Peace and Quiet?

So they’re gone.

After (nearly) five years my form have had their last regular day, signed their last leavers’ book page and talked over the register for the last time. A sudden quiet descends and, just like those of us will children will testify, that makes us uneasy. When they’re quiet is when they’re up to something. Hopefully, in their case, revision. But this post isn’t about that, but instead what I wish I’d done while things in the form room were still noisy.

I wish I’d gotten more photos of them achieving – at sports day, during inter form, in their one appalling attempt at an assembly. I did save their first school picture, for a little nostalgia on their last day. Okay, a little sadism too.

I particularly wish I’d got a group photo each year. It would have been nice for them to see how much they’ve grown as a group – the same room, same uniform, but growing from 11 to 16.

I wish I’d kept better track of their other achievements – drama, music, success in school and out of it. A running record, starting in Year 7, would have been useful for reports as well as for final messages. (Writes note for his next form.)

You know, I can’t think of much else. I don’t wish I’d been softer on them, because although it’s been unpopular in places most have admitted that my support – read that as unrelenting attention to the details of planners and deadlines – has helped them to be ready for exams. Over the past few years over a third have had some kind of major issue (court case, bereavement, other family trauma) for which I’ve been able to offer discreet support or help them out behind-the-scenes. It’s just that by the nature of such problems, they wouldn’t admit to their mates was a positive thing. So it goes. I’ll have to live with being the ogre.

And now, I get to enjoy the peace and quiet of a form room with no form. Twenty minutes, morning and afternoon, without kids. Blissful calm.

Until I get a cover…


Doing This All Wrong?

According to this comic from xkcd, I just might be:

Let me know if you think I’m building a good relationship with you, the readers, in the comments below. And if you don’t already know it, I strongly recommend xkcd generally for thrice weekly comics. And even as occasional starters (correlation in particular.

Job Descriptions

A break from revision ideas – at least partly because a large part of me suspects that I’m spending more time on it than half my students. Instead I’d like to describe my solution to a perennal problem in science, a lack of meaningful engagement with practical work.

This may seem a surprise. After all, practical work is one of our subject’s selling points, surely? Everyone loves messing around in the lab. And yet time and again it can be so easy for practical lessons to degenerate into chaos. I’ve identified two categories of difficulty, partly guided by the ideas in the IoP Report Girls in Physics.

  • Some students rush in without thinking about the ideas they are investigating. This means details are missed and so data may not be meaningful.
  • Some students prefer not to handle the equipment, lacking confidence that they can apply the instructions, or feeling that their understanding will not allow them to design an experiment that answers the question.

It would be simplistic to suggest that this is purely a gender issue, but I think many colleagues would recognise that boys are much more likely to fit into the first category, while girls are more likely to match the second. In some ways this does not matter, as long as we recognise that students can be overenthusiastic and sloppy, or underenthused and less involved. In the classroom we respond to individual students to address their issues, rather than dealing with them as averages.

My first attempt to solve this issue was to require my students to work in mixed groups. Rather than specifying them myself, I allowed them to choose by themselves, only intervening when they could not manage to form groups composed of both boys and girls. In retrospect, perhaps I should have been able to predict the result. A couple of lessons later, I looked across my classroom, groups all working well… then realised that at every single experiment, the boys were (constructively) messing around with the equipment and the girls were sitting back with their folders open (to record results).


Scene: same class, a week later. I’d have managed it sooner but getting the chains took a few days. (Not as bad as it sounds.) As the students discuss the starter, I walk around giving them badges. Each badge tells them what job they will be doing and is a different colour. They are told to put the chains around their necks and keep them on all lesson – the key words will remind them what their responsibilities are. They are then asked to get into groups of four, including one of each job. Only then do a few of the brighter students realise that they’ve been stitched up. The jobs of ‘equipment set-up’ and ‘measurements’ have mostly been given to girls, while most boys have the ‘quality control’ or ‘scribe’ roles to fulfil. They must work together, but this forces (‘encourages’ in my longer description for colleagues) the boys to sit back and think while the girls need to engage with the more ‘hands-on’ aspects of practical work.

I don’t use the badges for every lesson or every practical, but they are surprisingly popular with the students. They work best with longer, more investigative-style practicals. There are some issues, primarily with boys who sulk at not being allowed to touch the equipment (in some lessons – it’s obviously important to rotate the roles according to some kind of pattern). Some girls struggle to take the initiative, to solve problems with the equipment, but this is precisely why they need to do it! On the whole I can see several good points with this (or a similar) system.

