Mavericks?

Kids – come to that, people in general – love to feel that they’re the only one with the right answer. Proving somebody wrong gives us a sense of triumph. I suppose you could argue that as humans have evolved to battle with their wits rather than their fists, winning arguments is just another way we demonstrate our fitness to reproduce. Ignoring such a basic human characteristic will cause us problems, but we must also recognise how poorly this conditioning prepares our students for science.

Scientific disagreements are not settled by ‘winning an argument’ in the conventional way. Science is about accurately describing the real world, and as Philip K Dick wrote, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” It can be difficult to convince a student that settling a question in science is about evidence – and this is only emphasized when you explain that all ideas in science are subject to change if more evidence appears. Pupils who begin to appreciate this are taking huge steps in their understanding of how science works, and are doing so despite a very different view of science held by many adults.

Science as described in the media seems to be about facts. Those who disagree with accepted scientific ideas are described as ‘mavericks’, and simply by challenging widely-held viewpoints many will see them as admirable or interesting. These mavericks, or their advocates in the media, rightly point out that many of today’s accepted theories started out as being ridiculed by the prevailing scientific opinion. (Wegener’s ideas about continental drift, what we now explain by tectonic plates, is a well-known example.) These scientists – and of course their equivalents in other fields – are now remembered as having fought mainstream opinion. But we remember them because they turned out to be right! It’s like the recent headline  about a 2m lottery win; they used a system to get it. We never hear about the millions of other punters who failed despite having a ‘system’. This is an example of confirmation bias. In the same way, we rarely hear about the amateur and professional scientists who held on to their own pet theory, long after the evidence showed they were wrong.
 
With anything scientific, if you have evidence it usually turns out to be pretty hard to ignore the facts. Delays usually happen when a scientist has only part of the puzzle. Wegener, for example, did not have a plausible mechanism to explain continental drift; you could say that he had circumstantial evidence but no motive. The thing is that it’s a lot easier to talk about being oppressed, and the scientific paradigm, and people ignoring evidence, than it is to find convincing evidence which contradicts what everyone else is doing. Occam’s razor isn’t always right, but it is a pretty powerful way to weed out the idiots, fakers and other con-artists.

Adherants of homeopathy love to talk about ‘quantum principles’ and the ‘memory of water‘. Point out the huge theoretical weaknesses of their pet theory, however, or the lack of any good high quality evidence of it working beyond placebo, and they stop being quite so vocal. AIDS denialists (those who are convinced that the set of symptoms we call AIDS isn’t caused by HIV, but instead by lack of vitamin C or, bizarrely, the use of AZT) are, like many other similar monomaniacs, much better at quoting particular studies that support them than at taking in the broad sweep of evidence. The same is seen with climate change ‘skeptics’ – aka denialists – who cherrypick data that suits them, ignoring the rest. The BCA did just this when they finally released their “plethora of evidence” last year, to remarkably swift analysis and mockery from the blogosphere. (I wasn’t there – actively, at least. I was cheering from the sidelines.)

It’s one of the things that can be very frustrating when the media – the BBC is particularly bad on this one – try to present the ‘two sides of the argument’. They give equal air time, and apparently equal weight, to (a) the representative of the NHS who has spent 30 years on vaccination research and (b) some worried mother who ‘just knows’ that her son’s diagnosis of autism must be linked to the MMR jab he had the same year. It makes a better narrative, a story that journalists (and the rest of us) love to hear – brave underdog fights off huge corporation and wins due to being pure of heart. Of course, it’s not always right. But it gives many people, including our students, the impression that scientists can’t make up their mind and we don’t know anything for certain.
 
It’s like a kid telling his Mum, “yes, I got an A in my past paper” and me pointing out that he got an A in 1 paper of 4, and that the past four modules are all C grades. Sometimes an outlier or anomaly tells us something really interesting is going on (if I drop a pencil 1000 times and even once it floats silently instead of falling to the floor, something very weird has happened). The example I often give to students is plotting the level of noise in a car against speed. It’s not a smooth pattern; it will spike at (what we now know are) resonant frequencies, when the parcel shelf or whatever starts rattling. Here the anomalies are interesting, especially to engineers who then try to solve the noise problem before the customers complain. But sometimes that anomaly is because we screwed up the method, or because a kid guessed better than usual on a multiple choice test.
 
