Do you purposefully shy away from offering a full explanation of your demonstrations, concerned that you might mislead, miss out, or misplace? Are you tempted to leave the explanation until after the demonstration not because you think that would represent good pedagogy, but because you hope your audience will be so thrilled by the effect they’ll overlook any descriptive inadequacy on your part?
Don’t be ashamed! The first step in dealing with explanation anxiety is recognising that you have a problem. You’re amongst friends here. No braying students will laugh at your stumbles, no academic will pick holes in your mostly-right-but-a-bit-rusty-if-you-really-think-it-through models, no science communicator will roll their eyes and tell you they saw this done better at the Exploratorium.
Just honest, constructive peer criticism. Together, we can conquer your explanation anxiety, and help you become the demonstrator you always wanted to be!
— I’ve sat on this post for months, and have rewritten it several times. Ironically, I don’t think I’m explaining myself very well. Time to heed my own advice and publish first, think through completely second. All I know for sure is that when I’m writing, I feel a degree of tension building as I approach ‘the explanation.’
Is there such a thing as “Explanation anxiety”? Do you suffer from it? Comments below, please…
DEMO is really intended to be watched in your own time, as a pick-me-up when the day-to-day grind has dulled your enthusiasm, or to reinforce and help clarify how you think about demonstrations. It’s a bit long, perhaps, to watch in a staff meeting or training course, though we’re already hearing reports of it being used that way.
With Alom’s previous film Why is Science Important? one thing that proved useful was having the film chunked up into individual scenes. DEMO has so many forward- and back-references we’re not sure that would be appropriate, however if you’d really like a specific scene pulled out, drop us a note in the comments here and we’ll see what we can do.
Alternatively, you can dissect the film yourself on YouTube. If you’re signed in, below the film you’ll see a button labelled ‘Remix this video!’. By the magic of Creative Commons licenses, pressing that button will pull the film into YouTube’s editor, allowing you to chop it up to your heart’s content. All we’d ask is that you include a link back to http://demothemovie.com in your film and its description, so people can find the full story.
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.
I love this demo, but it’s one of those oddly bimodal ones – you can interact with it in two different ways:
You throw marbles at it yourself, and stare at them. This is delightful, though rarely very informative.
You’re led through a structured exploration by a demonstrator, as here. This is informative, but less delightful.
The challenge for the demonstrator is to balance their audience’s natural inclination to roll the marbles themselves with their inclination to retain control and direct attention. That is: play vs. lecture, or perhaps more appropriately here, interactive exhibit vs. demonstration.
We explore this a little in the forthcoming Demo film, which starts with a candle flame. We all love staring at the flames of an open fire, but we don’t necessarily learn very much about combustion by doing so. How we use a demonstration is perhaps more important than the demonstration itself. That’s certainly the case for teaching, and I suspect also true for storytelling.
This week, one of the universities with which we worked was a teacher training college. As I found last year, it’s a pleasure to work with tremendously capable Emirati women and introduce them to perhaps a slightly different way of interacting with their audiences. The parallels and differences between science communication and conventional classroom practice are fascinating.
At one point we found ourselves discussing demonstrations, and how they might best be used. “Ask the audience to predict what they think’s going to happen!” cried one happy participant. “Yes!” continued another, “Then observe what actually happens, and ask them to explain why.”
Predict/Observe/Explain, it turns out, is quite the thing at this particular college. Cool.
Science demonstrations are often criticised for their passive nature, their gratuitous exploitation and their limited ability to develop scientific knowledge and understanding. In some of today’s active-learning-obsessed classrooms, demonstrations are getting a bad reputation compared to their hands-on equivalents.
I’m passionate about the power of science demos in, and out, of the classroom. For me, demonstrations can be emotionally engaging science theatre. Their unique power lies, like theatre, in their impact on the communal emotional engagement and focus of the audience. Demonstrations have enormous potential to:
create and sustain interest
communicate and share emotions
reveal phenomena by showing, not just telling
develop scientific thinking skills, and
provoke further interaction, thought and discussion.
