Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The IDEAS project

Today I used a resource from the IDEAS project (short for IDeas, Evidence and Argument in Science)which was developed at King's College, London to encourage scientific reasoning by engaging in argument with others and evaluating arguments. I came across the IDEAS project whilst writing an assignment on reasoning and argumentation for my Masters in Science Education over Christmas. Argumentation encourages cognitive conflict to be established by offering competing theories surrounding a scientific idea, some of which could highlight particular misconceptions that students have, whilst encouraging students to work as a group to argue their opinion and evaluate the opinions of others before using written argument to conclude and consolidate. The resources pack is designed to provide 15 activities for 15 different KS3 Science topics but the thinking behind it (and the resources) could easily be adapted to be used with other topics and with older students. The resources include activities like card sorts, experimental observation, projects, ranking arguments, agreeing or disagreeing with statements. Concept cartoons are another example of where cognitive conflict can be created and (hopefully!) resolved by the subsequent discussion and argument.
I tried Activity 5 from the pack "Euglena: Plant or Animal?" with my year 8 class today to introduce the interdependence topic and classification. I showed a quick video of some euglena under a microscope before providing students with evidence cards and a table to sort them into depending on whether they thought the evidence suggested that euglena was a plant cell, animal cell, both or neither. I explained that this is what scientists do all the time - they make observations and do experiments to gather evidence and then they evaluate the evidence. I've found that the quality of student talk can be improved by modelling high quality talk and providing scaffolding in the form of sentence starters, such as "I think that euglena is ... because ..." Once students had spent 10-15 minutes discussing the evidence and I asked them to give their own personal view (having made it clear earlier that the group didn't need to reach a consensus and that it was ok to disagree with others in your group) and to give three pieces of evidence to prove their opinion, however, they couldn't just copy the evidence from the card sort they had to add further explanation as to how this was evidence for their point of view. They were asked to start their written argument by writing "I think euglena is ... because ..."
I pointed out that the process students have been through is exactly what scientists do when they are doing research to try and explain phenomena in the world around us, and that once they have come to their own conclusion and written it up in a paper they need to have it peer reviewed before it can be published. So then all the students went to a scientific 'conference' and had their work peer reviewed, first by a peer in the class who agreed with them (to strengthen their argument) and then by a peer who disagreed with them (to try and convince them otherwise). Finally we had a vote on what the class now though euglena was (turns out it's neither a plant cell or an animal cell, but belongs to the protist group - as someone who teaches all Chemistry this was almost a revelation to me as well...) Then cue discussion about the 5 kingdoms and some very creative classification of their school bags into different groups, which gave them some appreciation of the scale of the task that faced scientist when they tried to introduce the classification system!
I loved this activity and this way of thinking because it is so closely linked to the processes that 'real' scientists do and gets students to work on their thinking and literacy skills at the same time. I'm incredibly fortunate to have a top set year 8 class to try activities like this with and I do wonder whether students in lower sets might struggle with the distinction between argumentation and just having an argument, but perhaps with sufficient scaffolding and training they could also learn to develop their reasoning and argumentation skills which are so valuable not only within the scientific community but within our society generally.
The IDEAS training and resource packs are available on the National STEM centre website (click here)

Monday, 11 February 2013

What's the Point of School?

The title of this blog is stolen from the incredible book by Guy Claxton - "What's the Point of School? Rediscovering the Heart of Education" (see a brief video explanation from the author here).
This book is truly inspiring and made me seriously reconsider the purpose of education, and my place within it as a teacher. In the current climate where teachers and the teaching profession seem to be under constant scrutiny and are regularly being told that they are not doing enough to help young people progress the ideas presented by Guy Claxton are much needed. The basic premise of the book is to consider how we as teachers can move from a culture where we are 'teaching to the test' and where acquisition of knowledge is prioritised to a culture where the skills required for learning and for life are the aim of education and educators (see the National Curriculum consultation document - link here).
Recently I've been feeling a little bit uncertain as to how I can make a change as 'just a classroom teacher' but "What's the Point of School?" made me realise that even though you may not necessarily have any power over government policy you have the ability to influence the learning and the futures of hundreds of students every week. This led me to start making a few changes in my teaching - making all the skills that we inherently include in good teaching more explicit and presenting these to students as skills that they will require for life, as well as handing more responsibility over to students for their own learning (particularly at post-16 where students should be making the transition into the 'real world'). I've even asked a few classes "what's the point?" and had a variety of responses. From younger students - "because science is amazing", "we're here to learn", "we're here to get an education", from older students "we're here to get a good grade", "we're here to pass the exams". An interesting contrast undoubtedly caused by the education system that we are working within.
I met up with a friend from University this weekend (also a teacher) and we spent a couple of hours discussing the proposed reforms to the education system, the speed at which they are occurring and what we might do if we were Secretary of State... Most teachers agree that reform is required, but it's disappointing that such reforms are being proposed without speaking to some of the key members of the profession. I'm doing my Masters in Science Education part-time at King's College, London and have been overwhelmed with the amount of research that has been done, and is still currently being done into what works to help students learn and make progress - and yet none of this is being referred to. I've been following the work of the Headteachers' Roundtable (click here) and am in awe of the many amazing Heads that are striving to ensure that children and their learning remain at the centre of policy making - and yet they are not being consulted.
If I could ask for just three things to be changed about our education system (three wishes anyone?) they would be...
1. Thinking - changing the courses and examinations that our students sit to place more value on skills, understanding and creativity rather than content as well as recognising the advantages of formative assessment over summative assessment. 
2. Progress - the achievement of an individual child or school should be based on progress instead of attainment. There seems to have been a slight shift towards this with the new "Best 8", however, the EBacc measure appears to still be a part of this and technical or vocational subjects are not being given the appropriate consideration.
3. Uniformity - perhaps moving towards a single exam board wouldn't be such a bad thing. Can a fair comparison (usually in league tables but also by Universities and employers) really be made when students are able to get a GCSE from a variety of exam boards?
Perhaps this is too much to ask for but I'm going to continue to hope that those that have more influence than myself have a similar aim.
Finally, I had a miracle moment today whilst teaching my (often disengaged and unmotivated) year 10 class. I've been concerned for a while about how they don't seem to see the value in learning and decided to take action to see if I could change their attitudes. At the start of the lesson every student was given a post-it note to write their name on and stick on their desk. I explained that doing 'good' things in the lesson (asking questions, answering questions, completing work, participating in paired, group or practical) work would earn them a 'dot' on their post-it. However, doing anything that would earn them a 'consequence' (a warning, part of our behaviour policy) would mean that their name would be put on the board and every 'consequence' would cancel out one of their 'dots'. At the end of the lesson the student with the most 'dots' would win a chocolate bar. I wasn't entirely sure how comfortable I was with resorting to bribery, however I soon got over this when I realised that the system meant I had a whole class begging me to check over their work and answer their questions so they could earn 'dots'! A really useful positive behaviour management technique that meant the students really engaged with their learning, and just maybe realised what the point of school was this afternoon...