Science in the Media

This week’s Inside Health had not one but two great items for science lessons. I just wanted to put together a quick post so this will be mainly links and ideas rather than detailed resources.


You can follow the title above for the programme page, complete with transcript and their own links. My focus is on the two very different approaches to sharing ‘discoveries’ demonstrated by the programme.

The recent decision by NICE to use Tamoxifen ‘off-label’ for the prevention of breast cancer, in high-risk groups, has had a lot of media attention. @drmarkporter and his studio guests nicely referenced the negatives as well as the positives, mentioning side-effects and comparing the benefits to pre-emptive surgery (as chosen by Angelina Jolie).

As a contrast, the press release a little while back about the use of antibiotics to treat lower back pain seems to have been wildly optimistic. As I tweeted during the programme:

The authors had an undeclared financial interest and the trial was very small; it also seems that the media were encouraged to hype the results far beyond the very small group of back-pain sufferers who would actually be eligible. I strongly recommend listening to the programme, which can also be downloaded from the Inside Health podcast page.


Lots of useful questions and lots of likely arguments! My personal choice would be to have a class (probably an able GCSE group or perhaps A-level?) split into pairs or threes to research different aspects of reading a paper. There’s a fantastic page at NHS Behind the Headlines, where you can also see their own take on both of these stories (antibiotics for back pain, preventing breast cancer).

The ideas for the students to consider will revolve around three main concepts: benefit, risk and (financial) cost. These can be approached in several ways:

  • Claimed vs actual benefit
  • Conflict of interest
  • Placebo effects
  • Other choices (eg lifestyle changes) offering equivalent benefits
  • Side effects
  • Definitions of high-risk groups
  • Who pays for treatment
  • Number needed to treat (NNT)

It might also be useful to provide students with printed copies of news stories, as well as a good summary of each piece of research, to see how well the downsides as well as advantages are covered. Cross-curricular links with literacy and media studies, anyone?

As I’m not teaching students who would benefit from these kinds of discussions, I can’t speak from experience – but I hope my ideas will prove useful to colleagues. Please let me know if so!


The Eighth E – Evernote

It’s that time of year again. Scheme of Work time. When we all pay for the sudden drop in teaching workload, now Years 11 and 13 have left, by updating and writing new schemes for future teaching. Sometimes the changes are small. Sometimes, often thanks to politicians who love to change things just for the hell of it, they’re huge. Either way, it’s a great chance to think again about what we’re trying to do in our lessons over the longer term.

For various reasons, as well as rewriting and updating some rather dusty schemes this year, I’m trying to be more organised about keeping my own copies. I’m moving towards a 5/7Es model (as explained by me here, @hrogerson here and NASA here). And I’m also converting the school Word templates into my own personalised Evernote variant. I thought it might be worth sharing.

Why 5/7Es?

I find this clear framework, with a huge variety of actual activities, really helps me to make sure kids are getting something useful out of the lessons. This is particularly true when adapting existing schemes, or fitting in with someone else’s ideas about ‘essential practicals’. (See @alomshaha‘s recent Guardian piece about using practical work effectively for a useful example of this problem.)

Start your planning with the last E – Evaluate. How will you know what/how students have learned? Begin the lesson by Engaging students and Eliciting current knowledge. Guide students in Exploring the main lesson concept, which you can then Explain before checking progress with Extension work – this might need further Elaboration.

Obviously there are other models of lesson planning, but I find this is not only useful for more detailed plans when required but also makes a great ‘looser’ structure for schemes of work. These need more freedom, but giving some ideas lets colleagues choose what suits them while still improving consistency. That’s the idea, anyway!

Why Evernote?

In short, this is a note-taking application which can automatically synchronize between desktop, browser and mobile versions. I’ve used it for a while and am finding it more and more useful as it becomes a dumping ground for pretty much everything I need to remember or refer back to. Until recently it’s been an external memory for my own brain, but I’m now starting to build in more structure. It’s helped that they’ve now added reminders, which takes the place of the EventNoted add-on I was using.

The easiest place to start is by choosing a few tags which will make it easy to find material. I started with work, books, recipes, next action, blog and inbox. You can link it with email your web browser (to ‘clip’ particular sections of pages) and even your RSS reader via services like IFTTT. This means anything I want to hold on to I can save to one virtual filing cabinet.

So now as I revamp our AS/A2 teaching, I’m producing one note for each section. I’m using one tag for each year group, although this may be added to with topic codes a the list grows. I’m moving towards a consistent structure of Specification, Outcomes, 5Es and Activities, with links, page references and attached files.

evernote screenshot

This last part is what makes Evernote so useful. You can attach worksheets, powerpoints, animations… pretty much everything you’ll need to teach the lesson.

You can also share what you’ve done with someone else, either by inviting a specific person or by creating a weblink. They can’t edit – for that you need the premium version – but they can see what you’ve been up to. This strikes me as a great way to share ideas between colleagues in a department. Here’s an example from AQA AS Physics.

Using Evernote this way would be an excellent substitute if you chose not to use the TESPro service (although of course without access to their privileged content). It also makes it easier to keep a ‘personal’ copy of school planning, so your tweaks won’t mess it up for colleagues.


I’m planning to produce outline plans in this way for each topic, as I teach; I’m currently working on an ISA sequence, for example. I want to experiment with producing templates using KustomNote so I can automate some of the planning layout. I also want to see about a ‘week to view’ layout, more like a traditional teacher planner, which would then link to the specific notes for each  lesson.

