#SciTeachJC: Subject Knowledge

The paper for Week 9 of SciTeachJC was Johannes Met­zler and Ludger Woess­mann “The Impact of Teacher Sub­ject Knowl­edge on Stu­dent Achievement: Evi­dence from Within-Teacher Within-Student Vari­a­tion” IZA Dis­cus­sion Paper Num­ber 4999 (2010) (.PDF link)

The main conclusions of the paper were that higher teacher expertise in their subject resulted in a higher level of achievement for their students at primary level. There was an effort to account for confounding factors, partly because the same teacher taught both maths and reading to the student tested. This provides an immediate limitation as far as secondary teaching is concerned, as it might be reasonably suggested that there is a bigger overlap in knowledge between any two science specialists than between, for example, science and language specialists.

Perhaps predictably, the discussion had two main themes; the need for an ‘appropriate’ level of subject knowledge, and how pedagogy also has a huge impact on a  teacher’s effectiveness. To place this in context, @declanf and others suggested that 0.1 standard deviation is a small improvement compared to other factors.

@uncletungsten: I say that 0.1 sd advtg. is next to nothing. Even when 1 sd of subject knowledge could mean 3-5 years of subject specialization.

It was suggested that there is a balance between specialist knowledge – giving a teacher confidence to teach effectively – and having recently struggled, thereby having empathy for a students’ likely problems. @morphosaurus was one of several participants who felt that as a non-specialist, she taught some areas of the specification better than those who had studied it in more detail. How much of this is due to enthusiasm, and how much to better pedagogy, is of course hard to measure. I wonder if colleagues are more likely to use innovative methods with content they are experienced with, or with more recently studied material? @Bio_Joe pointed out that being able to tell a student that yes, we struggled too is very powerful.

@Arakwai: I agree! Gives the teacher a better appreciation & understanding of misconceptions & difficulties students may have.

We agreed that expertise and enthusiasm would often be strongly correlated, and that as long as correct information is taught, that personal interest is often what enthuses students. @Lethandrel and others agreed that a basic level of subject knowledge is necessary before someone can be considered a ‘specialist’. The issue here, as uual, is KS3. Should we be teaching within specialism there to improve confidence and avoid misconceptions?

@mariamush It’s my experience and knowledge beyond spec that enables me to teach Chem successfully, couldn’t offer the same in phys and bio

Most of us pointed out that with a limited amount of time and money, continuing subject knowledge development is possibly challenging. It is, hoever, necessary, when both scientific understanding (Higgs boson anyone?) and the greater emphasis on scientific method have changed since our original qualifications. We talked about how swapping ideas with colleagues, in and out of specialism, can be a big help. Book and documentary recommendations can keep the costs down.

@cardiffscience: Quite RT @teachitsobeing “one page ahead of the class”? Curriculum changes rapidly- anyone’s degree really embed HSW?

@teachingofsci: possibly – you don’t get much better than Jones, ridley, dawkins, @edyong209 and attenborough for evolution!

@RobertDavies2 so revision on top of planning, evaluation, reports, book marking… to name a few? #toomuch

This comes back to an important question; in most cases is there enough variation in teacher subject expertise for it to be worth worrying about? Yes, there will be variation – but cost (both financial and time) is high if effect is small. (@teachitso pointed out that Hattie puts subject matter knowledge 125th in his rank of effect sizes)  Who should pay these costs? Will Heads of Department consider it worthwhile (for general CPD rather than troubleshooting identified individuals) when there are courses on exam specifications?

@AnthHard: If the Sci Learning Centres put on some subject knowledge CPD, would there be much response?

@SciCommStudios:  one of my hats is Uni of Surrey Outreach – we are looking at putting on some Chem CPD…and have been wondering about interest

@Bio_Joe: If SK needs a top up I recommend the 7day free courses run by Goldsmiths (I did genetics one it’s amazing)

Worthwhile as these aims are – and I would comment now that we are considering the opinions of a self-selected group of teachers, not the profession as a whole – are we making the same mistake as Gove, Jamie Oliver and many others by focussing on subject knowledge when we should recognise that we are teachers first, and scientists second?

@danidelle23: i think we agree with each other to a point. knowing how to use your knowledge is probably the hardest part

@DrDav: Think knowing how to teach a topic can be more important that knowing the topic. How to identify and deal with misconcepts.

