Responding to “Secret Origins”

This post is a duplicate of the comment I’ve just left on a post at Vince Ulam’s blog; it’s here because otherwise the time I spent on formatting and adding hotlinks was wasted.

“These useful idiots, grateful for the imagined recognition and eager to seem important in the eyes of their peers, promote the aims and ideas of their recruiters across social media and via ticketed salons.”

It must be really nice to see yourself as immune to all this, too smart to fall for the conspiracy that everyone else has been duped by. Because, whether you intended it or not, that’s how much of the original post comes across. I think this is what put my back up, to be honest. I’ve attended two ResearchED events, one of which I spoke at. I’d like to think I earned that, rather than being recruited as a useful idiot. But then, in your viewpoint, it’s only natural I’d fall for it: I’m not as clever as you. The contrary argument might be that you’re resentful of not having the opportunity or platform for your views, but I’ve no idea if you’ve applied to present at ResearchED or anything similar. So how about we look at the facts, rather than the inferences and assigned motives you write about?

ResearchED in Context

From a local teachmeet up to national events, the idea of ‘grassroots’ activism in teaching is a powerful one. As bloggers, we both believe that practitioners can influence the ideas and work of others. And yes, I agree that appearing practitioner- or public-led, but actually being influenced by specific political parties or organisations, would be appealing to those organisations. It would lend legitimacy to very specific ideas. You only have to look at the funding of patient organisations by pharmaceutical companies, or VoteLeave and allied groups, to see the issues. But there is surely a sliding scale of influence here.

How we assess the independence of such a grassroots organisation could be done in several ways. Do we look at where the money comes from? Do we examine the people involved in organising or leading it? Do we look at the decisions they make, and how they are aligned with other groups? Do we look at who chooses to be involved, and who is encouraged/dissuaded, subtly or otherwise?

In reality we should do all of those. I think my issue with your post is that you seem to be putting ResearchEd in the same category as the New Schools Network among other groups, and (on Twitter) to be adding in the Parents and Teachers for Excellence Campaign too. I see them as very separate cases, and I’m much less hesitant about ResearchEd – partly because the focus is teacher practice and engagement, not campaigning. And you raise Teach First, which I have my own concerns about and am leaving to one side now as it’s not relevant.

The New Schools Network is (mostly) funded by government, and many have written about the rather tangled set of circumstances which led to the funding and positions expressed being so closely tied to a policy from one political party. I must admit, I find myself very dubious about anything that Dominic Cumming has had a hand in! Their advocacy and support for free schools, with so far limited evidence that they provide good value for money, frustrates me.

The PTE Campaign is slightly different. I’ve not spent time on searching for funding information but remember from previous news items – this from Schools Week for example – that it lacks transparency, to say the least. I think the name is misleading and their claim to be about moving power away from ‘the elites in Westminister and Whitehall’ to be disingenuous.

And let’s not even start with Policy Exchange.

From where I sit, if you want to group ResearchED with other education organisations, a much better match would seem to be Northern Rocks. The focus is improving and sharing classroom pedagogy, rather than campaigning. They’re both run on a shoestring. Classroom teachers are keen on attending and praise what they get out of the sessions. I can’t find anything on your blog about Northern Rocks, but that could be simple geography. (The bitter part of me suggests it’s not the first time anything happening past Watford gets ignored…)

Back to ResearchED: Funding and Speakers

“We have to hand it to Tom Bennett for his truly amazing accomplishment of keeping his international ‘grassroots’ enterprise going for four years without producing any apparent profits.”

Maybe it’s me seeing something which isn’t there, but your post seems to imply that there must be some big funding secret that explains why ResearchED is still going. What do you think costs so much money? The speakers are volunteers, as are the conference helpers. I don’t know if Tom gets a salary, but considering how much time it must be taking it would seem reasonable for at least a few people to do so. The catering costs, including staffing, are covered by the ticket price. The venues I remember are schools, so that’s not expensive.

