Category Archives: Discuss

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.]

That was quick

Last month, I linked to a New Yorker story about managerial and regime failings in a US school, though I was more interested in the ‘infatuation with data’ angle than the ensuing misconduct. On Twitter, several people commented that they were worried we’d eventually hear similar stories out of the UK.

In today’s Observer:

Academies run by a superhead praised by the government for producing schools that “outperform the rest” of the state sector had secret advance notice of Ofsted inspection dates.



Science Capital

A good number of years ago I came across a piece of American research that concluded that the closest indicator to whether a child studied science at a higher level was, aged ten responding positively to ‘being a scientist would make my parents proud’.

Let’s look at that again, shall we? Not ‘I like science’ or ‘I’m good at science’ nor even ‘This really cool scientist is an amazing role model’.

‘Being a scientist would make my parents proud’.

I remember being  struck deeply by this. Firstly: ten is young. Many interventions target teens. Secondly: the nuance involved. The child is already prioritising their parent’s hopes over their own interests, and that decision remains true through all their choices. Yikes.

This left me with a profound conclusion. We’ve been targeting the wrong people, folks!

Longitudinal studies are expensive and difficult, but one study isn’t enough to rewrite whole philosophies over,  which is why I’ve been following the Aspires project coming out of Kings College, London.

The final report last December tells us ‘Most students like science, but do not aspire to science careers’

Coming strongly out of that research is the concept that family ‘science capital’ is key. This attempts to measure how much science contact families have in daily life – interest, understanding, qualifications, knowing someone with a science career – these all count towards science capital.

Catching kids by themselves may not be enough, working with families and parents might well be more effective, which is why I was delighted to read Alom’s article last week giving some background to the Royal Institution’s new summer project ExpeRimental.

There is no silver bullet, no simple, single answer, but it’s a delight to see projects like this one coming from a recognised national institution based on current research.

It reminds me, I need to dig out more research like this, it helps to mould my thinking. I only wish I knew where to find that original paper. If it rings a bell with anyone, please leave a comment.

Lies, damned lies, and lying to ourselves with statistics

John Ewing, who served as the executive director of the American Mathematical Society for fifteen years, told me that he is perplexed by educators’ “infatuation with data,” their faith that it is more authoritative than using their own judgment. He explains the problem in terms of Campbell’s law, a principle that describes the risks of using a single indicator to measure complex social phenomena: the greater the value placed on a quantitative measure, like test scores, the more likely it is that the people using it and the process it measures will be corrupted. “The end goal of education isn’t to get students to answer the right number of questions,” he said. “The goal is to have curious and creative students who can function in life.”

I don’t know much about the US education system, but this lengthy feature in the New Yorker paints a hair-raising (and at times depressing) picture of a rigidly data-driven monster corrupting everyone it touches.

There’s a general principle here, that any time you build a system you have to think through what exploits of that system would look like, and how you’re going to guard against them. But what emerges here is less a picture of people conspiring for personal gain, rather people fighting the system to provide the evidence it requires that they’re doing the right thing anyway:

To [the mother of a teacher who corrected students’ exam papers], his decision to cheat was an act of civil disobedience. She told him that as soon as she heard about cheating in Atlanta she thought, “I bet my son was part of that.”

The villain of the story isn’t so much corrupt public officials as the insidious temptation of performance metrics. How close is the correlation between things you can measure, and the outcomes you want to achieve?

As the Wikipedia page on Campbell’s Law points out, there’s a parallel in the way the lofty goal of ‘evidence-based policy’ degrades into ‘policy-based evidence.’

Royal Society Vision for science & maths education

A quick post as I head out of the door this morning: the Royal Society have published their document on what they think STEM education should look like by 2030, and how they think we should get there.

They’re doing #ASEChat on Twitter next Monday (8-9pm BST), and in the autumn they’re planning a bunch of discussions about responses to the plan, and how it might be implemented.

