Required Practicals

Morning all. I was at the Northern #ASEConf at the weekend, had a good time and had lots to think about. I’m going to try really hard to blog it this week, but I’m buried under a ton of stuff and pretty much every person in my immediate family is either ill, recovering or about to go into hospital. And Trump apparently won, which makes me think it’s time to dig a fallout shelter and start teaching my kids how to trap rabbits for food.

Anyway.

One of the recurring discussions between science teachers is about the new required practicals for the GCSE specs. I’m trying to put some resources together for the physics ones as part of my day job, on TalkPhysics (free to join, please get involved) and thought I’d share a few ideas here too.

Who Cares?

The exam boards don’t need lab books. There is no requirement for moderation or scrutiny. There is no set or preferred format. And, realistically, until we’ve seen something better than the specimen papers there’s no point trying to second-guess what the students will be expected to do in the summer of 2018.

So apart from doing the practicals, as part of our normal teaching, in the normal way, why should we do anything different? Why should we worry the kids about them? Why should we worry about them? There’s time for that in the lead up to the exams, in a year’s time, when we’d revise major points anyway. For now, let’s just focus on good, useful practical work. I’ve blogged about this before, and most of it comes down to more thinking, less doing.

Magic Words

What we can do is make sure kids are familiar with the language – but this shouldn’t be just about the required practicals. So I put together some generic questions, vaguely inspired by old ISAs (and checking my recall with the AQA Science Vocab reference) and ready to print. My thinking is that each laminated card is handed to a different group while they work. They talk about it while doing the practical, write their answers on it, then they get added to a wall in the lab. This offers a quick review and a chance for teachers to see how ids are getting on with the vocab. The important thing – in my view, at least – is that it has to be for every practical. This is about improving fluency by use of frequent testing. And it ticks the literacy box too.

EDITED: more cards added, thanks to suggestion from @tonicha128 on Twitter.

So here you go: prac-q-cards-v2 as PDF.

Please let me know what you think, whether I’ve made any mistakes, and how it works if you want to try it out. It would be easy to produce a mini-test with a selection of these questions, or better ones, for kids to do after each practical. Let’s get them to the stage of being so good with these words that they’re bored by being asked the questions.

Reflective Observation

I’ve been pretty quiet recently – at least it feels like I’ve not been offering much to the conversation. There are several reasons, but a big part of it is that with paid freelance work I’ve really not been able to justify the time to do things for free. I’m not going to apologize for this because I’m sure you’ll all understand that without this work my family and I can’t go on holiday.
But I’ve missed you all, even if you’ve not been missing me.
This will be a quick post, hopefully to be followed up over the next week with another. I’ve been working in a school a couple of days a week, mixing teacher coaching with some intervention classes. It’s been interesting – and enjoyable, at least after the kids stopped swearing at me – so I thought it might be worth sharing a few things I’ve done.
I’m currently reading Mentoring Mathematics Teachers, effectively a collection of research papers published as a book. Now, I don’t teach maths – except in the process of getting the physics right – but I’ve found it really interesting. It’s mainly aimed at in-school mentors for pre-service teachers (PGCE, School Direct or similar) and NQTs. I’ve got a strong interest in how we can support teachers for a longer period than just a year, and in my day job we mentor ‘Early Career Teachers’ to the end of their second year post-qualification. I’m working through about a chapter a week, making notes in the margins, and really need to blog some of the ideas. So it was perfect timing to come to Chapter 9 by Lofthouse and Wright, about encouraging reflection by using a pro forma for observations. I’ve adapted it slightly with a fair bit of success and wish I’d been using it for longer.
As a physics teacher, I feel I should now make the point that teaching is a quantum process which is changed simply by the act of being observed. If you laughed at that, congratulations and please pick up your Physics Education Geek badge on the way out.
observation pro forma
Click for PDF version

There are four stages:

  1. The ‘observee’ defines one or two aspects they want to focus on, choosing a couple of questions for the observer to bear in mind.
  2. The observer makes notes of specific features in the lesson relating to these questions – no judgment, just facts.
  3. The observer poses questions based on these features to prompt reflection and discussion.
  4. Together, the colleagues plan future actions based on the outcome of these prompts, leading to questions for the next observed lesson.
The aim of this structure is to encourage reflective practice rather than “I saw X and you should try Y instead.” In this way both teachers gain from it as there isn’t necessarily a hierarchy in place. It would work just as well when an experienced teacher is observed by a novice, with the questions directing them towards interesting features of the lesson. I can also see it being useful for peer observation – and like all such activities, it would work best when well-separated from any kind of performance management process.
I should emphasize that this is my take on the process rather than a paraphrased version of the original. And, of course, I’m still tweaking it! Currently I’m following up soon after the lesson but wonder if leaving the sheet with the observed teacher so they can think about the prompts more deeply might be worthwhile. I’m numbering the evidence I see and then grouping them in the ‘Reflection Prompts’ section if appropriate – this helps me gather my thoughts and gives more than one relevant example.
EDIT: I recommend reading a great post by @bennewmark, Finding a Voice, for the issues that can arise when an observee tries to replan a lesson based on well-meaning comments from a colleague.
Please help yourself to the printable version, try it out and let me know what you think. Maybe everyone else has something better already – it’s two years since I had a lesson observed! But I’d appreciate, as ever, any feedback or suggestions.

Skills Lists

I’m going to keep this brief in the hope it actually gets (a) finished and (b) published. Because I’ve several drafts that I’ve just not found the time or motivation to finish off. In context; I have a small child, a shortage of caffeine and a grumpy temperament. This may be because not one new blogger built on my #aseconf session and contributed a post. Humph.

Recently, the skills vs knowledge debate has kicked off again. Not that it ever really went away! I think like many teachers, I actually stay away from both extremes. Of course kids need to know (ie recall with fluency) some facts. The question is where you draw the line. Do I expect my GCSE students to remember that Carbon has a proton number of 6? Of course I do. Do I expect them to memorize the entire periodic table, with or without the song? Of course I don’t. This could be applied to the reactivity series, the equations of motion, geological era or pretty much any other part of science. Knowing some is vital, knowing them all is unnecessary. But discussion online – perhaps especially on twitter – tends towards the argumentative.

So arguments about what should and shouldn’t be in the national curriculum, exam specifications or whatever are doomed to end unresolved. And, let’s face it – as teachers we don’t often get a say in it. We just have to make the best of what we get.

Instead, I was kicking some ideas around with colleagues and ended up with the bastard offspring of APP for younger kids and logbooks as suggested for AS, via ‘loyalty cards’ which I blogged after stealing the idea from @ange01. Hold on, it makes sense. Kind of.

Why not, I reasoned, put together lists for the students to use to record their various competencies? (I did something like this for teacher standards, although I’ve stopped keeping track of it. When I get around to it I’ll create a version for RSci and CSciTeach recording categories and wave it at @theASE via twitter.) This fits in well with the new approach to practical work at post-16, something else which has divided teachers and politicians alike. I made several deliberate decisions for the sample below, but I was very much thinking this would be better put together collaboratively, exam-board agnostic and perhaps led by expert/subject associations. (It would be interesting to have input from universities too, although I’ve a post brewing about university involvement in curriculum design too…)

click for .pdf

  1. These are solely hands-on skills for the school lab – no analysis, no maths. There is no content. (Although it might be interesting to produce a paired list, with knowledge on the left and skills on the right. Hmm. Notes for later.)
  2. I ignored exam specifications and instead flicked through the relevant pages on PracticalPhysics. I’ve probably missed something, suggestions welcome.
  3. Instead of a ticklist, my idea was for students to add a date each time they demonstrated that skill. I suspect teachers would have varying ideas of how many times are needed. The only thing everyone will agree on is that once is not enough.
  4. This is for students to use themselves for tracking, not teachers to use for assessment. I hope HoDs are paying attention to this point.

It would be easy to use this approach for GCSE and AS/A2, one checklist per topic area. (I’m sure many colleagues and departments already do.) But why not spend a little time putting together a good list, based on agreed best practice? I do similar things for content revision, but it’s the first time I’ve done it for specific hands-on skills. I’m going to have a play around with a ‘minds-on, thinking scientifically’ version too.

