Dear Reader, I did it again.

I could say that I’m blogging this because it could be used in the classroom. (It could, as a discussion about using data in context.) I could justify it with the fact that I’ve recommended books by the scientist-communicator in question. (And will again, because they’re ace.) I could talk about the challenges of the inevitable religious questions in a science lab, which we’ve all faced. (Like the year 10 who honestly believed, as he’d been told, that human bodies were literally made of clay like his holy book said.)

But the truth is I got annoyed on Twitter, got into a bit of a discussion about it, and don’t want to give up without making the points more clearly. So if you’re not up for a bit of a rant, come back when I’ve finally sorted out the write-up from the #ASEConf in Sheffield.

(I should point out that family stuff is a bit tricky at the moment, due to my Dad breaking his brand-new, freshly-installed hip. Before he’d even left the ward. So it’s possible that I’m procrastinating before lots of difficult decisions and a long journey to the Wild South.)

Appropriate Context?

A PR write-up of an academic study has been shared by several people online. The tweet I saw was from @oldandrewuk, who I presume shared direct from the page or RSS as it used the headline from there.

I responded pointing out the source of the research funding, the Templeton Foundation, which was founded to promote and investigate religious viewpoints. He suggested I was ‘poisoning the well’, a phrase I vaguely recognised but to my shame couldn’t pin down.

a fallacy where irrelevant adverse information about a target is preemptively presented to an audience, with the intention of discrediting or ridiculing everything that the target person is about to say. (Wikipedia)

I agree that this was preemptive, but would challenge the judgment that the information is irrelevant. The Templeton Foundation has a history of selectively funding and reporting research to fulfil their aim of promoting religious viewpoints. I thought of this information as providing valuable context; the analogy I used later in discussion was that of tobacco companies funding research showing limited effects of plain packaging. This was fresh in my mind due to recent discussions with another tweeter, outside of education circles. So when does providing context become a form of introducing bias? An interesting question.

Correlation and Causation?

Another point I made was that the data shared in the press release (although not in the abstract) seemed to hint at a correlation between the respondents’ religious views and their criticism of Richard Dawkins. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that this might be causative. The numbers, extracted:

  • 1581 UK scientists responded to the survey (if answers here mentioned Dawkins it’s not referenced annywhere I can see)
  • 137 had in-depth interviews
  • Of these, 48 mentioned RD during answers to more general questions*
  • Of these 48, 10 were positive and 38 negative

*Before I look at those numbers in a little more detail, I’d like to point out: at no time were the scientists asked directly their view on Richard Dawkins. The 89 who didn’t mention him might have been huge fans or his archenemies. They might never have heard of him. To be fair, in the paper some follow-up work about ‘celebrity scientists’ is suggested. But I’d love to have seen data from a questionnaire on this specific point addressed to all of the scientists.

Of the 48 who mentioned him:

rd-numbers

I suggested that the apparent link had been glossed over in the press release. That not a single scientist identified as positive had been positive about his work stood out for me. I wasn’t surprised that even non-religious scientists had identified problems; he is, let’s face it, a polarising character! But the balance was interesting, particularly as a ratio of one third of respondents being religious seeming a higher proportion that I remembered for UK scientists. But the makeup of the 137, in terms of religious belief vs non, wasn’t in the available information.

The Bigger Picture

I wanted more information, but the paper wasn’t available. Thankfully, #icanhazpdf came to my rescue. I had a hypothesis I wanted to test.

And so more information magically made its way into my inbox. I have those numbers, and it turns out I was right. It’s not made perfectly clear, perhaps because the religious orientation or lack thereof is the focus of other papers by the authors. But the numbers are there.

According to the paper, 27% of UK scientists surveyed are religious (from ‘slightly’ to ‘very’). It doesn’t make clear whether this is based on the questionnaire or applies specifically to the 137 interviewed. (EDIT: I’ve reached out to the authors and they weren’t able to clarify.) 27% of the 137 gives 37 who are religious, and therefore exactly 100 who are not. These numbers are used as I’ve nothing better, but I’ve labelled them ‘inferred’ below.

