of seven Cs that give us a good starting point on what we want to our students to be enterprising, friendly, moral and imaginitive. These are :

Curious – Have a natural interest

Collaborative – Be able to be part of a team

Communicators – Effectively put their point across

Creative – Produce new and interesting ideas and material

Committed – Not need any external drivers or rewards

Confident – Be prepared to present and defend opinions

Craftmanship – Pride in their work and being the best that they can be

Three act science aims to help develop these skills  not just exam decoding. Irrespective of your teaching style – be it traditional or progressive these ideas add value to learning. It also fits in perfectly to strategies such as the South Australian Learning to Learn  which I feel hits all the things I’d want an education system to be

The principles of three act science are:

Act 1: the hook

This is a demonstration or video that is either counter intuitive or creates curiosity. The aim is to get the students engaged in deep thinking either in order to explain what they think will happen or why it happened.

An example is this one. What order will the cartons fall over in?

To take this a stage further we can ask students to make a prediction – The work of Professor Mazur implies this is essential.  We also should  create a degree of confusion  – see another blog I wrote  here  or the original here 

An effective way of assessing learning and ideas is to ask students to put their left right or both hands up to indicate their choice. So for example for the cartons above. If you think the last carton to fall over is the full one on your left, raise your left hand. If you think its the half full in the middle raise both hands. If its the empty one on your right raise your right hand. Now keep your hand/s up , go and find someone who disagrees with you and tell them why they are wrong.

We now go and listen to the ideas and misconceptions and articulate them to the class. What we are trying to do here is to use visible thinking  . The simple premise being that if we want our students to think like scientists we need to model that thinking for them. We are also drawing attention to misconceptions and getting students to think about them. The effectiveness of this strategy is outlined in the Dr Derek Muller aka Veritasium in his doctorate research – Full research papers here

Another strategy to add thinking at this point is  WMHI?  This is simply asking the question What Might Happen If …. ?  and get the students to continue – the boxes were lighter/heavier , sand was used instead of water ….  then they can work it out or try it out.

Act 2: The explore

So we have started an engaging activity, now is the time to explore and develop problem solving skills. What do we need to know in order to find out. What information have I got?  How might this link to other things I have learned or seen before?  (You could link this to SOLO taxonomy  here though David Didau has some advice on using it more for planning than the students here ) What value if any do the other student ideas have ? Could my initial beliefs be wrong? (surely not – confirmation bias is very powerful!)

We can also take it a step further – So for the cartons  if they all think the half full is the most stable – at what stage does reducing the amount of fluid from half full make it become less stable ie what is the point of maximum stability ?

Act 3: The reveal

We might want to use the Zeigarnik effect – basically  we lose interest in the cartons when we know what the answer is. We continue to think about incomplete activities so dont rush to do the reveal.

Want to know the answer to the cartons? Try it yourself = or look for the clue in the first video

There will be a whole series of three act science activities launched on a new youtube channel threeactscience and coolscistuff – So please watch this space

Please contribute any ideas or thoughts in the comments section




Confusion vs Clarity – Great teachers who beat themselves up and poor ones who think they are great

We like clarity – defined as clearness or lucidity as to perception or understanding; freedom from indistinctness or ambiguity. So surely this is what we as educators should be aiming for. Brief succinct and to the point and our students are happy.

Confusion on the other hand is something unpleasant and to be avoided says conventional wisdom.  This may be true for superficial tasks such as rote memorising, but there is mounting evidence that confusion promotes learning at a deeper level of comprehension.

Science is different than most subjects in that most students enter our classrooms with a preconceived notion of scientific concepts . Their minds are not a blank slate (sadly as that would be easier) but a mass of beliefs, many of which are wrong.

If we use the classic teaching idea of showing a demonstration and then having a discussion about what they have seen, that must be effective. 


It would appear not, from research from Eric Mazur,the Harvard physics education researcher that we are better off not doing the demonstration at all unless you get them to predict an outcome first. If only the demo is viewed you tend to remember it in a way that confirms your belief rather than the reality. This is a common fallacy that we remember things as they really are. Making the prediction seems to force us to realise that we got it wrong and hence more likely to change our minds. The social discussion afterward seems to have no direct effect on their performance although longer term benefits were not evaluated. Nor was peer instruction used which would have been interesting.

Dr Derek Muller – with the youtube channel Veritasium exploits this improved performance with his videos that deliberately confuse  Great Youtube Channel

Students prefer not to be confused and far prefer teachers who give clear explanations,  .  Is this always a good thing?  Mazur tried an on-line test on several topics, where he asked students a couple of hard questions (novel situations, things they hadn’t faced previously), and then a meta-question, “Did you know what you were doing on those questions?”  Mazur and his colleagues then coded that last question for “confusion” or “no confusion,” and compared that to performance on the first two problems.


Again the results are counter intuitive. The confused students actually perform way better than the ones who are not. Which probably means that the students who are happiest with their teachers are the poorer performers – (this has huge ramifications for fee paying schools who want their teachers to be popular )

For teachers we may be faced with the choice of being popular and ineffective, or unpopular and effective!

