Feed Me Seymour!

I’m a bad person.

This is not because I tell off students (although I do). It’s not because I told my son that revolving doors are powered by mice (and when he doubted me, pointed out that they squeak). It’s not even because I’ve been known to write really depressing poetry (for therapeutic reasons, and usually unshared).

It’s because two days after it was made available, I haven’t managed to watch Demo: The Movie.

I will, really I will. But at work I still don’t have speakers, making watching anything on my desktop an exercise in frustration and lip-reading. And at home I’ve been busy cooking, washing up, child-rearing and taking a mostly-dead mouse back outside, much to the disgust of the cat. So it is as yet unwatched, despite my certainty that it will be interesting, funny and well-produced. With luck it will be watched by me over the next couple of days, so I can (a) blog about it over the weekend and (b)contribute to the forthcoming #asechat. So watch this space. I’m sorry, Alom.

In this context, it seems a little cheeky that I’m the one asking for feedback. But I wanted to post about my latest hare-brained scheme idea, as suggested in my previous item. I’ve set up a google form, but this time it’s not for me. Instead, I’d invite any and all readers of my blog – and, I suppose, twitter feed – to take a moment to record what I’ve done that has helped them.


I’ll be including a link in every (non-political) post from now on. My hope is that instead of paying me, you’d be happy to document an ongoing portfolio of my impact outside my own classroom and school. A crowd-sourced testimonial, if you will. You don’t have to leave your name, just a few words about how what I did made a difference. If you’ve blogged about it, I’d love for you to include a link. Tweets are transient, comments on the posts are hard to collect together, but this would really help.

Blog Feedback via Google Form

Of course, if this post inspires you to add your own evidence-gathering Google Form to your site, and you link back here, the internet will quite possibly explode in a frenzy of recursion. So be careful.


T&L Ideas 2

Second on what will hopefully be a series of  ‘echoed’ posts, based on the weekly emails I’ve been asked to produce in my setting. Still my own, rather than based on suggestions from colleagues, so regular readers will probably recognize ideas and links.

Three quick links about effective revision this morning; it seems appropriate given what many of our students are up to.

Five out of Three/Teach, Do, Review from David Fawcett: a useful framework for structuring a revision lesson, so students don’t spend an hour flicking through textbooks and chatting about Eastenders.

Some similar ideas, explained rather more briefly, are available through Student Toolkit. Some are printable so can be given to students as they walk in the door, and are intended to be used individually.

If you’re using computers, the free site bubbl.us lets students generate mind maps without too much of a learning curve. I find it useful to ask them to organize clear information from another source, eg Bitesize or S-Cool, in a graphical format. This way they can focus on links rather than making excuses for forgetting an odd fact. It’s easy for them to test themselves, just by covering up a section and challenging each other to fill in the ‘gaps’.

We’d be really interested in feedback or suggestions about these or any other classroom resources…

What should I share with colleagues? What would be your recommendations, of themes or individual ideas/links, that are most likely to increase involvement?

(Sounds like a teacher choosing lesson activities for an able but unmotivated class, doesn’t it…)

#rED2013 First thoughts

This is going to be a very quick post, end even when I’ve had a chance to process the day properly I’m sure it will be nowhere as analytical as my colleagues, some of whom also beat me to the keyboard. But it seems like a good idea to get this up on my site as soon as practical anyway.

What a great day.

If you made it, I probably didn’t speak to you – and I’m sorry. If you didn’t, then I’m afraid you missed a great day. But the videos will be up soon, loads of posts will no doubt be blogged and twitter won’t easily give up the #rED2013 hashtag. Which probably means we owe Taylor Swift fans an apology, but so it goes.

I shared my thoughts through the day, linking to the raw notes I was producing with Evernote. I tweeted the links as much as spotty WiFi and dying mobile batteries allowed. I’m linking the same notes – no added thoughts or reflection, no editing, no URLs – below. My plan is to post every day or so with tidied up, referenced and considered views on each of the sessions I was able to attend.

