Skills Lists

18Feb15

I’m going to keep this brief in the hope it actually gets (a) finished and (b) published. Because I’ve several drafts that I’ve just not found the time or motivation to finish off. In context; I have a small child, a shortage of caffeine and a grumpy temperament. This may be because not one new blogger built on my #aseconf session and contributed a post. Humph.

Recently, the skills vs knowledge debate has kicked off again. Not that it ever really went away! I think like many teachers, I actually stay away from both extremes. Of course kids need to know (ie recall with fluency) some facts. The question is where you draw the line. Do I expect my GCSE students to remember that Carbon has a proton number of 6? Of course I do. Do I expect them to memorize the entire periodic table, with or without the song? Of course I don’t. This could be applied to the reactivity series, the equations of motion, geological era or pretty much any other part of science. Knowing some is vital, knowing them all is unnecessary. But discussion online – perhaps especially on twitter – tends towards the argumentative.

So arguments about what should and shouldn’t be in the national curriculum, exam specifications or whatever are doomed to end unresolved. And, let’s face it – as teachers we don’t often get a say in it. We just have to make the best of what we get.

Instead, I was kicking some ideas around with colleagues and ended up with the bastard offspring of APP for younger kids and logbooks as suggested for AS, via ‘loyalty cards’ which I blogged after stealing the idea from @ange01. Hold on, it makes sense. Kind of.

Why not, I reasoned, put together lists for the students to use to record their various competencies? (I did something like this for teacher standards, although I’ve stopped keeping track of it. When I get around to it I’ll create a version for RSci and CSciTeach recording categories and wave it at @theASE via twitter.) This fits in well with the new approach to practical work at post-16, something else which has divided teachers and politicians alike. I made several deliberate decisions for the sample below, but I was very much thinking this would be better put together collaboratively, exam-board agnostic and perhaps led by expert/subject associations. (It would be interesting to have input from universities too, although I’ve a post brewing about university involvement in curriculum design too…)

click for .pdf

  1. These are solely hands-on skills for the school lab – no analysis, no maths. There is no content. (Although it might be interesting to produce a paired list, with knowledge on the left and skills on the right. Hmm. Notes for later.)
  2. I ignored exam specifications and instead flicked through the relevant pages on PracticalPhysics. I’ve probably missed something, suggestions welcome.
  3. Instead of a ticklist, my idea was for students to add a date each time they demonstrated that skill. I suspect teachers would have varying ideas of how many times are needed. The only thing everyone will agree on is that once is not enough.
  4. This is for students to use themselves for tracking, not teachers to use for assessment. I hope HoDs are paying attention to this point.

It would be easy to use this approach for GCSE and AS/A2, one checklist per topic area. (I’m sure many colleagues and departments already do.) But why not spend a little time putting together a good list, based on agreed best practice? I do similar things for content revision, but it’s the first time I’ve done it for specific hands-on skills. I’m going to have a play around with a ‘minds-on, thinking scientifically’ version too.

I’d happily run a project producing high quality versions, based on wider consultation, for all subject areas. It would need more of my time and the time of colleagues. That means money, so let me know if you know where I could submit a proposal for funding…


My #aseconf

15Jan15

To increase the chances of this actually getting posted – instead of sitting in limbo like the (ahem) five drafts I’ve not completed – this will be briefer than my usual approach. But I figure bullet points are better than nothing.

I made it to the end of this year’s ASE conference. I had a great time, predictably because of the lovely people there. (Not the weather, obviously. I mean, it was Reading.) As ever, choosing sessions was nearly impossible with so many options and the plans for changed anyway. But this is what I did.

Thursday

I met my good friend and fellow physicist @90_maz on the train on the way down. (She also blogs and you should check her out. And the blog.) Luggage dropped off, we headed for the exhibition to score some freebies. Post it notes seemed to be the popular one this year, although I’m quite pleased with my syringe pen. It doesn’t take much.

It’s probably a bit sad that on meeting Keith Gibbs I wanted to shake his hand and thank him for his help. His book was a gift on finishing my PGCE – from Marion, as it happens – and is well thumbed and annotated. His student-level website, SchoolPhysics, is one of the first I suggest to novice colleagues for their classes. I now have the revised and expanded edition of The Resourceful Physics Teacher, which I somehow bought without asking him to sign it. I’m proud of my self-restraint.

Finding the teachmeet was challenging. A plea to the conference organisers; can we please have a venue next year which is quieter, larger and not in the middle of the exhibition area? But it was filled with interesting ideas, plus my wittering, and I’m glad I joined in. I particularly liked the scannable answer sheets concept shared by Lucie, Quick Key, turning any device with a camera into a multiple choice OCR scanner. I talked about Checklists and Commentaries, including PRODME an approach to investigative thinking I’ve basically stolen from lots of people. Nothing revolutionary but I was pleased with how it went over.

The #alternativedinner – capably organized by @MrsDrSarah – was great. Rather than dinner jackets and long speeches there was much laughter, great food, interesting discussion and dueling with breadsticks. What more could you ask? It was a great example of how the informal accompaniments to a conference are as important as the official sessions and the signed-off CPD.
Friday
I had a little more time in the morning to check out the exhibition. Several things stood out when I had the chance to think about it.
  • No stall from the Institute of Physics, my day job. Several colleagues were presenting workshops but the omission was noticed by many. I suppose it’s nice we were missed, and I don’t think it was just for the stickers.
  • Lots of companies offering paid-for workshops in schools with kids, eg for KS1 and 2 science clubs. I’m sure many had good ideas but I suspect for most schools the budget just isn’t there.
  • It wasn’t just the IoP; several non-profit groups seemed noticeable by their absence. I didn’t see the Crest Awards, for example. Presumably in these times of tight budgets it was a hard sell?
I’m really glad I attended the session from the Perimeter Institute, a hands-on practical making measurements to calculate Planck’s Constant. I’ve used purpose-built apparatus before, similar to this from Phillip Harris, but the RI kit was much more direct – and significantly cheaper! We started the session by using a ‘black box’ starter, where we had to model the arrangement inside a piece of drainpipe to explain the movement of ropes. Building one of these is now on my jobs list.
I was worried that nobody would make it to my workshop, especially as I was a late addition to the programme. In the end about ten colleagues came, although I suspect the promise of @90_maz’s brownies had a lot to do with it. Interesting discussion and the participants seemed pleased – even inspired in one case! I’ve created a new blog site, aseconference2015.wordpress.com, with the hope that making it easy to get started will help those new  to blogging. My presentation is available on Google Drive and if you’d like to contribute a guest post – or for me to link to your own site – then email me or use the Google form.
After my session I attended two more in quick succession. Literacy in KS3 science could have done with more time, but then it is a big topic! An important reminder was that, just as with science methods, we need to ‘think out loud’ when demonstrating and modeling literacy skills. @Arakwai and I agreed that one big issue is the confusion when everyday words have a specific science meaning. I coined the acronym SAL – Science as an Additional Language – to summarize this.
This was followed by a look at the new KS3 science specification, led by Ed Walsh (aka @cornwallscied). It was interesting to analyze the differences between the old and new approaches to ‘thinking scientifically’. In particular, I wonder if the reduced emphasis on social implications of scientific ideas is a concern, as this is something which has in the past been shown to increase the interest and commitment of female students. A brief digression during the session was to discuss the issues students have with science being ‘only a theory’ – something that the RI addressed nicely with the video from @alomshaha and @jimalkhalili:
 So in summary: a great day and a half with, as ever, many things to think about over the next little while. Some of them may even end up being blogged – if I can clear the backlog. Happy January, everyone…

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.




Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 166 other followers