As you’ve raised on Twitter during our discussions, the question of transport for UK-based speakers to overseas venues is an interesting one. I know that when I presented at Oxford (the Maths/Science one), my employer covered my travel costs; I assume that was the same for all speakers, or they were self-funding. If you have other specific funding concerns, I’ve not seen you describe them; you can hardly blame me for focusing on this one if you’d rather make suggestive comments than ask proper questions. I would also like to know if speakers can access funding support and if so, how that is decided. I can’t find that information on the website, and I think it should be there. I disagree with lots of what you say – or I wouldn’t have written all this – but that loses legitimacy if I don’t say where we have common ground.

I was surprised to find out how many ResearchED conferences there had been; I was vaguely thinking of seven or eight, which is why I was surprised by your suggestion that David Didau had presented at least six times. I stand corrected, on both counts. Having looked at the site, I’m also surprised that there’s no clear record of all the events in one place. A bigger ask – and one I have addressed to one of the volunteers who I know relatively well – would be for a searchable spreadsheet of speaker info covering all the conferences.

That would be fascinating, wouldn’t it? It would let us see how many repeat speakers there are, and how concentrated the group is. My gut feeling is that most speakers, like me, have presented only once or twice. Researchers would probably have more to say. I’d love to see the gender balance, which subject specialisms are better represented, primary vs secondary numbers, the contrast between state and independent sector teachers, researcher vs teacher ratios…

I’m such a geek sometimes.

You tweeted a suggestion I should ignore my personal experience to focus on the points in your post. The thing is that my personal experience of – admittedly only two – ResearchED conferences is that any political discussion tends to happen over coffee and sandwiches, and there’s relatively little of that. Maybe there’s more at the ‘strategic’ sessions aimed at HTs and policy-makers, rather than the classroom and department methods that interest me. If there’s animosity, it’s more likely to be between practitioners and politicians, rather than along party lines. I suspect I have more in common, to be honest, with a teacher who votes Tory than a left-leaning MP without chalkface experience. It’s my personal experience that contradicts the suggestions in your post about ResearchED being part of a shadowy conspiracy to influence education policy debate.

To return to Ben Goldacre, featured in your post as a victim of the puppet-masters who wanted a good brand to hide their dastardly plans behind: his own words suggest that in the interests of improving the evidence-base of policy, he’s content to work with politicians. Many strong views have been expressed at ResearchED. With such a wide variety of speakers, with different political and pedagogical viewpoints, I’m sure you can find some presentations and quotes that politicians would jump on with glee. And I’m equally sure that there are plenty they ignore, politely or otherwise. But I don’t believe the speakers are pre-screened for a particular message – beyond “looking at evidence in some way is useful for better education.” To be honest, I’m in favour of that – aren’t you? If there’s other bias in speaker selection, it was too subtle for me to notice.

But then, I’m not as clever as you.


A Day in The Life

So I tweeted…

…and then I got some replies. It wasn’t a survey. It wasn’t particularly scientific. But I did think it cast an interesting light on the variety of science teaching. The joy of Twitter is that I was able to check permission (and Yes, I agree it’s a public medium but it also seemed polite) and invite longer comments by email. I’ve not had any of those, completely understandable as everyone’s busy with the end of term rush, but here we go anyway.

I suspect mine needs little explanation. Surely we’ve all used ‘martian landers’ to get kids thinking about forces and parachutes? Lots of great videos as starters and many briefing sheets, like this one from TeachEngineering. Before introducing momentum as a term I get kids to consider how unstoppable moving objects are, as they find that language much more accessible. And giving them the two contradictory facts that beta particles are electrons and there are no electrons in the nucleus is always fun.


I wonder how @90_maz changed the teaching of the EM spectrum to suit different classes?

That is indeed varied! I always find classifying an interesting topic to teach but find myself getting bogged down in (fascinating) detail about bats and dolphins if I’m not careful.

The joys of behaviour management… trying to pay attention to potential issues without them feeling they have to play up/down to your expectations.

I find this a really useful approach, but would be a lot easier if I had wifi access or a webcam of some kind. Preparing three paragraphs in advance and asking students to identify strengths and weaknesses, and which belongs to the teacher, is often worthwhile. If I was brave enough I’d record audio of me talking myself through the problem so they can hear/see me ‘thinking out loud‘.

