My son is a keen and able reader. Not quite ten, he read and enjoyed The Hobbit earlier this year. He likes both Harry Potter and Alex Rider. David Walliams‘ books are now ‘too young for him’ and he’s a big fan of variations on classic myths and fairy tales – The Sisters Grimm and Percy Jackson, for example. He was a ‘free reader’ most of last year and continues to make progress when tested in school, in both reading and writing.

He’s now back on the reading scheme – level 17 Oxford. According to the official website of the series, these books are at a lower level than the reading age as assessed by the school last year of 11 years, 9 months. They’re short, mainly dull, and despite the claim of his teacher that he needs to be reading a wider variety the school stock are almost all adapted classics. Jane Eyre and Silas Mariner for a ten year old boy? Really?

We’ve got a good range at home, and he’s reading these in between finishing off the official school books (which he manages in less than an hour, but can’t change more than a couple of times a week). It’s not stopping him from reading. But I hate that for the first time in ages, my son sees reading as a chore.

You can probably tell I’m a little annoyed about all this.

Reasons and Excuses

I’m pretty sure that there are two reasons his school are being so inflexible. Firstly it’s a new scheme, a new teacher and they’ve got a lot on at this time of year. Only two kids – the other a year older – are on this level in the school. The scheme and approach probably work fine with everyone else, and adapting it to one student is a big time commitment. I understand that. I really do.

The other is about assessment. We’d assumed that the only way he can be assessed (via the Suffolk reading scale, apparently) is by reading the books that match it. We’re now not sure that’s right. The school have chosen an assessment strategy which doesn’t cater for the highest ability. It will be interesting to see how they try to show progress, seeing as these are too easy for him.

I think they didn’t believe at first how quickly he was reading them. When he demonstrated that he had understood, retained and could explain the books verbally, they tried to slow him down. “Write a review.” “Discuss it with your parents so they can write in your record.” And, I kid you not – “Write a list of all the unstressed vowels.”

Maybe this week he’ll be told them while standing on his head. But that won’t address the problem – in fact, two problems – with this specific range.

Boredom and Spoilers

I should probably read a wider range of books myself. I’ll hold my hand up to sometimes limiting myself to SF and fantasy too much. But he does read a range, given the choice – and this selection doesn’t give him an option. Adapted classics, followed by… well, more adapted classics. He liked Frankenstein. Jekyll and Hyde scared him. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights bored him. Silas Mariner was an ordeal. This is not varied. If the school can’t afford to buy more (which, for such a small number of kids, I can understand) then why can’t he read his own as well? We’d happily accept a list of recommendations from the teacher. What about Harry Potter, Malorie Blackman, Young James Bond or Sherlock Holmes, Phillip Pullman, Michelle Paver (he liked this, thanks to @alomshaha for the suggestion)? If they have to be classics: Narnia, John Masefield, E. Nesbitt…

The other issue is that if he’s read – or been made to read – versions of great books like Frankenstein or the Three Musketeers now, what are the chances he’ll enjoy the full editions in a couple of years? Why spoil his future enjoyment this way? I doubt his GCSE English teacher will let him read Percy Jackson when the rest of the class are reading Jekyll and Hyde for the first time, just because he knows the ending. A crap film can spoil a good book (Ender’s Game and Starship Troopers, step forward) and I can’t see why this would be different. I’m sure the publishers have lots of reasons for getting ‘classics’ on to the list, but haven’t teachers pointed out that kids will grow up to have a lifetime of enjoying good books?

Ranting and Reflection

Having to assess all kids against one set of standards inevitably means that some find it too hard, some too easy. When I stopped thinking like a parent, and started thinking like a teacher, this made a lot more sense. I’m sure I’ve done this at some point and my reflections will be in a separate post, hopefully in a few days. For now I needed to rant, and hopefully you’re still reading to see I acknowledge that!

I’d really welcome any responses on this one – especially from any primary colleagues!


