HALT means Stop


Number one rule in discipline is never get irritable. Forgive easily and forget. Easier if you aren’t in a mood…
— Miss Smith (@HeyMissSmith) August 9, 2015

This tweet really resonated with me, and there’s not a teacher alive who can’t recall a time when they ignored this principle. Tell me you’re the exception and I’ll call you a liar. We all get irritable, often for very good reason. Everyone has different triggers, although some things are naturally more irritating than others. Missing the bus. Finding the milk’s gone off, after you’ve put it in your tea. Spoilers for a good book or favourite TV programme. Jeremy Clarkson. Teenagers in general.
As a teacher, the problem is that kids hold grudges even better than we do. And there’s more of them, so they’ll win in the grumpiness stakes, even if only by weight of numbers. Something that may be helpful is an idea from outside teaching, a reminder of the emotional states that lead to bad decisions. The concept is that we should generally avoid doing something that can’t be undone when we are:
This acronym/mnemonic has more than one claimed source, but you may find the guidance at LifeSIGNS helpful; my interpretations below are obviously a personal take on the subject! HALT means to stop before you do something you may regret.
It’s an easy one, this. Teachers rush. We might skip breakfast, even though we tell kids it’s a bad idea. A couple of biscuits with a cup of tea, drunk too hot when the bell goes, is all we get at break. Lunchtime might happen, in between kids explaining why they haven’t done their homework and a manager admitting that the deadline for predicted grade entry was yesterday and he forgot to email. Then a parents’ evening after a canteen baked potato, somehow burnt on the outside and nearly raw in the middle.
Like we tell our students during science topics, we shouldn’t divide food into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Instead, we need to think about ‘always’ or ‘sometimes’ foods. In the long term, yes; we should eat food, not too much, mostly plants. (LINK) But in the short term, we are better off eating something than going hungry. You could buy the cereal bars that are edible, but that don’t have enough chocolate to be a treat. Add packet soups to your emergency stationary drawer. Keep some bottles of water and dried fruit in the car, so when you’re running behind the traffic lights are a chance to eat as well as a source of huge frustration.
Anecdotally, NQTs either gain or lose five kilograms during the year. Now, this isn’t evidence-based, apologies to Tom Bennett. But there is probably enough truth in it to bear in mind when you’re shopping for break-time snacks you can eat between students.
They’re really good at pressing our buttons, aren’t they? Sometimes I don’t know what’s more irritating; teenagers who are honestly completely oblivious about their thoughtlessness, or those who are deliberately choosing to aggravate. I don’t mean those who tease about your football team losing, but the kid who tells you, absolutely seriously and sincerely, that they don’t understand why you don’t “just kill yourself and make life better for everyone.”
Yes, I’m quoting from personal experience.
There’s no cure for anger, wherever it lies on the ‘mild annoyance’ to ‘burning rage’ scale. An author I like, Spider Robinson, has a character in one of his books suggest that “Anger is fear in drag.” Whatever the cause, it’s rarely a bad idea to pause. If a kid was visibly angry, you’d remove them from the situation (or remove the situation from them). So this is where you repeat the instruction and specify consequences, allow take-up time and go to do something else. Go talk to a student you know you’ll be able to praise. Fetch a replacement board pen. Step around the prep room door and snap a pencil in half (don’t let the kids see, or they’ll treat it as a game). Longer term, there are things you can do, and should. In the short term, the aim is just to take a breath and respond, instead of react.
I think this – along with holidays vs term-time workload – is one of the biggest misconceptions non-teachers have about our profession. Despite being part of a team, often with dozens of colleagues and several hundred students, it can feel very isolated. Being a teacher means being responsible for thirty human beings, what they do and what they learn. The staffroom can be very lonely, whether you’re new to a school or you’ve just had a bad lesson despite years of experience. It’s remarkably depressing when you say that this class or that student was challenging today, and there’s a chorus of “They’re not like that for me…”
You shouldn’t be alone in the school – but it’s understandable you might feel that way. Like being a parent to a young child, it can be hard to make time for adult conversations. Try. Put it on the timetable that one lesson a fortnight you’ll go and talk to a colleague about teaching ideas. Make it positive and make it a regular commitment. Some colleagues can seem very negative, and where possible they’re the ones you need not to talk to!
You can also find colleagues, support and ideas outside of school. If you’re an early career teacher of Physics I’d recommend the SPN mentoring programme, for example! (The day job is working as part of the IOP.) Twitter can be great, although I’m taking a little time out for the moment, and you’ll be able to find ‘virtual colleagues’ who can help both professionally and emotionally.
All the problems of the classroom are easier when students recognize they’re dealing with a team, not an individual teacher. The positive experiences students have tend to be about our strengths; when things are difficult we need to rely on each other, on institutional standards and policies, to make up for our personal weak moments. Because we all have them, but we shouldn’t have to deal with them alone.
Lesson 5 on a Friday, anyone? After a parents’ evening on Tuesday and a Wednesday twilight INSET on the correct way to administer an EpiPen? How many of you have already started to think about your DVD selection? I know I would be, because sometimes it’s better to aim for a small amount of learning than risk catastrophe.
There as as many reasons for being tired as there are teachers, but some things are predictable. Make sure your personal calendar is visible when you do your long-term planning. Be reasonable, because if you try for every lesson to be all-singing, all-dancing, outstanding according to Ofsted… you’ll probably last a fortnight. It’s not sustainable unless you’re prepared to take a part-time salary and work full-time on planning and marking. Make your school life easier.
  1. Choose one lesson per group for the fortnight which will be impressive. Star it on your timetable, max one per day. Consider scheduling a ‘planned low impact’ lesson on the same day.
  2. Choose a template for activities which you use for a certain amount of time. Maybe you can use a structure so that the first lesson each fortnight with a class starts with a picture. The second lesson begins with three multiple choice questions. The third… you get the idea.
  3. Investigate pre-made and customizable activities which are ready to print and use. You might have some in house; you may find one site or library works well for you. (See the second half of this post on the difficulties with finding resources)/
  4. Passive activities can be made active with a relatively small time commitment. Turn copied and pasted notes from Bitesize into a ‘spot the mistakes’ exercise; no copying for the kids, but a chance to use the magical red pen. Have students answer questions after watching a video, or even better generate them for each other. Provide a template for research lessons and share the best examples as student notes.

