Sunday, 22 January 2012

ASE Conference 2012

After being a member for a few years, this year I finally got the opportunity to go to the annual conference.  Luckily I'm only a couple of hours away by train so I planned to go on the Friday just for the day.  As others have said, this is great CPD - I wish I'd known exactly how it works before I went so I could've planned my time there better and maybe stayed for another day.  I really want to go to next year's now, I know I could get a lot more out of it.

I spent a fair bit of time in the Exhibition Area, yes collecting free pens, but also talking to people from the Science Museum, the Met Office, the RHS and various exam boards and publishers about the resources they have for teaching science.  There were plenty of places to spend some serious money (new lab benches, fume cupboards and glassware...), and there was a lot of technology on display (it seemed that every stand had at least one iPad...)

I was able to meet up with some of the great people from Twitter too.  They've provided me with help, ideas and support for a year or more, so it was good to put faces to names and have a chat about how teaching is the same and difference in FE, and in other areas of the country. Thank you!

After lunch I went to a talk about Active Learning for post 16, mainly to get some reassurance that the things I have been doing with my classes have value and to get some new ideas too. I've always loved the idea of encouraging independence in 6th form pupils, after all if they plan to go onto higher education then they need to know how to study for themselves.  Unfortunately, all too often, year 12 and 13 become all focused on exam results and just want the information they need to pass handed to them.  Some top tips were:

  • Don't read practical instructions to pupils.  Make the method available to them before the lesson (via homework or moodle for example), and then they arrive at the practical ready to start.  This leads onto the next one...
  • Let the pupils fail. They learn from this, they'll read the instructions the next time
  • Encourage pupils to buy science dictionaries, or make their own.
  • Develop self and peer assessment
  • Brainstorming sessions - a pupil writes down what they know and this is passed to another pupil to correct and add to, before being passed on again, and so on.

There was a bit of discussion about entering year 12 pupils for exams in January.  There's the idea that they don't know how to learn at that stage of the course, so underachieve versus the wake up call they can get from a poor result.

I also liked the self-evaluation form - I scribbled down the main headings for this, so I'll get that up here as soon as I put it into a document.

Other active learning ideas included:

  • Making models, eg of muscles and cells
  • Dominos with question and answers.
  • Matching cards
  • Sequencing cards, eg the cardiac cycle
  • Finding a picture or diagram and getting pupils to write about it
  • Marketplace

The Phillip Allen book, "Friday Afternoon Biology" was recommended as it has many of these activities already prepared, as was "The Teacher's Toolkit".

Overall then, I'd absolutely go again because I got so much out of it, even in a few hours. Thanks to the ASE for organising this great CPD.

Other people have also blogged about the things they did:

@teachingofscience - here
@Bio_Joe - here
@hrogerson - here

Saturday, 21 January 2012

What's in the box?

I saw these at the ASE Conference and whilst chatting to the lovely people I was with, and the person manning the stand, I could see how they could be used in a "How Science Works" lesson.  I could also see that they could be home-made so I asked the science technicians at work what they could do. This is the result:

As with the set you can buy, I have no idea what is inside the boxes - only one of the technicians knows, and he isn't saying!

This video has given me some idea of how to use the boxes for more than a starter in a lesson.  A colleague also suggested that the pupils could design further experiments to provide more evidence, for example, finding another one of the suggested object and weighing it to compare.  I plan to at least give them to year 13 to have a play with at the start of a lesson, and they'll be great for that class where only half ever appear on time.  I definitely want to have a go at a whole lesson, maybe with year 7, this week.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Year 8 homework - volcanoes

This is some of the homework my year 8 class did.  We're doing a topic called Catastrophe, lots of things about how volcanoes are formed, how scientists can predict lava flow and how rocks are made.  These are some of the highlights (sorry the formatting is rubbish)


Still to come this week - year 9 are going to write CVs for the hormones in the menstrual cycle!

Active Learning, post 16

On my flying visit to the ASE Conference I went to one of the seminars/talks about active learning for post 16 students.  This is something I've been interested in for a while - we have a course at KS3 (Upd8 Wikid/Segue) that uses a lot of class discussion, peer assessment and working in groups, and some of these skills have been carried forward to KS4.  It seems that once the kids make it to KS5 they become so focused on passing exams that they demand their teachers stand and lecture them so they get the information they need to pass their exams.

Unfortunately for the classes I teach, that isn't my way.  I expect pupils to engage with the material and will set homework that requires them to make a presentation to explain something to the rest of the class.  I've had a lot of success with class-made revision guides or "Everything you need to know about parasites" booklets...We all know that research shows that we learn better if you do something with the material rather than passively sit and have it spoon fed to you.

The ASE talk referred to an activity called "Marketplace", found in "The Teacher's Toolkit" (p122 if you have it handy!) Today I tried this for the first time, with my year 12 biology group.

It took me about 15 minutes to prepare for - I wanted to get them started on Unit 2, the parts about DNA and meiosis, so I pulled the key facts out of that section of the (AQA) syllabus, and turned them into 12 questions.  There were basic themes: structure of DNA; function of DNA; replication and meiosis - I colour-coded the questions, and pre-typed them onto an interactive whiteboard page. The questions were displayed for the first 10 minutes or so of the lesson (as the class arrived and got themselves organised...). I didn't refer to them until I was explaining what they were going to be doing.  The second slide of the chart was a basic list of instructions about how the lesson would flow.  I managed to differentiate by appointing a team captain for each group, basing this on how taxing that theme was.  I let the team captain pick three other people for their group. In future I would control the groups more, two pupils struggled as they ended up in the more complicated topics.