Tonight’s #asechat will involve Charles Tracy, the IoP’s Head of Education (and one of my bosses), discussing the new approach adopted by exam boards from this year. There’s lots of information at Supporting Physics Teaching, which is free to access and needs no sign-in. Other sites and resources will hopefully move over to this terminology (BBC Bitesize already has, for example). But why should we bother?

Energy is one of those topics, isn’t it? We teach it several times, but the kids seem to hang on to their misconceptions. Partly this is because it’s a word which is used in everyday life, often interchangably with power. Partly it’s the way students get mixed up with energy ‘resources’ (or as I prefer to teach it, ‘ways to make electricity’.

We shouldn’t be surprised that this causes problems. Energy is at heart a very abstract concept, and so one which is difficult for students to grasp. Does it make things happen? Well, not always – and this leads to students confusing energy with force. I used to divide the ‘types’ of energy into potential and moving categories, which I suppose could be seen as a crude version of this new approach.

In the simplest possible description, energy is about bookkeeping or currency. It turns out that when objects interact, often via forces, then we can do some maths which describe the change. What’s interesting is that if we pay attention, then the same number comes up more than once. This tells us that something is conserved.

We call that something energy and say it has been transferred from one place to another. Calling those places stores emphasizes that they still have whatever they were given. This sounds similar to past approaches but avoids the idea of distinct ‘chemical energy’ being turned into ‘electrical energy’ and so on. SPT has a good comparison.

So we teach energy concepts to make it easier to do calculations. We can’t measure energy directly, but the equations we use allow us to make measurements, which allow us to make deductions, which in turn allow us to make predictions.

That sounds a lot like science, doesn’t it?

Energy moves from one store to another via pathways. These are actions – verbs, if you like – which describe a change in a system. The IoP is suggesting using the word shift rather than transfer. (I would suggest one good reason to do so is to avoid the mix up with transform, which suggests there are different kinds of energy.) I found the diagram of possible pathways at SPT useful.

Several approaches are possible, including taking a ‘snapshot’ before and after an event, or showing the amount of energy in each store with orange liquid. There are of course others, many of which are visual and so provide an anchor for students to observed reality. This isn’t to recommend VAK of course – only to suggest that making this concept ‘stract’ can only be a good thing.

I’ll be taking part in the session this evening, and I’ll add a link to the archive afterwards. I’m sure there’ll be an advert for TalkPhysics, which is one place to get access to ongoing advice and support on this and other approaches. It may be short notice but please pass on the link for tonight’s chat; the more the merrier.


My Utility Belt

04Sep14

This was already planned as a response to Ian McDaid’s What’s In My Bag post, but I was prompted by a tweet from Cory @Doctorow about the wonderful Grid-It organiser. They’re great. Go and buy one.

So anyway, here’s the contents of my bag, about to be packed ready for my induction tomorrow into the Hall of Fame. I mean, Justice League. Okay, it’s actually into the Stimulating Physics Network, but that’s honestly nearly as good. Just with less lycra.

inmybag

 

Starting at the top left:

  • Moleskine 18 month planner, hacked with elastic to hold a pen (Leuchtturm1917 make one if you don’t have the bits handy) and with plastic tabs to save time. Hint: Stick a few post-its in the back for convenience.
  • Decent ballpoint which stays put and a keep-in-my-pocket Uniball fineliner. These are 5 for £4 in Tesco at the moment, go and buy some quick.
  • Pencil case, bought for me. Filled with, well, pens and stuff.
  • Elephant Wallet, basically some elastic sewn together to make a great minimalist wallet. Made to order, tiny in your pocket.
  • Earbuds for podcasts, music and blocking out the world when on a train. Cheap because I’m always losing the damn things.
  • Small notebook with detachable pages in a leather sleeve, bought on sale at a silly price from Waterstones. I am a bit of a stationery nerd.

