As a secondary school Physics teacher, I am all too often greeted with the cry of ‘Miss, are we doing a practical today?’ On the contrary, as the class settles to complete an independent activity, an exasperated student expresses their frustration of the task with, ’What is the point of this Miss? When will I ever use …? Two distinctly contrasting attitudes, yet both equally frustrating to most science teachers up and down the country.
Despite the overzealous excitement at the prospect of participating in a practical brings, teachers remain conflicted. Gatsby’s international study confirms that ‘practical science engages pupils’, but, unfortunately, keeping students happy cannot be enough of a reason to dedicate valuable lesson time to practical skills.
Contrasting the latter emphasises the issue of student disengagement. Students are repeatedly reminded of the importance of science, but some, particularly disadvantaged students, struggle to see the relevance to their own lives and futures, contributing to the ever widening attainment gap.
As time – starved practitioners, it is necessary to think smartly about where our attention should be directed to. Doing so will ensure we can act as inspirational role models of our subject to have the biggest positive impact on our students’ experiences and engagement, attainment and futures, thus opening the doors for the next generation.
Recently, the EEF released the Secondary Science Guidance Report, summarised within 7 practical evidence-based recommendations to simultaneously enhance teaching, pupil attainment and engagement.
1. Preconceptions: Build on the ideas that pupils bring to lessons
Students arrive at KS3 with a medley of preconceptions, compiled from their personal and primary school experiences. Our challenge as secondary educators is to discover the preconceptions, assist students in challenging their thinking before reflecting on their transformative thoughts. The evidence suggests this can be done utilising a number of strategies, including: individual dialogue, class discussions, progressive knowledge mats, repeated diagnostic multiple choice questioning and thinking/reflection journals, essentially following the model of ‘spacing’ and ‘interleaving’.
The following three recommendations (2 – 4) are applicable to the teaching of a number of subjects, with 2 and 3, being encapsulated within the EEF Metacognition Guidance Report, which not only acts as a platform to understanding metacognition, but provides practical advice of how best we can adapt out lessons to ensure our pupils learning is maximised. However, the Secondary Science Guidance Report places greater emphasis on the context of secondary science.
2. Self-regulation: Help pupils direct their own learning
The majority of students are not inherently able of directing their own learning. Most teachers, irrespective of subject, are familiar with the ‘revision’ technique adopted by many students. ‘Go away and revise …’ reaping the standard response of a revision guide, textbook or educational website being copied out word-for-word. We may see a few high attaining students capable of ‘self-regulating’ their learning, but to low attaining students the phrase is sufficiently daunting. We, as practitioners, must simplify and break this down for our students. This approach is exemplified by the stages of ‘the Metacognition Cycle’. Initially students are to assess their preexisting cognitive and metacognitive knowledge prior to entering the planning phase. Have they seen this before? What does the question relate to? How is it familiar? How did I approach this last time? What strategy did I use last time? This is where we must explicitly discuss and promote metacognitive talk to allow low attaining students to build a varity of strategies, enabling them to progress through the monitoring and evaluation parts of the cycle.
3. Modelling: Use models to support understanding
With such abstract concepts, modelling is an essential part any science teacher’s classroom. Whether it be the use of sweets to model the flow of current in an electrical circuit, the use of play pit balls to model the states of matter or computer animations, models are integral to helping students visualise and understand complex ideas. However, we must not forget to distinguish between the concept and the analogy. We most certainly don’t want our students to construct an elaborate answer involving sweets carrying energy around wires to light up a bulb in the exam.
4. Memory: Support pupils to retain and retrieve knowledge
Prior to recommendation 2, students must have a cognitive understanding of the task. With the vast amount of information students must wade through from lesson to lesson, we must assist the students in retaining and retrieving the relevant knowledge as and when required. We can’t expect our students to identify strategies, if they lack the knowledge. Substantial evidence has pointed towards a ‘spacing’ and ‘interleaving’ approach. There are numerous approaches, but a dedicated flashback lesson or a knowledge quiz at the start of the lesson can support.
5. Practical work: Use practical work purposefully and as part of a learning sequence.
As suggested before, keeping students happy cannot be enough of a reason to dedicate valuable lesson time to practical skills. I don’t believe most science teachers carry out practical work for this reason, however, it may be the case that practical work is carried out either as result of following a scheme of work, or the exam board specification. What we tend to observe is a class of students following a method step-by-step, and the practical being ‘successful’, but a distinct lack in understanding or why they were doing the practical or what the results show. I do believe this has the same implication – happy students, but little or no impact on student outcomes. The EEF emphasises the importance that both we as practitioners and the students are clear of the purpose, and where the practical fits into a series of lessons.
6. Language of Science: Develop scientific vocabulary and support pupils to read and write about science.
Teaching vocabulary is an English teacher’s job – right? Well no! It is not often you see the words ‘photosynthesis’ or ‘carbohydrates’ embedding into everyday English texts, so why would it be their job. Yes, they may be exposed to words such as ‘cracking’ or ‘abstract’, but again these words have significantly different meaning to when used in conversation. If we want them to have an understanding of certain words, we must explicitly teach the vocabulary within our lessons. Alex Quigley, focusses upon word connections in ’Closing the Vocabulary Gap’, with a view to explicitly teach a variety of techniques such as exploring the morphemes, etymology, morphology of the word in addition to be exposed to high quality academic texts putting the words into context.
7. Feedback: Use structured feedback to move on pupils’ thinking.
Although many teachers will admit to marking being the bane of their life, the EEF toolkit indicates that feedback can have a ‘High impact for very low cost’. The evidence hold suggests that structured feedback can increase a student’s progress by an additional 8 months’, compared to a similar set of students who don’t receive any feedback intervention. This does not mean that we need to ‘deep mark’ every single piece of work our students produce. Again, we need to be smart practitioners. The evidence suggests verbal feedback; either one-on-one or through class discussions, peer or self-assessment can be effective. However, when we do mark, it is essential we assist the student to rectify their mistakes or extend their understanding, followed by setting aside time for pupils to respond. There is nothing more frustrating than spending precious time marking books, for students to ignore or not respond, allowing misconceptions to become embedded in the learner’s mind.
In summary, we as science teachers and role models to the scientists of the future must take advantage of our privileged position to reflect upon our own practice, to ensure the engagement and attainment of our students, regardless of their background and prior experiences. The majority of the EEF’s 7 recommendations are not unfamiliar or alien to our existing practice, more to be used as a health check to ensure our teaching is effective and has the most positive outcomes for our students.