  • As a teacher you can require those who normally take over practical work to take a back seat.
  • Girls can take their time with figuring out how to work an investigation without someone more confident over-ruling them.
  • Those who do understand need to explain their ideas to classmates clearly and concisely.
  • As you rotate roles, there is the opportunity to address some of the areas of APP.
  • The job of ‘quality control’ includes appropriate use of investigative key terms (accurate, reliable etc) which means it actually gets addressed!
  • Investigative work (after a few teething problems) goes more smoothly as students take responsibility for ‘their job’.

 Even my older students – I first tried it with Year 8 – seem to get a lot out of it. I’ve deliberately left my Year 10 kids out of the trials so far, as they are going to be guinea pigs for something more detailed. We’ll see how they cope with them in a few weeks time.

I’d appreciate any comments, especially if you’ve tried something similar or have used the printable badges and descriptions (below) with your own classes. Like all the resources on my blog, all I ask for is some feedback so I can improve them.

printable: job descriptions as pdf

“But What About My Social Life?”

This was the response from a student when I pointed out that with their first exam eight days away, they should probably be staying in revising most nights between now and then. They seemed amazed that I should expect them to be putting their exam preparation first, even though some of them are close to grade boundaries or are hoping to use their grade to access sixth form or college courses. These are clearly kids who would have failed the marshmallow test when younger.

You’ve guessed it – this is another revision tips post. The title of the lesson I gave was ‘Revision vs Facebook’ and focussed on web resources that students could use to revise effectively. I’ve shown them the flash card programs before (see Revising Online) but wanted to give them some alternatives. The two concepts we looked at were producing summaries using frameworks and making mind or concept maps.


A blank piece of paper is intimidating. I’ve found that many students take time getting started with revision, not just because they have a tendancy to procrastinate but because they don’t know where to start. For a while now I’ve told them to finish one revision session by writing a heading on a new piece of paper for the concepts they need to do next. This sheet then goes into their revision guide, sticking out at the right page. When they start the next session all they need to do is find the book and they can start without thinking. This is based on the idea of making a ‘to do list’ while wearing a ‘boss hat’ so you can get things done when less focussed. (Not as stupid as it sounds – see this Lifehacker post for more info).

Producing a framework for revision can be done in seconds, but it may be worth putting a little more time into it. A list of topic headings give a framework, for example. These might be added to a Cornell layout, as I’ve posted about before (and some of my students tell me really helps). Copying and pasting a few past paper questions on the same topic can set a clear objective: students can list bullet points that summarise the main ideas behind their answers. With luck they’ll notice common themes in the questions or, if they are sufficiently self-critical, will pick up on common weaknesses in their answers.

In a recent lesson I divided a page into three and asked students to write five key ideas under each of three headings for enzymes. This took seconds so I’m not going to produce a printable version, but it looked like this:

 Over several lessons I refined this idea and produced different versions of a ‘leaflet’. I suspected my younger students would get a lot more out of the concept of making a proper leaflet, so produced one they could fold and add to their folders. This gave a more structured approach than simply three headings. If you print this double-sided (flip on short side!) it will fold nicely to give three different views.

printable: energy leaflet as pdf

For my GCSE class, I produced and had copied for them a double sided leaflet with headings, a total of six columns with prompts that will hopefully flag up the most important bits. (Which in a way makes me sad – does it seem to anyone else that being able to fit the key ideas for an exam that makes up a quarter of a GCSE on two sides of A4 is a little worrying?) I’ve made an electronic copy available on our school VLE so they can print extra copies, or make their own versions with extra copies of a single column (for those who use the tried and tested method of cover, write, check, repeat). And I’ve suggested that if they filled in one of the columns several times, using different resources online (Bitesize and Skoool were the two I pointed them at), they would probably get the facts straight in their heads. I even suggested they could fill it in while listening to the relevant podcasts from the Naked Scientists, also available on Bitesize.

printable: AQA B2 leaflet as pdf

Only one student noticed that, once more, I was strongly suggesting making something rather than simply reading. Or is it too optimistic to hope that they all believe and understand this now and take it for granted that reading isn’t revision?

Mind Maps

Am I the only person who sees the constant disagreement about how mind/concept maps ‘should’ be drawn as something similar to a religious war? There seem to be hundreds of sites, all with their instructions for the one, ‘true’ way. I’m a bit more relaxed and give my students just a few basic rules:

  • all lines show links between ideas
  • the lines mean links – consequnces, subgroups or similar – so don’t be afraid to draw them as arrows
  • pretty colours are pointless unless they signify something

This does mean that sometimes a concept map turns into something like a flowchart, or circles are drawn around all examples of something to make it vaguely venn diagram-esque. If that’s a word. Which it probably isn’t.