The general public doesn’t have the knowledge or skills to assess the quality of the research. It’s worth pointing out that there are some fantastic sites offering just these skills; NHS: Behind the Headlines is one and more specifically their excellent article teaching you how to read articles about health news. Sadly, most people feel that they don’t have the time, patience or ability to do so, despite it taking less time than watching England lose at the football, again. This means it’s very easy to pull the wool over their eyes, or over the eyes of a journalist, and make it seem like the scientific community is split 50/50. MMR vs autism, evolution vs (un)intelligent design, conspiracy vs moon landing, homeopathy vs placebo… Most scientists know where they stand. In most cases there is a clear consensus on the big issues – the disagreements (which are many and frequently bitter) are about details. Important details, yes – but often not something newsworthy. They disagree on the tenth decimal place in a fundamental constant, or on the precise mechanism for how a small but vital part of the immune system fails when HIV infects a human being. Journalists don’t like telling that story, because it’s boring. Man bites dog is more fun.

The idea of a lone maverick, righting the wrongs of an uncaring establishment, is a popular one. It is, on many levels, an appealing one. Sadly, that does not mean it is a correct one. Journalists who perpetuate the idea that science is always about a struggle between individual people, between personalities, do us few favours in the long run. Andrew Wakefield has made the most of the attention he received, meaning that even now he has fans who refuse to hear about his many transgressions. He is far from the only example. In such cases the media often deserve, but rarely receive, a portion of the blame. In the classroom, we must be careful to focus on the ideas, the evidence, rather than who is saying what. And somehow we must do this while still pointing out that some sources are more reliable than others! 

In general, I find my students seem to think I’m pretty sceptical. In fact, most of them think I’m cynical. Now, some of that is from spending my working life surrounded by teenagers. But in general, I’m quite happy to be seen as a ‘skeptic’ – because although I may not be a scientist in practice, I would like to think I am one in spirit. What can be closer to the scientific method than asking for evidence? The more unlikely something is, the more evidence I would need. I explain to my students that I would like three things from them, by the end of their courses. I want them to be curious, asking questions and able to start looking for the answers themselves. I’d like them to be untrusting of authority, always searching for the most likely explanation, not taking the world at first glance.

Oh, I said three things, didn’t I? Well, it would be nice if they passed some exams as well…

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3 x 3 x 3 x 3 revision

Yes, I know I’m not posting enough at the moment. Lots happening and a lack of encouragement from any hypothetical readers. As usual, any and all feedback appreciated…

Once more it’s revision time. I actually have two year groups preparing for the module exam (AQA Core Science A, if you’re interested) in ten days. I find it disappointing – although sadly unsurprising – that the Year 9 kids seem more motivated than the Year 10s. I used this activity, with a few modifications, with each group. As usual for any kind of revision activity that’s more varied than past papers, there is a wide variety in possible outcomes.

In the first lesson, students enter the room to find three headings, for three parts of the topic, spread around the room. They’re given a two minute countdown on the IWB and asked to use the laminated A4 boards to write a couple of key words, then stand under the approriate heading. (This could also be done with post-it notes or scrap paper and blu-tack). At the end of the two minutes students return to their usual seats and are told that the key words and ideas will help them with the lesson’s activities – making sets of revision materials that they will be able to use at home. They will produce three resources, on three areas of the topic, using three sources of information (folders, revision guides and me) to use at least three times (in this lesson, next and for the homework in between).

I told them which area I wanted them to start with based on the row they were sitting in. Our last class revision activity was based on human effects on the environment, so the three areas were:

  1. adaptations and competition
  2. natural selection, extinctions and evolution
  3. artificial selection, asexual reproduction and cloning/GM

What I asked them to do was to use a different method for each area, so if they started by making a mind map for adaptations and competition, they had to use a different method for the other two. Another timer, making the (for example) 20 or 25 minute time limit explicit, imparts a sense of urgency. I asked them to produce

  • a mind map/concept map/flowchart
  • a set of between 6 and 8 revision cards
  • a list of between 6 and 8 questions, half aimed at foundation level (basic recall) and half at higher (more complex explanations or uses)

This would work best if you’ve modelled the use and effectiveness of these methods in the recent past – even better if you have exemplar materials, perhaps on a different topic (I used examples from the humans affecting the environment part), where they can see them. Of course which exact methods you use will depend on resources available as well as personal preference.