I’d happily run a project producing high quality versions, based on wider consultation, for all subject areas. It would need more of my time and the time of colleagues. That means money, so let me know if you know where I could submit a proposal for funding…

Core Physics revision sites handout

This second post in a day will be even briefer than the last. After complaints from my Year 10 students that they couldn’t possibly be expected to find good websites by themselves – yes, I know – I produced a quick handout listing a few URLs and comments for them. I was going to put it on the VLE, but realised it would be much more likely to be used if they had instant access, so added QR codes and gave them printed copies. Of course they were very appreciative for me giving up my break this morning to make this for them.

Stop laughing.

Anyway, here it is as a pdf. It’s got two identical pages because that was the fastest way to print off A5 versions, although it does mean there’s a bit of wasted space.

revision sites pic

Now, as this has quite possibly saved you a few minutes, I have a request to make. Use two of those minutes to add to my portfolio. Simply follow this link and tick a few boxes, no names necessary, so I can show how what I do helps people outside my immediate school. Many thanks.

Waves Revision (AQA P1)

Another quick one, but hopefully useful for those helping students prepare for GCSE Physics; our specification is AQA and the exam is P1, but I hope it will be more generally helpful than that.

waves bestof3

Download waves bestof3 as .ppt

Starter: Choose three words to define

You could have students write down their ideas, include some hints or simply Think/Pair/Share. I like to have one student share their idea, then have another try to improve it, or say what’s good about it. The words are in alphabetical order but you could easily differentiate this activity explicitly if preferred.

Main1: Best of 3

Each slide shows three possible statements or answers to a question. I give students a minute to choose a particularly good or bad answer by discussion. They must be able to improve it and I then ask for suggestions before moving on to the solution slide.  They do not all have one good, one indifferent and one bad answer. There are obvious links to grade progression here and you could use mini whiteboards to ensure all are involved.

Main2: Drawing diagrams

By now students should be seeing these points as a reminder, hopefully ideas they’re familiar with from thorough and careful revision cough cough. Based on their answers and difficulties I would then split them into groups to practise individual elements, from rehearsing fundamentals to more challenging diagrams. I’ve credited the sources of the diagrams, all CC-licensed I think.

Plenary: umm…

I’ve not included one on the powerpoint but returning to key definitions would seem a good plan; ask students to state something they understand better now than they did at the start perhaps? Alternatively finish with a past paper question so they can demonstrate what they are now capable of.

 

Before You Go…

As usual, if you find this resource useful, or adapt the idea to your own teaching, I’d really appreciate you taking a moment to add to my portfolio. Simply follow this link and tick a few boxes, no names necessary. Many thanks.

Revision Lesson Ticklist

Disclaimer: I stole this idea from @ange01. It was saved to my notes a while back, and while planning today’s revision lessons I found the idea and decided to put it into practice. As usual, I’ve adapted it to suit what I wanted; blame me for the problems and credit her with the original idea.

Each student gets a printed list of things they need to achieve during the lesson’s different revision activities. (I’ll be blogging some of these during the week, to help out colleagues with students preparing for the AQA P1 exam.) I’ve split these into two categories:

General Learning

  • Helped another student
  • Got myself ‘unstuck’
  • Gave advantages/disadvantages
  • Looked up a definition
  • Used an example to support my answer

Science Skills

  • Remembered an equation
  • Rearranged an equation
  • Converted units
  • Described a method
  • Used scientific vocabulary

This would obviously take moments to produce and customize, but if you’d like my effort: lesson ticklist as .pdf

These act as a prompt for strategies as well as a reminder of the skills tested during the exam. You could use the slips as ‘exit tickets’, or ‘loyalty cards’ as I’ve seen online. You could award credits to students who have the most ticks; this is something I think might work particularly well with younger students. I’m also going to produce an equivalent list for practical lessons, as so many kids either avoid touching equipment or never let go of the damn test tube.

Ahem.

As usual, if you find this resource useful, or adapt the idea to your own teaching, I’d really appreciate you taking a moment to add to my portfolio. Simply follow this link and tick a few boxes, no names necessary. Many thanks.

Heat Misconceptions

Like many of us, I’m currently spending the majority of my time helping students prepare for external exams. Because of how science exams now work in secondary school, most of my classes are facing one or more exams in the next few weeks, just for physics. Seven classes are doing GCSE content (2 x Yr9, 3 x Yr10, 2 x Yr11) and two classes are in sixth form.