The electronics:

  • Nexus 2013 edition, shiny gadget running Android. For once I was an early adopter with a Samsung Tab, but this is lighter and faster. And half the price of an iPad mini. Small enough to hold in one hand (great ebook reader) but has a big enough screen to make working possible.
  • It’s stored in a Cocoon Grid-It, basically a neoprene sleeve with loads of elastic across it. You can stick an amazing amount of stuff in there (currently: two sets of business cards, spare pen, painkillers, cables, book of stamps, coffee disloyalty cards, ruler, worked flint tool from 10k years ago, memory stick) and it all stays put.
  • To make the tablet a bit more practical, add a Bluetooth keyboard. There are loads about but it means you’ve got a kind of DIY netbook. I’m not linking to this because it’s acting up, but that’s possibly me.

So there we are – add in my phone (cheap android, tethers the tablet when needed, and what I used for the photo) and we’re done. All in a bag that I forgot to take a picture of, but it’s a rucksack because I have delusions of youth. Briefcases are for grown-ups and satchels are for schoolgirls in Enid Blyton books.

More posts coming soon, but I need to sort out what the rules are going to be for sharing resources on here. Hope everyone has had (or is about to have) a great start to the new school year.

 


I had an old webcam. I had time on my hands. And I had an idea.

This was never going to end well.

I’m actually pretty pleased with the result. It’s nowhere near as pretty as the one on Instructables produced by Glen Gilchrist (aka @mrgpg) but it didn’t need any power tools. Which were in the shed, and it was raining.

Start with an old webcam and a cheap lamp, in this case one from Ikea. It’s the sort of thing you might have, just make sure it has a long neck  which holds the head steady. It will need to support a bit of extra mass. (Not weight. Well, yes, weight. Anyway.)

 

DSC_0049

I used Lego, Sugru and cable ties to hold everything together. This has the advantage of being reversible, as well as quick. How you link the two parts depends on the exact models, but Lego means angles can be fixed and changed to suit your purpose. Plus, you know, Lego.

Sugru feels like blue-tack but dries within 24 hours to a firm silicone rubber. I’ve used it for outdoors repairs, making cufflinks (again with Lego, as it happens) and repairing odds and ends from cables to memory sticks. They don’t sponsor me. (Although if they want to send me some free samples…)

It works fine on my laptop, but I’ll need to try installing the drivers on a memory stick to make it properly portable. The plan is to demonstrate this in my new job and try it out myself, without the cost (100UKP+) involved in the decent models. I’ve read about uses (for example these for primary science from @dannynic) but never had the chance to put them into practice.

My first thoughts:

  • use student work immediately for “good because” and “even better if”
  • turn a small-scale practical into a class demonstration
  • have a student commentate on an experiment in progress
  • show hands-on methods like measurements and graph drawing in a realistic way

Not particularly exciting, I know, but I’m expecting to do a lot of improvisation in the new job. I’m currently putting together boxes of demonstrations, quick practicals, tips and tricks for the teachers I’ll be working with. (Post about this coming soonish.) But for now I’d love to have comments giving me better suggestions for how to use my Blue Peter Sugrued visualizer.


Moving On

22Jul14

So yesterday was the first proper day of the holidays. I say that because the weekends don’t really count, do they? But the first weekday when you get to lay in bed, relax over a cuppa, wear shorts rather than a shirt and tie… now that’s a holiday.

However, it’s a bit of an odd one for me. As you may have realised, depending on whether you caught the tweets or not, I’m moving on from my current job. In fact, it’s a bit more than moving on from the school I’ve been working at. As of September, I’ll not be a classroom teacher at all.

I’ve accepted a post with the Institute of Physics as a Teaching and Learning Coach. I’ll be one of 35 (some experienced and some like me new to the role) across the country. As part of the Stimulating Physics Network we’ll be promoting and helping physics teaching in secondary schools all over the place. My patch will be Derbyshire, mainly up towards Chesterfield, although we’re yet to finalise the specific schools.