When the time was up I spent a couple of minutes flagging up particularly good examples, talking about what made them useful, before asking them to choose a second area of the topic and a second method. Restart the timer, leaving myself about five minutes at the end of the lesson for a plenary.

Many already (rightly) suspected that producing the third resource, using the third method, would be the homework. I explained to them, after once more picking out some good examples to demonstrate  successful approaches, that in our next lesson they would be using these resources to revise together.

It will be a ‘speed revising’ approach, where students will swap partners every three minutes. In that time they will have to test their partner using the material they have prepared, and be tested in turn. Although three minutes won’t be enough to ‘use up’ the resources, this will allow them to ask different questions each time. Revision cards and questions offer obvious ways to test, but I will be providing post-it notes so that part of a mind map can be covered and their partner will have to predict what lies underneath.

This is one of those ‘differentiation by outcome’ lessons. Students produce work of a very varied standard, mainly due to varied effort rather than ability. If your group or class includes significantly weaker students it would be worth producing mind maps or revision cards with structured headings, or a list of twenty answers for which they must write eight questions and so on. As usual, students who are able, motivated or both can produce something very impressive, even in a small amount of time. It is useful to reinforce that twenty minutes or so is probably enough time to spend revising without a break for improved concentration.

Responsibility and Authority

“…and other duties as directed by the Head Teacher.”

Teaching is a very open-ended profession, when you think about it. Don’t get me wrong; I love the variety of my job and I think if I had a standard desk job, I’d go absolutely nuts. But in our role as a teacher we end up playing many parts, some of which are more productive than others.

It’s very easy to find yourself gaining extra responsibilities and it can happen in several different ways. The difficulty comes when you have acquired so many extra jobs it’s hard to find the time to plan, mark and teach your lessons. At the same time, it can be very hard to say ‘No’. Partly, of course, it depends on how the extra jobs are assigned.

Jobs shared between everyone

Writing schemes of work, updating resources and managing their photocopying is a regular job that can often seem thankless. The thing is that clearly this job needs to be done, and equally clearly it would be unreasonable for one person to do it all (although this does, I’m told, still happen in some workplaces). Trying to avoid this kind of task is not only irresponsible but you’ll end up being resented by the rest of your department. Instead prioritise the jobs and do them well. Don’t aim for perfect, because it’s unachievable and nobody will notice anyway. But if you do just a little more than you’ve been asked, it will get noticed – possibly by colleagues rather than the boss. For example, last time I had to sort out copying for a topic, I first spent an hour assembling a set of masters. Those are now stored with the topic and will make life easier next year. This brings up another way to soften the blow of this kind of job; if you are asked to choose which part you do, sign up early to get the best choice. Always selecting the shortest topic makes you unpopular but there’s nothing wrong with choosing your specialism, or the topic you did the masters for last year.

‘Opportunities’ and delegated jobs

If you’re a chemist, you’re clearly a good person to be helping out the head of chemistry by producing a homework booklet and set of markschemes. If you’re a biologist, then it would make sense for you to do the INSET course on managing microbiology experiments safely. These are the jobs you get asked to do, or may have the chance to ‘volunteer’ for, and can be hard to turn down. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as anything which takes more than an hour can probably be turned into an item on your CV. They can end up involving more time than expected, so try to keep track of ongoing commitments and use what you already do as a reason – not an excuse – not to take on more jobs. The good news about this sort of task is that a responsibility, if it is going to mean anything, will almost always be matched by some kind of authority. (Thanks to Robert Heinlein for neatly formulating this and many other ideas.) Having a measure of control means that you can decide how some things are done. I ended up volunteering to set up our department pages on the VLE. It’s not a huge job and I won’t be the only person to maintain them, but for me there are two pay-offs. Firstly, I hope to get a warm glow when students use it (and maybe even appreciate the links, if not the work that went into them.) Secondly, they’re set up just the way I want them. They suit the way I teach and so I know I’ll reap the benefits when I use them with my classes.