@morphosaurus defined pedagogy as “Ability to break down concepts for students to understand, and have resources that explained things well helped.” Having these resources to hand, and having needed to break a topic down, might explain why some of us felt that being a non-specialist was not necessarily a big disadvantage when working with younger or weaker students. Avoiding misconceptions is of course a major concern – you might reasonably equate this to the medical precept, “First, do no harm”

Our priority should perhaps be how to teach specialist knowledge, rather than having the knowledge ourselves. In the same way that teachers need to be able to model and teach thinking skills, we need to express ideas so that students can understand them. #asechat, subject specific teachmeets and similar ideas are perhaps a good way to share good ideas about what matters most.

In conclusion: we should neither over, nor underestimate the importance of a good level of subject knowledge. We’d like to see more research on the relative importance of truly specialist subject knowledge (degree level or higher, with continuing ‘refreshers’) in secondary education, compared to other factors.

Further reading

@alomshaha shared a link to a post TwentyFirstFloor blog on ‘what makes an expert teacher.

@Bio_Joe linked to an abstract of a 1998 paper that concluded subject knowledge is one of several factors.

@AnthHard recommended @teachitso’s summary on ‘who should teach’ considering Hattie & the Finland enigma.

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Improving ISA Scores (Ethically)

Many teachers struggle with the boundaries for ISA preparation, both at GCSE and AS/A2. ISAs, if you don’t teach science, are a bizarre crossbreed between coursework and a practical exam. As professionals we recognise the importance of students being adequately prepared, and we have experience (or advance sight of) the paper they will sit. This is a dangerous combination, even without deliberate intent to provide an unfair advantage. (Arguably, senior colleagues might sugest, it can’t be unfair if it happens everywhere else.)

However, there are ways to let students improve their own scores, which are within the rules. You could argue – as I did to my class – that in ‘real’ science research you would never be expected to remember all the facts between measurement and analysis. I answered a question from a student, my answer developed into a homework, and I’ve adapted their ideas to produce the document available below. It’s intended for AS/A2 Physics, but they’ve already told me they intend to use the ideas in their other science subjects, and I’m thinking about how I can adapt it to use ith my younger students. Ideas on this welcome, as always, in the comments.

The ISA has a standard structure:

  1. Preparation of appropriate theory (in class).
  2. Students use a task sheet to produce a results table, do a practical and draw an appropriate graph, all under exam conditions. All work is collected in.
  3. At next opportunity, they sit a written exam, using their results and graph to answer questions in two sections. The first focuses on their experimental data and methods, the second on a similar situation or real world context.

The main issue is that it’s easy to forget details of what they have done and how they did it in between practical and exam. They may have been able to answer the questions (for example about acuracy and precision) while doing the practical, but they’ve been asleep since then. In a lesson with me they designed their own practical and wrote their own ISA paper. We discussed how the questions are often similar, and therefore predictable. I suggested we add a stage 2.5. What if, as soon as their work was handed in, they wrote down everything they could think of about the practical? What if they used their (entirely legal) knowledge of likely questions to make sure they had the facts they needed in a form they could revise and check? Even better, what if they wrote a set of prompts for themselves to use so nothing got forgotten?

And so that’s what they did.

All this does is formalise the recall that otherwise would have been patchy. I’m providing no feedback, or advance knowledge of the exam paper. They can discuss their ideas with each other, but that’s within the rules. It’s a way for students to manage and reflect on their own learning, as well as provide an insight into effective exam technique. What this does is allow students who are prepared to put in extra time and effort to have a better chance of achieving well in the exam, based on their own understanding. I like it. I hope you do too.

Printable: isa postprac as pdf.

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.

Introduction

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.

Seating

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.

Administration

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.

Routines

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.

Trailer

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?

Whose Role Models?

I seem to have been writing a lot more about political issues than classroom practice recently – my apologies. This post is a quick response after I read this recent article from a Year 12 student, as published by the Teacher Support Network. One sentence in particular caught my eye:

“Teachers are role models and should act in a way where there is no room for criticism.”

Now, I have two major concerns about this attitude, separate but linked.

Role Models

Yes, we are role models. We demonstrate, hopefully, good attitudes and behaviour. We show our students what it means to be an adult. Of course, all adults do this, deliberately or accidentally. When we vote, and explain why it matters. When we attend a church for a faith we don’t have, to get our kids into a school we think is ‘better’. When we tap a stranger on the shoulder to return the coin we saw them drop. When we slow down for a safety camera, then speed up again. When we are wait politely in line, ignoring aggressive behaviour from others. Each of these actions, these moments, teaches something about the ‘right’ way to behave. In the classroom, this is part of what is referred to as the ‘invisible curriculum‘. I think of it as an extra subject area, one called ‘Civilisation’.

So yes, teachers are role models. But teachers are people too. I don’t spend my life planning to be a bad example. But equally, I’m not going to spend every waking hour wondering whether I’m being watched by a student. Why shouldn’t I have a life? Why shouldn’t I do the things I choose to do, out of school and off the premises?

