#asechat and #pimpmydemo

#asechat and #ukedchat

It happened completely by accident. I happened to be on Twitter yesterday evening and some interesting posts showed up in my timeline tagged with #asechat. So I joined in.

I already sporadically take part in #ukedchat. If you don’t, it’s worth a look; you may have recently read the Guardian article about it (which they ironically tweeted about without the hashtag). Once a week, on Thursday evenings from 8-9pm UK time a bunch of teachers discuss a topic. It gets crazy, as the 40+ page archive testifies, but it’s well worth the time. The topic is voted on during the week beforehand, then the chat is moderated by some brave soul. You miss lots of stuff – the sheer pace guarantees that – but can catch up with the weekly archive, if you want. When I can make it I come away having picked up a few good ideas and wanting to try them out. I suppose the idea is to provide the same environment as the coffee break during a TeachMeet – also a great idea.

Anyway. So this chat was the first one, a trial run specifically for science teachers and educators to share ideas. You can read the archive, if you want. The name #asechat is a convenient label, but you don’t need to be a member of the ASE to join in. (It’s worth considering, but I don’t think anyone’s planning on pressganging.) All you need to do is be prepared to listen, or even better to join in. It will be much easier if you use a twitter interface with a decent search function; for what it’s worth, I like TweetDeck. (If you don’t ‘get’ Twitter, and you’ve still read this far, check out this video.) The plan is for it to happen each Monday evening from 8-9. Maybe I’ll ‘see’ you there.


A few weeks back I swapped a few tweets with other science teachers about the little tips and tweaks that make demonstrations better. For a while now I’ve been collecting these ideas for myself, like we all do. This has usually involved scribbling on printouts or textbooks, less often an electronic ‘cheat sheet’. I’ve used books like The Resourceful Physics Teacher (out of print I think but he’s now got a website, SchoolPhysics) and there are regular features in magazines and journals. But why, I asked, don’t we share these ideas with each other on Twitter by coming up with a useful hashtag? And so #pimpmydemo was born (probably inspired by the book I’ve seen called Pimp Your Lesson). There were a few dozen responses of colleagues who felt it would be useful, then real life got in the way. During the #asechat I raised the idea again and there was enough interest it seemed worth taking it further. Of course, as it was my idea, I couldn’t exactly pass it on to somebody else…

I’ve set up an archive through a site called TwapperKeeper. The archive URL is http://twapperkeeper.com/hashtag/pimpmydemo and it should be automatically updating from now. And to be honest, that’s about it. I’m not trying to run anything, or take credit for anyone’s ideas. I’d suggest that if you can’t explain your idea in 140 characters, including a link to a details page would be worthwhile. If it gets going – and I hope it does – I suspect we’ll see links to blogs, sites such as Getting Practical and YouTube. Perhaps people will ask for help, by using the tag, as well as offering it. We’ll just have to see if anyone except me and a couple of others are interested.

If you think it’s a good idea, all you need to do is tell your followers. This isn’t going to happen by me or you putting out a few ideas and waiting for magic to happen. But it would be interesting to see what happens if the idea spreads…


Learning Journey

It’s funny how a new perspective can make you reassess what you do – not because it’s necessarily bad, but because we didn’t think it was unusual. We often take for granted the things we know or the methods we use. I find myself surprised when I make a reference to a scientific word being derived from Latin, Greek or Arabic and the kids look at me blankly. Despite knowing consciously that they won’t have a clue, I assume that they remember our common language has ancestors, just like they do. So as an example of reflective practice (which I’ll be blogging about soonish too) here’s something I use in one form or another with all my classes.

One of my colleagues walked though my lesson – common in my school – and commented afterwards about what had been on the board. Thankfully, it wasn’t an error in my spelling (rare) or sloppy chemical notation (more likely). She liked that I was making explicit to the students how knowledge moved from my brain, through theirs and finally to the exam papers in the process we call ‘education’. I base the headings on the stages that students recognise in their own learning and am currently working on a display for my lab,. This will show what happens, why, and crucially what students can do to reduce the gap between teaching and learning.

Teachers know stuff.

As teachers we have a fair grasp of ‘knowledge, skills and understanding‘. Students often assume that this comes from our degree, but as is often the case they’re mixing up cause and effect. We usually did those degrees because of a genuine interest. For many of us that is still reflected in wider reading of magazines, books or blogs. We may be members of professional associations, such as the Institute of Physics. We seek out documentary programmes on TV (e.g. Science and Nature programmes via the BBC) or the radio (ibid), or even go to shows such as Uncaged Monkeys.