Now, there are loads of ways to interpret these numbers. I’m sure I’ve not done it in the best way. But I’ve had a go.

rd-data-2

What stands out for me is that religious scientists make up just over a quarter of those in the sample, but well over a third of those critical of Dawkins’ approach to public engagement. What’s clearer from this table is that the religious scientists were more likely to mention him in the first place, and as pointed out earlier these mentions were all negative. Is the difference significant?

  • 15 of 37 religious respondents were negative: 41%
  • 23 of 100 non-religious respondents were negative: 23%

I can’t help but think that’s a significant – although perhaps unsurprising – difference. Religious respondents were nearly twice as likely to be negative. So my hypothesis is supported by this data; the religious are over-represented in those who mentioned Dawkins during their answers. I’m surprised that this correlation escaped the Templeton-funded researchers. An equally correct headline would have been:

Scientists identifying as religious twice as likely to criticise Richard Dawkins’ approach to engagement unprompted.

Conclusions

I think in a lot of ways the numbers here aren’t the big story. I don’t think any of them are particularly surprising. I don’t have any answers for myself about the difference between providing necessary and important context, and ‘poisoning the well’ as @oldandrewuk put it. But I do have two insights that are important to me, if nobody else.

  1. The headline used in the article press-release is subtly misleading. “Most British scientists cited in study feel Richard Dawkins’ work misrepresents science.” My italics highlight the problem; 38 who were negative is not a majority of the 137 interviewed.
  2. The data used was selected to show one particular aspect of the results, and arguably some links were not explored despite being of interest. This can never be as good as a study designed to test one particular question. Only by closely reading the information was it clear how the judgments were made by the researchers.

I’d like to highlight that, as seemed fair to me, I invited @oldandrew to comment here following our discussion on twitter. He has so far chosen not to do so.

Conflicts of Interest

To be transparent, I should point out for anyone who doesn’t realise that I’m an atheist (and humanist, and secular). I often also disagree with Dawkins’ communications work – in fact, if they’d asked me the same questions there’s a fair chance I would have made the point about him causing difficulties for the representation of science to non-scientists – but that’s why I recommend his science books specifically!

Links

The wonderful @evolutionistrue posted about this research too. As a contrast, have a look at how EvangelismFocus wrote it up.


Morning all. I was at the Northern #ASEConf at the weekend, had a good time and had lots to think about. I’m going to try really hard to blog it this week, but I’m buried under a ton of stuff and pretty much every person in my immediate family is either ill, recovering or about to go into hospital. And Trump apparently won, which makes me think it’s time to dig a fallout shelter and start teaching my kids how to trap rabbits for food.

Anyway.

One of the recurring discussions between science teachers is about the new required practicals for the GCSE specs. I’m trying to put some resources together for the physics ones as part of my day job, on TalkPhysics (free to join, please get involved) and thought I’d share a few ideas here too.

Who Cares?

The exam boards don’t need lab books. There is no requirement for moderation or scrutiny. There is no set or preferred format. And, realistically, until we’ve seen something better than the specimen papers there’s no point trying to second-guess what the students will be expected to do in the summer of 2018.

So apart from doing the practicals, as part of our normal teaching, in the normal way, why should we do anything different? Why should we worry the kids about them? Why should we worry about them? There’s time for that in the lead up to the exams, in a year’s time, when we’d revise major points anyway. For now, let’s just focus on good, useful practical work. I’ve blogged about this before, and most of it comes down to more thinking, less doing.

Magic Words

What we can do is make sure kids are familiar with the language – but this shouldn’t be just about the required practicals. So I put together some generic questions, vaguely inspired by old ISAs (and checking my recall with the AQA Science Vocab reference) and ready to print. My thinking is that each laminated card is handed to a different group while they work. They talk about it while doing the practical, write their answers on it, then they get added to a wall in the lab. This offers a quick review and a chance for teachers to see how ids are getting on with the vocab. The important thing – in my view, at least – is that it has to be for every practical. This is about improving fluency by use of frequent testing. And it ticks the literacy box too.

EDITED: more cards added, thanks to suggestion from @tonicha128 on Twitter.