Another varied day – sometimes I wish I was immune to yr8. I’ve never taught the EMPA but would be really interested in viewpoints. Of course, it won’t be long before it all changes again; you might have seen the letter from SCORE on practical assessment, but I’ve not tracked down anything published by OfQual yet.

A great example of how teachers do extra work – effectively unpaid overtime – which is effectively invisible to the wider world. We’re all familiar with working in the evenings, weekends and through holidays, but how many of us have also worked while off sick or on maternity leave?

A really interesting snapshot and I’d value any further detail, from the above or anyone else.



Divided and Conquered?

So I was on Twitter.

@TeacherROAR – who I follow – retweeted an item from @NUTSouthWest – who I don’t – which in turn quoted figures from an article in the Independant.

I followed the conversation and was struck by this tweet to another tweeting teacher.

followed by:

I responded in turn and a not particularly pleasant slanging match ensued. I had two main issues, one about Twitter and the other about teacher solidarity. Maybe I didn’t express myself well in 140 characters – but more on this limitation in a moment. EDIT: And this is without even considering the actual figures incolved, of which more added at the end.

Firstly, I don’t think anyone assumes that a retweet means total support of the original message. In fact, sometimes it’s intended as mockery! But if you quote figures, and someone asks you about them, it’s reasonable to justify or explain. I think. If it turns out they’re wrong, I’d see it as only fair to tweet a follow-up. Accountability, yes? Online we only have our reputation as currency. Challenging figures or opinions isn’t the same thing as an attempt to censor opinion, and for what it’s worth, I agree that if we only have exaggerated figures to use as propaganda we’ve got no chance. As I tweeted to @sidchip64, a ‘roar’ without anything to back it up is just bluster.

Secondly, I can just imagine Gove or his minions rubbing their hands together and laughing, watching those who teach fighting with each other instead of him. Dismissing a challenge from another teacher is rude. I expect my students to question what I say – often I demand it. But I expect better of any professional who works in a classroom. Solidarity means we work together to get it right, and that includes good statistics. It doesn’t mean we unquestioningly back a colleague who’s wrong.

Maybe it’s about a limited medium. I often find this on Twitter – great for tips, bad for clear ideas. Soundbites, not critical debate. So I suggested to @TeacherROAR that it wouldn’t be hard to clarify what they meant – and justify it – in a blog. For some reason this was seen as a demand and so I decided to do it myself. Half an hour later, here we are. I feel better for it, anyway.

So what I didn’t include last night – and, believe it or not, woke up thinking about at half-five this morning – is a point of view on the numbers. They got attention, obviously. That was the point. But I think it was poor of the Independent to quote from a report by the Sixth Form Colleges Association – a report I haven’t yet found, but that may be due to lack of caffeine – which makes a direct comparison between the annual funding for their students and that spent on setting up free schools this year.

Now, it would be fair to say that I’m very dubious about free schools, in particular the application and set up process. Laura McInerney explains these concerns much more eloquently and expertly than I could. But that doesn’t mean we should misuse data in this way. Making the last year’s nine free schools (some or all of the total?) and their current 1557 students liable for the entire cost of setting them up – when the assumption is that these costs would actually be spread over the foreseeable life of the schools – is wrong. If I can be forgiven a physics example, it’s like working out the kWh cost of electricity from a nuclear power station using all the commissioning and decommissioning costs but only a single year of electrical output.

Picking numbers out of the air, if each of those nine free schools costs £3m to run this year (which would make the set up costs £35m) then the cost per student comes to a little over £17000. If their costs are £2m annually, then the figure is £11500 or so. Now, these figures are still too high – but they’re more realistic, unless each of those schools is to shut down after a single year being open.

Yes, I agree that free schools haven’t always been set up where they’re actually needed, so you could argue the costs are wasted. Yes, I know that this year a lot has been spent, potentially to the detriment of sixth form colleges. But I’d be prepared to bet that back when the colleges were set up, some people claimed they were a waste of money. And I’m sure they were justified by looking at the benefits over time, not just costs in the first year. If we want to be taken seriously – and this goes back to my first point – then we must justify the numbers we use, or we are building our argument on very weak foundations.

