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Friday, 5 December 2014

Why can't science be taught like humanities?

The other half was sat in bed last night watching some of the recent documentary on Tattler on catch up. The program focused on the education system that the very rich find themselves in. Schools where the tuition fees per student can run up to £19k and the average is around the £14k mark. To put that in context my first proper 'professional' job post university had a salary of £15k per annum.

Now I have been around our local expensive private school - Tonbridge boys school - and it was stunning, an amazing location, a great set of staff but also the air of entitlement and the smell of money.

It doesn't sit right with me. Now this is not an attack on the class system, or the wealthy or anything like that but I believe strongly that the quality of an education should not be dependent on the money that your parents have or the background you find yourself born into. I believe that university should be free for those who are able and that you should not have a barrier put on you at that early a stage. The biggest support I hear for the private schools is the contacts you make through going there, which to me makes a mockery of any concept of social mobility (as an fyi I don't even believe in the grammar school system - it annoys me that the local grammars take the top 25-30% of primary school students).

Now I do not mean to get into a rant of build up a head of steam on this but it is a passage to emphasize a point, the longer I am in education the more passionate I am becoming about it, the more invested I become and the more that I want it to reform.

I wrote a post on the scrapping of OFSTED and removing the culture of fear which permeates teaching and currently drives practice. That we as educators are different to the governments idea of a teacher. A teacher now is essentially an administrative assistant, pushing paper and ticking boxes. Those of us working on the front line in schools are educators, the welfare and education of our students is paramount not all the education buzz words or flavours of the week.

Which brings me to a particular bee in my bonnet. Humanities is a collection of subjects loosely related to each other (religious education, history, geography etc) students now have to pick which ones they do - dependent on what the school can offer and what fulfills the progress 8 criteria - again this is another change driving league tables etc.

The important point here is that students are not (generally) forced into do all of the humanities, they have a freedom of choice to pick the ones that they feel most comfortable with and enjoy the most. In science students have to study all disciplines of science - physics, biology and chemistry - even though they are very distinct in places and require different skill sets. Yet it is only worth 2 GCSE's. Unless of course you choose to take triple science then you get 3 distinct GCSE's for the 3 sciences.

So why not adopt a humanities type approach. Triple science is still available for those students who are able - gives them 3 GCSE's, however for those less able or for those who do not enjoy science as much offer 2 GCSE's (similar to the current double award) in which you can pick the two you most enjoy. As the government wants to include computer science (somehow) in the students education then make it a distinct subject that students can choose. You could also add a geology and astronomy GCSE in there as well as part of the choices (why not this is my idea). In fact science could be massively enlarged to include the disciplines that you may end up doing at university but have never done in any detail at school before (GCSE psychology could also be included!).

Essentially science would then become a larger 2nd tier department. Alongside humanities. Instead of being the poor relation of the other 'core' subjects. For those that don't know science, English and maths used to be the main core subjects in a school. Students had to study them and schools were judged on the performance in those three above all others. Now though all schools care about - again due to shifts in league table reporting - is maths and English grades. Which leaves science in a sort of no mans land where it is still unstoppable in any form, but also in most cases pushed less and shown to be less important by way of emphasis being focused on the other subjects. In some cases when BTECs were the main way schools raised their grade standing students would not even need to pass science to get to college. This was due to some BTEC courses being worth multiple GCSE's and college entry requirements not specifying science as a prerequisite.

By shifting the focus of choice back to the student surely you then will get them doing subjects they want to when they come to pick their GCSE's. If you still think we need students to have a really good background in all three sciences then students could have a 'core' GCSE that students have to take that is worth 1 GCSE and covers physics, biology and chemistry. However it (as I have said before) should be more focused on science that students might need in real life) in other words, human development, learning and behaviour in biology. Global warming, renewable fuels and kitchen chemistry for chemistry. Electricity, magnetism and efficiency/speed euqations in physics (just off the top of my head this isn't a final plan!).