Make sure you know the difference between jobs that have been delegated (passed on to the person best suited/qualified to do them) and dumped (a job they don’t want to do that they have the power to pass on). Not that this necessarily means you can do anything about it, of course. A real opportunity will offer you some benefits, either interesting in the short term or career-enhancing in the long term. I’m now in the habit of keeping a list of all the extra jobs I do. Some of them I’m asked (or told) to do. Others I’ve volunteered for, or have simply decided to do without necessarily mentioning it. This last approach can be useful – if you don’t tell anyone that you’re attempting something, (1) no-one will notice if you change your mind and (2)you won’t be publicly volunteering to do it forever. You can still refer to the list when it’s time to fill in achievement forms, contribute to governers’ reports, select performance management criteria, update your CV or tick off items on a person specification for your next role.  It’s only by attempting (hopefully with guidance) the jobs that make up part of your boss’s role that you’ll find out if you’re capable of it, and if you actually want to do it.

Favours

Don’t say ‘yes’ every time you’re asked if you can help out. As above, always have a good reason when you have to say no. On the other hand, saying yes on a fairly regular basis will make you more popular. Offering to help out with specific jobs makes you especially popular, with the added benefits that you choose the extra work and the time when you’ll be doing it. In particular, offering to help support staff (lab technicians and reprographics) pays off in the long run. Not only do you get a nice warm glow but fetching everyone’s copying, or setting up your own equipment on a particularly busy day, is remembered when you need something at short notice.

Some people are a lot better at asking for favours than doing them for other people. You do not want to be (or be seen) as one of those people. If someone helps you out, especially if it’s because of a mistake you’ve made, try to make sure you offer to repay it sooner rather than later. The offer will be remembered, even if it’s not taken up.

Paid Roles

These days most of the extra duties in schools which are paid involve significant additional responsibility. It’s amazing how many roles can be shoe-horned into one job description. In general, the more successful the school and the nicer the environment, the more you will be expected to do before extra pay is considered. In ‘difficult’ schools management are much more likely to offer to make these extra jobs both formal and profitable. When on INSET days or training sessions be aware that some of the staff present will effectively be promoted for what they are learning while for others it will just be another item on the list of what they already do.

If any promotion is on offer at your school, or if there are roles you would like to be considered for if/when they come up, you have several options. Which ones you take will depend on how happy you are for people to know about your interest. Have a look at job descriptions and person specifications; these may be freely available on part of the school network. Remember that each time a role is readvertised, as previous holders of the post move onwards or upwards, the responsibilites tend to grow. If staff have not been invited to apply for a post at this moment then there’s a fair chance extra items will be on the list by the time they are. If you meet the description already, think about how you will demonstrate that. If you don’t, see what you can do about it now – gain experience, volunteer for particular aspects or try to do relevant courses. This assumes, of course, that reading the job description didn’t make you realise that it wasn’t right for you after all.

If it’s currently advertised an alternative is to ask the person currently doing the job. They obviously know that they’ll be replaced, and are likely to be honest about the level and kind of work involved. Listen to the reasons (if offered) for givign it up, or for the difficuties they may admit went along with it. You may find it’s worth asking who they were responsible to. Any job where the entire SMT can delegate to you can end up fairly hellish. Even a role where you set your own priorities will be tricky if the head can ‘suggest’ a new target or initiative to you. The flow of work may make a difference, as some jobs are easy to fit in to the working week while others will mean significant amounts of time spent at home, late evenings or at the weekend,

In the End

One of the best ways to approach any single task is to specify how people will tell that it’s been done. Some are obvious, other are more subtle (or will only affect you).

  1. Other people notice how well something has been done (they care if it was sloppy or, much more rarely, they will be impressed or grateful if it’s been done well).
  2. If it’s not done at all, people will notice and care (e.g. photocopying worksheets for a topic).
  3. Only you will notice if this has been done particuarly well (e.g. personal planning).
  4. Only you will notice if it has been done at all.

In these later kinds of situations, you need to think about how much time really needs to be spent. There’s nothing wrong with being painstaking or perfectionist, as long as (1) you know that you’re doing it at the expense of other jobs or sleep and (2)you don’t expect anyone to notice or appreciate it. You may still choose to do it – but it’s for you, not for your colleagues or the boss. In the end, teaching is one of those jobs where a whole range of successes are possible. If it’s the kids, we call this differentiation by outcome. If it’s us – well, it’s hader to give it a name.