The activity gives the group 15 minutes to make a poster about their topic, without having the questions to look at.  They can only use 10 words and that frustrated and amused them in equal parts.  They used their textbooks and some other A level books I had in my room to carry out research, and one enterprising pupil used his smart phone!  I used groups of four and this worked well - one pupil seemed to do all the writing, one did the research and the other two swotted up on things they might be asked by the others in the group.

The part where they moved around went ok, some made decent notes and were able to teach this to the others in their groups when they returned.  The stall holders could only answer questions and this mixed ability group struggled at times to know what to ask and understand the answers they were getting - they need more practice.  The teaching was variable too, in future I'll send some off to see the other posters and swap them over with the stallholders, and then give them group discussion time.

The sneaky bit of the lesson is the return of the questions from the start of the lesson in the form of the quiz at the end - they all got more right at the end than they said they would've done at the start. There were a couple of good explanations of how DNA replicates and why this is important.  I'm counting this as a result.  I also had some past paper questions lined up as extension/homework/confidence builder and we had a quick look at how they would have to apply their knowledge to a question.

Over all, worth doing.  It was very active on their part, they had to use group work, research skills and explanations.  I plan to do it again tomorrow to start year 13 human biology off on homeostasis and for year 11 (targets D-G) for radioactivity.

These are their posters....

Friday, 13 January 2012


If you're a teacher you're probably about to say something along the lines of "AFL? You've only just started this?"  I said things had stagnated.

It was getting on for two years ago that a colleague did a presentation at a departmental meeting about something called AFL.  I recognised it as one of the fun things that was missing from my teaching and tried to work out how I could incorporate it.

I went though a list of about 70 different activities and wrote about 15 down in the back of my planner.  I figured that these were ones I could easily do, without any preparation or resources. Then, when I did my weekly planning, I wrote down for every class an AFL activity. I used a different coloured pen (purple if you're interested!) so that it stood out and it made sure I always spotted it there.  I started with easy things - Hangman, ABCD corners, thumbs up/down, red/orange/green cards (already in the pupils' planner which was handy), lining up and giving me a fact before they left, writing something they've learnt on a post-it note, digging out my mini-whiteboards from the back of a cupboard... I became more daring - I threw a ball at a pupil to get an answer, the kids then throw it to other people for their answers (note, I have a low lab ceiling and had a full size football....thirty 16 year olds... I downsized the ball).

My classes loved it. True, all I was really doing was a plenary, but to them it felt like playing. I was working out who understood what.  I've since added some more to my usuals - the Blob Tree and the Blob Classroom work well for lower ability pupils, especially those who struggle with their behaviour, I use a C3B4ME to get higher ability, highly dependent pupils to work more independently, I have random name generators (check out TES for a powerpoint template to do this for you) and sometimes I award counters for good answers or questions. (Classroom Dojo is good for this too, if you can get it to work...).

It's made life easier for me now that it seems I am supposed to demonstrate progress every 20 minutes. I just flip to the back of my planner for an instant idea. I've also borrowed the unused department copy of The Teachers Toolkit for some more ideas...

(Still to come, Bloom, the ASE conference, demonstrating progress....)

Here we go then


I've been thinking about doing this for a while.  I've had a blog over on LJ for years and years now, and I'll keep that up as much as I ever did, but what I've been missing is a reflective place to publicly put all the teaching gubbins that goes on.  Obviously I've no idea how much of an audience this will find.

So, what this blog is for is for me to record all the different things I'm trying out in my teaching.  After a few years of really not feeling like I was any use, various things have caused me to rethink this.  It means I've started trying a new thing every week or two, and whilst I've been putting them in a paper file, this might also be useful for keeping a record.

A bit about me then.  I've been teaching for eight years, this is number nine, after spending my time after graduation doing medical microbiology research, a post graduate degree in law and ending up in charge of purchasing for a university department.  I did my PGCE at York University - I'd recommend it because there were only 35 or so people on my course; this meant we all got to know each other and the lecturers, and getting in was a bit more taxing than it seems to be at other universities.  I'd thought about teaching science for a while but never felt confident enough. In the end a friend took me to school with him for a day and I realised that if someone told me how to put a lesson together there was every chance I would be able to teach.  I've stayed with teaching because I enjoy it - getting to know and spend time with teenagers is fun, passing on my enthusiasm for science and especially biology, the days are never ever the same. Trust me, I did a desk job, it was mind-numbing.  I've been at the same school for seven years, some people would say this is too long for career advancement, but I've enjoyed building relationships with the pupils over this time, sometimes it's good to have a Reputation.

I think, like a lot of people, my teaching stagnated before this last 18 months or so.  I was taught to teach in a particular way, which I made into more "me" with experience.  I've seen, and mentored, PGCE students and NQTs who do amazing things that are totally new to me yet somehow the up-to-date theories of teaching haven't reached me.

I'm not sure what changed.  Maybe it was someone from the LEA coming in and trying to shake us up. Perhaps it was a colleague who seemed to have discovered a magical thing called AFL, that I recognised was one of the missing pieces from my teaching.  More likely it was laziness on my part, I was getting away with teaching like a lot of people, which was nowhere near what Ofsted seemed to want.

Still, things changed.  This blog is the story of how, and how things are still changing.