The big drawback on this is the need for teachers to staff this. With news of a massive shortfall in teachers by 2050 (128,000 in some reports) it is clear the the current climate of accountability is turning people off teaching.Which when you consider that Mr Goves policies were designed to raise standards and ultimately improve the education for children shows that the changes are failing.

Basically they have to have failed because if there are not enough teachers how can students have a high standard of education?

Which means while some level of accountability has to exist it has to change, work load has to drop, pressure on teachers must be shifted back to families and the support they provide for their children. Basically teaching has to become and attractive career choice again and not just one that people pick up for a massive bursary while they train and then drop it as soon as they can, or burn out, or go on long term sickness due to stress related illnesses.

That though will never happen, teaching has gone too far now, it has become too much a different career to the one I joined (only 5 years ago). It has become a self fulfilling prophecy of teachers being told they are not very good and then not being very good teachers. In the week where the Autumn budget showed another huge set of cuts heading their way to the public sector I am not foreseeing teaching becoming less pressured any time soon (the first thing to go will be learning support which most students now rely on having had so much of it throughout their education).

This is where my blog comes full circle. Those of us who believe in free education for all, who teach because we want to educate those of the next generation and inspire them in our subject, our livelihood will be affected. However those people who are in the private schools, where funding is not dependent on the state they will continue to thrive (which I guess is what this government wants). Very soon I will be the other side of 30, with half a decade teaching experience behind me and a decision to make, do I stay teaching in an environment where I believe I am making a difference - even though the pressure is going to keep building and the expectation will never match the students who are in front of me? Or do I give in, and jump ship?

Actually there is no choice. I think while I am a teacher I will always be where I am, doing the best I can. Though the question remains, why cant science be taught like humanities?

Friday, 28 November 2014

A planet we rent.

I often hear or read a lot about how humans are killing the planet or polluting it and sensationalist phrases along those lines. 

This is probably the shortest blog I will ever write because today on the day that people have shown once again that greed will ride over any sense of decency (yes Black Friday I am looking at you). There has been some excellent news from the Ukraine (for a change) that brown bears are shown to have returned to the area for the first time in 100 years

Interestingly they have not just returned but returned to the exclusion zone which was set up following the Chernobyl incident in 1986.

What is amazing or at least to me amazing about this is that it shows what can happen when nature is allowed to get on with it without human interference. There are a number of websites that contain images people have taken from brief visits to Prypiat including this excellent video of a drone being flown around the city. 

Now the exclusion zone is huge, and I can't imagine areas of that size being completely turned back over to nature. At least not for any other reason than humans physically can't live there. However in the week in which the Jurassic World trailer hit the internet it reminds me of one thing;


We do not own this world, we may be the most destructive force that the planet has seen however we are nothing more than renters. Actually no we are squatters on the world, it will be here after we are gone just as it was here long before we evolved. 

I just hope it does not evict us any time soon.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Maybe Gove was right? Why we do need to change (but not the way he wanted).

Before I start I just want to set my stall out. I have a very strong dislike for the changes that Mr Gove enforced on education. I wouldn't go as far as to say I hate them, because I like to reserve that phrase for things that deserve hatred. 

However he has done a huge amount of damage to the English schools system (in my opinion) and unfortunate I can not see schools reversing away from his changes at all. In fact it does look as if it will get much worse before it plateaus. The current hot topic of debate is the whole teachers workload shtick. With some conservative estimates putting our number of hours at around the 50 hour mark with many clocking up a much higher number. Unfortunately for all Miss Morgan has said about wanting to work with teachers and help reduce workload, honestly I don't see that being something that will happen under this or any government. The changes have gone far to far in one direction.

This is not a woe is me I am an unhappy overworked teacher post. I am just putting out there where we are at as a profession (when people actually treat us as professionals that is). I know the private sector can rack up a lot more hours than we can and I appreciate that we do have long holidays and I also get that other areas of civil service are facing a much tougher time (NHS anyone?). 