I’m afraid there are no magic solutions to tiredness; the average teacher has a lot more work than week. Anything you can reuse from past years, ‘borrow’ from colleagues locally or electronically, find at one of the many resource sites, gives you more time. I like the idea of time assets and debts, which you could sum up with a simple example. If I can spend an hour in August Doing a job that will save me just two minutes every week in term time, I’ll be ahead after a year. If it saves me two minutes each school day, I’ll have gained five hours by next summer.

So tiredness can’t be solved except by the boring approach of sleeping more. But we can use our waking hours better, just like we tell kids in exam season who would rather complete Call of Duty that revise.

Time to HALT?

I’d be really interested in any feedback on this – maybe it’s obvious, but writing it helped me get some things straight in my own head. As I said, I’m off Twitter for a bit, but feel free to share – just remember you’ll have to comment here if you want me to know what you think.

So the new AQA Physics specification – currently still a draft – is interesting. Much of this also applies, of course, to other exam boards. Some of the changes I like, some I’m not so sure about. Of course a lot of these requirements were set by Ofqual and we could spend days arguing about how much of this is based on political, rather than pedagogical reasons.

But anyway.

Some schools are, of course, starting to teach this to their Year 9 pupils because they treat Science GCSE as a three year course. Even if not, those of us who teach KS3 will be looking at the specifications making sure we are setting the scene helpfully. Others have commented in far more detail than I, but I wanted to raise a few issues that have come up already during my day job.

  1. The language used to describe energy is changing, like it or not. Instead of types, the movement is towards stores (and pathways/processes) which may feel like a huge change. If you don’t know about it, please drop me a line via email or twitter, or contact us at the IOP through TalkPhysics. I blogged (personally) with some links a while back.
  2. There are required practicals instead of ISAs. (Cheering throughout the land…) Each exam board has their own list, but they’re pretty reasonable. Requirements about recording vary but it seems to me an ideal opportunity to build in regular discussion/analysis of practical tasks. SMT may need to be reminded that the list is a minimum expectation and lots more practical work still needs to be budgeted for.
  3. In AQA, at least, students will be expected to recall many more equations than previously. I’m personally dubious about memory as a proxy for leaning, but I’m not in charge. Not yet, anyway. So we will need, as early as possible, to get kids into good habits with fluent recall of these equations and their meanings, units and so on.

This last point is what I’m focused on, after a discussion with one of my mentees (the IOP runs a scheme to mentor early-career teachers of physics) over video chat at the weekend. We talked about using ideas from languages and primary spelling/times tables, where small regular testing improves familiarity. I spoke about Plickers and QuickKey as two ways to quickly collect scores for multiple choice questions. But, I reasoned, what about the students learning independently?