Is a teacher being a bad role model if they smoke? What about when they have a few pints at a wedding reception and dance really badly? Or argue with their spouse in public? Should they be obliged to put money in every charity box they pass, simply to play the part of a good role model for any pupils who happen to see them do it? If I choose to hold my partner’s hand in public, or have kids before I marry, is this anything to do with my professional life?

Of course, the other things about role models is that they can inspire change. Sometimes the behaviour we model for pupils is something their parents don’t like – and this time I’m not talking about simple bad habits or minor errors. An openly gay teacher is a role model, but it’s one that some parents might see as unwanted. Homophobia means that lesbian, gay and bisexual teachers still often conceal their sexuality from kids, and sometimes even from colleagues. I would never criticize a colleague for doing this – but equally I feel that telling them to do so, so as not to ‘influence’ children, is ignorant bigotry at best.

I tweeted about this article yesterday and had several interesting responses. @alomshaha pointed out that in questions of faith, or the lack of it, defining a ‘good role model’ is also tricky. I’m sure that the religious parents of some of my students would think my atheism means I’m a bad example to their children. Does that mean I shouldn’t answer questions from kids about my beliefs? Or that I shouldn’t challenge children who tell me that the universe is 4000 years old, that evolution never happened or that human beings are made out of clay? (No, I’m not making that last one up, and no, he wasn’t speaking metaphorically.)

No Room For Criticism.

“I’m not saying that teachers should not have a life outside of school, but just in case of meeting a pupil in a neutral area they should conduct themselves in an appropriate manor.” (sic)

Actually, that’s exactly what you’re saying. Who chooses what is appropriate? If you’re suggesting that there should be no room for criticism, you’re giving all the right to those who choose to complain. Whether it’s smoking, drinking or wearing a bikini, somebody somewhere will object. Who gets to choose the standards teachers are expected to live up to?

I totally accept that there are some actions which cannot be accepted. I happen to agree that teachers who don’t guard their FaceBook accounts are being careless – I choose to blog and tweet discreetly for similar reasons. I don’t think many people would argue for criminal behaviour to be ignored, or actions that represent a risk to the children in their care during the working week. But like everyone else, teachers are entitled to a private life. Nobody cares if a group of shop assistants have a night out and wander into a strip club, or if a bus driver likes to gamble, or if a bank manager takes a life drawing class. So why should teachers be accused of unprofessional behaviour if they spend their own time doing their own thing? Their actions might incite comment, and people will have their own opinions – but that’s not the same thing as saying that criticism is okay.

I really don’t think many Year 12 students would really expect their teachers to be perfect role models, every hour of every day. (Those who have a teaching parent would probably have a particularly interesting viewpoint.) I’d love to see how students expect us to behave, what they would see as acceptable, for teachers as opposed to other careers. Maybe this is a discussion that needs to be had, but the questions should be; “Why do you expect teachers not to be human?” rather than “What would you allow teachers to do in their own time?”

A line needs to be drawn somewhere about what is acceptable and what isn’t. Fortunately, we already have that line. We don’t need every individual parent, or each newspaper editor greedy for sales, telling us what is and isn’t okay. I make my own choices, in my own life. I’m happy to commit to being a role model in the classroom and on the school site. But my private life is mine, and just because I’m a teacher doesn’t give anyone the right to tell me what I can and cannot do.

Being a #teacherontwitter

This will be a very quick post (as it’s late and I’m hungry) inspired by this article in the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s occured to me before that although there are guidelines for teachers on Facebook, there’s not the same kind of emphasis on Twitter. Here, then, are the rules I follow when I tweet – they also apply to my blog.