A final quote, this time from much longer ago.

If we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately.

Benjamin Franklin

Human Rights for Children

So, I had this idea.

If you read this blog at all regularly, you’ll know that I consider @alomshaha a friend. As well as writing, making films and teaching science, he should be credited with getting me on to Twitter two years ago. Thank him later. Right now, I’ve something more important for you to do.

I read Alom’s excellent book, The Young Atheist’s Handbook, when it first came out. Despite the title it’s easy to read it as a personal story of how he came to consider himself n atheist, despite his early upbringing in a Bangladeshi Muslim community. The references and explanations of ideas supporting his lack of religious belief are a comfortable part of an honest and evocative story. I’d recommend it to anyone, and have done.

The problem, as I saw it, is that the very kids who would benefit most from reading it were those least likely to have the chance. If your parents are invoking freedom of religion (actually an example of religious privilege) to teach you from a young age to follow their faith, without question or deviation, then they are unlikely to be pleased at you putting this on your birthday list. I’m sure some young people will read it discreetly as an eBook of whatever format. But, I reasoned, there had to be a better way.

School is for learning. School is where kids learn the things their parents don’t or can’t teach them. Like swear words and how to think for yourself. So, I reasoned, if Michael Gove can send bibles into schools, and the Gideons can visit, and the Church of England can explicitly plan to use their schools to indoctrinate kids, why not provide a different viewpoint?

And so the #YAH4schools campaign was born. The admin is complicated, and is being supported by the British Humanist Association. This idea is simple (that was my bit).

We want to raise enough money to send copies of the book to every UK secondary school library.

Young people have the right to choose to be free from religion. It is not just their parents’ freedom of religion we should respect. We want young people to feel supported, not isolated, if they choose to exercise that right. Freedom of religion shouldn’t mean that parents have the choice to force their children into one particular faith. If you think this project is a good idea, there are two things you can do:

  • Donate to the campaign via
  • If you feel able, tell your friends and your family; share the link on Facebook or via Twitter (hashtag #YAH4schools).

Whether you agree or disagree with the project, then of course I’d be interested to hear your views in the comments below.

CPD via Favourites (up to 23rd May)

The observent among you will have noticed that I’ve tweaked the title. That’s because I’m broadening it slightly, as I’m now looking at items I’ve saved as favourites in Twitter, through RSS and Pocket (Read it Later as was). I’m trying to use RSS feeds to reduce the amount of time I spend browsing webpages instead of working. I can synchronise them when I’ve got WiFi and read in spare minutes rather than wasting time at my desk. Saving interesting items to Pocket works the same way, and I now use to send any items from all these applications to the same folder in EverNote. Basically, 2012 is great.

Boring stuff over; on with the show. What caught my eye in the last week or so?


The echoes and responses to Wilshaw’s unfortunate comment on teachers’ stress levels continue, as these letters in the Observer testify. I find myself particularly agreeing with one suggesting that independant schools should lose charitable status. Private hospitals remain businesses, companies which provide charitable funding (and for most private schools, this is a tiny percentage of turnover) do not benefit unduly. Why should schools be different? (Thanks to @teachitso for the link, but the opinion is obviously mine!)

Tom Nennett is at his ranty best in Soylent Green is Teachers. Some of the issues discussed there are illustrated by the recent story about Mossbourne. This is a successful (and much feted) academy which have declined to accept a student with (physical) special needs and claim they are not legally obligated to do so.

Readers of this blog, or my twitterfeed, will probably know I’m an Android person. However, that is not why I liked this post from @mattpearson: iPads do not have magic learning dust coming out of the back vent. A great post discussing the difference between shiny gadgets and effective learning, despite the obvious disappointment when I looked for magic dust. Or, indeed, a back vent.

@myGCSEScience is producing revision videos and putting them online, for free. Which can’t be bad. I like the ones I’ve seen, but still believe that getting kids to produce their own – or at least script them – would be even more successful. This, however, is a nice addition, or would be a great way to introduce the idea to a class. And free.

I retweeted at the time, but once more recommend @Bio_Joe‘s survey results on why students choose science. Is it @ProfBrianCox‘s fault, Leonard and Sheldon or something a little more sophisiticated?

