Sunday, 31 March 2013

ASE session: asking good questions

Why are good questions important?

Robin Millar of York University began this session with the comments:

  • Assessment is the most significant driver of real change.
  • Defines real learning goals
  • It provides an "operational definition" of what the learning means.

I would have to agree with all of the sentiments above.

The emphasis on quality of written communication has changed the way many science departments teach. It was the six mark questions that have driven this.

Range of learning intentions:

  1. Recall
  2. Understand ideas and models
  3. Present and analyse information
  4. Carry out standard procedures
  5. Process display and interpret information

We were introduced to the York Science Project. Where questions are being written to check understanding.

We were told: "York Science is about checking understanding. Interested in writing good questions that check understanding. You can't see understanding, you can only check it."

I knew this already because I have been using York Science Resources in my lessons. The questions/activities are useful because they not only give an idea about what the students don't know, but what they do believe and in some cases how strongly.

Mary Whitehouse described some way of questioning: construct an explanation;

  • chose sentences from multiple choice to make explanation - see second photo,
  • chose true sentences from a list,
  • identify ideas from text (directed activity related to text)

Carol Davenport then spoke about writing exam questions. To be honest it is a topic I haven't thought much about before. The exam papers arrive, the students complain, I say "oh dear they won't know how to do that", and that is as far as it goes.

Carol described that when she writes for the exam board she starts with the point on the specification and writes an answer that related to that point.
Then find the context and the question.
The process for writing an exam question is quite involved. The question goes through several drafts and revisions and is seen and reviewed by a lot of people. Even though it doesn't feel like that when I see the final paper!

Consider "is your question going to get the answer you think it will?"

Finally Mary Whitehouse showed us an example of a poor question.

What makes a good question?

While the top photograph shows a version of the question suitable for American students talk of "sidewalk" and an image of a parking meter may confuse UK students. The word "crack" could also cause confusion.

Below is an edited version of the same question.

Teachers download questions from all sort of places, so be aware of the question.

I know I have selected activities that once the students start them I realise are poorly worded. However, I find that end of topic tests from published schemes of work are the most poor; students struggling to interpret the question and access the marks.

Project 2061 was mentioned as the source of questions. But US based and biased towards US language.

Finally Robin Millar said when summing up:

  • Question doesn't need to be perfect, just good enough to do a job... Back and forth with writing questions.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Michael Gove

I fear him.

At this time of year the union conferences are going on and the level of attention we give to Michael Gove increases. I don't like it, I don't want to think about what he is doing to education in England.

When my union sends a letter about striking I do reply. When I get a survey about morale I fill it in and send it back. However, I feel completely helpless: Michael Gove ignores any thing coming from the union. How else do teachers get a voice?

How can anyone get through to Michael Gove that he needs to work with teachers, help us to help the children we encounter.

I am scared for the future.

My message to Michael Gove: stop, stop making changes.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Tuesday, 19 March 2013


I suppose this would be my secret teacher article. But it isn't very secret!

Intervention is exhusting. I agree with everyone who says that if you teach it correctly the first time and concentrate on getting everything in place from year 7 then intervention is necessary, however I would say to them that in reality this isn't practical.

The change to the way that the practical aspect of the gcse science was examined has lead to a high degree of unexpected intervention, and the same will be true in 2015.

I work in an independent school and with long days the girls have "prep" periods where they can get on with their own work. Or alternatively seek me out to get support with revision or controlled assessment. This has resulted in me spending almost every moment between 8.30 and 5.45 (sometimes 6.30) with students.

I don't have the same issues that some schools and teachers do, my students do not have to be dragged to intervention sessions because they didn't engage the first time, they really want to improve. Either situation shows up the pressure to perform. My students put it on themselves, and in other schools the pressure is applied to the teachers who in turn apply it to the students.

Trying hard is not a bad thing, in fact it should be the default.

What do I want? Acknowledgement from government that the amount of work that teachers do is excessive. A lengthening of the time between changes so that I can get really good at making sure that my lessons and preparation of the students for examinations is as good as it can be instead of feeling the sand constantly move beneath my feet. And a controlled assessment that doesn't take 12 hours to complete. (6 weeks of teaching time for a single GCSE).

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Cracking Controlled Assessments

I sit here looking at my trackers now that they have the January exam results and most of the controlled assessment marks in them.  I am very pleased. Last year we had a lot of upset parents because controlled assessment results were lower than exams by quite a margin. I don't think that we will have that issue this year.

Firstly I created some support materials aimed at getting the students to assess what made a good table/graph/evaluation/equipment list. The links are below. We spent time in class going over these.

Shouldn't you be teaching these skills in key stage 3 I hear you cry? Yes we should, but previous controlled assessment results show that maybe we aren't getting those skills across and intervention in year 10 is needed. The tables that the students produced were great and I was largely pleased with the graphs. The line of best fit required was a curve and this lead to some sketchy lines. We also had good risk assessments too.