There’s another source of knowledge that students overlook and we often take for granted. We’re people. We have lives. We have parents and families, partners and children. We have sports and interests, hobbies and pastimes. We’ve probably lived in several different places, even other countries. We may have had previous careers and we’ve certainly had other jobs. All of these things inform our classroom practice, whether we realise it or not. In the past two weeks I have:

  • shown the final launch of the space shuttle Endeavour (space freak since childhood)
  • passed around prenatal ultrasounds and childhood photos (parent)
  • used rock shoes to demonstrate friction (enthusiastic if unskilled rock climber)
  • discussed the different consequences of damaging veins and arteries (first aider)
  • shown a brief clip from Alien to demonstrate acids (science-fiction fan)
  • talked about a range of patient-centred careers and why students should avoid an obsessive focus on medicine (parents both worked in the NHS and partner is an OT)
  • shared the mnemonic my Dad taught me for the connections in a three-pin plug (despite beliefs of my students I was a child, I do have parents and was not made from a kit by our lab techs)

Helping kids to recognise that teachers are both experts and enthusiasts in their particular fields and people in their own right, with life experience as well as possibly previous careers, can only be helpful in the classroom.

We do stuff.

I do a lot of work with my students about active learning and how we can make any activity more effective. Just because the profession-wide focus on L2L came from the government doesn’t mean it has to be bad, or that we have to forget it now we’re not receiving weekly emails about it (this article from Guy Claxton is worth a read if you disagree). The list of possible activities has grown since I wrote it up as a page on this blog but the basic idea is pretty obvious. I gave students a load of tasks they normally complete in lessons, they added to it using examples from other subjects, and together we came up with more active versions. Some were approaches that teachers could use – with the caveat that this means more work for the teacher and a committed attitude from the class if they are to be effective – and others were things that any student could do to make a lesson or task more effective.

Most students were honest enough to admit that the reason they might not use these methods was that they didn’t want to do extra work – despite me pointing out that the result was better learning in less overall time. Many would rather do less intensive activities which involve less interaction, perhaps so they can leave the thinking to other students. We discussed how simple changes to lessons can move the focus from teaching to learning, and how teachers already do a lot of these. (I feel strongly that many professionals have always used the different L2L ideas, long before it had a name and a strategy, we just didn’t necessarily tell the students.)

  • predict the content of the next powerpoint slide
  • ‘What questions do we need to answer?’ as a lesson starter
  • write a review or summary notes after watching a video
  • produce three questions to test someone’s understanding after the activity
  • Good/Bad/Interesting consequences of a concept in the ‘real world’

Interestingly, I found that even my sixth form students were quite resistant to the idea that they should be doing their own, self-directed wider reading and study. Some of them do it, I think – I loan out enough books and send links to enough blogs and iPlayer programmes – but not in any organised or reflective way. Perhaps this is less of a problem with students in humanities or arts subjects, where the ‘big picture’ is better recognised? I’m now exploring the potential of a VLE as a route for giving routes to wider reading – links to relevant blog posts, for example – for students to explore as they consolidate their understanding.

We have notes.

This can be controversial but I feel that some kind of permanent record is useful. In my setting students make written notes, made up of a mixture of tasks and activities. Copying sections is a small part of it, usually made more active (see what I did there?) by having them write their own summaries, rewording or structuring in Cornell-style or similar. There are of course alternatives; I’m currently looking at having my students produce an ongoing blog of what they have learned in science, complete with pictures and links. Using this to replace school notes is more of a long-term goal as I can just picture my HoD’s face. There are also textbooks and revision guides, either of which can be a valuable resource if personalised with enough annotations and post-it notes. Discussing the weaknesses of websites such as BBC Bitesize, S-Cool and Skoool in terms of annotations, finding an exact fact or failure to match up with courses is valuable in itself.

I think it is important for students to recognise that short-term understanding – and the clues and hints that scaffold it – should be recorded somehow. We all forget things. The notes then offer an easy way to prompt recall, providing short cuts to what was understood in lessons. This shows that teachers asking for written notes to be clear enough to reread isn’t just awkwardness. I have an advantage here in that my handwriting is awful, so students can see that I focus on layout and diagram clarity for a reason.

We remember stuff.

I’m not going to copy and paste sections from my many posts on revision. Suffice to say that my students were able to tell me (and show evidence of using ) my MORSE Code for revision, and discuss their preferred methods as I’ve mentioned on my page and posts on the subject. Reading isn’t revision, and they know that. You can talk about the difference between short-term and long-term memory, draw diagrams of neurons or misquote Chinese proverbs if you like.