So here you go: prac-q-cards-v2 as PDF.

Please let me know what you think, whether I’ve made any mistakes, and how it works if you want to try it out. It would be easy to produce a mini-test with a selection of these questions, or better ones, for kids to do after each practical. Let’s get them to the stage of being so good with these words that they’re bored by being asked the questions.


A perpetual classroom problem is that students translate what we say into what they want to do. How many times have you come back from time off to see that students answered questions 1 and 10, not 1 to 10? Sometimes this is deliberate awkwardness. Sometimes it’s an actual lack of understanding, either of what the task was or why we’re asking them to do it in what seems ‘the hard way’. I’ve long been a fan of the template approach, giving students a framework so they’ve got a place to get started. And I produced a bunch of resources, some of which may be useful for you. I’ve shared these before, here and there, but figured a fresh post was worthwhile. This was mainly prompted by a tweet from a colleague:

So here’s a quick reminder of some printable resources. I’m not going to go through and remove the QR code, but it now goes to a dead link. Feel free to mess around with them as you see fit.

Some of these can be downloaded as Office files, mainly docx and pub (links to a GDrive folder). There may also be jpg versions available for adding to Powerpoints or websites. If there’s no editable version of an example above that you’re after, add a comment here and I’ll dig it up.

If you’ve not already seen it (not sure how, but it’s possible), can I strongly recommend the excellent posters and resources available from the team at @acethattest, AKA The Learning Scientists. On my long and growing jobs list is producing some Physics specific versions to show how they could be applied within a subject.

 

 


It’s not often I can claim to be ahead of the trend. Pretty much never, to be honest. But this time I think I’ve managed it, and so I’m going to make sure all my readers, at least, know about it.

Recently the TES “exclusively reported” – which means other sites paraphrased their story and mentioned their name, but didn’t link – that Cambridge Assessment was considering ‘crowd-sourcing’ exam questions. This would involve teachers sending in possible questions which would then be reviewed and potentially used in external exams. Surplus questions would make up a large ‘question bank’.

I suggested this. This is, in fact, pretty much entirely my idea. I blogged ‘A New Exam Board’ in early 2012 suggesting teachers contribute questions which could then provide a range of sample papers as well as external exams. So it is not, despite what Tim Oates claims, a “very new idea.” Despite the similarity to my original post I do, however, have some concerns.

Backwards Backwards Design

So instead of teachers basing their classroom activities on giving kids the skills and knowledge they need to attempt exam questions, we’re doing it the other way around? As I’ve written before, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to ‘teach to the test’ – if the test is a good one. Writing exam questions and playing examiner is a valuable exercise, both for teachers and students, but the questions that result aren’t always helpful in themselves. As my OT-trained partner would remind me: “It’s the process, not the product.”

Credit

Being an examiner is something that looks good on a CV. It shows you take qualifications seriously and have useful experience. How can teachers verify the work they put into this? How can employers distinguish between teachers who sent in one dodgy question and those who shared a complete list, meticulously checked and cross-referenced? What happens when two or more teachers send in functionally identical questions?

Payment

A related but not identical point. How is the time teachers spend on this going to be recognized financially? And should it be the teacher, or the school? Unless they are paid, teachers are effectively volunteering their time and professional expertise, while Cambridge Assessment will continue to pay their permanent and contract staff. (I wonder how they feel about their work being outsourced to volunteers…)

Quality

It’s hardly surprising at this early stage that the details aren’t clear. One thing I’m interested in is whether the submissions shared as part of the ‘questions bank’ will go through the same quality control process as those used in the exams. If so, it will involve time and therefore money for Cambridge Assessment. If not, it risks giving false impressions to students who use the bank. And there’s nothing in the articles so far to say whether the bank of questions will be free to access or part of a paid product offered.

Student Advantage

Unless there are far fewer ‘donated’ questions than I’d expect, I don’t think we will really see a huge advantage held by students whose teachers contributed a question. But students are remarkably sensitive to the claims made by teachers about “there’s always a question on x” or “it wasn’t on last year’s paper, so expect y topic to come up”. So it will be interesting to see how they respond to their teachers contributing tot he exam they’ll be sitting.

