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