Something I’ve spent a little time on has been prompted by the variety of answers to mock questions on heat transfer. It was clear that many able students were struggling with clear explanations – and perhaps understanding – of mechanisms of the transfer of thermal energy, as demonstrated by Qs 4 and 5 on the AQA P1 June 2013 paper. So I looked into it.

Examiner’s Reports

My first step was to check whether this was an isolated case or something seen for these exam papers when originally sat. I strongly recommend all colleagues, if they’re not already familiar with it, find where they can read the reports written after the exam for the benefit of teachers and exam boards. They’re available (delayed) for pupils too, but with AQA you need to go through the main subject page rather than to the quick ‘Past Papers’ link.

…nearly half of students scored two marks or less. Common mistakes were referring to ‘heat particles’, thinking that the vacuum stopped all forms of heat transfer, thinking that the vacuum contained air and referring to the transfer of ‘cold’.

…Students who referred to water particles often mistakenly referred to them ‘vibrating more’ as a result of the energy given, or to the particles themselves becoming less dense.

From AQA P1 June 2012 Report

So it wasn’t just my kids.

Now What?

I think of myself as a fairly evidence-based practitioner, so next I wanted to check out some wider sources. A quick search for ‘physics misconceptions heat’ has a large number of results, including one from more than 20 years ago which shows how established the problem is.

As a science teacher, Physics Education from the IOP and School Science Review from the ASE seemed a good place to look. Unfortunately both require memberships, a problem in terms of cost which I’ve blogged about before. Students’ misconceptions about heat transfer mechanisms and elementary kinetic theory is relevant, as is this resource available without login on the ASE site. R Driver’s book Making Sense of Secondary Science was one of several recommended during an #asechat “What misconceptions do students have in science?” in 2011.

I used the students’ answers as a way to diagnose the ‘alternative conceptions’ that they had built up over time. For many these had clearly been established long before my arrival, but I’m going to build some of the ideas into my next cycle of teaching for early intervention. Some of the points from Cyberphysics UK and PhysicsClassroom.com were also useful. What I produced – firstly as a scribbled list, then as a more formal activity, was the ‘Seven Sins of Heat Transfer’. In time I’d like to produce some confidence grids and link these to the diagnostic questions approach as explained at York Science. Concept cartoons with clear viewpoints let students explore different models without ‘owing up’ to ideas they think are wrong, which can be very helpful. And so here’s one of the great @DoTryThisAtHome cartoons:

 

Seven Sins of Heat Transfer

  • Heat rises
  • Particles of heat
  • Expanding particles
  • Shiny materials are good conductors
  • Cold gets in
  • Condensing and contracting are the same
  • Trapped particles can’t move through a vacuum flask

These are what I wrote while marking papers; I’ve just removed the profanity. My reading showed me that some were common alternative conceptions, while others demonstrated a poor understanding of technical terms, often made worse by persistent misuse in ‘everyday’ language. A bit of thinking, and more reading, helped me find ways to highlight these issues for students.

Printable version with prompt Qs: 7sins as .pdf

EDIT: I shouldn’t have needed prompting, but CathN suggested in the comments that model answers would be useful, particularly for non-specialists. And so I’ve put together a presentation going through each of the sections, explained more or less the way I would in class. Obviously colleagues will have their own thoughts and preferred analogies, but I’d love comments on possible improvements; simply click on the title slide below.

7sins

Alternatively: 7sins as .ppt

When time allows during revision, and certainly next time I teach this content, I’ll be linking these misconceptions explicitly with practical activities. I think I’ll also ban the use of ‘heat’ by itself. If students are forced to use ‘collisions between touching particles’, ‘energetic particles in a lower density region’ and ‘thermal radiation’ then we should be able to solve the sloppy language issue, at least.

Thoughts and comments on this very welcome; it strikes me that I could usefully spend time producing a series of lessons and resources on just this sort of thing. Exam question followed by diagnostic questions, circus of activities to highlight misconception, then applications of correct idea to new situation. So if anyone wants to pay me, well, you know where I am…

In the meantime:

I’m trying to track my impact (eg you using this resource or basing your own on my ideas). 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.

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