  1. Intro by Ben Goldacre
  2. Redesigning Schooling (two Toms)
  3. Dr Kevin Stannard: problems with ed research
  4. CUREE/Philippa Cordingley
  5. Chris Waugh – ed research from a class teacher POV
  6. Dr Jonathan Sharples
  7. Effect size debate
  8. Tom’s closing words

I had a great day, not only because of the excellent speakers (there were easily three times as many sessions I wanted to attend but couldn’t) but because of the audience. Even in passing it was great to meet fellow colleagues enthusiastic about developing our practice, and to put names to the avatars with whom I converse on twitter. Although I’m surprised I was the only person I saw who thought to put an avatar picture on my conference badge…

I have a few thoughts for the future and any possible ResearchED2014. These are not criticisms, just things I wondered about.

  • How about a ‘speed-dating’ exercise, or simply a large room where teachers and academics can show up to meet? Perhaps have individual whiteboards by each desk, and let us write what we’re looking for or what we have to offer. “KS3 English classes, want to investigate SOLO for text analysis” or whatever.
  • Host/start an electronic list where we can sign up with those same kinds of interests to find a mentor/partner.
  • FAQ board – list questions at the start of the day, tagged for teachers/researchers, and anyone who wants can give their answers/thoughts
  • Enough time for coffee! Admittedly I chose to forgo lunch in the interests of more sessions.
  • A poster session where we can share successful projects with colleagues.

Last of all, it was clear during the day that some really big questions were being considered. I’ve long thought that CPD often has very different levels of application. I think it might be worth flagging sessions according to their interest for:

  1. Classroom teachers wanting to investigate methods to use directly with students eg Bloom’s, seating plans, group work.
  2. Senior management, heads of department, learning authority advisors (while we still have them) who want to make sure policies and whole-school tactics are informed by the best possible evidence eg uniform, length of lesson/school day, sets/mixed ability.
  3. Professional associations, government decision-makers, curriculum developers who need to set national, large scale strategies which can support us all in a broad way.

So more posts will be arriving, sooner or later. In the meantime, sorry for any typos, haste or lack of clarity int he notes linked above. Comments are, of course, as welcome as ever.

TeachMeetMidlands 1/2

Last night – a warm summer evening – I finished work and then travelled into Derby rather than away, so I could attend a TeachMeet. If you’ve not been to one, I strongly recommend the experience; classroom teachers sharing an idea which should be usable more or less immediately. Quick talks (max 7 minutes in theory) and lots of chances to ask questions and share ideas. There’s usually coffee.

I’ll post soonish about the ideas I’ve taken away, although if you’re in a hurry you can see the quick notes I made via my CPD tracker – these are not yet proofed and will be gaining details and links when I get a chance to reflect. This post is my chance to share the resources I talked about there, and the presentation I didn’t end up doing.

Review Templates

I’m not bothering to embed the presentation, although you can have a look if you’re interested. Basically, I like to get students using the ideas to improve understanding, as a stage distinct from revision (although these are good for that too). I’ve spent a bit of time today tidying them up and you can now download a total of eight A4 pages in two sections. (They were a mixture of Word and Publisher originally – anyone know an easy way to stitch two pdfs into one file?)

Cornell Notes, Prior Planning, Fours as a pdf

These Are The Answers, PBODME, Blooms, 5Cs, Quarters as a pdf

Comments, thoughts and feedback welcome as always. The only one that’s not really self-explanatory, Cornell Notes, has its own post on this blog.

CPD Tracker

As the link above shows, I’m trying to better track (and reflect on) my CPD using a Google Form. This has lots of advantages (mobile as well as platform independent) and could potentially be used for accreditation or sharing within a group or department. In fact, I’m hoping it will get looked at as part of my #CSciTeach accreditation, which I will be blogging about soon.

My original post is probably still the most useful to explain, but you may also find the presentation helpful. This is what I would have delivered with more time, but this way I can reach those who care and avoid boring those who don’t!

(If for whatever reason the embedded version isn’t working for you, the presentation can be accessed directly.)

Please let me know what ideas, if any, are useful for you – nice to be able to show impact!

From the Classroom Up

So we had a Journal Club.

