Ratings Enabled

Okay, I’ve been getting a little more traffic recently, despite the lack of comments! It seems like a good moment to think about how my first couple of months have gone.

I started from scratch in early January, as it seemed like there was a ‘gap in the market’ for a blog aimed at teachers, especially of science and maths. I’ve since found there are other bloggers out there, other sites and resources, but still not as many as I would have expected. Maybe I’m just not looking in the right places.

In the time I’ve been active, my posts have mostly been about revision and study skills. I guess this reflects how much of teaching seems to be ablout assessment, which is a shame in a way. Maybe it’s just the time of year. Anyway, there have also been a few science-based posts and there’s a detailed one coming soon about teaching ‘How Science Works’ using homeopathy as an example, hopefully something which will be linked to the 10:23 Campaign and the fantastic Lay Scientist Blog.

I’ve also posted some ideas about book recommendations, hardly a surprise as I enjoy reading so much. One of the best things about teaching is being able to share my love of books with a (sometimes) appreciative audience. I figure that even if only one kid in each class discovers a new book or author because of something I say, a loan or suggestion, my day was worthwhile.

My site also has some permanent pages, which are getting towards the level I was after when I started. These should probably be my next priority as in some cases I need to update them to reflect the posts I’ve been making, as well as putting up some of the teaching ideas I originally intended. It’s probably the pages for colleagues that have been neglected, as the students pages are getting somewhere.

And finally, the point of this rather rambling post. If there are readers out there, I would really appreciate some comments, suggestions and feedback. What have I mentioned and then never followed up? What have I missed? How could I encourage some of you – I know you’re out there, WordPress give me statistics and everything, I just don’t know who you are – to come back or make your presence felt. You’re my guests, after all. It seems only right we should be introduced.


A VLE should not need a Very Long Explanation

You know how some INSET days feel like a total waste of time? You spend ages listening to managers droning statistics or have consultants tell you that you’ve been doing it wrong all this time. Well, last week there was a really good hour which made up for the rest of the day.

The session was about using the Virtual Learning Environment we’re trying out. I’ve heard a bit about it but despite being reasonably technically literate never felt I had the chance to try it out. It’s so hard to put aside time for new ideas when you’re trying to keep up with marking, planning and everything else. The realisation which helped me was that running the VLE was pretty much like using this blog – which meant I could focus on what I was making, not a complicated process to make it.

A VLE is basically an interactive website which provides downloadable resources, information and weblinks for students. So far, so boring. What makes them more powerful is that not only can you put things there for the students to access, but they can return the favour. They can contribute to wiki-style glossaries and articles, complete homework, quizzes and activites online which can then be marked automatically. I haven’t had a chance to play with this last idea but I really like the concept of self-marking homework.

I’m enjoying working on this blog, at least partly because it helps me get the ideas clear in my own head – having an imaginary audience (if anyone’s reading this they don’t seem to like commenting) means I have to up my game, which means I think through the loopholes and problems of an activity before I’m in front of the class. The VLE will offer the same opportunity for me to share ideas with students and see what they do with them. I’ll keep you all posted about the results.

Books to loan to students 5/5

The last in this sequence – but by no means the end of my bookshelf, from which many more are loaned (and usually returned, surprisingly) – is sadly no longer in print. At least, the listings I found are for old copies at extortionate prices. The Unnatural Nature of Science by Lewis Wolpert is not about any particular discipline, or trying to answer any questions kids might normally ask. Instead it’s about science itself, about how scientific hypotheses are formulated and approached. It’s easier going than some of the philosophy of science books I’ve flipped through, but gives some good explanations for the need to examine bias in methods, blinding and the use of controls as well as falsifiability.

This is certainly one of the more challenging books I’d loan out. I have others that are at a fairly high level, for example in evolutionary biology or physics, but they’re not ones I’d loan except to real enthusiasts. This week I’ve tried to focus on those that might be more appropriate for kids up to age 16. A later sequence will look at fiction books for reluctant readers, as I seem to have spent the last few years trying desperately to get my form to read. The ironic thing is that I’d commit murder for a chance to read more often and they act like I’m asking them to submit to the Spanish Inquisition…

Books to loan to students 4/5

We’re through the easier books, really – at least, the ones that I’ve found to recommend to students who are younger or who struggle, but are still interested. I expect them to dip in and out, perhaps miss the trickier sections. If I want to push them a little more, then Bill Bryson’s A Brief History of Nearly Everything is really good. Today’s suggestion is, however, a little more challenging.

I suspect many science teachers have read and enjoyed Ben Goldacre’s work. The Guardian column, blog and book all share the name Bad Science and there is a lot of overlap in terms of material. I strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in science, whether medical (as Ben is) or not. The book is certainly a good read and the newer edition has an index, which mine doesn’t. Ben has a keen interest in the use of bad maths to promote bad science and he has little patience for people and institutions who ignore science to promote their own agendas. Despite the regular claims of alternative medicine practitioners about bias he is equally scathing about drug companies or establishment figures who can’t, or won’t, do the maths if it would challenge their position.

Books to loan to students 3/5

I like comics. I liked them as a kid and I like them now, especially titles such as The Sandman, Transmetropolitan and Preacher. (NB – these last two not really suitable for kids or easily shocked adults.) And so I was pleased when I was given The Physics of Superheroes by a friend. I suspect it was inspired in part by a Larry Niven essay from years ago but covers the subject much more widely.

The book uses the concepts behind a range of superheroes to explain scientific theories and ideas. It considers the apparent contradictions of some of the heroes, some of which illustrate our changing understanding of matter, space or light. I’ve found it a great book to loan to more able students at key stage 4 who would like to access more challenging areas of physics than the syllabus allows.

In a similar way, but only really relevant for one month in twelve, Can Reindeer Fly:The Science of Christmas is a fun read that uses ideas or situations we take for granted – if in a less-than-serious way – to explain scientific concepts. Students have to be fast readers, hoever, to get through it during a single festive season. Single chapters or excerpts can be used during end-of-term lessons if desired…

Books to loan to students 2/5

How To Dunk A Doughnut is a great collection of the science in everyday life, written as a collection of chapters. Inspired in part by a light-hearted paper in Nature 397 (I think it’s the same one as is republished at First Science here), the book examines how science affects us every day in the most unexpected ways. The science itself is not easy, but is well explained by Len Fisher, who describes himself as a scientist, author and communicator. He is currently a visiting research fellow at Bristol and continues to write, including Weighing The Soul, which I also enjoyed.

I encourage my students to write while they read – a technique I often use myself. Many of my books have scribbled margins, and although they don’t tend to join in, I find it very interesting when they ask me questions based on what they’ve read or try and push themselves further. I know things are going well when I struggle to answer their questions!

Books to loan to students 1/5

As a sixth form student, many years ago, I had a subscription to New Scientist. I probably shouldn’t admit that on the interweb. Still, I found it interesting, if slightly geeky, and not too hard to understand most of the time. I now find some of the articles a bit basic, although useful in lessons, and have long since let my subscription lapse. Like many readers, one of the first pages I used to turn to was at the back, ther ‘Last Word’ section. This included questions asked by readers and a selection of the responses.

How to Fossilise Your Hamster is one of several books collecting together the high – and low – points of this correspondance. Some of the questions are about scientific theories, others ask about practical applications. This book in particular has many suggestions for ideas you can test out or demonstrate at home, and I have pinched a few to use in lessons too. The series (several are available) are great to loan out to students and have, for me, bridged a gap between the Horrible Science series, which are fun but a bit basic, and the more challenging recommendations I will list later this week.