And while we’re talking about science students, A Rough Guide to Evidence-Based Medicine by @jdc325 would provide an excellent reading assignment. They should get a lot out of it even if they’re not planning a career in some medical field, as it links so nicely with a more general model of how science works.


Politics affecting schools


Other stuff

I’m playing around with some ideas for what might be a book at some point, putting together a couple of sample chapters and a summary. So this infographic fills me with terror.

@gurumag: Have you read #TheHungerGames yet? No, don’t scoff – here’s why you should: (I enjoyed them but not sure they deserve the hype, FWIW.)

@ProfFrancesca, according to most observers, was the star of last weekend’s ‘The Big Questions‘ on BBC, about the distinction – if any – between a religion and a cult. I shall leave today’s last words to her:

For the record, I don’t feel threatened by new religious movements. Or mainstream religions. Thanks. #bbctbq #atheist


#SciTeachJC (22nd May) – Designing Curriculum Materials

It’s hard to tell whether the fairly low attendance was due to the good weather or colleagues watching Eurovision. Aren’t you all glad we don’t need a note from your mothers…

The paper discussed was about using the 5Es model to design a science curriculum and the materials for it. This follows on from the concept of ‘backward design’, where the starting point is how we will measure success before producing activities to prepare our students. Due to general incompetence on my part – and having to work from my in-laws’ place – I had to moderate from my own account rather than @SciTeachJC, but the session went well.

1 How do your stu­dents demon­strate (or when unsuc­cess­ful, fail to demon­strate) the three prin­ci­ples of learn­ing sug­gested by pre­vi­ous research? How do you try to ensure your teach­ing ful­fils the require­ments of address­ing these?

It was agreed that some mis- and pre- conceptions are common; as well as Driver’s work, referenced in the paper @Alby shared a list of frequent issues according to the C3P project (no, I don’t know either). Following a reminder from @A_Weatherall about the availability of the National Strategies I’ve also found this from the National Strategies and this summary from the GTCE (now stored at the TLA). Clearly identifying misconceptions – and how to address them – is key to helping our students make progress in science. While looking around I’ve found this American site which has some very interesting ideas, reflecting those in the paper about inspiring cognitive conflict – see 2: Dos and Don’ts for example.

2 What are the biggest chal­lenges of apply­ing the 5Es model (more expla­na­tions by @hrogerson here and NASA here) to your cur­ricu­lum design process, for exam­ple new schemes of work? With­out com­plain­ing about exam boards, Ofsted or the Depart­ment for Edu­ca­tion, how might we improve our use of this model?

Most people liked the model and several had found it very helpful already. Applying it in the classroom on a lesson by lesson basis is fairly straightforward, but greater gains can be seen by being more systematic. Now, at a point in the school year when we may be examining schemes of work, seems a good time to bear it in mind. (I’m planning a quick guide to the model for the next week or so, if that helps.)

@DrDav: Not revolutionary. Think they help to make good teaching explicit, and can be useful framework for planning. Ideas are simple enough to sum up quickly. Although could also spend several days getting to grips with them! (2 tweets combined.)

@hrogerson: I think 5E is similar to CASE, so it won’t be “new” to many. But I can remember 5Es, concrete prep anyone….

3 How might we repli­cate the col­lec­tion of evi­dence about stu­dent learn­ing in the UK school sys­tem? What changes if any might we need to make to the meth­ods to accom­mo­date our sys­tem (with sum­ma­tive exams at the end of the 9–11 time period)?

This question wasn’t really addressed during the session, perhaps because we focused more on how we might use the 5/7Es process. @snapshotscience suggested that as Wikid uses this model, we might look at the results compared to other schemes. This data has been collected, it will just be about collating it. The TEEP scheme which has some similar methodology has been evaluated – thanks to @DrDav for the link.

4 It is inter­est­ing to see teacher learn­ing addressed in the same con­text as that of stu­dents. How might we best share these ideas more widely with pro­fes­sional col­leagues — both dur­ing ITT and as CPD — assum­ing that we chose to do so?