I’ve tried to capture a rationale for the benefits of science demonstrations in this paper written for science teachers, but much of this applies to the demos performed by science communicators too.
So why are science demonstrations important to you?
The Council for Science and Technology (CST) says that without practical lessons, science in schools is “like studying literature without reading books”. I’m not sure that’s true. I suspect, if I had to, I could teach my students “science” without ever giving them a single practical lesson, provided I was allowed to use demonstrations and videos. As long as I was allowed to show my student the phenomena I’m trying to get them to understand, I think I could teach a meaningful science course and that they could go on to become scientists if that’s what they wanted to do. Sure, it wouldn’t be the most complete or satisfying way of teaching science, but it would be better than no science education at all and, dare I say it, it might even be better than some approaches to science teaching which include lots of practical work. The CST’s analogy is inaccurate – practical work is not as central to the teaching of science as reading books is to the teaching of literature, just ask any GCSE student who has managed to pass their science exams by simply reading the textbook.
I’ve written about practical work before and even made a short film about it, so I won’t re-hash those arguments here except to say that it’s not unreasonable to assume that “doing” science (it’s debatable that this is what really happens in practical science lessons) might be a pretty good way of learning science. However, we should be aware that this is, as leading education researcher Jonathan Osborne puts it, a “dangerous assumption”. According to Osborne, the role of science education is:
To construct in the young student a deep understanding of a body of existing knowledge. In doing so, it needs to show why this knowledge is valued; that it was hard won; and that science is a creative process – that it offers you the opportunity to free yourself from the shackles of received wisdom by creating your own knowledge. However, that is not the same as the doing of science and there is a clear line in the sand that needs to be drawn between the two activities. (E-NARST News, July 2007, from conference speech)
As good science teachers we should be wary of people who over-emphasise the importance or benefits of practical work in science teaching and we should look to the research and evidence on how to improve our practice to get the most effective learning for our students. Science is about ideas. We should make sure our ideas about science education are as sound as the ones we attempt to teach.
I think chemists have it tough when it comes to demos. Tougher than physicists, but in an odd way tougher than biologists too. Sure, there are precious few well-known biology demos (a subject for future posts, I’m sure), but chemistry is… hmm.
Look, I did a year of degree-level chemistry. I loved IR spectrometers. The only proper research paper to which I contributed was in computational chemistry. But I never really “got” chemistry. I never found that the practical work I did gave me confidence in the models I’d been taught, in part because of the bizarre ‘atomic model of the week’ strategy of late-80s A-levels. You know, the one where you’d just got comfortable with one particular version of How The World Works, only to have it pulled out from under your feet and replaced with something even more implausible. I found my eventual introduction to quantum mechanics a blessed relief, but then I’m weird.
My point is: I love chemistry demonstrations as theatre, but I’m squarely in the camp of not being able to remember any of the chemistry involved. What I think of as a ‘good’ physics demo reinforces or challenges my understanding of the principle behind it, but I rarely find the same sense of satisfaction in chemistry demos.
Is that because I’m a physicist; because chemistry demos are often used inappropriately; or because chemistry is somehow different?
Answers on the back of a £50 note to the usual address. Oh, and do check out the post at iBiology.
Alom and I made this film for the Nuffield Foundation’s new Practical Work for Learning website, which they’ve recently launched and are building up into a sizeable resource. The film tries to point up some of the pitfalls of practical work in the classroom context, and suggest approaches for improvement.
My problem with the film – and I write this as its director – is that I think it’s dull. Which I believe reduces its effectiveness, ironically. So it’s something of a relief to read comments like this:
Watching this video has definitely made me think and reflect on my own practice and I am looking forward to exploring the readings and resources on the Nuffield Foundation website
Alom and I come at practical work from opposite directions, almost at opposite ends of the ‘exciting’/’educational’ spectrum. One of the things we hope to hash out on ScienceDemo.org is why we agree on so much – including, for example, how ludicrous it is to present ‘exciting’ and ‘educational’ as somehow mutually exclusive.