Getting on for 200 tweets from a small (but dedicated) group of Science teachers, with some tentative conclusions as Storified elsewhere. Although participants commented on the weak results from the case study – unavoidable with small groups on a single site – it certainly seemed interesting.

Could we show improved understanding, and hence achievement, by moving away from HSW skills integrated with content, and instead start KS3 by teaching these skills discretely? Enquiring minds want to know. If only there was a way to expand an interesting case study to get more reliable and/or generally applicable results. If only there was a general move towards gathering more evidence at a classroom level that could be widely shared in the profession…

“Hang on, fellas. I’ve got an idea.”


 Where We Are

An interesting case study has found a benefit from one approach (discrete teaching of Sc1 skills at the start of KS3) over another (gradually introduced over the year). A small sample was involved at one school.

What We Could Do Next

As several people pointed out, we need more data before proceeding to a full trial. The next step would be collecting information about schools which use these two approaches and how well they work. How do schools assess students’ understanding of the language and methods? A Googleform or similar would be an easy way to acquire the data without a high cost at this stage.

Trial Design

I should possibly leave this to the experts, but the whole point of this teacher-led approach is to get us involved. (Alternatively, the DfE could press release a huge study but not tell us what they’re actually investigating.) As I understand it, we’d need to

  1. Get an education researcher to co-ordinate design/timetables/data analysis.
  2. Produce standard resources to be used either all together (discrete unit) or spread through the year (integrated learning) – this could be based on CASE or similar approaches.
  3. Design outcome measure, ideally something cheap and non-intrusive.
  4. Recruit participant schools.
  5. Visit schools during trial (in both arms) to observe delivery, consider deviation from ‘ideal script’, and also raise profile of organisation/idea.
  6. This provides good ‘teacher/researcher’ links and could be used as a way to observe CSciTeach candidates perhaps, or at least accredit ‘teacher-researchers’.
  7. Collect data on outcomes for both groups. Tests need to be blinded, ideally marked externally or by computer. Workload!
  8. Data analysis – which approach gives the best results? Is this correlated with some characteristic of the schools?
  9. Share results widely, provide materials and best practice guidance based on evidence.
  10. Plan the next RCT, perhaps looking at the materials used.

Funding and Support

I’ve a few ideas, but they’re probably way off. I don’t know how much it would cost, either in terms of money or time. The EEF is focused on attainment of particular groups, so I don’t know how relevant it would be to their aims. (But their funding round closes in October.) The ASE, I suspect, would have the organisational skills but not the money. Might the Science Learning Centres have a part to play, if we consider this from the point of view of teachers developing themselves professionally while conducting research? It would also nicely complement some of the aims of YorkScience. And we shouldn’t forget the original author, Andrew Grime, although I don’t think he’s on Twitter. (We probably should have tried harder to get in touch with him before the Journal Club session, come to think of it…

I’m sure there are many other questions that could be answered in UK Science classrooms. But the question should be, which one shall we try to answer first? Instead of complaining from the sidelines, teachers should, ideally through coordinated projects and their professional associations, get involved. This seems like an ideal chance to make the most of the Evidence-Based Teaching Bandwagon and could perhaps be launched/discussed at ResearchED2013. If we want to make something of it.

Do we?


An apologetic postscript: sorry to followers of the blog who got spammy emails about a post which wasn’t there. This was because I hadn’t read the fine print on Storify about not being able to embed the material on a WordPress.com blog.  It’s the same Storify I link to above, now happily live at the SciTeachJC site.

The Evidence-Based-Teaching Bandwagon

Evidence-based practice in education is getting more and more attention recently. Projects like #SciTeachJC have been part of this, but I think there’s a general movement towards wanting to base what we do on facts rather than wishful thinking. The problem is that it’s actually quite hard, for several reasons, to be an evidence-based-practitioner.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.