For the first time in ten years I won’t be a classroom teacher, although as part of the job I’ll be visiting science labs and hopefully doing some work with various classes. I’ll still consider myself a science teacher, but they won’t be my classes. For the first time in a decade – since before my eldest son was born – I won’t be spending the summer stocking up on red pens. I will however be getting my head round various schemes of work and exam specifications, arguably more than before.

It’s exciting. And a bit scary. (Not least because with this being a part time role, I’ll have to manage some supply and/or freelance writing to support my coffee habit.) But I’m really looking forward to starting and seeing what kind of impact I can have. I suggested at my interview that the informal mentoring I’ve done in schools, and with the electronic staffrooms of blogging and twitter, could be seen as good training. Now to see if I was right.

I’m still planning to blog. I’ll still be tweeting “informally but informatively”, although I’ll be staying away from education policy for obvious reasons. Disclaimers have been added to my twitter profile and about page, making clear that these are my opinions, not those of my organisation. This means I’m now a writer-for-hire, so drop me a line if you’ve something I could be involved with. I’m still planning to join in with twitter chats and so on. All of that will be in my off-duty persona.

Spreading of identities, it’s probably time I formally came out of the closet. It’s not been that hard to link my real name with this account since I started writing elsewhere and linking to this site. So here I am, finally stepping out of the shadows.

I’m Ian Horsewell, and I’m a blogging addict.


My eldest son already identifies as geeky. Maybe it’ll change, and that’s fine. But right now he’s got a Raspberry Pi, several electronics kits and a burning desire to make a robot that will allow him to take over the world. He likes coding (secret ciphers as well as Scratch and Python) and is getting into astronomy, microscopes and wildlife. He wants to be a zoologist (this week) and is learning to touch type so he can blog his discoveries. In the interests of fairness: he also reads continuously, rock climbs, draws really badly and has taught himself to turn cartwheels and do backflips on a trampoline. He’s as well rounded as the average nine year old, for which his mother deserves a lot more credit than I.
The thing is, supporting his interest in science always came easily to me. I get science. It makes sense to me. Although I mainly teach physics, I’ve enough of a grounding across the board that I know where to look for good explanations if I’m stumped myself. (Recently: what’s the difference between moths and butterflies?) Sport, drama, music – these are mysteries to me. But science I get.
Lots of people don’t. Which means lots of parents don’t.
The ExpeRimental project – the middle capital letter is because it’s being run out of the Ri, the Royal Institution – is about giving parents the tools to play scientifically with their kids this summer. Instructions for simple, kitchen science demonstrations that help kids explain basic scientific ideas. It’s free, it’s supported via YouTube and it’s led not by famous faces but by real kids and parents. Alom Shaha is part of the project which means both the science and the videos are top-notch. The focus isn’t on recreating something they could see online, but on thinking scientifically. This is about questions, not answers, and it’s something everyone can learn, young or old.

By this point you’re probably nodding enthusiastically, but you’re also realising, as I did, that we’re the wrong audience. This site isn’t intended for me, although I’ll use it. As science teachers, we don’t need this. Parents need this project.
I don’t need this site
Because I’m a geek.

There, I said it. Am I stepping out of some intellectual closet here? (Bonus points to anyone who gets the reference, answer in the comments.)

This doesn’t make me a character in The Big Bang Theory, which I see as undemanding (rather sexist) comedy rather than a life blueprint. It doesn’t make me a genius. I’m neither a scientist nor an engineer. It makes me a person who recognises a fact about the world that I’d probably take for granted, if I didn’t have to make it explicit in a daily basis for my students.

Science is cool.

Not just because it leads to great stuff. Although it does. Not just because it involves big explosions. Ditto. And not just because it’s useful (candidate for this year’s understatement award) when facing crises like climate change, water scarcity and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Science is cool because it’s arguably the best way to answer one of the first abstract questions human beings ask.

