All posts by Alom Shaha

Alom’s Dream School

I tweeted this from the ResearchEd 2014 conference last Saturday, and I meant it*. The conference was packed with the kind of dedicated, thoughtful, intellectual, passionate teachers that any school ought to kill for, to have on their staff. We rarely hear of teachers being poached from schools. I don’t understand this. If I was a head teacher, and I needed a new science teacher, I’d hunt down someone like Tom Sherrington and make him an offer he couldn’t refuse…

Tom was just one of the amazing teachers I met on Saturday. I’ve just read his book, and, as I have written in my review of the book over at the amazon site, I found myself envying his colleagues and students. I have to confess though, if I was a headteacher putting together my “Dream School”, Tom would have to be second-in-charge of science – I’d want Mary Whitehouse as my head of department and hope that Alby Reid, Ian Horsewell, Alex Weatherall and Joe Wright would all fall in line under her leadership.

I’d hire Tom Bennett to remind us science teachers that science isn’t the only way of making sense of the world, and put him in charge of the school’s behaviour policy. Then I’d leave Tom, who’s also the brains behind the ResearchED movement, to do the rest of the recruitment while I sat in my office twiddling my thumbs – that’s what head teachers do, isn’t it? 😉

*I appreciate that there might be ethical issues around poaching staff from other schools. It is highly unlikely that I will ever be in a position to hire teachers, let alone poach them from other schools. I wrote this blog post instead of doing a bunch of #FF tweets this morning.

The science of (science) teaching

Can education research help us be better teachers? It depends. Education research is difficult to conduct for lots of reasons and is often very flawed, but I think engaging with it can, at the very least, help us reflect on what we do and why we do it.

I recently spoke at the ResearchED2014, organised by teachers who claim to be “raising research literacy in the teaching profession, busting bad science and building links between people from the ground up”. I think they’ve got the right idea and, judging by the attendance at the conference and the plans to hold similar ones around the world, they are succeeding.

For me, the conference showed me the best of the profession – teachers who were giving up their own time and money because, in most cases, they want to be better at what they do, they want to do better for the students they serve.

I was asked to give a talk, but I tried to have a discussion, which got rather lively at points. I’m not sure everyone liked my approach, but I’m not a huge fan of talking at people as a way of engaging with them about ideas. I’m pleased to report that at least one person wrote to me to say “I really enjoyed it even though you made me sweat about why on earth I was doing practical work dissolving sugar”.

A few people have asked me to share my presentation slides, but I’m not going to do that – my slides alone wouldn’t make much sense because I prepared them only to help emphasise key points and as a prompting device. My view is that it defeats the point of a live talk or discussion if a slide presentation contains all (or even most) of the information you’re trying to convey.

The short film at the top of this post summarises the key points I aimed to make in my talk. I’ve written elsewhere about the research into the effectiveness of practical work but if you want to look at the research for yourself here are some good places to start:

A Review of the Research on Practical Work in School Science

Does Practical Work Really Work? A study of the effectiveness of practical work as a teaching and learning method in school science

Practical work: making it more effective

[Edit: See also DEMO: The Movie. — Ed.]

How to Clone a Cauliflower

Cloning is one of those things your students might associate with science fiction or futuristic technologies, not something they do in a biology practical, because, well, it doesn’t usually work…until now.

Unlike previous methods used for school practicals, the technique shown in the above video provides a reliable way to carry out the practical that virtually guarantees to produce clones of a cauliflower. It was developed at The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew to allow scientists to clone plants without needing to be in a sterile lab and it’s already been used to save endangered species.

The key to the success of this technique is the sterile agar growth medium and we’ve made a separate video for technicians showing how to prepare this:

You can get further support materials for carrying out this practical at the Science and Plants for Schools website

A classic Biology practical, done better.

If you’ve studied biology in school, there’s a good chance you’ve tried to count the bubbles of gas emerging from a piece of pondweed called Elodea placed in a beaker of water. This has been a standard practical used in biology teaching for decades and is still widely used. This video shows how it can be be done better using a different plant, Cabomba, and how using different approaches allows students to learn about different aspects of photosynthesis.

Get support materials and see the other films in this series from Science and Plants for Schools.

Using Algal Balls to Investigate Photosynthesis

As you know if you’re a regular reader of this blog, we’re big fans of using demonstrations for science teaching and have made a bunch of films about how and why to use them in the classroom. Our latest films are different – they’re about class practicals and we hope they show how these particular practicals could be used to teach specific aspects of Biology, as well as demonstrating how practicals in general might be approached to ensure their effectiveness.

The film above shows various ways to use “algal balls” in Biology practicals – they’re fun to make and a fantastic tool for doing quantitative investigations of photosynthesis. There’s more information and detailed instructions over at the SAPS website.