So today I’ve created a set of equation flashcards for the AQA (draft) specification on StudyBlue. Students could download these to their own devices for free (Android and Apple apps are available) then test themselves. Hopefully they’d customize them over time.

Set of flashcards on StudyBlue

If these seem useful, please let me know. I’m thinking about putting together sets for other aspects of the course – units and symbols are an obvious next step. So if you send me feedback, there will be more free stuff for you to use in class and save yourself time. A good deal?

Medical Careers


Apologies if this is a repost, but I can’t find it anywhere even though I created it ages ago. I, like many science teachers, have found that kids have tunnel vision when it comes to careers. Medicine, for a variety of reasons, is a real target for many of them. For some it’s a totally unrealistic one. The progression (anecdotally) goes like this.

  • At the start of Yr12, more than 30 in a year of 120 were ‘going to be doctors’. When it is pointed out that we might send two or three off to medical school in a good year, there are blank looks. Even asking “Are you one of the three smartest students in the year?” doesn’t reach everyone.
  • By halfway through the year, more than half of the students now know medicine isn’t happening for them. They immediately start looking at Pharmacy.
  • By the start of yr13, with results in hand (and yes, I know that’s changing) we used to be down to between eight or ten with a reasonable chance. Some of those who had hoped for Pharmacy are now clinging to the hope of Biomedical Science. And have a private tutor.
  • By Christmas, a few more are being realistic and have switched to other plans; I’ve found they’re a bit more open-minded, but it’s marginal. I had one student tell me they now wanted to do theoretical physics as it was the next best thing to medicine.
  • At Easter, between six and eight think they’ve got a reasonable chance; two or three of those might actually get in.

What’s interesting is that hardly anywhere in this do they consider other clinical options that aren’t Medicine. (Some, of course, started off hoping for Dentistry or Veterinary.) It’s as if the vast majority of medical roles, working with patients and using highly technical skills, simply pass them by. So I created a list, not intended to be exhaustive, which is linked below. Perhaps useful to kick off discussion if nothing else?

medical careers as .docx file

medical careers as .pdf


A good turnout for the second week, although some pupils hadn’t shown up despite the stories about marshmallows and spaghetti. Apparently this is a regular issue for after-school activities in primary school. Several kids were enthusiastic about telling me the scientific things they’d been doing, including building more structures with kitchen ingredients. So I think we can count the first week as a definite success!
Balloon Car Racers seemed a good next activity; simple materials, a clear outcome and hopefully something to take home. As with the other activities, the materials from the Ri ExpeRimental project gave us pretty much everything we needed.
We had 12 kids but plenty of leftovers (most earmarked for future sessions). These cost £4 from the pound shop.
  • 250 straws
  • 50 balloons (x2)
  • 100 BBQ skewers
Plus tape, card and bottle lids from general classroom resources and the local scrap store. I’d suggest collecting milk carton lids in the staffroom for a few weeks if possible.
I started by asking about things that go and what makes them move. With each example – which I also used as a chance to get some more names – I added another step to the car. The video was blocked (primary school with YouTube issues) so I couldn’t use the section linking reaction forces to swimming, which was a shame.
I asked the pupils to tell me which they thought was more important – how far the car went, or how fast it traveled. Predictably, there was a mixed response! With more time I would have finished by running a ‘race’ and giving two different rankings, one for speed and the other for distance.
I used a timer on the IWB, set to 20 minutes, for the building time. This was a little ambitious, it turned out! All students had built or nearly built a car by the end of the hour session, and perhaps half had raced them against each other.
Some pupils struggled with the fine motor skills needed to use the sellotape. I don’t think I emphasized enough the need for the axles to be parallel to each other, and perpendicular to the ‘exhaust’ straw – perhaps next time draw lines on the card for them? With more time I’d have them make two, a ‘first draft’ and an ‘improved’ model. This would have been an excellent way to introduce the make/test/improve cycle, perhaps using photos of their cars to illustrate the progress. But it would have taken longer – this could easily be done over a week of lunchtimes, perhaps taking a photo each time to show the development visually. I suspect spreading it out over more time would be difficult with such young students, although at KS3 it might make a good structured project.
Pushing the skewers through the lids also proved difficult for many. Next time some preparation would have been useful – especially for some lids! I’d add an awl or corkscrew for the teacher, and blu-tack to press into. A balloon pump to make up for little lungs and reduce slobber might also have been useful!
For future sessions, I’ll think through a specific ‘skills list’ before we start. Ideally the class teacher would be able to suggest particular points likely to cause problems, but I can probably manage. I’d do this automatically for my usual age group – what can they do easily, what do I need to explicitly teach – but I made guesses based on my own kids, who have always enjoyed crafty activities from Lego to junk modelling, (They haven’t a clue about football skills however, just like me.)