I could sit here and justify why we need longer holidays and stress to you the issues with teaching (in fact I started and deleted several sentences to that end). What does that benefit? Other than maybe to set my mood for the rest of the day - mostly dreading Monday. 

Yet I love my job. 

Seriously.

For a long time I didn't and I will be honest about that. There are still things about teaching I strongly dislike however on the whole I don't know what else I would do with my life (professionally).

However I do feel that teaching is no longer a long-term career choice. I have no designs on management or SLT in my career. I am perfectly happy to be a classroom teacher, that is what I enjoy, the teaching. The interaction with learners and sharing with them science. However I can't see myself doing this in my 50's let alone into my 70's. 

As ever I am digressing though. The point of all this spiel was to illustrate that there are obviously things in our education system that are not quite right. However the way in which the changes that have been implemented have come about is to be honest shocking. 

And totally not for the benefit of the students in the classroom.

That's my first issue. For all this rubbish about how many hours we work, the amount of marking we do and how our pay should be linked to performance. Well I say fine, do it smash us, absolutely lambaste us and destroy us in the press. Go for it, seriously burn all the teachers in the land out (its not like any of us are registered voters after all). Do you worst. 

But show me how that is benefiting the children we teach.

Honestly. Show me and show the world how children are getting a good deal out of this. After all they have no say in this. What benefit do 16 year olds have in their GCSE grades dropping? Why do students who can already read have to use phonics when it is shown to actually damage their ability? How good is a teacher going to be if they are stressed out and tired all the time? And for the love of all that is holy will someone tell me how OFSTED are supposed to be helping in all this?

An OFSTED inspector earns over £64k a year and many of them do consulting as a side line. Actually consulting is too kind a word. What seems to happen is they go into a school, claim everything is rubbish, go into the school repeatedly always nit picking and criticizing (so that there is always a reason to re-hire them naturally) and then when the school gets rated and and some minor improvement is noted they claim the credit. Even though there must be an obvious conflict of interest? How can someone who is supposed to be impartial when judging a school be paid by other schools to help them raise standards/pass an OFSTED inspection?

Actually the whole system of OFSTED, to me, is flawed.

Here is a better approach (in my mind) don't care about them. Stop putting OFSTED first, have the conviction in your own pedagogy and abilities to know that what you do is for the best interest of your classes. Surely if you are doing what is right for those students you teach, whether academically or pastorally then OFSTED can't say you are doing a bad job?

Oh they can? Because your results aren't good enough? Why are results the be all end all? BTECS have been diminished due to the way people used them to cut the books and boost performance. Coursework is being reduced for the same reason so now we are going back to judging children on memory tests. 

WHAT!?

How does a system from a different era reflect today's job market and the skill sets needed? In an age where information is instantaneously accessible from almost anywhere on the planet why does a memory test get to determine how well you did at school? It makes no sense. Yes I appreciate that another system would be hard to implement, but that does not mean the one that you used while at school is best. The world has changed so much and the needs, in terms of employers, are so different now.

With regard OFSTED I would seriously stop all the changes to what is judged to be good teaching. I would decouple teaching from learning so they are viewed as two separate things. I would actually disband OFSTED totally. Instead I would go to a jury service type system. 

This would entail teachers from schools in similar areas to the ones about to be inspected being taken from their schools to observe and comment on the school they are viewing in a 'best practice' and 'things that could be improved' type of way. This would be paid from by the salaries of the previous OFSTED inspectors (hotels for the teachers and cover for their schools). It would fit in the model of professionalism because we now have peers assessing each other, always with the mandate that it is supportive and from a classroom perspective. Naturally the odd HOD would be needed to look at how departments are run and the whole 'inspection' could be overseen by a headteacher. If there is a need to have some 'outsider' present then I am sure some form of a HMI person could lead it but I don't think that is necessary. 