We’re grateful to the lovely people at Science & Plants for Schools (SAPS) for asking us to make the films – we had a blast working with them and staff from the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education.

UK Science is not going to be killed by the changes to practical work in schools

It’s understandable that many in the science community are alarmed about the changes to the assessment of practical work in A-level science subjects, but as a Physics teacher working under the current system, I don’t think it is a “totally, unequivocally shit idea”. And I’m not the only teacher to think that.

Proclaiming that Ofqual have sounded the “death knell for UK science education” betrays a lack of understanding and knowledge of the realities of school science lessons and of how broken and corrupt the current situation is. As my friend and fellow Physics teacher Alby Reid puts it, “The removal of coursework from A Level science is only “a death knell for UK science” if “UK science” depends on your ability to plagiarise”.

The decision by Ofqual to remove the contribution of practical work to A-level science grades may be a cop-out in terms of dealing with the problems of the current methods for assessment, but it is undeniable that the current forms of assessing practical work are deeply flawed. In my opinion, they’re actually detrimental to the quality of practical work that gets done in schools.

It’s possible, then, that the changes may ultimately lead to an improvement in the quality of practical work that is done in schools. I would suggest that it is the responsibility of the learned societies and others making a fuss about this to take practical steps towards ensuring that happens. By, for example, providing high quality resources to help science teachers integrate good, pedagogically sound, practical work into their schemes of work. Like this, perhaps?

I’d encourage those who care about science education to develop an appreciation of the complexities and realities of how practical work in schools is currently carried out, and of how much work is needed to ensure that practical work is genuinely doing all those things we’d like it to do for children’s science education.

Ingenious, cheap way to investigate Boyle’s Law

I’ve just taught Boyle’s Law to my Year 13s and made use of the standard apparatus for demonstrating how volume changes with pressure… only I didn’t use it to do a demonstration. It was a small class, so I thought I’d try something different: I presented the class with the apparatus, told them nothing about it, and challenged them to have a play with it and a) work out what it did, then b) use it to tell me something interesting about how the world works.

The students told me later that they liked the activity because it “made them think” and they seemed to have enjoyed the process of being free to discuss ideas and work together to solve the problem I had set. I think it was a successful activity (although I suspect some students got more out of it than others), however, I wish I could have had more sets of the equipment so they could have worked in even smaller groups or even individually to explore Boyle’s Law. Next year, I might use this – a cheap, ingenious way to allow students to arrive at Boyle’s Law through experimentation:

UPDATE: Since writing this, Bob Worley has been in touch to tell me of a similar approach from CLEAPSS to allow students to explore Boyle’s Law and Charles Law with guidance available here.

Not The Alom Shaha Motor

One of the great joys in my life is to come across a new science demo, particularly if it’s an elegant, simple one. I can take credit for introducing one of my favourite science communicators, Michael de Podesta, to this demo of the motor effect. Michael kindly calls it the “Alom Shaha Motor” but I can only wish that I came up with this idea myself. Jonathan and I have made a film about this, but here’s Michael’s own, elegant, simple film of the demo.

Freezing Garlic

It’s the end of half-term and I haven’t really had a break. Jonathan and I spent the first three days of this week in Cambridge, working on a set of films for the lovely people at SAPS. I’ve spent the rest of the week doing some much needed re-decorating of my bedroom and, of course, marking stuff ready for the return to school.

The picture above is of garlic, which I peeled and chopped (in a blender thingy) earlier today, before freezing in an ice cube tray. It took me about 30 minutes to do this (while faffing about on Twitter and listening to music) and I’m glad I had the time to do it because that garlic is going to make my life just that little bit easier over the next couple of weeks.

I love cooking and I use a lot of garlic when I do – everything from a whole bulb in my dal to a few cloves fried with chilli in oil to make the simplest but most delicious of pasta sauces. But I hate peeling and chopping garlic and having it pre-peeled and chopped in this way removes the one part of many recipes I don’t like doing. (I know you can buy it like this in jars but, I swear, none of the stuff from the shops is as good as this, nor as cheap).

This little act of preparation, of being organised and ready for cooking in the future, really does make a huge difference to my enjoyment of cooking.

I think it’s the same with teaching – I always enjoy it more when I am prepared and organised to teach.

How Should We Teach Maths?

Our film, Demo: The Movie, touches on ideas about how to teach science, but Jonathan and I would really love to make a documentary with the title “How Should We Teach Science?” Alex Bellos is a populariser of maths who’s been lucky enough to make a Radio 4 documentary exploring how maths is taught in our schools today and looking at the science and evidence which supports different approaches. We’re jealous. You can listen to it by clicking here.