  1. I blog and tweet discreetly – I suppose I could be identified, but it would take some effort and some luck – because I choose not to identify myself to my students. It may be about teaching, but its not part of my working life, so they don’t have a right to know. (The same applies to my colleagues and bosses.) This means a rough area and a first name.
  2. I never identify students by name and when I discuss them critically, make sure that it is general, not specific. I use their errors and attitudes as generic examples, not to ‘name and shame’. I follow equivalent rules to those I would expect of a doctor or nurse who tweets about their shift; about ‘patients’ as a group but never particular patients.
  3. I try never to produce anything that I would be embarassed to have read out in the staff room or printed out in the playground. Anyone who reads my Twitter feed will have picked up a lot about me. I’m married with two kids, I climb and run, I read a lot, I have an odd sense of humour (with a preference for bad puns), I’m passionate about teaching, skepticism and atheism. Most of my students will have picked up bits and pieces of that. Occassional tweets will have hinted at frustration with tickbox assessment, experience with mental health problems, a distrust for the law, and a strong belief in equality of LGBT aspects of sexuality. Make of that what you will; I’m ashamed of none of it.
  4. I am always aware that in my Follower list there are students, and some of them could be mine. There is no requirement that people sign up to Twitter under their real, full name – I didn’t. So if my students realised my ID somehow, or stumbled upon my blog, they could choose to follow me, knowingly or by chance. If in doubt, I don’t hit ‘Send’.
  5. EDIT: I’m an idiot – blame it on lateness. One of the most important rules is, of course, a positive one, rather than negative. It’s about what I do, not what I avoid. I try to help. I’m positive when I can be, constructive when it’s been a bad day or a long week. I share ideas, pass on links and try tog et conversations started. My recent efforts with #pimpmydemo are an example of this, but it’s (hopefully) demonstrated whenever I swap banter with a colleague, make suggestions, respond to challenges. All because I want to use twitter, and my blog, to make things better, somehow, some way. Hopefully I’m managing.

What are your rules for being a #teacherontwitter?

Not a past paper again…

“Not a past paper again…”

I bet we’ve all heard that refrain over the past couple of weeks, as the stack of past papers is placed ominously on the teacher’s desk. The exam is a few days away and we’re running low on time, papers and patience. So are the kids.

Or maybe it’s not so urgent for you? Both of my Year 11 classes have their final AQA Additional Science B2 paper on Thursday. (Assuming that they’re not doing Additional Science resits or Core Science module papers in the hope of crossing a grade boundary by iteration, if not dedication.) Perhaps you’ve got longer. But anyway, it seems worthwhile considering a few more imaginative ways of using exam papers.

Please let me be clear – doing practice papers in exam conditions is a very valuable way to prepare. But there are ways to improve their use, as well as to mix them up a bit so that kids don’t burn out too quickly. Some of these methods are also a good way to use individual questions, perhaps from previous specifications, without having to put together an actual full paper balanced between all topic areas.

Full Practice Papers

If students are doing past papers at home, we know that they won’t always be strict about exam conditions. So why not use this? Have them do it three times, but each time having a chance to focus on improvements:

  1. Timed exam conditions, then write a post-it note of weaker areas.
  2. Second attempt after active revision of areas flagged up in 1 above.
  3. Third attempt, with folder/revision guide open.

Of course some will combine 1 and 3 as their first attempt, perhaps with the markscheme, and stop. But others will learn at each stage.

Targeted Questions

Combining revision with exam questions in lessons can be very helpful. Start off by asking students to predict what words or key phrases will show up in revision material on a specific topic. They could do this individually, or in small groups – ideally they should try by themselves then compare ideas with another. (Think-Pair-Share) Then either show them an example (such as these pages from S-Cool), or play podcasts for them; I like using the podcasts produced by the Naked Scientists and available free from BBC Bitesize. They can improve their summary but only in the limited time available. Then attempt a relevant question. What was useful? What did they miss that would have been useful? What facts or methods will they add to their summaries for future reference?

Write The Markscheme

I suspect this is similar to what many colleagues already do. We all know – and point out to our students – that a lot more appears on the markscheme than students are expected to write. It will point out traps and make distinctions between correct answers and those that are in the right ballpark. So why not have them, in small groups and with their materials handy, write a markscheme to a question? Even better, give them each a different question and as a class they can finish the job. Perhaps a chocolate-based prize could be offered to the closest match to the official version? Their suggestions can also be tested against the next approach.

Mark The Teacher

This is often very popular. I produce sample answers to a full exam question, often parts of it based on student attempts from the past (suitably adapted) or illustrating common mistakes or misconceptions, e.g. osmosis vs diffusion, all genetic diseases are recessives and so on. I then challenge pupils to mark these answers as if they had been written in an exam, and improve them. (It’s particularly useful to give D-grade answers that can be brought up to a C, or A/B grade working that need fine-tuning to get the highest marks.) More able students can explain to others why particular answers are better than others.

Improve the Question

I like having students write their own exam questions but this can often be a little daunting. They can usually cope if you ask them to produce a simple factual question with one unambiguous answer, but anything more leaves them struggling. (Although giving them a range of structures can help, especially if they can see how it is based on ‘common’ exam questions.) So why not have them change one part of a question, or add on a more challenging section to the end? Alternatively, they could convert a Foundation question to one more suited to Higher tier, or the other way around.

Summary

I’m sure colleagues have many other approaches – I’d be particularly interested in quick and easy ways to use exam questions in a more active way. Please add your comments, ideas and suggestions in the comments below. Hope it’s not too stressful before they finish…