Instead of messing about with education etc the government could then put their efforts into creating jobs that are attractive to the next generation of school leavers. This would then give the students goals to aim for. While we are at it they could also look at shortening the British working week as we work some of the longest around. After all working more doesn't mean working better. Instead people should be actively encouraged to spend time with their families - not just watching crap TV. As we all know that parental investment in student learning is one of the biggest factors in a child's education. Especially in their formative years. Its not like their isn't enough research in this area.

Actually this is one of my big issues with the changes made, the government seems to be wary of actual research by actual academics...

It would also be nice if the revamping of curricula was designed with the world to come in mind. Rather than it being a hark back to the 20th century it should be looking forward to the world the students will be living in - though that is another point entirely.

Alas I feel I am beginning to rant. Which is not constructive at all. The education system is fundamentally flawed in many aspects. However the changes made by the government have only highlighted (for me) the flaws in the system while shifting the mood to a blame the teacher culture.

Surely we need to move back to a student-centric model. Where we are looking at what their needs are and trying to constantly do our best for those we teach. The pressure should be on the government and the families to prepare their children for school and support them during their education and then to provide a country in which they want to be contributing members. 

Surely that is better and more constructive than just pointing a finger and getting into a fight?

However I still think OFSTED has to go!

Monday, 3 November 2014

Something on positive reinforcement in education.

A few years ago, before my misguided attempt to become management, I began a piece of action research. I never finished this and promptly forgot about it with the hatred of all things teaching that followed my movement up and then back down the teaching 'ladder'.

I recently rediscovered this work while I was cleaning through some old files and present it now as the beginnings of a piece of work and no more than that.

A small piece of action research.

The research question ‘does enjoyment raise attainment in science?’ was tested on my PGCE. At the time I found that there was a relation between enjoyment and attainment. When students enjoy a subject they are more likely to engage with what is being offered to them. This means that they are more likely to complete tasks and more importantly they are more likely to remember information being presented. This recall of activities and knowledge is important in raising their attainment.

Since beginning teaching I have noticed that it is harder and harder to keep students enjoying a subject throughout the year. There seem to be definite topics where making the subject interesting and engaging is easier than others. A lot of this depends upon the teacher and their interests but also on the nature of the subject material at hand. I have blogged on the importance for teachers to stay excited by their subject but is this enough to continue to push students forwards?

On area that seems to come up a lot in conversation with other teachers is that students are so disaffected with school and learning that whatever the activity they are reluctant to engage. Teachers feel this reflects badly on their lesson rather than the issue be with the learners and their priorities. I have tried various ways of combating this in my teaching. From relevance of subject matter to constant use of practical science as lesson ‘hooks’ in order to bring students into the topic that is being delivered. However as you can imagine this constant planning, re-planning and attempts at creativity (or finding other peoples creativity) is time consuming and exhausting when attempted over a long period of time.

The question of engagement came up when I started at my current school. I took over two year 9 groups of very disaffected students who had been removed from early entry GCSE owing to their poor performance. This had led to lots of the students to have ‘given up’ on science already before their course had even gotten going. Part of my brief when I took them over was to try to get them back interested or at least engaging with science ready for year 10. I feel that I achieved a measure of success in their respect although at the time it felt like an uphill struggle. This year I have a group of year 9’s again who are in early entry GCSE this time on the C/D boarderline. Being determined that the students would not become disaffected with GCSE science I set about trying to keep them focused on the subject.

I decided to base my teaching on positive reinforcement and to not focus on any negative behaviour but over the top praise those who had got on with work. The lesson structures and plans were the same as they would have been otherwise. There were only 3 real rules that I put in place for this;
1.       Make sure to praise those who were on task and make sure that good work was publically highlighted.
2.       Rather than focus on bad behaviour I would relate it to respect, politeness and manners.
3.       I would try to individualise feedback but from a positive perspective focusing on what the student had done well first and foremost and how I felt they could improve to do even better.
I have been very conscious of my language use during this. At first constant positivity was difficult and some phrases stuck in my throat of felt ‘clunky’ however I remember feeling the same with normal praise on my PGCE. As with that situation the more positive I was the easier it became. However I was keen to ensure that I never was disingenuous as I feel learners are quick to pick up on this. I was also keen to make sure that when students were asking me questions or showing work that my attention was fully focused on them, as a school pupil feedback showed that they know and dislike when a teacher is not paying attention.
B1
The first unit was B1 (biology). I felt that the main issue with most of the students was not being used to the GCSE questions and so not fitting their long answers to the questions asked. However the recall of information was pleasing. As a result I was positive about their results and where they had gone well while at the same time highlighting the areas in which they could improve. This was even though their results in terms of target grades were not amazing.