I Want To… But I’m Lazy

There’s a lot of evidence to keep up with. A lot of teachers are still being told that learning styles are useful despite a lack of supporting data, and a recent Guardian article shows this also applies to the infamous Myers-Briggs ‘test’. This means that we as teachers aren’t accessing old research, let alone new material. This is hardly surprising when you consider the cost; joining the British Educational Research Association costs £89, for which you get 6 issues of the BJER each year, and four issues a year of the Curriculum Journal will set you back £135. There’s also the lack of time teachers have when constantly rewriting schemes of work to suit the latest national qualification change, of course!

I do my best to keep up, but I’ve only so much time and money. I pay for my own membership of the ASE. I buy my own books. I spend my own time developing what I know and what I can do. I make it to TeachMeets when I can, join in with #asechat and #SciTeachJC, read and try out in school and reflect afterwards. But the situation we’re in makes it difficult.

Of course, what makes it even more frustrating is when individual teachers know the research and want to make decisions about teaching based on evidence, but aren’t allowed to. It’s important to recognise that schools may have perfectly valid reasons for not following suggestions from research, and cost is obviously often high on the list! But we need to accept that sometimes we are not getting it right on an institutional level, and this needs to change. If it doesn’t change from the bottom up, it will inevitably – and probably slowly and painfully – happen from the top down.

What’s Already Available And Where From

Every school should have well-thumbed copies of Petty’s book Evidence-Based Teaching and Hattie’s Visible Learning.  In my opinion – as a classroom teacher, not a manager – schools could do a lot worse than spending half of every inset day applying just one of the ‘best-value’ concepts in every relevant department. The constantly updated research by Marzano in the States examines a wide variety of teaching methods in terms of their success against measured criteria. The database is freely available and there are materials to explain effect size.

The British Educational Research Association (BERA) and the Specialist Schools Attainment Trust (SSAT) spend time and money looking into the effectiveness of eduication policies and methods; the latter works primarily with schools. The Evidence for Policy and Practice Information (EPPI) unit based out of the Institute of Education looks interesting, but not exactly accessible for those of us in the classroom. The GTC produced some research summaries with the title Research for Teachers (RfT) but I don’t know how well they were accessed; the group behind the summaries, the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE) is still active. There’s the National Education Trust. And of course the Times Ed now has a weekly article bridging the gap between research and classroom practice, but I can’t find it online. There’s lots around, some free and some not so much. Some is purely academic while other groups attempt to translate it for classroom use.

The Education Endowment Foundation looks particularly at techniques to support those from disadvantaged background but their EEF Toolkit is generally useful, ranking interventions in terms of ‘value for money’. The difficulty with this approach is that it ignores the cost in terms of time and pressure on teachers, something I am sure they are aware of. It is the limited time of individual teachers which means centralised research is so necessary. As of 22nd March they have a vacancy for a Senior Analyst, if you’re interested…

There are some smaller groups in the UK; the Evidence-Based Teachers’ Network grew out of training sessions and has some useful summaries. There are many practitioners active online, for example @teachitso on Twitter (Dr Mark Evans IRL) who has some useful summaries on his site. There’s also several (competing?) groups such as the Guild of Teaching and the Teacher Development Trust with a small impact so far.

What We Need To Do Better

Much – but not all – of the current evidence is based on action research. This means a practitioner decides to try an intervention, does so and records any measurable change in results. This could be exam scores, recruitment rates for post-16 courses (I did that) or something else. It tends to be small samples and a snapshot in time. Think of them as case studies. Useful because they’re a step up from staffroom anecdotes, but more a starting point than gold-standard data.

Ben Goldacre, following the paper he wrote on RCTs for social issues that we discussed in #SciTeachJC, was asked to consider the use of RCTs specifically in education. The report has now been published and has stirred up a lot of debate. He wrote an article about it for the Guardian, and it’s noticeable how conscientiously he’s engaged with those commenting. I’d recommend reading the paper itself, of course – unlike some of those commenting. I like the idea of getting more teachers involved in research, obviously, but many seem sceptical. From a teacher’s point of view, the main issue is getting hold of the information afterwards. But it’s okay, the government has a cunning plan…

From this announcement, the EEF will be one of six centres, alongside NICE, tasked with gathering and disseminating evidence on social issues. It deliberately follows the NICE model where the evidence is analysed independantly of government, which would then (hopefully) consider the results and implications. A big issue I see here, of course, is that we seem to be moving away from a centralised education system where new knowledge would result in new systems for all. But we’ll see how it works.