I’ve dug out some old markbooks – electronic and paper – because I wanted to think about who it is that we’re teaching, and why. It occurred to me that having universities contributing to A-level specification discussions assumed that the courses were for their benefit. In the classroom, we as teachers adapt our examples and contexts to suit our students. We can’t adjust the syllabus itself, even if we know that the majority of our students will be progressing to a route very different to an undergraduate physics course.
I’m relying on slightly incomplete data and scribbled marginalia, plus my own memory. It’s for one ‘generation’, from year 7 to year 13, at a previous workplace (specialist science, outstanding according to Ofsted, included sixth form etc). I’d be really interested in contrasting data, if anyone has it to share – I have no idea how representative it is generally.
September 2005 – July 2012
2005 (Year 7): 240 students starting our in-house course based on the QCA topics – remember them? The students were externally assessed (following an internal annual exam) by SATs. Remember those? After they were phased out we continued with our own internally marked version. The score was used to separate students into double and triple classes for GCSE.
2008 (Year 10): 64 students started the triple course (AQA Biology, Chemistry and Physics). They were selected on the basis of good scores in their KS3 SATs for both Science and Maths, as we ‘borrowed’ some maths time for the extra science. The remaining 176 did ‘double’ (Core and Additional AQA). None could swap during the course.
At end of yr11, a large majority of those who continued to AS science courses came to our linked sixth form. A few extra students applied from other schools locally. The majority of those doing Physics had followed the triple route. (This was similar for the other sciences but not as clear.) Maths was recommended but not required,  and the entry requirement was a B no matter what GCSE route.
2010 (Year 12): 40 students started AS Physics (AQA), of which 33 were our students previously. By the end of the year, 11 had dropped the course for various reasons. Those who had studied Double science were not disproportionately represented in those failing or dropping, but those who had gained a B at GCSE were.
2011 (Year 13): Of the 29 students starting, 24 had been our students at GCSE. The cohort achieved grades from A-E, only five below C. Of these students, 14 went on to scientific degrees. Of these 14, 8 went to do physics or engineering. (6 of these had been our students from Year 7.)
science generation
Ignoring later entrants, this means of the 240 we started teaching in yr7, only six went on to physics and engineering courses: less than 3%. Even just looking at those entering sixth form as our starting point, only 20% went on to directly relevant courses.

For many students, this was exactly as planned. Some of the courses – chemistry, medicine, maths – would no doubt use the skills and knowledge gained. For other students, the more nebulous skills such as logical reasoning would be valuable in their future courses. And it’s much harder to track those who may not return to the academic content until after an apprenticeship or similar.

But as far as university physics admission tutors are concerned, those students are pretty much invisible. They’re irrelevant. What they know, or don’t know, never affects first year courses or the tutors who complain about this or that gap in their undergraduates’ knowledge.

The competing needs of ‘Science for Future Scientists’ and ‘Science for Citizens’ have long been identified, but not resolved. I’d argue that in many ways it is a situation which cannot be resolved. A few factors which we’d easily identified in our prep room cause clear difficulties:
  1. We ask our students to choose (or often, we choose for them) in year 9 or even earlier. At this point some are yet to gain confidence, while others will have already peaked, in ability or attitude. There will be a proportion of students who could go either way, but can’t be identified yet. As science teachers, we’d see this as uncertainty, not error. (Insert Schrodinger’s Cat joke here)
  2. The courses are seen, rightly or wrongly, as having different values. I’ve always said that I’d have a lot more confidence in the equal value of BTecs and similar if the same proportion of students in private and state schools did them. When an MP’s child, Tarquin or Poppy, do a college course in Leisure and Tourism instead of A-levels then maybe parity will have been achieved.
  3. Currently 16-18 courses feel very specialized. I would have loved to do more than four subjects, and it was seen back then that a broader curriculum was coming. And that, as my wife frequently reminds me, was years ago. Students feel they must identify as a scientist – or not – very young. I suspect for many it feels like a big commitment. (We looked at doing science vs identifying as a scientist in an early SciTeachJC).
  4. The very topics which might motivate students to carry on to further study are those which are less relevant for daily life. This means that it is easy for the open-ended, challenging ideas – the inspiring ones – to be saved for those students who will come to them again anyway. Those achieving at a lower level are taught topics which are less exciting – reinforcing their belief that physics is boring. A self-fulfilling prophecy!
I’m not expecting to solve anything. I don’t think I’ve even identified anything new. But when I went through the numbers, despite having taught over those years, I was surprised by just how small a proportion of our students are ‘pre-physicists’. Perhaps it would be interesting to think about the equivalent numbers at your institution?