You’re Welcome

I look forward to hearing from Cambridge Assessment, thanking me for the idea in the first place…

 


It turns out that I’m really bad at following up conference presentations.

Back in early June, I offered a session on teachers engaging – or otherwise – with educational research. It all grew out of an argument I had on Twitter with @adchempages, who has since blocked me after I asked if the AP Chem scores he’s so proud of count as data. He believes, it seems, that you cannot ever collect any data from educational settings, and that he has never improved his classroom practice by using any form of educational research.

But during the discussions I got the chance to think through my arguments more clearly. There are now three related versions of my opinion, quite possibly contradictory, and I wanted to link to all three.

Version the first: Learning From Mistakes, blogged by me in January.

Streamlined version written for the BERA blog: Learning From Experience. I wrote this a while back but it wasn’t published by them until last week.

Presentation version embedded below (and available from http://tinyurl.com/ian-redmatsci if you’re interested).

I’d be interested in any and all comments, as ever. Please let me know if I’ve missed any particular comments from the time – this is the problem with being inefficient. (Or, to be honest, really busy.) The last two slides include all the links in my version of a proper references section.

Thoughts from the presentation

Slide 8: it’s ironic that science teachers, who know all about using models which are useful even though they are by necessity simplified, struggle with the idea that educational research uses large numbers of participants to see overall patterns. No, humans aren’t electrons – but we can still observe general trends using data.

Slide 13: it’s been pointed out to me that several of the organisations mentioned offer cheaper memberships/access. These are, however, mainly institutional memberships (eg £50/yr for the IOP) which raises all kinds of arguments about who pays and why.

Slide 14: a member of the audience argued with this point, saying that even if articles weren’t open-access any author would be happy to share electronic copies with interested teachers. I’m sure he was sincere, and probably right. But as I tried to explain, this assumes that (1)the teacher knows what to ask for, which means they’ll miss all kinds of interesting stuff they never heard about and that (2)the author is happy to respond to potentially dozens of individual requests. Anyone other than the author or journal hosting or sharing a PDF is technically breaking the rules.

Slide 16: Ironically, the same week as I gave the presentation there was an article in SSR on electricity analogies which barely mentioned the rope model. Which was awkward as it’s one of the best around, explored and endorsed by the IOP among many others.

Slide 20: Building evidence-based approaches into textbooks isn’t a new idea (for example, I went to Andy’s great session on the philosophy behind the Activate KS3 scheme) but several tweeters and colleagues liked the possibility of explicit links being available for interested teachers.


Just think… in a few weeks, you’ll have a new crop of brand-new Year 7 students. Shiny faces, uniforms without holes and a complete pencil case. For about a day.

So it’s nearly time to teach graphs.

You may have already seen the resources produced by the ASE on the Language of Maths in Science (LoMiS). If not, go download them for free and have a look. It’s worth it, really. For a quick taste, Richard Needham did a piece for the Royal Society of Chemistry a while back which is a great introduction to the aims of the project.

And here’s an approach I’ve come up with which you may find a useful beginning. It’s based on what I’ve done in lessons in the past with a final addition I’ve been discussing recently with delegates and colleagues at the SPN Oxford Summer School.

1 coordinates

 

1 Number Lines

Putting numbers in sequence on a line is something students start to do at a young age, long before secondary school. To be honest, if kids can’t put whole numbers in the right order then graphs are going to be a distant dream. I agree that decimals make this harder at times, but I’m working on something about that too. Next week, maybe.

So give students a list of values and ask them to put them on a number line in order. Add challenge by having them convert values between units first, or have different numbers of significant figures. Top half of image:

Number lines

2 Number Lines to Scale

They might do this automatically. If not, it shouldn’t be too hard to have them do so (image above). Once they have a scale sorted out for the line, placing laminated cards for your supplied values along it should be straightforward.

3 Number Line to Scale = Axis

If you now have your students put the two number lines (one from each set of values) at right angles, they should be able to see that they’ve defined each point.