Now, you could argue that in an ideal world this would be the end of the journey. Unless, of course, you live in the real world. I hope my students remember some of what I teach them, long after they finish the course. I want them to be different, better, because of what they’ve learned in my lab. I want them not to need me any more. But I also want them to be able to demonstrate what they understand, what they’ve learned to do, by getting the marks in the exams. And so…

We get marks.

It can be interesting to ask students what they need to pass an exam. Many will suggest that simple knowledge is enough. Ask what is needed for a good performance on stage or the athletics field, and suddenly they come up with all kinds of other factors. Putting an exam in terms of a performance seems to help them realise how much more there is to it.

Hardware matters – pens and pencils, calculators or set texts. I still hate that as a school we loan this equipment to GCSE students who can’t be bothered to bring their own, so the lesson they learn is that teachers take up the slack. Confidence helps, but what is more important is that they learn not to panic when stressed. I’m a big fan of The Site generally, and more than one of my students have found their pages on anxiety and stress helpful as exam season approached.

A systematic approach to the exam paper helps too. When using past papers I get students used to the idea that there will be easy marks, available for everyone. The basics – counting marks, keeping track of time, checking when you’re finished, never leaving blanks – are the same for everyone. In science, I use (and model, and display, and encourage) checklists for both mathematical and written questions. As I point out, if airline pilots and intensive care nurses can use checklists, why shouldn’t we?


As I said at the beginning, I’m putting the display together for my lab. Each time my students and I look at one of these stages, we come up with different ideas, different approaches. How they apply what we discuss will vary from student to student. I hope they think about how the same methods, or at least the same strategy, can be used in their other subjects. It also helps in terms of classroom management – they feel that we’re working together rather than me telling them what to do. Benefits for everyone on the same journey.

I’d welcome, as ever, ideas and suggestions. Please add your comments (first-timers will be moderated), whether positive or critical, and I hope reading this far has been worth your time.

Not a past paper again…

“Not a past paper again…”

I bet we’ve all heard that refrain over the past couple of weeks, as the stack of past papers is placed ominously on the teacher’s desk. The exam is a few days away and we’re running low on time, papers and patience. So are the kids.

Or maybe it’s not so urgent for you? Both of my Year 11 classes have their final AQA Additional Science B2 paper on Thursday. (Assuming that they’re not doing Additional Science resits or Core Science module papers in the hope of crossing a grade boundary by iteration, if not dedication.) Perhaps you’ve got longer. But anyway, it seems worthwhile considering a few more imaginative ways of using exam papers.

Please let me be clear – doing practice papers in exam conditions is a very valuable way to prepare. But there are ways to improve their use, as well as to mix them up a bit so that kids don’t burn out too quickly. Some of these methods are also a good way to use individual questions, perhaps from previous specifications, without having to put together an actual full paper balanced between all topic areas.

Full Practice Papers

If students are doing past papers at home, we know that they won’t always be strict about exam conditions. So why not use this? Have them do it three times, but each time having a chance to focus on improvements:

  1. Timed exam conditions, then write a post-it note of weaker areas.
  2. Second attempt after active revision of areas flagged up in 1 above.
  3. Third attempt, with folder/revision guide open.

Of course some will combine 1 and 3 as their first attempt, perhaps with the markscheme, and stop. But others will learn at each stage.

Targeted Questions

Combining revision with exam questions in lessons can be very helpful. Start off by asking students to predict what words or key phrases will show up in revision material on a specific topic. They could do this individually, or in small groups – ideally they should try by themselves then compare ideas with another. (Think-Pair-Share) Then either show them an example (such as these pages from S-Cool), or play podcasts for them; I like using the podcasts produced by the Naked Scientists and available free from BBC Bitesize. They can improve their summary but only in the limited time available. Then attempt a relevant question. What was useful? What did they miss that would have been useful? What facts or methods will they add to their summaries for future reference?

Write The Markscheme

I suspect this is similar to what many colleagues already do. We all know – and point out to our students – that a lot more appears on the markscheme than students are expected to write. It will point out traps and make distinctions between correct answers and those that are in the right ballpark. So why not have them, in small groups and with their materials handy, write a markscheme to a question? Even better, give them each a different question and as a class they can finish the job. Perhaps a chocolate-based prize could be offered to the closest match to the official version? Their suggestions can also be tested against the next approach.

Mark The Teacher

This is often very popular. I produce sample answers to a full exam question, often parts of it based on student attempts from the past (suitably adapted) or illustrating common mistakes or misconceptions, e.g. osmosis vs diffusion, all genetic diseases are recessives and so on. I then challenge pupils to mark these answers as if they had been written in an exam, and improve them. (It’s particularly useful to give D-grade answers that can be brought up to a C, or A/B grade working that need fine-tuning to get the highest marks.) More able students can explain to others why particular answers are better than others.