What I Would Like

I’ve said before – like many others on Twitter, and I’m sure I wasn’t the first – that we need a National Institure of Education Excellence. An organisation committed to performing more meta-analyses of research, like the Cochrane Collaboration, and then making sure everyone else knows. For this to work effectively, there are several things the system needs.

Information needs to be effectively free at the point of use. Schools won’t pay for what they think they can get for free elsewhere (even if they’re wrong) and if we say all teachers need the information, it seems odd to expect them to pay for it when they’re cutting our pay in real terms.

The research cannot be politically driven. Some of the answers will go against current government policy. Some of the research will show MPs or Ministers to be wrong. That’s how evidence works and they’re going to have to be prepared to accept the consequences. But we can’t expect Gove to follow the evidence if we don’t do what we can to (a)collect it and (b)use it as soon as we know.

Interventions will have different relevance to different people and institutions. I tend to think of strategic choices at national level (such as exam specifications), tactical choices at a school level (such as behaviour and homework policies, setting and ICT provision) and choices of technique in a classroom (such as how to make group work most effective). I’m sure it’s more complicated than that, but you get the idea. We need to get the right information to the right people.

We need a wish-list, as Ben puts it, of questions we want answered. Set up a Google form and let any of us suggest something to investigate; shortlist and vote every six months. Personally, I’d love to see a comparison between students taught to use Blooms’ and those who are exposed to SOLO. Is there a difference? Does it depend on the students? If so, which method should we teach to which kids?

Teachers should have the opportunity to build up their skills as researchers. If they are needed to do more than send a copy of the results their class got following intervention A/B/C (delete as applicable) then the chance to get involved in data analysis will make it more likely they put the results into practice.

Get current researchers involved in designing the interventions. Of course this might be difficult if they feel the Secretary of State for Education is dismissive of their views or their motivations. We need better links between academics and full-time practitioners (or more people who do both, like the wonderful @MaryUYSEG). Maybe BERA could offer discounted memberships to the data-collectors?

Share the results widely in a format that means it can be used immediately. Imagine a magazine format, published electronically every month in three sections; strategic, tactical and techniques. The summaries link to journal articles, which are made open-access for the month so we can all see how well the synopsis matches the evidence. And each month three case studies show how the evidence from six months was put into practice at all three levels.


There’s lots of groups talking about doing the same thing – linking research to practice. And despite having been in post for nine years, with a strong interest in science and evidence, I found half of the links in this post today for the first time.

Surely we can do better than this?


EDIT/UPDATE: It looks like something is happening rather quicker than we might have expected, thanks to the efforts of Tom Bennett. Check out the new blog for this September’s suddenly planned conference, ResearchED2013.

Collecting Evidence

As promised – and much faster than usual – here’s a modified version of my own CPD tracker. The idea of this is for teachers to keep track of evidence towards the Core Standards during their training or NQT year. I think it might be useful for those doing GTP as well as the PGCE route I took, and presumably for other approaches such as TeachFirst. Obviously, this isn’t official or endorsed by anyone, but it seems to me that it would make filling in paperwork much easier even if you can’t submit it as primary evidence.

How To Set It Up

  1. You’ll need a Google account. You may wish to set yourself up a ‘professional’ account (Mr.J.Smith.Sci@Google.com or whatever), especially if your current address is, shall we say, informal.
  2. ‘Save a Copy’ of the spreadsheet I’ve done to your new Google Drive and consider renaming it. Make sure it’s set to Private, not Shared, to start with.
  3. Have a look at the data entry (‘Form’, then ‘Go to Live Form’) to see how the prompts match the columns.
  4. Edit the column headers (and linked GoogleForm) if necessary.
  5. Save a link to the form on your mobile devices and desktop.

All of this should only take you a few minutes. You can add data to your spreadsheet directly, which may be useful for catching up with previous pieces of evidence. I think it’s easiest to edit them on a desktop, but this can be done less often. My main aim was to produce something which can be easily updated ‘on the go’, potentially by a variety of people, and then demonstrate a continuing record of progress towards the Standards.

