Setting the Scene

The first lesson with a class is always a challenge. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been teaching, I think – you’re still aware of the need to make a good first impression. Because in many ways it’s the first few lessons – what Bill Rogers and others call the ‘establishment phase’ – that set the tone for the rest of your time together. I’ve come to the conclusion that trying to do too much in my first hour with a class is counter-productive. After swapping some ideas on twitter about what the first lesson should cover (although I’m sure there are many other suggestions out there) I wanted to blog my own routine. As tends to be the case, the summer has gotten away from me so I’m now doing this in a rush, but so it goes. Whether you already use some of these ideas, or think they’re crazy, I’d love to read some comments below.

Of course, in some schools (including my own) some classes will have a ‘pep talk’, perhaps including some statistics or previous rsults, to inspire the students to do well. How constructive you think this is will of course vary.


Some students will know who I am, by reputation or by having been taught by me before. I still introduce myself and explain my specialism (Physics), and tell them that I’m looking forward to working with them over the next year.


I use a seating plan with my classes, which I aim to mix up fairly regularly. In practice it often takes a while, as it helps to provide some stability to start with – and makes learning names easier. I use targets and SEN info to help me plan the seating, so that I can readily assist (or have TAs within reach of) those students who are likely to need support. This will usually need modifying, as I find I’ve inadvertantly sat deadly enemies next to each other, or that I have an entire row of effectively silent students. But it’s a start.


There are some really boring jobs that still need to be done sooner rather than later – a bit of thought will help them to go more smoothly. Folders may need to be issued and names written on the front, perhaps textbooks (and the numbers collected in), dates of exams flagged up, targets issued and recorded. I try and use this time to pick up a few names, especially for those students at the top and bottom of the ability range. It’s also a chance to praise kids who can listen to the instructions (which ideally should be on the board/IWB as well), so setting a precedent. If you’re new to a school, ask someone who isn’t about tips and tricks for what matters most, where book numbers are recorded and so on. Trying to catch up at Christmas isn’t fun.


How you tell students about what is expected of them will vary between teachers and between schools. If there is a school code of conduct, it’s perhaps worth discussing how this will be applied in the science lab. I’ve posted before about how I try to negotiate the wording of the rules, so that students feel ‘ownership’. It’s important they understand that teachers as well as students are bound by the agreement. Some teachers will have students sign a copy for display; others will save an electronic version, and return to it from time to time. I find emphasizing that the lab is for learning, and asking students how we can make that happen, is a useful approach. Learn, Enjoy, Achieve are three separate aims that cover most of it, and students find it hard to object to these goals. Be prepared for questions from the students about consequences for those who don’t follow agreed rules, and be ready to emphasize that right now they all have the chance to leave bad habits behind them. I sometimes have them write out the agreed rules and underline the one they think they’ll have most trouble with themselves.


If at all possible, you want there to be something in the lesson telling the kids what the subject is going to be like. This doesn’t necessarily mean a flashy demo – it’s a pain to set up and might set expectations a little high. Talking about what science is all about can be useful; I’ve emptied out my pockets on to the demo bench (a nice way to show you’re human, too) and talked about how the coming topics are applied. Credit cards (chips and magnetic strips), mobile phone (EM, materials, electricity), keys (metals, chemical reactions), karabiner keyring (forces), pocket torch (light, energy), chocolate bar (nutrition)… all kinds of possibilities.

This year I plan to use the “I know a place” speech by Phil Plaitt, who among other things writes the Bad Astronomy blog. If you’ve not read this before, I really think you should. I’m hoping that this will set the scene nicely for my students in terms of telling them what science is all about. Of course I’ll also tell them the topics for the next year, how they’ll be assessed and all that. But it’s the big picture that I want them to have, and it doesn’t get much bigger than the universe.

EDIT: @alomshaha has reminded me of his Why Science? site, with all kinds of useful introductions to the best subject in the curriculum. 🙂 I’d probably use small sections for this purpose rather than the full version, but I should emphasize that’s about time constraints!

If you want/need to start teaching content, remember a few basic things. You’ll be pushed for time. They’ll want to catch up with friends more than they want to make a good impression. Some won’t have pens or pencils. Several will swear blind they’ve never covered the material you know they did last year. So if you must, I’d suggest an assessment exercise, auditing previous knowledge. This could be a comprehension piece, perhaps with some HSW elements or, as Lauraj987 suggested, a research activity where they use textbooks to remind themselves of what they’ve already done. That way those with good memories don’t have a particular advantage.

Enjoy it. Get off to a good start in September and life will be much easier in March. I don’t agree with the old “Don’t smile until Christmas” rule but it’s much easier to relax later in the year than get stricter. You’ll be with these kids for at least a year, perhaps two – make the most of it.


Exit Questionnaire: Useful?

Last year, as part of the Action Research in Physics Project run through the Science Learning Centres, I collected data in my school about those who didn’t do Physics at AS. If this seems odd, think for a moment. If we ask those who did choose our subject, we’re only getting the success stories. Surely what we want to know is what put off everyone else. I was particularly interested in the high number who had achieved well at GCSE (getting A* in the separate Physics course) but had not chosen it as part of their AS timetable.

At my workplace, students are selected for triple science GCSE rather than choosing it themselves, which might account for some of them – they were bright students who achieved well in all or many of their subjects. And we have a lot of students doing Physics at AS, it’s not as if we’re in danger of losing classes. However, we do lag behind Biology and Chemistry. Boo. Hiss. I’m obviously not the first person to consider this, and I noticed some of the issues raised in, for example, the IOP Girls in Physics report. Numbers seem to be rising (32860 finished A2 last year, according to this Telegraph story which credits Brian Cox, or see this IOP press release for more detailed numbers.)

Scientists always like more data, and one school is hardly respresentative. So, I thought, why not collect more? If only there was some way to make this kind of quick survey available to colleagues in other schools, so that we could get a bigger sample. If only there was some way to automate and easily share the results, so that we could all learn from it…

At the risk of sounding like a Year 8 stuck on their homework, the answer is Google. A Google form, to be precise.

Obviously the results will be skewed, as I expect only students who have continued to their school 6th form will be pointed towards this, but the more data we can collect the better. Obviously the results will be open to all participants and I will also be blogging about them – it’s also possible that they will inform an article somewhere, perhaps SSR.

What I need to know is whether this is worth taking forward. I’ve put a draft Google form together, based on the paper version I used at my school last year. I have some questions to use, although obviously I’d be interested in any extra suggestions. I want to make this a fast questionnaire, not something students or teachers have to spend a lot of time on. My plan is to finalize the form in a week’s time, so the more feedback and suggestions I get in that time the better. I plan to post and tweet the link to the improved version on September 1st, and hope that as many colleagues as possible will get kids to fill it in. I’d also appreciate suggestions about how to get the word out to as many teachers as practical in a short space of time.

Anyone interested?