Improve the Question

I like having students write their own exam questions but this can often be a little daunting. They can usually cope if you ask them to produce a simple factual question with one unambiguous answer, but anything more leaves them struggling. (Although giving them a range of structures can help, especially if they can see how it is based on ‘common’ exam questions.) So why not have them change one part of a question, or add on a more challenging section to the end? Alternatively, they could convert a Foundation question to one more suited to Higher tier, or the other way around.


I’m sure colleagues have many other approaches – I’d be particularly interested in quick and easy ways to use exam questions in a more active way. Please add your comments, ideas and suggestions in the comments below. Hope it’s not too stressful before they finish…

References and Trust

A while back I had an interesting Twitter discussion about the problems with assessment in education, and how different approaches might be useful. The others involved (@richardtibbles and @informededu) were much more organised than I am so have long since moved on, after blogging about it. David suggested this concept originally at his blog and here is Richard’s much prompter response. Belatedly, however, I’ve typed up my own somewhat confused viewpoint. It’s more philosophical than practical…

What We Already Do

I like talking about ideas. Something that’s really important to me is getting my facts straight, and I’m a firm believer in checking what I’m saying and correcting myself when needed, which is fairly often. For example, I expressed surprise to a student who told me that he could download Wikipedia to his phone and access it offline. This seemed unlikely to me, but he was absolutely right. (Let’s take a moment to consider that today’s mobile phones usually have enough memory for millions of pages of text information). So I apologised to him in front of the class, and put the link on my page on the VLE.

What this was leading to is that to check an idea, I look for the facts. I don’t think much of personal authority – that will be the science background and general stubbornness – but I appreciate the value of a personal reputation. And so I always want to check the references. In lessons I’ll do this by regularly including links on my teacher’s page, even though I know relatively few kids will bother to use the VLE to that extent. Online, I love having the ability to include links on my blog posts and more recently in my tweets. Whenever I link to a website, news story or blog I am referring to them. In a way, I am demonstrating that I trust them.

When we suggest other people who might be interesting as part of ‘Follow Friday’ by tagging their IDs with #ff, we are giving them a reference. We possibly, almost certainly in my case, haven’t met them ‘in real life’. When we retweet someone’s idea, message or link we are also vouching for them, or at least the idea. Our commentary shows why we are doing so, which can be for both good or bad reasons! I suspect I’m not the only one who looks at those individuals a person follows, before I follow them in turn. We are trying to get a feel for how our peers judge a person. (If you’ve no idea what I’m on about because you’re not on Twitter, check out this post, one of many suggesting why it may be useful for educators.)

Google is based on the idea that the ‘worth’ of a website can be determined by how many others link to it. Whether we agree or disagree with the result, it can hardly be denied that it has been an effective approach.The links I make in blog posts are also references, although they lack academic rigour. The same could be said of my blogroll in a general way. I don’t read everything written on these blogs, but I’m saying by including them that “these people are worth a look.”

Blurbs on a book cover are also a recommendation, tapping into the human assumption that we can trust what people say. Suggesting that ‘if you liked X you may like Y’ gives us a comparison, tells us why this is being recommended. It amuses my family that I can rarely spend time in a bookshop without giving and receiving suggestions from other customers. There’s some evidence (such as this survey from an advertising company) suggesting that this makes a bigger impact if the recommendation seems personal. From a science point of view this is the danger of anecdotes – that we give higher credence to isolated facts than a bigger picture would justify. It seems unlikely that we are actually going to change human nature, though. I remember reading about ‘Salesmen’, people who would spend a lot of time recommending products or concepts, from the book The Tipping Point. I don’t know if more recent research still shows that a small number of people do a lot of recommending. Twitter and the rest of the internet has given us all the chance to be persuaders.

Why It’s Useful (Here comes the Science Bit)

If one bird in a flock starts flapping, so do the others. Flapping is infectious. Mass panic may result from a minor cause, an example of something we call emergence. We tend to act like this more when it involves problems than benefits, probably because in an evolutionary sense we are fine-tuned to trust others when they hint at danger. The Tiger That Isn’t is a great bok explaining the mathematical reasons for the human ability to spot patterns so well. If others in a group are acting scared, then maybe we need to be scared too. All kinds of superstitions, tragedies and historical events have happened because we, like so many other species, have evolved to ‘follow the crowd’. It’s not always right. But it’s right often enough that overall, on average, in the long-term, it’s a useful adaptation. This is why we trust other people’s opinions, modified by who they are. Humans rely on reputation to ‘filter’ our opinions of other people, as ideas like the Prisoner’s Dilemma show. So how could we use the idea of reputation to help when it seems that academic achievements don’t tell us everything we need to know?