Sorry, it’s late. Anyway. There are tons of places, online and off, to look for information on mind mapping. This may need to be a whole separate post at some point [scribbles in a notebook] but for now there are two websites I was going to flag up. I’m sure both have advantages and disadvantages, and that there are may others that you may feel do the job better (comments section below, please feel free to correct me), but for now these are two I’d like to direct you towards.

I’d never heard of MindMeister but I like it. At least partly I like it because there’s content there already, which my students have already been directed to, for their coming exams. A guy who tutors science and stuff has put at least these two, and probably many more. AQA B2 and AQA P2 are nice summaries students could use to consider how well they currently understand the topic, and perhaps even extend it. Naturally making a mind map is always better than using one, but a starting point is still useful. If nothing else these show what can be done with the software. 

The other site is called and I’m still playing with it. I know I like it, but I haven’t quite figured out all the bits and pieces yet. I like that I can share what I’ve produced and I see this as a really nice way to work collaboratively. My students (although they don’t know it yet) will soon have a homework to contribute to such a mind map. One I’m fairly happy with is linked from the thumbnail below.

Teaching Evolution 6/5: Skeletons in the Family Tree

 I’ve decided to add a quick post which fits in nicely with the set of five I made the other week. Basically, a bunch of interesting things showed up in science news online, more or less simultaneously, and I thought it was worth adding a new post instead of amending an old one.

One bit of news is that there is some evidence to suggest that humans bred with Neanderthals. This was reported in New Scientist, and the accompanying editorial was pretty good too. An interesting aspect is that Neanderthal DNA shows up in all human populations not descended from ancestral Africans. This nicely illustrates the problems with the whole concept of a species as a distinct, separate group of individuals. Things are a little more complicated than that.

The SciencePunk website puts the human family tree in perspective by linking to some work estimating just how closely related we are to other modern species. Describing chimpanzees, gorillas and so on as cousins is a helpful shorthand, but this article makes the relationship a little more specific. It links to the Tree of Life website, which although not recently updated shows the wider genetic connections between diverse species. The page on us (Homo, naturally) includes links both popular and academic.

Not so much our family tree (in an immediate sense), but still something that students may be interested in. On Not Exactly Rocket Science, Ed Yong’s excellent science interpretation blog, a paper was referenced which gives more evidence that feathers were first used for warmth, not flying. A study has shown that the bones were probably not strong enough to support powered flight. Please note, I’ve carefully stated this as ‘used for’ not ‘evolved for’ as that is just asking for trouble with determinism…

Updates on Teaching of Science

Not everything on this blog is about the posts; I’m also using WordPress as a webhosting service. The problem is that these bits and pieces aren’t visible unless you go looking for them, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to flag them up.

I’ve tidied up and rearranged some of the links on the right hand side. I’m particularly on the lookout for other teachers’ blogs so please let me know if there’s any you can recommend. I’ve also sorted out subscriptions so you can sign up by email or RSS.

The biggest change to the site itself is the updates made to the Students pages. There are three linked subpages, each focussed on one area of Learning, Revision and Exam Technique. This last one now includes printables for classroom displays. At present these areas are for colleagues, rather than kids, but my aim is to put ‘student voice’ versions onto a related blog in time.

Survival Science Mini-Scheme

I won’t quite say that it’s by popular demand – but after a comment I made on the TES Forums about a problem-solving activity I did back in the mists of time, a few people expressed interest. I couldn’t find the original information so I’ve had to reproduce it from memory. The downside is that there isn’t as much detail as there was in the Homeopathy scheme I put here a few weeks back. But hopefully it will be useful and/or interesting.

The basic idea is that students attempt several different activities, all based around the idea of surviving and eventually escaping from a desert island. They have to use various aspects of KS3 science to do so, as well as some creativity and a fair bit of ingenuity. There will be sellotape, or for those more experienced, duct tape. (Basic survival necessity).

What it doesn’t have is the complete set of printable resources I did for the homeopathy scheme. Partly this is because how you use the resources will depend on time and equipment available. Partly it’s because I just haven’t had time to recreate it all. Please feel free to send (or link to in the comments) anything you have that could or should be added.

Printable: survival science as pdf