Why?

Yes, I know that often the explanation of cause and effect involves people and their motives as well as scientific principles. Yes, I know that sometimes we’re answering the question in terms of justifying a choice rather than explaining how something works. But in its simplest possible incarnation, science is about describing how the world works and suggesting a reason for it. Magic and religion may have offered the first explanations, but science offered the first that actually worked. And still does. So science is cool, and thinking scientifically is useful to everyone, and lots of people think they can’t do it.

Who To Tell
share button 2
Is everyone too simplistic? It would be better to tell people who care. Parents who have six weeks of summer holiday ahead of them and know the summer reading challenge, great as it is, won’t be enough. ExpeRimental will be adding a new video each week over the summer. Kids and their parents will be encouraged to share their own contributions – videos, surprises, results, questions – via the project Facebook page.
Pass it on via your preferred social media, ideally a few times over the next few weeks. Email those in your family who are zoo keeping child minding this summer. Better yet, send it to older brothers and sisters and challenge them to help. Bribery is good – Horrible Science books are easy to find in charity shops and discounters, or the Klutz range provide great materials and ideas.
I’d love to see promotional materials in local libraries and their noticeboards – I might add a few myself. And perhaps bookshops might add something in their Science for Kids shelves? The point is to get the ideas into the hands of desperate parents who want to get through the summer without spending a fortune or shouting too much.
And next?
One approach that seems to have been missed; as well as primary teachers and those running science clubs, the resources would be great for youth groups. The project would be a great foundation for Rainbows or BeaversBrownies and Cubs. Pass on the link to youth leaders for a ready-made activity in the autumn.
Something I’m using with my own kids this summer is an American site, diy.org. Kids can share projects, from Actor to Zoologist, and earn badges to show what they’ve done. The ideas would link really nicely with the PhilosopherData Visionary and Film Maker skills as well as the more obvious scientific ones.
Next stop would be visiting somewhere scientific. I’m sure there must be lists of science centres, museums with dinosaur exhibits and wildlife centres suitable for kids. This could be as easy as printing off a checklist and heading for the park to look at bugs. Or as involved as staying overnight in the Science Museum. Just like science, this project is about starting to ask questions, not about giving final answers. And this post isn’t really about science teaching, any more than visiting the Roald Dahl museum is about teaching literacy. Instead, it’s about being a parent.
Which is what I’ll be up to for the next six weeks or so. Probably armed with a Pringles cannon…

Book Swap

17Jul14

books

Six weeks of summer holiday stretching ahead and I’ve laid in a stockpile of books, both paper and electronic, to keep me out of trouble. I’ve also got a long list of saved articles to catch up on; lesson study is something I want to look into much more closely, for example.

Every term or so I’ve been buying a book that’s relevant to my teaching. These alternate, vaguely, between vaguely popular science and education. I want to be a better teacher and engaging with a good book can’t hurt. I’ve always liked paper copies, because it’s easier to scribble in the margins. (I am looking at ways to annotate ebooks and then share/search main points, but that’s another post.) But this means that I’ve got overflowing bookshelves.

Could you help?

I’d like to start some book swapping. Choose one of the books by adding a comment, let me know your address by email and I’ll post it your way. It doesn’t count as CPD unless you think about it, so when you’re done type something about the book. Good points and bad, ideas you liked or how you’ve put it into practice. I’ll host that as a guest piece and/or link to your own site.

Maybe you’ve got books you’d like to offer as loans to fellow teachers? (If you don’t already do something like this in your own school, can I suggest you set it up first to save postage costs?) If so, include a list of titles/authors, maybe with a few words about who might get the most out of reading, in the comments. It should be really easy for us all to get a couple of new teaching books to inspire us over the next few months, for a few stamps instead of the often high purchase cost. And then the discussion will help us develop the ideas further.

Worth a try? You know what to do.

 

 

 




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