What about science and the creative curriculum?

One of my challenges this year was to answer this question.

Creative curricula are all the new craze in primary schools and that’s a good thing. It looks like we’ve come full circle away from the 80’s subject led curricula and we’re getting all 70’s and topic based again, but hopefully without those tenuous links or cavernous gaps in learning because of teacher’s subject preferences.

However, science is in danger of disappearing behind a mountain of egg boxes and papier-mache if we’re not careful. If science is to maintain its integrity, schools following a creative curriculum must get out their magnifying glasses and look at little closer.

To begin with, they must ensure the National Curriculum Programme of Study for science is covered by the whole school curriculum. The school science leader will need time to do some ticking off and gap checking by comparing these two against each other. (Remember, whatever you think about our NC, which is about the change, you still need a lineage of coverage for your school.)

Alongside this, for every creative topic taught the learning objectives for science must remain explicit. For example, take a topic called ‘Set the Table’. It’s pure genius, the kids are going to love it. The children are going to write menus, persuasive adverts, add up bills, manage a budget and more, more, more.It’s all fantastic! For DT your going to do some cooking too and then you’ll get your science links in too for solids, liquids and gases by doing some cooking (imagine all that boiling, melting and cooling!)

Now all of this is great, but get hold of those level descriptors for Sc2 Materials and their Properties and be clear about the children’s learning outcomes. Make sure the children are clear about what success in achieving these outcomes is too. This is because learning is a process, a journey if you like, a movement from one point to another. So when did you last set out anywhere having no idea where you wanted to go? Unless teaching finally got to you and you walked off out the school gates like a possessed zombie, not recently. So like this, teachers need to make sure they know where all that colourful, creativity will take the children. If you do this, the children will learn science in a meaningful context, but importantly you will know what they have learnt and so will they! Hurrah!


Why mark science?


I’ve got a sneaking  suspicion that marking science is not at the top of every primary school teacher’s agenda. And here’s a thing (I’ll only whisper) it’s pointless to mark the children’s work if:

1) The children will never see that piece of paper again.

2) You don’t plan to address any of the science misconceptions you find in their work.  (Are you happy  with that?)

3) The children are not given the opportunity to address their errors or build on new knowledge using the marking.

Therefore, you need to decide why you are marking science recording. You need to avoid marking work to please parents or even ‘the management’ if it is no benefit to the children’s learning. (You’d be more effective spending that time planning an interesting investigation instead!)

If you are really swamped, whizz through what the children have recorded, note any misconceptions, and then use the start of your next lesson to discuss and clarify. Or better still, build five minutes into each lesson for the children to read your responses to their work and edit and improve.

Never bother writing a comment they won’t use, let alone see! If you don’t have time to mark science, then what is the recording really for? Is it good enough to record just for evidence of teaching?


Why ask a question?

I always go back to Dylan Willam’s idea that questioning should cause thinking. Questions made in order to create engagement (you there at the back) and check  behaviour (pay attention or I’ll ask you a question) are only class management tools, rather than learning tools. If you also only ask questions they know the answer to, what are you achieving except some straight forward summative assessment (low impact because that’s merely regurgitating old learning).

Memorable learning.

Think back to school and remember  a time when you learnt something that you still remember  today. What were you doing?

Well,  I can bet you it involved watching and listening (a little) but there was predominately a series of your own practical trails and errors, with some help here and there, until finally, ‘ah ha! You got it!’

Then why do all the Govian suits in their grey tower seem to forget what we all intuitively know: that memorable learning is active with a  practical content.

The academicisation of the new curriculum will set learning back a great deal.

The secondary divide?

I had a conversation with another parent today about her fifteen year old son. According to her boy, one of his teachers had told him off in front of the whole class, nothing unsual I thought, get over it. But what the teacher said had upset her son a great deal. The teacher had told her son the following: that he was arrogant, that he looked arrogant and was arrogrant and had an arrogant attiude. My ears pricked up at this point, especially at the word ‘looked.’ I listened and mumbled something to her about, seperating a child’s behaviour from who they are, and not making things personal; the teacher should have tackled it another way.