Giving Online References

During the discussion, we commented that the best evidence of competence would be to show what is actually produced. It’s expected that photographers and artists will take a portfolio to interviews – why not others? This develops quite quickly into the idea that it shouldn’t be hard, in some professions, to have a permanent online portfolio of your achievements. Everyone who has an ‘About’ page on their blog does this in some way. Adding speaking engagements, videos of what they’ve done or bibliographies extends this. Of course, your online presence can be negative too; just think about advice given to job-seekers about checking what strangers can see on their FaceBook page. I Google myself fairly regularly to see what my students would find, assuming they were ever that bored.

My blog could be seen as a portfolio of what I do and how I do it. If, of course, I planned to use it that way. At the moment I blog and tweet discreetly. I’m sure it’s possible to find out, if you’re so inclined. I’m sure people who know me in person might be able to recognise my personality in my comments, but I’m equally sure the chances are pretty slim of anyone doing so accidentally. This has been a deliberate choice so that I can say what I like, although I try very hard to stay professional. But many other educators (and others) use their blogs as an ongoing record. Their choice and, I’m sure, a very effective one. The potential for this strikes me as so significant that my wife and I are currently considering grabbing ‘named’ domains for our sons,so they have that opportunity in the future.

I’ve given written references for kids. Not often, as I’m perfectly happy to stay as a ‘form tutor’ in our pastoral system, but a few kids from my DofE groups have asked. I gave a personal reference for a friend of mine as I’d also worked with him; it’s odd in a way that I couldn’t honestly write, “Look, he’s godless father to my son, a great cook and I’d trust him with my last penny. Just hire him!” Instead I had to comment on his personal qualities, of which he has many. I still treasure the testimonial I was given by an editor at the end of a work experience, back in my university days. I didn’t continue in journalism or use the letter she wrote me, but the idea was fantastic. (Thanks, Vanessa!) We rely on word of mouth to choose electricians and builders, mechanics and masseurs, presumably because you can’t demonstrate those skills on a webpage or a quarter-page advert. So why not give professional and character references online?

I imagine some kind of social networking site. It would need to use real names and have a contact email address for verification, but that’s not impractical these days. You would recommend or vouch for other people, and say why or what for. Categories of recommendation would be easy enough to evolve, or it could be a simple paragraph, perhaps with hashtags of some kind. Etiquette would probably include listing any potential conflicts of interest. There wouldn’t need to be a limit to the number of recommendations, but viewers would be able to see how many people you gave these recommendations to. It would need to show if these recommendations were reciprocal. And at the same time, they would be able to see who recommended you. These references could have an expiration date, or be ongoing until you cancelled them. I imagine that those taking part would also need to be able to refuse references from other members too.

As I commented at the time, this is not a million miles from the concept of ‘Whuffie’ (Wiki explanation here) as suggested by Cory Doctorow. I don’t know whether trying to define this in numbers would be useful. Maybe members would get a score for the number of actual recommendations they have, and a cumulative one where a bonus score is added on, based on how many each ‘referee’ has. The more recommendations a person had in their field, the more their opinion would be seen as significant in turn. I’m sure some people’s judgements would be seen as more ‘valuable’ than others, something we already see with advertising. Some of this will depend on the reader or viewer, of course; I am far more likely to seek out a book if it has been recommended by Neil Gaiman (author of American Gods, which I think is fantastic) than Stephanie Meyer (I found The Host only okay and couldn’t make myself read the Twilight books), while others would say the opposite. Students applying to university are limited with the number of referees they can give; imagine if instead they could show off the opinions of their current employer, fellow volunteers, youth leaders or subject teachers.

This kind of system would offer everyone the chance to offer testimonials, in a rather more constructive way than FaceBook’s ‘Like’ button. I think to be useful it would have to be combined with exam results and standardised assessments rather than stand alone. (Although it’s not hard to imagine an automated system to include the exam results as part of the list of recommendations.) A good postal system allowed us to move from the written testimonial system to one where we responded to individual requests for information. Now the web would give us the chance to combine the best of both worlds, in the same way that small deli shops can now do a lot of business nationally via a website. Like all teachers I treasure the ‘thank you’ notes a few students have given me over the past few years, and the comments at parents’ evenings. Imagine how valuable it would be to be able to offer that kind of ongoing recommendation for somebody, backed up by your own long-term presence online. I’d like to feel that by sharing my good opinion of my students I’d helped them, somehow. Wouldn’t you?