Then we we over and over it as a group of staff. I tried to ensure that they knew exactly where the marks would come from. I think this helped staff to have the confidence to give the generic advice needed.

Lastly we had a day off timetable 9am to 6pm with the students to complete the planning, doing and evaluating sections of the controlled assessment. I was massively impressed at how good the attitude of year 10 was during that day. It was long and they were trapped in two rooms with the same people. The team work was great, the attention to detail was fantastic, but also the commitment and resilience.

I think this made a massive difference and would recommend to anyone they ask their senior management to have a day off timetable to complete the controlled assessment (two days if you are doing OCR gateway).

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Festival of Physics

I believe that you need three things to be a good science teacher. 1. An understanding of the place of science in the curriculum, 2. An understanding of how children learn and 3. A passion for science for the sake of science. This blog post is about number 3.

When I first started teaching I had come straight from my degree course and to be honest I was "scienced-out". Over the years that has changed a lot. As my degree level knowledge has wained my love of science for the sake of it has increased. So I gathered together my family (partner -48 and step-daughter -12) on saturday and headed to At-Bristol for the IoP-South West Branch Festival of Physics. We saw lectures about colour perception, Astronomy, Molecular Gastronomy and a workshop on the Hydraulics of helicopters.

All three of us had an engaging day; we learned something new from all of the lectures.

The day started with a lecture about colour. It took our key stage 3 knowledge on light a step further. My step-daughter who recently studied light in year 8 was able to happily access the ideas being talked about. The lecturer covered colour addition and subtraction and proved that what we teach at key stage 3 isn't quite the full story.

The lecture about the Universe was nothing that we don't teach at GCSE. However she included information about the astronomers that helped make the discoveries - I didn't realise so many were women! The presenter also talked about amateur astronomy, and showed us some amazing images she had taken, explaining the equipment she used.

The hydraulic workshop was excellent. The presenter works for a company that makes helicopters and despite the high technology involved was able to explain the ideas behind moving the angles of the propellers in terms of year 9 pressure. The teachers in the room (there were 5 of us) were all excited by his equipment and took a lot of photographs to recreate the equipment at school!

The last lecture was about molecular gastronomy. We were shown the RSC video of Heston Blumenthal eating tobacco jelly. Again linking to the curriculum. It was interesting to find out how much your own experiences affect the taste of the food you eat.

I am always impressed that my GCSE and Key Stage 3 science knowledge is enough for me to access a lot of the general interest science lectures and TV programmes. Of course I also have some knowledge of A-level Biology and Chemistry from 15 years ago, and my key stage 3/gcse knowledge is very strong due to 10 years of teaching it!

More than that though, by attending events like this I can relate the work of real scientists to what I teach. It is relevant that students understand about colour addition and subtraction in year 8 if they are to be involved in the digital arts. If cooks and chefs understand that people enjoy food more if it is served off a white plate that will help their business be more successful. I now have some information about how to be an amateur astronomer and may encourage one of my students to get involved in this. Knowing that helicopters use hydraulics may help to engage a disaffected student.

Well done to the IoP south west branch. I am already looking forward to next year!

Sunday, 3 March 2013

What do you use twitter for?

I was asked this question last night, but I wasn't at my computer so the best I could do is send a couple of tweets in reply. But a 140 characters, even two lots of 140 characters does not begin to explain how I use twitter.

I think that the two comments above do a disservice to myself. I do "take" from twitter, but I also "give". I hope that is reflected in the number of my tweets that are marked as favourites or retweeted by other twitter users.

So what have a got out of twitter and how do I use it?

Firstly, I don't use twitter independently. I have this blog, a tumblr blog, a pinterest account a TES connect account, googlemail, googledrive, a delicious account and an page.

These extra accounts allow me to share resources. Pinterest allows me to link to photographs and describe them in 1000 characters. Many more than twitter. A link to this photograph and description can be tweeted, but the photograph stays organised on my "boards" so it is possible to find again in order to use. With tumblr I can create a blog post around a video, set of images, link, sound file or writing and add hashtags so I can find them again. Again I can automatically tweet from my tumblr account as I can from Pinterest allowing me to categorise the information and write more than 140 characters. 

Delicious and pinterest are also useful as I can save links and/or images to them an find them later. The ability to "favourite" tweets is great, but they are difficult to search. Pinterest allows me to save resources under titles and delicious allows me to tag them so I can search them later. 

If I want to share a resource then I can upload it to TES or store it as  googledoc and tweet the link. 

And if I want to give or receive more personal advice I will use the direct message service on twitter to send my email address to another twitter user so we can contact each other directly. 

Many users I follow use facebook because you can write more than 140 characters and comments are linked to the post, not spread out in a timeline. But twitter allows them to reach further and some social media apps allow you to post to more than one social media source at once. 

I think there is a lot more power in twitter if alternative social media is used.