This is of course a regular issue, and those colleagues who spend time doing things like #SciTeachJC are unlikely to be the same ones sitting reluctantly at the back of a staff meeting reacting to a new idea with a cynical “That’ll never work.” This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t engage with them, and this approach is perhaps one of the easier ones to be enthusiastic about – perhaps because for many of us it is a modification of the ‘standard’ structure. I must confess that I don’t recall reading about it before in so many words, but the idea of these stages fits in well with the planning I already do. @DrDav pointed out that TEEP follows a similar constructivist structure, for example.

I suggested that it would not be hard for each of us to talk for 5-10 minutes at a staff meeting about using the 5Es while lesson planning, and sharing the ideas and summaries while colleagues write or adapt schemes of work. @snapshotscience suggested that @hrogerson’s presentation would work very well for this.

So if we think it’s a worthwhile approach, maybe we should try it out. Why not use the comments section to feedback about your use of the 5/7Es, either in lesson planning, SOW writing or sharing with colleagues?

CPD via Twitter (up to 10th May)

The plan is that this will be the first of a regular set of blogposts, showing what I’ve learned over the previous week or fortnight via Twitter. We’ll see how it goes. Explanation, if you need it, was in my previous post. This won’t include all my favourited tweets, but hopefully many of them. It’s also possible that links found from other sources will make their way in.

This is taking longer than planned, so I’m breaking it up a bit. This post covers my favourites list up to 10th May or so. I’ll try to bring it up to date tomorrow. Basically, I favourite too much.


@RealGeoffBarton followed up his previous TES piece with this blog post. The main focus is a colleague’s letter which addresses some of the concerns with Ofsted expecting to see progress in 20 minute slots.

Challenging and fascinating read discussing the difference – and overlap – between ‘genes’ and ‘environment, by @ejwillingham. Great for able Biology students, I would suggest.

I liked this, but it’s a shame #SciTeachJC doesn’t get a mention; The National Education Trust published an article by @miss_mcinerney on the use of evidence in the classroom from their event with Estelle Morris & Kathy Sylva

It’s about teaching, and science, and it’s written by an astronaut. Great Science Education Starts With Great Teachers was tweeted by @thefaculties.

Ugly Learning – written by @bennettscience, tweeted by @mrsebiology – is interesting not just for what it says about the ‘flipped classroom idea’, but for how it reminds us students react to any change.


All anyone talks about is the monitoring. They forget about the link to making learning and teaching better.

— David Rogers (@davidErogers) May 10, 2012

Performance Related Pay

Oh, boy, this kicked off quite an argument. The actual report mentions a lot of other stuff too, but as you might expect this idea is what both the media and many teachers focused on. For example:

  • @informededu: 3 reports agree, but there has been one successful application of PRP it seems:
  • @MichaelRosenYes: Performance related pay for teachers exposed to a bit of rational rubbishing here: (also tweeted by @RealGeoffBarton, article written by @MikeGriffiths01)
  • @oldandrewuk: Markets can’t magic up good teachers. Nor can bonuses | Zoe Williams via @guardian
  • the always excellent @warwickmansell commented on a linked idea, that of recruiting the ‘best’ candidates for teaching: : Jeez…@cmpobristol seem to be using version of US argument: let lots try to teach, then judge them on ppl test scores:
  • @SchoolDuggery: And another desperately poor one that fails to give the most basic info on this survey showing teachers want PRP
  • Several of these articles and points were picked up in various letters to the Guardian, linked by @RealGeoffBarton: Lively & persuasive mix of comments RT @schoolsontap: Letters: shining a light on teachers’ pay | Guardian
  • There’s a lot of schepticism about some of the claims, for example @DylanWiliam: “Most teachers support link between performance and pay” says Sutton Trust. Well, yes, but in a very weak way:


The paper last week was about where people (actually Americans, but you get the idea) learn most of their science. Lots of discussion, unfortunately we once more felt that many of the changes were out of our hands as teachers. (But when we run museums and the BBC it might be different.) It was pointed out that visitor centres etc do try to collect data.