Quick and easy practical, instant gratification, cheap materials (that you can eat at the end). Yes, the first in our series of science club activities was always going to be Spaghetti Towers.
  • spaghetti (1 pack per four kids)
  • marshmallows (1 pack per four kids, no eating until the end)
Play, Look, Ask (from the Ri site)
  • Make a tower from spaghetti and marshmallows.
  • ExpeRiment with the construction of your tower to find out which shapes are best for building with.
  • Learn why some shapes are more stable than others when you build a tower.


I had a vague idea of how things would go. Some of it was right; a lot of it wasn’t. The kids had a great time and, I think, learnt a little bit too. We started by talking about buildings, then I challenged them to make shapes with the marshmallows and pasta. Several of the kids – aged 5 or 6 – enjoyed this so much it was hard to get them to move on. The next step was to try making something to stand up. Before too long we were able to lead them to the idea that squares fell over. A couple of better examples showed that triangles worked well, and soon there were many weird and wonderful structures taking shape.

About twenty minutes from the end I asked them to pause and showed a few pictures on the IWB of buildings. The kids were very excited to point out the triangles on the Eiffel Tower and the Forth Bridge. They were not, however, able to translate these to very regular shapes in their own building. There was a lot of discussion about whether we should test the buildings by pushing from the side or above – an interesting approach would be to add a fan to simulate wind. Perhaps with older students! Most of them were happy to explain that the buildings needed a strong shape as well as a strong material, which I was pleased with.


Next time – because we’ll be repeating the cycle each half-term with another group of pupils – I’ll aim for a clearer structure from the beginning. It was harder to get them back on track than I expected. I’m used to being able to ‘steer’ consensus in secondary, but the kids listened, nodded, then carried on doing exactly what they were doing before I’d spoken.

Next time

  1. Picture of a building (if the IWB is working and the blinds are drawn).
  2. Start with flat shapes (set time limit)
  3. What will happen when we stand them up?
  4. Try it out, then ask what the best shape is and how we know (time limit).
  5. What shapes are strong? (triangles are good, squares and more sides can be deformed.)
  6. What makes a tower ‘the best’? (tall, withstands load, withstands force from side?)
  7. Allow time to build the ‘best’ tower

Things to track more carefully:

  • different views of ‘scientist’ and engineer’
  • words used eg strong, bendy



My son’s primary school was looking for more after-school activities. My wife was at the meeting where they discussed the possibilities. And I’m a science teacher with a bit of spare time as my current role is both part-time and out of the classroom.
You can see where this is going, can’t you?
The shortlist
I quite liked the idea of working with kids directly, but I was very aware that as a secondary teacher I needed help. Besides, reinventing the wheel lacked appeal. I had a look at various ‘bought-in’ structures, for example some of those presenting at the ASE Conference. But they were quite expensive. I checked out ideas through STEMnet, many of which were aimed more at KS3. In the end, I presented the science coordinator with two options I felt would provide interest without a huge workload.
The first, predictably, was via the British Science Association: specifically the CREST Star awards for ages 5-11. (I have fond memories of BAYS from my own school days.) There’s a library of activities and kids gain the award after completing a certain number of them. Depending on the age and ability you choose different themed sessions, all of which have support materials ready to use.
The other was slightly less formal. I was fascinated by the ExpeRimental project from the Royal Institution last year, and blogged about it. The idea of providing materials for parents to have scientific fun with offspring is a great one. The second series of videos looks as enjoyable as the first. And I happen to know one of the people behind it, my good friend and virtual colleague @alomshaha. So it seems a natural step to suggest it for a science club for ages 5-6.
The choice
We’re going with ExpeRimental; partly because it’s free, and partly because it means we can provide easy links for interested parents. But mostly because it looks great fun. I’ll be blogging each week about how it went, good and bad, and sharing a few photos of the results (but not the kids). Hopefully a longer piece about the experience will make it to the RI website once we’ve finished the first half-term cycle. I really feel that many of the activities would work well with older students, too. In fact, I’d argue that some of them would provide a challenge for sixth form students if you simply changed the questions you asked. And isn’t that a great recommendation for practicals built from kitchen cupboard and junk box materials?


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