Not only are students poor at judging how effective their teachers are they also according to Mazur are very poor at predicting their own performance.

This could be partly down to the Dunning-Kruger effect where people have a tendency to overrate their own ability. This is usually down to ignorance rather than arrogance. In virtually every survey done more than 50% of people judge themselves as being better than average attractiveness, intelligence and ability as a driver. Perversely the least competent are the ones most likely to overrate themselves and the highest performers underrate themselves.


Perceived logical reasoning ability and test performance as a function of actual test performance

An article here outlines Dunning – Kruger effect and there’s a detailed blog here 

Add all these things together and you can have very popular poor performing teachers who think they are great as they lack the analytical skills to see their failings and unpopular, but  high performing teachers who beat themselves up. It can be a cruel, unfair  world!


I will be launching a new YouTube Channel to support this so please watch this space

Matchbox Coin Challenge

Push a coin into a matchbox on the base side of the inner box as shown


The challenge is to get the coin to go upwards through the box to come out of the top, but you can’t touch the coin. I was shown this by the wonderful Syailendra Harahap

What are you going to do?

Dont watch the video below until you have tried to solve the problem (really don’t watch it yet!)

When you do watch it pause the video between Act 1 and Act 3 whilst you think.

Act 1: You are going to tap the top of the box. What questions does this make you think of?

Act 2: What might happen if…. ?

  • You tapped the box harder?
  • You used a lighter/heavier/bigger coin?
  • you used a full matchbox/heavier one?
  • you used a bigger matchbox

Act 3: The reveal

So what is happening?

The coin cannot be moving upwards as the only force that is exerted is downwards.

The coin starts in a state of grip with friction holding it in place in the box.

As the box is tapped it moves downwards, however the coin has inertia and so does not move with the box, it stays fairly still whilst the box moves past it. The frictional force is in a state of slip at this point and the box moves relative to the coin. As the box slows down friction returns to a state of grip. The coin appears to be moving upwards inside the box and will continue to do so until it reaches the top.

3 Act Physics – Momentum

Basic Principles of the 3 Acts are shown here

Momentum – Demolition balls

You may want to start with the shortest question you can. In this case;

Should demolition balls be bouncy or not?

How do ‘dead blow’ hammers work ?

dead blow illustration

Stilleto Tools suggest that their titanium hammers have a 97% efficiency compared to 70% for a steel hammer. Could this be true and how would you test it?

Act 1:  Demolition Ball 

Act 2: The explore

What questions does this make you think of?

Which one would be the most effective at knocking the glass over?

Which is the most efficient at transferring energy?

What could happen if ….? (what matters?)

Students could investigate

  • Different material balls
  • Different material ‘buildings’ most demolitions would be brick built
  • Materials to dampen the ball
  • The effect of the height
  • Finding the best compromise between effectiveness and bounce (practically we don’t want our demolition ball to bounce too far or we will struggle to control it and may demolish many things we don’t want to!


Two things we may want to consider are the law of conservation of momentum (The total momentum of the system is conserved)  and the law of conservation of energy (energy is neither lost, nor destroyed)

There would be  little change in the kinetic energy of the bouncy ball as it rebounds with a similar speed to the impact speed, however there is a large change in the velocity as although the magnitude of the velocity doesn’t change much, the direction has reversed. So there will be a large change in the momentum of the ball.

The plasticine ball is likely to stop on impact and so there will be a large change in the kinetic energy of the ball, but how efficient is this transfer? There will be less change in the momentum than for the bouncy ball as there is no rebound.

So what will happen?

Act 3: The reveal

The bouncy ball is clearly more effective at knocking the glass over.


If we ignore the energy aspects and simply look at the momentum it is very clear

Momentum (kgm/s) = Mass (kg) x velocity (m/s)

Total momentum before collision = total momentum after collision

Both balls have the same initial momentum before the collision. For the bouncy ball this momentum becomes negative after the collision and zero for the plasticene ball. Hence the glass must have more momentum after the bouncy ball hits it than the plasticene one

There are many other aspects that could be investigated

The efficiency of hammers

Why ‘dead blow’ hammers do less damage to soft surfaces

What real demolition balls are like

3 Act Physics – First attempts

These are the first drafts of applying Dan Meyer’s 3 act maths here  into physics having had some previous ideas here and a premise of using intuition here – After all isn’t maths just physics with the toys removed?

Below are act 1s . These are the ‘hooks’ to generate questions that would lead into explorations of act 2. The reveals , act 3 are all on my youtube channel but please dont look until you have really thought the problems through. These will probably be also put on Dan Meyer’s 101QS when/if  I get permission here

Bouncy demolition ball

A great way to break a cup

How to blow a candle out

Suspended ball mystery

Comments, suggestions and contributions as always welcome. This is a non commercial resource, so please keep it that way.

There will be many more to follow

Three Act Science – Collaboration?

Before we start educating them, it makes sense to ask the question what makes a great scientist?