Later when I got home, I thought to myself about it again and realised that I hear these kinds of stories a lot from other parents of secondary school children; I’ve had a little bit of that with my son here and there too. I wondered to myself why secondary schools sometimes appear not to hold dear the same things we take for granted at primary school, namely seeking to protect a child’s self esteem during episodes of poor behaviour and using restorative justice as a means to resolve troubles. The bottom line is this: (and I’m more sure of it every year I teach) you will achieve nothing by demoralising children or using a critique of their persona as a punishment. What you will certainly achieve instead is a complete switch off, and perhaps even war. You get far more out of children if you agree punishments during harmonious times and then follow through, sticking to those when they behave poorly. Never ever make it personal. For example,it might go something like this:
“Remember as a class we agreed that if anyone disrupted the class they would get a warning, and if they did it again, they would have to stay in and write an apology letter. You interupted me three times and I gave you a warning too, so sit back down and get your pencil out.’ This business like approach works and no one is pulled to pieces either. I’ve never had it fail me…and nobody gets away with anything in my class either.

So just think back, when did you ever want to do anything for anyone or listen to a word they said after they’d given your character the once over? As soon as it becomes personal, you’ve lost as a teacher. So I wonder if this more enlightened approach to behaviour management is taught as a matter of course to new secondary teachers? Why do we seem to get the more old fashioned, military dressing downs in secondary schools? Is it because secondary school teachers have a harder job and so deal with behaviour differently?

I don’t understand? My intuition tells me you need to be even more thoughtful when dealing with the behaviour of children (young adults really) who are hormonal and where their feelings about themselves are probably the most complex they’ll ever face. So, that’s a piece of research: how do approaches to behaviour differ between primary and secondary schools and what are the effects of those differences. Someone please explain.

Tea with the Team

I left our staff meeting tonight and I knew I’d just left the kind of meeting every school should have. Wherever you are, you’ll always have a little ‘them and us’ banter (power to the people and all that) but essentially, our senior leadership team (SLT), are pretty darn good.

The reason they’re good is that they listen; they make the occasional mistakes here and there, they’d say the same, but they listen and reflect and everything evolves. They evolve as a leadership team because they’re not afraid to see themselves as learners too, just like everyone else in our school. And before you pass my SLT off as all too touchy feely (that might say more about you than them) try being a member of staff here who is trying to pull a fast one and it won’t be long before they’re calling you in for a ‘conversation’.  I’ve seen it: I’ve watched a few red faced people leave the HT’s office over the years, tripping up on that proverbial tail between their legs as they go. 

So, we’re a harmonious team, with a little bite where necessary, but this isn’t true for every school. Lately, I’ve heard some horror stories about other schools that make me want to run up to the first member of our SLT and hug them.Yet I still can’t rest comfortably knowing it’s dandy here and like Colditz over there. The stories I hear disturb me. It disturbs me that there are individuals out there who have ascended to senior leadership positions while being bereft of any real understanding of how human beings work and how successful teams go foward. 

In one school, I heard that after hours, when all the teaching staff have gone home, the SLT surreptiously enter their classrooms and go through books, planning folders (and goodness knows what else). They give the classes a thorough insepction. All the teaching staff know they do this too. The manangement are no doubt trying to catch teaching staff out,  after all they’re in charge and that’s their job isn’t it? They’re there to tighten things up and watch out for slackers, right?  Really? Is that leadership or an antiquated form of supervision more akin to the role of a prefect (but wouldn’t prefects be more collegiate?) And so the school exists under a climate of mistrust, stress and high staff turnvover. Are we surprised? Why would anyone want to teach in a place where you feel like you’ve been burgled every morning you get into class? More imporantly, why in the world you actively create such a situation when you could just as easily talk to the staff about recording expectations? Maybe you could even get their input and give them a feeling of owership too. Perhaps they are trustworthy afterall! You never know you might even get to a point where the staff are proud of their books and are only too pleased to show you them. 