How To Use

After any event – a seminar, discussion, observation, taught lesson etc – which shows your progress against the Standards (listed on a separate sheet), fill in the GoogleForm from whatever device is easiest. The prompt questions are to help you organise your responses to the event, consider how they match up to the Standards and plan further actions. In theory, all assignments should contribute to something; don’t neglect less formal situations like staff room discussions, reading a teaching magazine or catching up with professional blogs.

When you review your spreadsheet, choose a couple of areas to develop further. These might be those where you have less evidence (as shown by the highlighted Standards), or those where you have identified problems or weaknesses. Advice from mentors or colleagues will help you decide what to do, whether it’s about planning observations of particular staff members, talking about practicals with the lab techs or reading a recommended text or article.

Try to ensure that at least some of the rows include a link or reference to further evidence. This could be to the full lesson observation form, or to the university assignment, for example. A couple of ring binders, ideally different colours, will let you match up paper with electronic records quickly and easily. In addition, you may choose to record details in a linked blog or in EverNote, which allows you to access longer notes from anywhere if you paste a note URL into the GoogleForm.

I suppose there’s no reason why you have to be the one to fill in the form. If you email the link (to the form, not the spreadsheet itself) to your mentor they could fill it in after lesson observations or joint planning sessions. You might also choose to share the spreadsheet (I would recommend read only access) with your mentor, ITT Coordinator or University tutor. Try to stay in the habit of spending a bit of time every few days adding your thoughts. It’s a habit that is easy to forget once teaching a full timetable!

I’d value any comments from early-career colleagues, ITT Coordinators, NQT mentors and anyone else with particular interests in this area. My aim was to streamline the record keeping; we all want to spend more time on gaining skills and less on paperwork, after all! Hopefully this will help make life easier for all of us.


A Public Portfolio

Happy half-term to all my colleagues, near and far. Or if you’re back at work this week, I’ll try not to taunt you too much. But I’m off; reading lots of books, taking time over breakfast, playing with kids and kittens… oh, and blogging. About work.

There’s something wrong with this picture.

Anyway. I’ve been playing around with this idea for a bit and decided there’s no good reason to wait. As of now, my recent CPD record is available to anyone who cares, via GoogleDocs. I will see about adding in previous CPD, including big courses and stuff, but the whole point of this approach is to make it quick and easy to add reflection to a continuing portfolio. I can’t see any disadvantage with making it public, and several advantages:

  • if you want to see what’s caught my attention and interest, professionally, you can
  • my contemporary notes are also accessible, where I’ve put in the links
  • if anyone wants to headhunt me, they can see what I’ve been up to and I don’t have to update a pretty CV
  • when I get around to putting in my CSciTeach application, I can email the URL instead of filling in a form. #kidding #maybe

A couple of health warnings:

  • the primary purpose of the record is for my own reference; I make no guarantee about spelling, readability etc.
  • most original rows get added via GoogleForm on my phone, so it will obviously change as I regularly go back, add links or further reflection
  • if I specify any individuals or classes, then the names will already have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent
  • anything I don’t want to fit into a GoogleForm will be blogged, as ever

I’d welcome readers’ thoughts about this; am I breaking new ground or opening myself up to a world of trouble?

PS – an NQT/PGCE/GTP version of this form and spreadsheet will be appearing in the next day or so. Right now I have dinner to cook, kittens to play with and presents to wrap. I must NOT get these instructions mixed up…

Uncontrolled Assessments

Despite the title, a lot of this also relates to AS and A2 – Physics, at least. (They don’t trust me with squishy stuff or cooking.) It seemed a waste to spend time answering the call for evidence from Ofqual without blogging it too. Especially because it made me realise how messed up the whole ISA situation is. Maybe it’s much better in OCR and Edexcel; ‘my’ kids do AQA.