Irony

A final note – I started this piece over a week ago but so many things cropped up that I haven’t been able to finish it until now. Those other things needed to be done (although in my judgement, sadly not significant, not all of them needed to be done then) but it means my personal goals, like this blog, have had to wait. Hopefully now I’ll be able to get back on to a regular posting schedule. In the next few days: making classroom discussions more productive.

Actions in Context

This isn’t a post about How Science Works, and how as teachers we need to ensure that all our little darlings always understand the relevance of the material to their lives. I mean, we should. But that’s not what this is about. This post grew out of a conversation I had with a colleague about how I try to keep myself organised. Some of it duplicates ideas to be found on the Organisation pages, as well as many other places online.

Actions flowchart

During the course of a day I tend to get half a rainforest’s worth of paper. Verbally, by email or in briefings I also get jobs to do, some of which are quick and easy while others are clearly going to be very time consuming. I’ve modified some of the ideas of David Allen (via summaries such as this one on Lifehacker) to suit the way I work and teach. Hopefully, the flowchart above makes sense and I’m not going to try and explain it in text – the whole point of a flow chart is that I shouldn’t have to! I will explain a little about the Inbox and the different kinds of Actions.

Absolutely everything should go through the Inbox. Jobs get forgotten when you’ve been told about them, but it doesn’t really register. His ideas about Getting Things Done revolve around the idea of ‘ubiquitious capture’, which is a fancy way of saying everything must be recorded in the same place. Like most, I struggle with this and effectively run two parallel Inboxes, one electronic and one on paper. I’ve found it works well to have an A4 plastic folder, attached to my planner, so I’ve got somewhere to put all the various bits of paper until I can deal with them. Anything not on paper either gets written down and stuffed in the folder, or written straight on my weekly To Do list. In the interests of work-life balance I have a separate notebook that I use for non-school stuff (like this blog), which has it’s own weekly lists. But anyway.

Allen is very specific about Actions but what it boils down to is that it must be a single action (one job) that doesn’t require much in the way of thinking. There will be a concrete result and ideally they should be phrased as something which has been completed (e.g. ‘Year 7 book numbers copied to database’). I tend to write them as active verbs (e.g. ‘copy Year 7 book numbers to database’) but I agree with his reasoning that being as specific as possible makes it easier to get them done – they then require time, but not judgement. The idea is that ambiguity (e.g. ‘book numbers’) leads to confusion and/or procrastination.

If it turns out the job needs more than one Action he then calls it a Project. This will have a series of simpler jobs, each of which will need to be added to the To Do list separately. Completing them individually still gets the whole thing done but makes it much more achievable. Keeping track of ongoing progress is important because otherwise I’ve found that Projects end up drifting. Think about students doing coursework; if they don’t have a series of interim targets then they won’t have anything worth handing in the day before the deadline.

At opposite ends of the spectrum are the items which can be done in a couple of minutes (i.e. less time than writing them on the list would take) and things which are ideas, rather than concrete objectives. These last should be reviewed regularly (I go through mine each term, for example) but not on a daily or weekly basis.

Contexts

The end result is that new items get added to my To Do list each day. To help keep myself productive I use another of his ideas, which is effectively the same as tags in Twitter. Most items will have a key word next to them, one of several specific contexts that tell me where I will need to be to get them done. Instead of jumping from one place to another, I can save them up until I’ve got enough work to fill the time available. These will be different for everyone, but for what it’s worth:

  • @PC for things to do when I’ve access to the school network.
  • @phone for things that are best done verbally.
  • @home for anything I’ll need to take with me at the end of the day.
  • @lab marks jobs for my own teaching area and the neighbouring technicians.

To be complete, I’ll add that the notebook I try to use to keep my non-teaching life in order (a vain hope – I have two kids) has a couple of extra ones:

  • @work for things I need to take from home.
  • @town for jobs to do while out and about
  • @study for the room with my desk in.

Once a week (and more often if I get the chance) I clear out my Inbox, add a bunch of items to my To Do list and make sure I’m not getting behind. I check my Calender for the week ahead and move one job from each Project on to my To Do list.

Or that’s the theory, anyway…

printable: Actions as a pdf