The ability to ask astute questions ?

Being able to consider innovative and divergent strategies for getting the answers?

Having the capability to create valid experiments and spotting flaws in techniques and patterns/ anomalies in results?

Have a sufficient depth of knowledge to connect concepts to reach the Extended Abstract level of SOLO Taxonomy?

To be able to evaluate and extend understanding with more investigations?

How well does our education system facilitate the development of great scientists?

Often very poorly. All too often we teach from the bottom up; tell stories where the answers are already known. In many lessons no conflict is created, nor curiosity excited; no creativity is allowed and students are limited by the outcome.

In short, often students are taught merely to decode exam questions and performance takes the place of real learning.

Teachers complain of students lacking:

  • Initiative
  • Independence
  • Resilience
  • Thinking skills
  • Communication skills

This is not entirely our students fault.  Our education system is not designed to encourage creativity and free thinking, but geared towards conformity and mass production. Complaining that our students lack these skills is the equivalent of moaning that cars don’t fly.

With an education system that is exam orientated and risk averse it is easy to see why students are spoon fed and a cycle of dependency created.

How can we break the cycle and move away from this sanitised science experience?

Using Dan Meyer’s inspirational @ddmeyer  Three Act Maths  http://blog.mrmeyer.com/?p=10285 as a model, we can incorporate multimedia and digital tools to redefine the learning experience. This is one example of transformational practice

What might we do?

  • Use multimedia and digital tools
  • Let them use their intuition
  • Let the students build the problem by asking questions themselves
  • Have them share their discoveries and evaluate each others technique
  • Be less helpful

If you only do one of these do the last: as a teacher it is incredibly difficult to acheive. When delivering teacher training I often use a magic box that there is a strategy to open, which is difficult to discover. I use it to demonstrate that invoking curiosity as a starting point, is much more powerful than the ‘bottom up’ approach. We would normally teach this as ‘here is a box, here is how to open the box, then give it to them and they would be able to open it’. This completely removes the joy of discovery and makes it very boring. The interesting thing when doing this activity with teachers, is that when they learn to  open the box, most immediately feel compelled to tell other people how to do it, thus killing the learning experience. The box is only interesting when you can’t open it. No other group I have tried it with suffers this compulsion. In fact a group of bankers used it to prove their superiority and wouldn’t dream of helping others!

I would like to propose a Three Act model for improving the delivery of science and would welcome collaboration, comments and criticism in the development of this.

The Three Act structure is already used by Screenwriters who know lots about how to engage our interest:


It sounds horribly like the formulaic OFSTED three part lesson , but please bear with me. You break your lesson down intothree parts: Act One, Act Two, Act Three. Beginning, middle, end. Setup, problem solving, resolution.

Act One is the hook. The purpose of the first act is to engage the students. It must be unique, something they haven’t seen or considered before. They are then encouraged to ask questions and build the problem themselves; to make predictions and use their intuition. Most people understand far more physics than they realise – for example: they don’t fall over as they understand centre of mass. What many lack is the ability to communicate this understanding in a conventional scientific way.

An example is here: (The idea is stolen from one of the finest minds in physics I know: Dr  Lawrence Cattermole)


If you cannot see the video there are three cartons of juice: one full, one half full, one empty. The full one is pushed over until it falls.

So what questions does this invoke?

The questions can be narrowed. The highly talented Tom Harbour (a beacon for Teach First ) at a school in Leicester gets his classes to ask superb questions using his “What would happen if…?” format.

Some questions they may come up with:

Which is the most stable? (This then generates more questions – do we mean which falls at the greatest angle, or which needs the biggest force to push them over?)

In which order will they fall over when pushed, from the first to fall over to the last?

Which requires the biggest force to push it over?

How much juice will make it the most stable? (This is massively more complicated than you may think!)

Which is most likely to get knocked over – an empty , full or half full glass, if you knocked them in passing ? (real life example – that gets even more tricky as the shapes of glasses will affect this)

Act Two: Ideas are generated  towards a resolution of the problem. Engagement is increased as the key aspects of motivation are in place: Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose – See Dan Pink here

This is the stage where they can explore their understanding and knowledge can be added if needed. Allow them to make mistakes and follow wrong lines of enquiry.

They can then plan and carry out their investigation into stability to find out answers.

Digital technology used to follow their learning journey can  be transformative. Videos used to show what they predicted, what they did and what they were thinking offer great insight.

Apps such as Socrative, Showbie and Nearpod allow questions from the students to be compiled and progress to be shown. I will be developing examples of these in the future

Act Three is the reveal, the resolution to the dilemma. This ideally should be shown, if possible through the video or demonstration, rather than simply being told the answer. This builds tension and often gets the release – “Yess!!” Though for some of the activities the “right” answer is unknown and there are no limits to what students can achieve.

So what is the solution to the juice carton stability problem?

Find out for yourself!

( Contact me if you haven’t access to a carton!)

Please add comments and feel free to share and collaborate, this is not a commercial product.