I’m not going through all my answers, just those that seemed particularly relevant, complimentary or critical. I’ll start off, because I’m a teacher, with the comment that when the question below is on an official Ofqual document, it seems odd that Gove wants students to lose marks for poor grammar:

“Please explain you answer.”


There is no way to assess hands-on practical ability by the current method – the students are specifically told that their results are irrelevant. The students’ problem-solving abilities are tested by the practical itself, but this is not measured in any way.

In my opinion, there is very little difference, if any, to previous versions of controlled assessment – the results are no more ‘authentic’ than before. Teachers are still able to see the question papers in advance, and for AQA, section 1 is always effectively identical to the sample paper – which we can share, with the markscheme, with students. Unsurprisingly students end up rote-learning their answers. To be manageable in a real classroom all students end up doing a similar practical anyway, despite claims they would have more freedom. The ‘research’ section is useless, and students have frequently shown that the only helpful result when searching for a context is the teacher notes supplied by AQA. This means that the variety in support – which an AQA advisor agreed was ‘against the spirit but still allowed’ – shows that teacher efforts are still a big issue.


The type of task has been badly managed by AQA, and is longwinded. Students must:

  1. research a hypothesis
  2. design an experiment and results table
  3. complete an exam paper on the design process
  4. complete the practical (modified if necessary)
  5. produce a graph or chart of results
  6. complete a second exam paper on their analysis.

Completing this process, at least for the first time, takes a minimum of 7 lessons in school (researchx2, paper1, practicalx2, graph, paper2) and probably more for each ISA. Students missing lessons due to illness or other commitments obviously makes the process more complex, a burden that inevitably falls on the teacher. In our timetable, students spend at least three weeks on one investigation, often only spending 1-2 hours on practical work. This is not sustainable.

It takes a while and there is a huge amount of separate pages they have to be provided with, especially for the final paper (their research notes, their results and graph, a group set of results, two pages of case studies). Each section must be marked BY THE TEACHERS and kept securely, then moderated.

The specific tasks set show that AQA have not tested out the likely experiments, nor checked online for research sources that are reasonably pitched for GCSE students. The results are frequently nonsensical with the equipment available in a school lab, meaning no useful pattern for the students to discuss. The practical tasks are very straightforward, about a Year7 level.

The marking of the work is a long process and standardisation is difficult. I would conservatively estimate each ISA takes at least 20 minutes per student (paper 1, table, graph, paper 2). For a class of 30 this is ten hours of marking for each ISA – and they are expected to complete at least two per year. We have currently been trying to complete them for year 9 and 10 classes. This means up to thirty hours of marking per colleague.


The tasks are badly designed and not fit for purpose – the skills could be assessed more effectively and more uniformly. It feels like the tasks have been tweaked and changed so many times that they are effectively designed to fail at their claimed purpose.

The workload is unmanageable in my subject. Exam boards would, I suspect, have spent a lot more time thinking about this if they were responsible for paying those marking it. I don’t know how the cost of sitting the module has changed compared to externally marked ones, but of course schools don’t have to pay overtime either. This means less time to prepare lessons and teach the rest of our classes. Several exams per ISA also makes it very difficult in terms of SEN entitlement, with extended time and TA support being difficult to schedule with a whole year group doing assessments in a range of subjects, taking up more and more time.

I know colleagues who have missed work due to finishing marking, or because of being ill after ridiculously long hours to meet deadlines.

It could be done so much better. Students gain very little in the way of real practical skills, and the majority of the questions in the exam are about things that could be in regular exams unrelated to the ‘experiments’ they have done.

Students are certainly stretched, in that some questions are so obscure – or the markscheme so erratic – that only a few achieve the highest marks. In some cases the only way a student could write an answer that gains all the available marks is if they had been coached by their teacher. They struggle to apply what they have learned outside of the ISA environment, because it is so unlike the practicals and investigations they do at other times.

Scientific content is at a low level in most cases, but the maths demand can be quite high. This penalises students who are capable of explaining trends and patterns but struggle with numbers.