4 Mathematical Axes Of Doom

Two wooden dowels from B&Q (other DIY stores are available), with insulation tape wrapped round at regular intervals. I deliberately chose different intervals. Next time, I’d probably use wooden dowels with rectangular cross-section, simply so they don’t roll. You could use metresticks but I wanted to avoid any numbers. The tape is all you need, really.

2 axes

Put them at right angles and you have a set of axes, with the intervals clearly marked. Add the coordinate cards – because students have used the idea of a coordinate system for a lot longer than they’ve used graphs to tell a story – in the right places. They’re easy to adjust, so there’s less stress. (Low stakes, yes?) And if they look from above, any pattern is clear and anomalies can be considered. They can even see the best-fit line.

3 plotted

Extension ideas; use larger or smaller cards to get over the idea of precision in the readings. There is a link here to the idea of error bars, something we don’t usually cover but may find useful.

Thoughts, ideas, suggestions? Please let me know in the usual ways.

NB: you get funny looks if you carry the sticks on to a train.


I’m sure many other bloggers have posted about this already, but in case it’s passed you by; the new GCSE specification is officially starting from September. Many schools, of course, started teaching from the draft simple because, if you’re delivering GCSE Science over three years, there was no choice. For various reasons I’ve been looking at the AQA version in quite a lot of detail (as my previous post explained) and I wanted to share a summary I put together for the new content. The new material come from both directions, KS3 and A-level. It’s probably worth me explaining this.

Until now, some material was taught at KS3 (assuming you followed the national curriculum matched to the much-lamented SATs) and then assumed for GCSE. Some of this is now explicitly examined as part of the exam at 16. You could, of course, claim that once it’s been taught at age 13 it wouldn’t need to be revisited. Which, in my opinion, is daft. Other material has been taught as part of A-level for years, but hasn’t been part of the KS4 specification for years – certainly in my teaching memory of a decade or so. This will be a particular issue for schools which don’t deliver A-level, because they won’t have equipment or experience.

Energy: less emphasis on heat transfer and no mention of U-values. Note the use of the ‘new’ energy language (stores and pathways/processes) plus extra equations.

Electricity: a few bits of new vocabulary and slightly developed maths eg now explicitly includes P=I2R. Static electricity now includes electric fields, so you might want to try out the oil and semolina demonstration which is a nice parallel to iron filings around a magnet.
Particles: quite a lot of added material. This includes the idea of latent heat and the associated equation, which I don’t think has been taught to this age group since the days of O-level. There’s also lots on pressure in fluids (including gases) and the relationship between P and V aka Boyle’s Law.
Radioactivity: now includes neutrons as nuclear radiation, which personally I think is quite helpful. The vocabulary used distinguishes between irradiation and contamination (You may find this explanation helpful), but there’s less detail on industrial uses.
Forces: Lots added to this topic. Scalars and vectors are now explicit and students must be able to resolve forces at right angle using scale drawings. Levers has been extended to gears. Pressure includes both the equation for a column of liquid (this PhET simulation might help) and atmospheric pressure. The suvat equations are introduced with v2=u2+2as. Students need to be able to find tangents on d/t graphs. There’s new vocabulary to do with inertial mass. Not just the relationships but the identities of Newton’s Laws are needed, as well as a surprising amount of recall of ‘typical values’ such as reaction times, walking and running speeds and so on.
Waves: the sound and light content, previously at KS3, is now examined including mixing of colours and transmission or absorption by filters. Sound includes ultrasound uses. ‘Perfect’ black body definitions and uses are expected. This cheap wave driver might be useful for the required practical.
Magnetism: this includes all KS3 content but extends electromagnetism to an equation previously saved for A-level, F=BIl. The ideas of induced potential and the generator effect are also covered. On a personal note, I’d consider teaching the transformers material twice, once as part of electricity and once here.
Space: many teachers are disappointed that this topic is reduced – and completely missing if students do ‘double’ aka Trinity rather than separate sciences. I’ve always found it a topic which engaged weaker learners due to the big ideas and lack of scary maths, and now they won’t get to see it.
Hope these links are helpful – please comment or email if you have better suggestions or any other thoughts.

 




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