P1
In many cases the results for P1 dropped. However the recall of knowledge was still fairly good unfortunately most people made silly mistakes and errors on a long answer questions about diffraction in a glass block. Again the response from me was positive and built around improvement and building on what had gone well rather than focusing on where the students had made mistakes in a negative way. There is also a point to make that many students struggle with the mathematics inherent in physics (in a similar way students who are not very linguistic tend to struggle with biology).

C1
The results from C1 show the closest results to the predicted grades. The increase in some students is remarkable. This is pleasing in two ways. Firstly the students have started to take on board the advice and encouragement that had been given and their results had improved accordingly. There were more noticeable mistakes in terms of knowledge recall in this exam and less in terms of how to answer the question. Secondly some students who had shown they were making good progress were allowed to take the higher tier paper for the first time and their results were very pleasing indeed (the A’s and B’s shown).

Conclusion
There is strong evidence that consistent positive reinforcement can improve performance. However there are several points to make with regard this study. Firstly that the improvements were also based upon the students getting used to the standard expected at GCSE. The importance of this cannot be overstated as often the style of exam questions shifts dramatically from key stage 3 to 4. Also it should be noted that behaviour in this class was of a good standard generally and this type of approach may not work with a class that requires a firmer hand. This class were taught with a mixture of independent tasks and directed study as well as some practical work. If the study was to be reproduced it would be interesting to see the impact of greater autonomy and possibly even utilising more enquiry based learning methods.
It should also be noted that very little marking was provided outside of homework exercises and exam practice. In fact it could be argued that this form of feedback was much stronger than the positive reinforcement as it helped to shape and prepare the students from one test to another.
However what has come out from this study is that the attitude of the learners towards science has improved and this has seen to be reflected in their effort levels, which in turn has been reflected in their results.
Data
Student
B1 Test Sc GCSE
P1 Test Sc GCSE
C1 Test Sc GCSE
Target Grade
1
D
F+
C+
C
2
C+
C-
A
B
3
D+
E+
C+
C
4
D
D+
C+
C
5
D
C
B
C
6
D+
C
D-
C
7
F
C+
A
C
8
D
C+
B
C
9
D
D-
C+
C
10
D
E-
C+
C
11
C+
C-
B
C
12
F+
E-
F+
C
13
D
G+
C
C
14
C
C+
B+
C
15
D
D+
C+
C
16
D
D+
D+
C
17
E+
C-
C+
C
18
E
G+
C+
C
19
C+
C+
A-
C
20
E+
D+
C+
C
21
E+
C-
C
C
22
E
D
C+
C
23
E+
D
C-
C
24
F+
E+
E+
C
25
E+
D+
D-
C
26
D
F-
C+
C
27
C
D-
B
C
28
E
D-
D-
C
29
C+
D+
C+
C
30
E+
E-
C+
C

Carol Dweck
Growth ethos – ability can be cultivated and that effort is required for learning. Use of process orientated and task orientated praise. Avoidance of relating praise to personal attributes otherwise it can limited the belief of others that they can succeed. Instead by having praise based upon the task or process then students can see why someone else is being praised, especially when building praise around striving to succeed. It seems to be about building the idea that it is ok to fail providing you keep moving forwards in order to get there in the end.

Dweck, C. S. (1999) Self Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development . Hove: Psychology Press, Taylor and Francis Group.