@gailsci: The Ri for example uses a system based on the generic learning outcomes. More here #SciTeachJC

@alomshaha: Science learning: better outside school than in? via @HLeevers #SciTeachJC

No summary of the discussion yet but there is an archive, courtesy of @alby.


DailySkeptoid: GPS satellite clocks gain 38ms/day on Earth clocks: +45 from distance from massive Earth; -7 from high speed. Relativity!

— Brian Dunning (@BrianDunning) May 5, 2012

That’s just here because it’s cool. 🙂

Life Online

I’m finding it harder and harder to keep track of things online. At the time of writing/typing, I’m running six email accounts, two blogs (this one and the ‘in-progress’, two twitter accounts and one facebook page.

That’s crazy.

To try and keep myself organised, I’m experimenting with several tools. The hard bit is making sure that whatever I’m doing and wherever I am, I’ve got access to the information I need for any of the above ‘identities’. I’ve had an android tablet for a year and have been very pleased with it, especially using it with three applications which link with web-based versions:

  • Evernote is great for ideas and notes, the tags making it easy to keep work and personal thoughts categorised.
  • Pocket (aka ReadItLater) means I can save information from websites to, well, read it later.
  • Astrid works well as a to-do list, especially when linked to projects stored as plans on Evernote.

I’ve now also given in and bought an android phone, which is more portable and has 3G as well as Wi-Fi. This has been particularly important as my school has still not sorted guest access for staff to use their own devices. It means that between the two I can now access meeting notes, lesson plan ideas and so on wherever I am. Not to mention books, websites, media, my music collection and some games that are far too addictive. But enough – this wasn’t intended to be about the joys of android.

It’s about Twitter.

I’m now making a deliberate effort to ‘favourite’ tweets with useful ideas or links in them, and most are about work. It can be news articles, resources, quotes, teaching ideas, all sorts of things. Some aren’t about teaching at all, as much to my students’ surprise I’m a real person who has a life and hobbies. Like, umm, blogging about teaching. Anyway.

Using favourites on Twitter is quick, automatically synchronised, doesn’t depend on anything being installed (difficult on work computers), and avoids issues with blogs and so on which are often blocked at work. When I get the chance, I read through the favourited tweets, check out the links and think about the ideas. But this kind of reflection is something I could do more formally, and the whole point of my blog is to share reflective practice and see what colleagues think, so here we are. My plan is to, weekly or fortnightly, blog a list of (most of) my favourited tweets. It will include a fast review, what I thought of the links and how I applied the ideas in the classroom. I suppose it’s the same kind of idea as Ed Yong’s ‘missing links‘ posts. But not as good, or as well researched, or as useful. And probably not as regular either.

Starting this weekend. Don’t get too excited.

Integrating Science

I know the title sounds like some dreadful policy statement, or yet another course which promises high scores for the league tables without any dumbing down, nudge nudge wink wink. But it’s not. Instead, it’s a simple activity you could do with any science class. It would work well during Science Week, and I think the results might be worthy of a display. Even if it started as a joke on Twitter:

Why not start with your preferred version of this, and see what kids can suggest about the real links between science topics? This would be an interesting review activity towards the end of KS3, for example. Electron shells are both physics and chemistry, as are proton numbers – but can students write in the overlapping regions how it works? What about the chemistry of aerobic respiration (or is that physics because of the energy change)? Geology can be considered as what happens when physics (convection, fluid dynamics, expansion/contraction etc) meets chemistry (minerals, rock composition, acids). I’m imagining large circles drawn on a demo desk, and students adding post-it notes with their ideas in the appropriate gaps.

I like the idea of having students spot and explain the links between what are so often seen as completely different regions of the subject. I used this with my year 13 students recently, when we discussed how a melting ionic compound is breaking both chemical and physical bonds. Making these connections between subjects help to improve both understanding and recall. I’d love to hear how other students – and teachers – integrate the varied science topics into a Venn diagram in their very own way. Links in the comments, perhaps?

(I should add a thank you to @PookyH for her description of how to embed a ‘live’ tweet’.)

And I’d like to apologise to regular readers for the long pause between posts; I’m in the middle of several new projects, one of which is just getting off the ground. Check out for more information.

#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.