I’ve only had chance to skip through the PDFs, but my first impression is: blimey, that looks expensive. I guess I’m not sure whether to cheer the sense of ambition or grouchily snark “Good luck with that.”

I’ll be interested to hear opinions as the discussion develops.

Memory, advertising, and business models

This is probably a sign that I need to dust off one of my personal blogs, but to be fair I do spend a chunk of time trying to work out how science communication (and particularly online engagement) can be sustainable. Which in practice means: trying to work out what the business model is for STEM engagement.

Which in turn means: advertising.

OK, that’s a bit cynical, and there are plenty of circumstances where, it turns out, people will actually pay for public engagement (I know, radical thought, right?). However, for at least some web-based projects one could do, advertising would end up being key. And that’s awkward, because:

  1. Online advertising is more-or-less loathed by everyone, and
  2. It doesn’t work anyway, partly because of (1).

Ask me about children’s science TV if you want to know my opinions on advertising-backed business models. Been there, done that, still in therapy over it.

Meanwhile, this wonderful recent conference presentation/essay by Maciej Ceglowski spans memory, privacy, and the broken startup ecosystem. Likening venture capital pitches to selling advertising futures is, I think, a brilliant and insightful criticism.

Quora’s declared competitor is Wikipedia, a free site that not only doesn’t make revenue, but loses so much money they have to ask for donations just to be broke.

Recently, Quora raised $80 million in new funding at a $900 million valuation. Their stated reason for taking the money was to postpone having to think about revenue.

There are times when I find it frustrating that our only real models for scicomms are enlightened self-interest (ie. forget the business model and do it anyway) and grant funding (ie. enlightened self-interest by someone with more money than you). Then I remember that the whole point is: people pay for things they value. We only assume those things are goods and services – they can also be something less tangible, like ‘the public good.’

I often think we should be less apologetic about that.

Ceglowski’s presentation is long, but worth your time.

Scripts, detail, and obsessively-detailed scripts

This film has been doing the rounds of late, and while there’s plenty of discussion out there about whether it paints too narrow a depiction of ‘comedy’, I, for one, think it’s a good point well made. Of course there are counter-arguments – comedy wouldn’t be interesting if it could be done in 8 minutes.

The lesson for scicomms is, I think, that detail matters. We obsess about our explanations, but we’re rarely as careful with our transitions (which to my mind are both more difficult and more dangerous), let alone the visual aspects of our performances. Since I cut my teeth in children’s TV this has always baffled me, and Wright’s visual flourishes feel like an extended version of what we too-often failed to do in CITV.

Whatever your medium, the performance your audience perceives is the total of what you say, how you say it, and what happens. Comedy is merely one form of emotional prompt you can deliver: to me, none of this is really about humour or film-making, it’s about the rôle of visual cues in conveying information.

Helping teachers do what they do best

While this blog continues to explore the boundaries and overlaps between teaching, learning, communication and performance, some of you have more specific needs. While we wring our hands about structuring demonstrations, you want proper training.

Firstly – do get in touch. The people you’re reading here do lots of training and directing of performers, bits of writing and consultancy, and workshops with teachers. People ask us back and everything.

For more formal CPD do find out what’s on offer from the Science Learning Centres. It’s what they’re there for, as this blog post from Yvonne Baker describes. In that post, she outlines some of the CPD available from the National Science Learning Centre. It may be cheaper than you expect, too.

Coming full-circle and in reference to the wider issues Yvonne mentions, if you’re following the A-level practical exam thing you may be interested in Alom’s take on the matter here.

Identity and the structure of argument

Maria Konnikova has a terrific article in the New Yorker which should be required reading for anyone involved in science communication. It’s a quick overview of recent research into what sorts of messages ‘land’ with an audience and actually impact their thinking.

“The goal was to test whether facts, science, emotions, or stories could make people change their minds.

The result was dramatic: a whole lot of nothing. None of the interventions worked.”

Continue reading Identity and the structure of argument