Teaching With Blogs 1/5 Students Reading Blogs

I read blogs. There, I said it. Am I stepping out of some intellectual closet here? (click here if you can’t name that adapted quote.) But seriously, I love the fact that people with interesting, challenging and often funny things to say are happy to share that with the world. These people are often experts in their field. In between day jobs – because only a lucky few can make a living by doing it – they give time and attention to writing for free. As a teacher I try to find ways to turn anything I find – fossils from the beach, events in the news, random YouTube videos – into a ‘teachable moment’. So why not make blogs one of theose things?

Why?

Blog writing has some huge advantages over textbooks for enthusing our students.

  • broad – textbooks often (these days almost always) stick to a narrow syllabus.
  • up-to-date – Ed Yong for example tends to be several days, if not weeks, ahead of even the online versions of print media.
  • enthusiastic – blog writers wouldn’t do it for fun if they didn’t have passion for their subjects.
  • expert – during swine flu scares the infectious disease blog Effect Measure was invaluable as the mainstream media veered between mass hysteria and total denial.

In some ways I would see the breadth of science covered in blogs as a double advantage for teaching purposes. Some students will be inspired by the breath of the subject, as revealed by a good science blogger. More prosaically, when reading a blog post students will practise extracting information from a longer article. This is a higher-level skill, one of those L2l things none of us ever thought of teaching before the government told us we should do it. Blogs are often written informally, translating dusty scientific articles into vivid prose. The advantages of being able to include images, videos and links can’t be ignored in their ability to catch a student’s imagination. The comments provide a view of the discussion that should so often accompany science but is so often missed in textbooks and scholarly accounts. The impassioned language and often creative insults isn’t necessarily a bad thing either, as anyone who’s followed the recent dispute between James Delingpole and Simon Singh can attest.)

How?

I’ve found the best way to use blogs is as one of several source materials on a relevant topic, ideally one in the news. You could give students a news topic, perhaps linked to mainstream media versions, then ask them to find blog posts about it. Alternatively, point them a particular blog and ask them to choose one post to review, ideally by commenting.

I have a list on the right which desperately needs updating; perhaps more could be added in the comments? Which you choose will of course depend on which speciality you teach and what you’re hoping the students will get out of it. For biology and great reviews of recent research, Ed Yong’s Not Exactly Rocket Science is fantastic – I keep meaning to have a proper look at the rest of the blogs hosted by Discover magazine. Bad Science from Ben Goldacre includes his Guardian columns and more. The Quackometer is another blog on pseudoscience, especially alternative medicine claims. ScienceBlogs – which today is focusing on the science of kissing, almost guaranteed to get a student reading avidly – is a portal to all kinds of interesting blogs, despite the recent Pepsigate ‘scandal’. Melanie Windridge blogged about nuclear fusion while on her IoP Schools and Colleges tour. Studnets who immediately claim that ‘this is all too hard for us’ should be directed to Rhys Morgan’s blog.

By considering both the science and the presentation, it is easy to learn lessons about effective science communication. Perhaps they could then write a set of rules or guidelines to apply to their next powerpoint presentation or wiki. If the blog doesn’t have links, it’s easy to find your own explanations of complex ideas online, perhaps using the ‘Simple English’ Wikipedia or equivalent sites. Can they translate or summarise what they’ve learned? Write a series of comprehension questions to be used with the blog post? Give their own responses to ethical issues raised or local implications?

And Then?

Maybe they could produce their own classroom blog – imagine one student a week is assigned to write a blog post about that week’s science lessons, with appropriate images and links. Other students could comment on the work, building on the ideas and suggesting their own interpretations or how they might apply it. I’ve seen more online about using blogs with primary classes but hope to use this, perhaps with my older students to start with, this year. In the shorter term, students could produce a hotlinked document in the style of a blog post. Imagine producing a pdf to be accessed through the school VLE, text and images with key terms expanded by external links. It’s as if we’re enabling students to be independant learners… but now I’m sounding far too consultant-y.

This post was featured in an educational technology blog carnival, hosted by Danny Nicholson at The Whiteboard Blog.

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Immunisation 3/5

This is the third of five posts designed as a teaching mini-scheme about the controversy surrounding the MMR vaccination; it is partly inspired by the recently published work by Brian Deer. Please note I feel, quite strongly, that MMR is safe and highly desirable (albeit underused in the UK right now). This is my effort to provide colleagues with the tools (and printable resources etc) to provide good information. I suppose you could see it as immunising them against bad science such as that recently published in the Sunday Express. At the end of the five posts I will put the ideas and resources together, informed by any and all comments and feedback, into one downloadable scheme. Sorry this post is a little late but real life got in the way (more about this in a later blog post).

3 Data in Context

Starter

School A gets 25 A* grades in GCSE Science. School B gets 44 A*s. Which is better? (Not enough info as don’t know how many students in total, how they have chosen courses, exam specification <cough>21st Century.)

Main Activities

Numbers published during news stories about Implanon can be used to practice calculations. Ask students to consider view from each ‘end’ of the spectrum – those who suffer ill effects or for whom a product fails, compared with those who are satisfied with result. All cases have odd factors/coincidences – this is why we look at large numbers. You could point students towards the news stories (or have them look themselves using Google) or use the downloadable pdfs listed below. These include Ben Goldacre’s Guardian column and an excerpt from Dr Petra Boynton’s blog post about the media coverage. These should provide an interesting balance to the newspaper’s approach. The powerpoint asks students to read and discuss their assigned article in groups before comparing to other contraceptives. (Warning: check compatibility with age and PSHE in your setting.) They then compare the coverage between groups.

To bring the focus back to MMR, students could do with examining figures of incidence and mortality for each of the three infections. Numbers are available at HPA if you’d like them to graph it themselves, electronically or by hand. Getting hold of autism numbers is trickier, but most reputable sites agree that it’s hard to tell whether it is more common or just more diagnoses. WikidScience has an activity comparing absolute numbers in California with numbers per 100000, which might be useful. Ask students how we could explain increasing numbers.

Important to give a few facts – or guide the students to finding them – showing the consequences of measles, mumps and rubella. This is the route I’ve taken in the powerpoint below.

Plenary

Challenge students to explain the difference between anecdotes and data. Realising the power of personal experience will set students up nicely for the role play in lesson 4 of the sequence (coming soon, I hope).

Printable media articles: www-bbc-co-uk : www-dailymail-co-uk : www-drpetra-co-uk : www-guardian-co-uk : www-mirror-co-uk : www-telegraph-co-uk all converted to pdf in one way or another.

immunisation3 as ppt

Any and all feedback and suggestions welcome – many thanks.