So, it is with this thought about leadership that I turn in tonight:  be positve  and you’ll get postive results everytime. Be negative, look only for the negative, and that’s all you’ll ever find. 

Oh, and remember… humiltiy and integrity are powerful. They takes guts; they take confidence, but everyone will reap the rewards no end. 

Primary science as an enquiry

I’ve been science leader at our school for the past five years, as well as DT leader and Eco leader too. Thankfully now, it’s just science.

 Science is a special subject. It has to be active. The minute it starts to become passive and the worksheets come out, it’s dead.  As a teacher, I feel I should also know quite a bit about what I want the children to learn; I need to know my subject! The trouble is that in the whirl wind of generalist teaching, where the teacher teaches everything, it’s almost impossible to have complete subject knowledge in all the areas you are expected to teach.  What you tend to have across primary schools is pockets of expertise in different areas. And what we had a little too much of in the 1970s was some teachers simply avoiding teaching those subject they were deficient in. While I have much to criticise the 1988 curriculum for (don’t get me started) at least it put an end to some of that arbitrariness.

 My answer then to the subject knowledge question in science is simply this: read up on it before hand! It’s just not good enough to think the children will mess about for a while with the things I put on the table and science will happen. We need to have a clear understanding of what the children should know at the end, but also where that will lead them in science later. For example, if I’m doing sorting and comparing different materials with Year 2, I have in the back of my mind the latent interest in chemistry this lesson might be the spark for in my children. I tell them it’s chemistry too and roughly what chemistry is and how we use it. 

Together with this, I make sure that most science lessons begin with a problem or a big question. We have to think of the children as investigators and not buckets that we’ll fill up with science. If you think about all the famous scientific discoveries, most of those scientists were fiddling around trying to find an answer for something. It’s likely they weren’t reading a text book or listening to some dusty old teacher like me imparting facts to them.

Let’s say we’re doing a Rocks and Soils topic (Geology) where the children need to learn about different types of soil. So I start with a problem and I usually present that as a scenario.For example, Mr Jones wakes up after a rainy night. He looks out the back window and his garden is flooded with puddles everywhere, it’s the same with the front garden too. However, after breakfast he notices that the puddles in the front garden have gone, but the puddles in the back garden are still there. ‘Why is that?’ wonders Mr Jones. Then I let the children come up with all their ideas about what it could be. You also get to understand what kind of misconceptions they have. I’ll then show them a range of bags full of different types of soil, some filter paper and any other equipment they might need. Then I’ll ask them what question we’re trying to ask. Having an enquiry question forms the basis of a good investigation. Then I’ll ask them what we could do to answer Mr Jones’ question. I’m always amazed at how ingenious and clever children are. They are natural scientists. I’ll model doing a little test myself and get it all wrong by using more water for one soil and they’ll all shriek at me for not being fair, and I’ll feel relief that at last they’re getting the idea of being methodical and applying that fair test principle. 

Then I’ll set them off. They’ll be water and soil swishing all over the place. They’ll be some disasters here and there, sometimes a complete restart will be needed (welcome to the real world of science) but off they go, finding an answer to Mr Jones’ question. 

When we finish we’ll go over what we found out, compare different results and then I’ll teach them about the different soils, absorption and permeability. For a bit of fun at the end we could even have Mr Jones coming in and the children explaining to him what was happening in his garden. 

So I hope this idea of pulling the children towards answering questions about the world has made sense here. A harder thing to do is to get them to spot things around them and ask questions themselves, without all this staging, but that’s about practice and good modelling from the adults around them. Most of the time, we adults go about the world never looking up. I am that parent who once asked my son to stop asking questions so I could think straight. He’s OK now, I promise. Nevertheless, that kind of wonder from a questioning mind is the easiest to knock out of children and the hardest to put back in! As teachers we must hone this and be in wonder of the world too. Keep the wonder alive!