 Constructive Feedback

Of course, as a teacher I feel the need to suggest a way to improve. I think it’s worthwhile that the ISA starts with a research task, but it needs to be standardised. How about a different structure:

  1. Produce a booklet of sources, some more useful than others, that students use to plan a practical in exam conditions.
  2. All students nationally do the same thing, from the same materials.
  3. A standard practical with a paper, using standardised experiment, like the old A-level set-up.

These exams could be sealed beforehand then externally marked, anonymously, removing at a stroke many of the major issues with internally-marked work. Several samples would need to be produced, but this would avoid the demand for more and more assessed pieces – time consuming for students and staff – in the hope of incremental improvements. The two main criticisms of the current system – that it fails to assess the skills fairly for all candidates, and that it takes too much time – are removed at a stroke.

Two other posts worth reading on this are by @hrogerson on OCR-B and by @DrRachael, also on AQA.

Maybe you have other suggestions?

Jobs For The Summer

New planner? Check. New timetable? Check. New class lists? Well, depends on how well organised your school is. Pile of coursework to mark? Probably. Schemes of work to tweak ready for September? Probably.

Now think carefully about this one. Have you got the important jobs sorted out?

Yes, I know those jobs are important. Like you, I spend a day during the summer gettting into my September mindset; filling in my first fortnight’s timetable, making sure I’ve identified top end and struggling students, rearranging seating plans. This year life will be much easier as I’ve evolved my electronic markbook (Excel, if you care) into something more fit for purpose. Mainly by eliminating the mistakes I made this year. But there are things that are more important, parts of the bigger picture which you should be thinking about too.

Assuming you know what you’re teaching in the new term, could you find the resources and links for one outstanding lesson for each group in that first fortnight? Use some of your gained time in these last few days to try out a new practical. Save the video files to your ‘September’ folder. Turn the questions into a gameshow format. It doesn’t matter what – just be ready to enjoy that moment when a new class is in the palm of your hand, hanging on your every word.

Do you have your summer reading ready? Each year I invest in a couple of interesting-looking education books – this is as well as the popular science I consume on a more regular basis. Right now I’ve got Better Learning Through Structured Teaching by Fisher and Frey, bought through the Book Barge; I’d like to see about applying the GRR model to practical skills in my lab. I’ve also downloaded the Perfect Ofsted English Lesson to my Android, and plan to blog about my reflections on David’s ideas and how they relate to Science lessons. Alternatively, you might like to put a few relevant research papers to one side. Or does your school have a professional development bookshelf? If not, why not?

Of course, a great way to find things to reflect on is to do something teaching-related. I’m attending an AQA stakeholder meeting in July and the #YorkTU in late August. Between them – the arguments at the first and the presentations at the second – I’m sure I will find new things to mess around with. Like the books, this sort of thing costs money. Think of it as investing in your own development, more to add to your CV as well as helping you do your current job better.

Have you identified your areas for development for the next year? How well these match up to your official performance targets will depend on your setting, but it would be good to choose things that you want to change. Pair up with a colleague and agree that you’ll informally observe each other, swap ideas and prompt each other during thr rough patches. Maybe you want to work on questioning techniques, or find ways to improve the quality of your feedback to students without tripling your workload. Write a list in next year’s planner and spend some time coming up with approaches. Change/Observe/Reflect can be the start of an action research cycle if you want to think of it that way.

What’s wasted time over the past year? What problem do you wish you could solve? For me it’s coming up with good starters; the ideas are interesting and get kids engaged, but there’s no enough variety of method. So my project is to produce three ‘starter schemes’ in powerpoint. This doesn’t mean all whiteboard activities, but that the instructions or prompts will be there ready for me and my students. I want to get a few ready for each topic now, and by the end of the year I’ll have varied, challenging, interesting activities organised into KS3 Biology, Chemistry and Physics. My plan is to put them on Google Docs too, perhaps so online colleagues can help put them together. (Yes, I’m lazy.)

It’s always really tempting to take time off completely. Time with kids, family holidays, a respite from marking all mean that it’s understandable. But like we tell the kids, a small amount of preparation can go a long way. I don’t expect to manage all the things on my ‘to do’ list. But anything I do manage will make my job better in September, and make me better at my job.

Not bad for a holiday.