Of course, maybe you have better ideas or a smoother system – in which case I’d love to hear about it. Let me know what you think in the comments.



Outstanding or Excellent?

So I did some CPD.

As part of an INSET day, we watched a video of a lesson in cross-curricular groups. We used Ofsted criteria to judge it and then discussed our overall findings. Back in curriculum groups we then discussed common features and next steps as a department.

Interesting or Frustrating?

It was interesting to see other lessons and hear a range of other viewpoints. The lesson we watched was judged as ‘Good’ despite it being very teacher-led, a lack of pace and what I would describe as a very subdued atmosphere. Maybe the parts where students were excited and engaged, discussing and interacting rather than passively listening, had all been cut out. In summary, it felt like the teacher had treated Ofsted criteria as a tick-list, making sure each thing had been addressed but perhaps at the expense of any enjoyment or coherence.

It was frustrating for two reasons. Firstly, some of the items included in the observation proforma (which I’m trying to find a link to, as it doesn’t appear to be an ‘official’ one) were dismissed by colleagues even though I know there’s evidence to support their use. They also pointed out, rightly in my opinion, that some of the features would take an unrealistic amount of time to include on a regular basis.

Secondly, I think many schools would benefit from doing more peer and paired observations. I know I’d like to see how my colleagues approach particular topics, or how they manage individual issues or students. It would be interesting to observe some or all of a lesson then swap ideas with another colleague who had also watched it, especially if they had a more senior role. As it is, I’ve only really observed PGCE students. Otherwise, my experience is as an observee. If we’re going to learn about lesson observations, let’s actually do some!

Learning or Observing?

We’re looking at a new literacy strategy in my current setting which will involve students having a specific target, assigned by their English teachers from a list of twelve. Each subject will have students do a piece of work where their success against this target will be measured. (I should add that I think this is a great idea, despite the added workload, which as usual SMT may not fully appreciate.)

The problem is that students will be told to write their literacy target across the top of the page and consider it while writing. Surely this would mean a lot more if they were expected to aim to meet their target whether or not it was the specific six-monthly assessment piece? Isn’t this a rather artificial situation?

So as teachers do we include these features because we think they are important for our students’ learning, or because we think they’ll be noticed when we’re observed? If they matter, based on evidence and experience, then we should include them for our students’ benefit. If they’re only for the inspector, then we should exclude them – also for our students’ benefit. There isn’t enough time for the things which matter, let alone optional extras.

Outstanding or Excellent?

If the criteria I was given is typical, I can see that it would be very easy to use this as a shopping list of aspects to include in each hour lesson. This in turn could make for a very ‘bitty’ experience, with the flow of a good lesson interrupted while students assess their progress in endless mini-plenaries. I can certainly understand the temptation, but to include so many things in the time means it might tick the Outstanding boxes, but not be an Excellent lesson. Those factors are the results, not the causes. The best parallel I can think of is Body-Mass Index.

BMI is a fairly crude health measure which is currently on the GCSE Science specification. It’s a single number for a person, calculated by dividing their mass in kilograms by their height in metres squared. There are agreed (but disputed) ranges for under, normal and over weight. My BMI says I’m overweight, for what it’s worth.

The thing is that a person’s BMI in isolation doesn’t tell you much. It’s like heart rate or most other medical measurements. The context matters a lot, and the BMI is the result of many factors, not all of which are easy to change. It might be a warning sign, but it isn’t an instruction for improvement. Doctors don’t assume everyone in a particular range needs the same advice or treatment, because they understand it’s a bit more complicated than that.

There’s some great arguments around on this topic; about what Ofsted want and how to give it to them. For his typical measured and balanced approach, see this post from @OldAndrewUK. The reality is probably that different inspectors or observers would give different judgments based on their own preferences – or dare we say bias? And when being graded as ‘Requires Improvement’ will have inevitable consequences, for an individual or a department, means a lot of pressure to play it safe with the criteria.

I found The Perfect (Ofsted) English Lesson by David Didau (aka @learningspy) to be an interesting read, with many ideas that could be applied to Science. In fact, I still haven’t blogged my take on it. Bad @teachingofsci, no biscuit. But the idea of being observed by a member of SMT with the book in hand, telling me I’ve missed out the idea on page 42, fills me with terror. I want to be a better teacher, like all of us. But saying I want my students to learn, enjoy and achieve isn’t the same as saying I want to be Outstanding according to a stranger with a clipboard.

Performance or Practice?

In my view, the aim of teachers should be to look at the criteria together. This will probably be at different levels. As departments we can probably agree at least some of the ways in which excellent teaching will be demonstrated, but getting a high observation grade is a consequence of that primary aim, not the end in itself.

None of us can be Outstanding teachers all of the time, but neither should we hope to pull off one great lesson to get the grade when we’re being observed. This should be a general expectation, not a one-off. Instead, individually or in groups we need to look through the criteria and decide what our own targets should be.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

Will Durant, paraphrasing Aristotle

Where possible, let’s share the good ideas, observe each other with constructive feedback and get better at what we do, every day. Maybe the best approach would be to choose one aspect per half-term and learn how to build it in, so more and more of the positive features – and many of the Ofsted criteria do recognize them – are included as a matter of course. That’s a department or a whole-school approach that will really pay off where it matters – in our classrooms, not just on an Ofsted report.