Re-thinking student-driven scientific investigations

lab photo

Scientific investigations are key to being a scientist. A typical high school science curriculum will have the scientific method as a key component. Students learn about the steps of designing a fair scientific experiment – writing an aim, devising a hypothesis, designing a method, analysing the results, scrutinizing the results, drawing a conclusion etc. This is then matched up with writing an investigation report.

In New South Wales, Australia, high school students are required to plan, conduct and report on a scientific investigation of their choice in the Student Research Project (SRP). I have always found the SRP to be a wonderful opportunity for student choice and personalisation of their learning because students can choose what they want to investigate and different students are able to design, conduct and analyse their experiments to different levels, according to their interests, ability level, passion and commitment. However what often happens with the SRP is that students are given a list of pre-approve “experiments” to do at home by themselves. Some popular ones are which kinds of sticky tape are the stickiest, what will keep flowers fresh the longest, what conditions will cause bread to go mouldy the quickest, etc.

While there is nothing wrong with these experiments (as they are effective in enabling students to understand the scientific method and how the write an investigation report), it does not not reflect how real scientists work. Real scientists don’t do research by themselves. They usually work with in a team, often with a mentor/supervisor who guides them in their research. Their research contributes to a bigger picture of research in their field. They don’t randomly pick a topic from a booklet and do an experiment hundreds of students have done before. When I was in third year university zoology studies, my classmates and I had an Honours student as our supervisor and we did a mini-honours investigation on whether skinks can identify predators through scent. It was something that has not been done before in that area. It was a topic that would contribute to the understanding of animal behaviour. It was one of the most authentic, engaging and valuable science learning experiences for me. And most importantly I was guided by another scientist who was more experienced than me. I learnt so much from that apprentice-master style of learning.

So how can we bring that type of experience to schools? I think now it’s easier than ever. With technology, it is now possible to create and maintain community partnerships. For the SRP, perhaps students can partner with universities? Can high school students help contribute to university research? Can high school students partner up with an Honours student or scientist? Perhaps students can use their SRP in citizen science projects such as monitoring the environment?

The SRP is a great opportunity for students to experience “real science”. The SRP is a great opportunity for students to pursue their own interests. The SRP is a great opportunity for students to contribute to scientific knowledge. It’s time to re-think the SRP and think about how can we do it differently to inspire our students.

What is future focused learning?


Licensing info can be found here.

This week I started a new role with the NSW Department of Education. I am now the Secondary Advisor for Futures Learning Unit, an initiative of Innovative Education Reform. Since I started, I’ve been frequently asked ‘What is future focused learning?’ Other synonyms I’ve heard this week are ‘future-proofing education’ and ’21st century learning’. So what are these things?

Firstly, I don’t like the term “future proofing education”. Many things in this world cannot be “future proofed”. “Future proof” makes it sound like some kind of insurance. I much prefer the term “future focused” because it emphasises a process and culture. So let’s get back to it – what is future focused learning?

I think most of us have heard of how things are rapidly changing, how many of today’s jobs will be automated soon and won’t exist, how many jobs for the next generation are not existent yet, how globalisation is influencing economic growth and social structures. Here’s a video that summarises the changes our young people will face and why we need to re-think the current way we design learning.

For me, future focused learning is about looking at the way we currently implement learning and teaching and challenging ourselves at whether this is the most effective way at preparing our students for THEIR futures. Will learning each subject separately enable student to learn how to construct knowledge and create solutions for complex problems? Will a heavy focus on knowledge consumption allow students to think creatively and critically? Is a physical environment that is designed to have one teacher for every thirty students for a short period of time the best way to personalise learning?

I often hear that future focused learning is about learning spaces and technology. Yes, spaces and technology are important, but they work with an underlying key factor – learning and teaching design. You can have the most funky and colourful furniture. You can knock down walls. You can have the latest gadgets. But unless the school culture on learning and teaching is future focused, spaces and technology will make minimal impact.

I also often hear “But aren’t we doing future focused learning already? My students are engaged. I personalise learning for my students. We already have cross-curricular units.” I don’t disagree with this. A lot of things teachers and schools already so are making a massive impact on student outcomes for their community. However, we always need to be striving for ongoing improvement which means continuous change. An important part of future focused learning is for teachers to be researchers of their own practice and develop evidence-based practices that best suit their community of learners.

So that’s my very brief take on future focused learning. I’ll dig down more in later posts. I want to get it out there that it isn’t about colourful furniture. It isn’t about refurbishing a building. Future focused learning is about how teachers teach, how students learn, how learning is designed and how schooling is designed.

Using space as a learning tool

What are school libraries used for? I think it’s safe to say that most teachers take their students to the library for physical resources like using laptops, computers, books for research or books for reading. I use to do that too. But lately I have found that I take my students to the library not for these physical resources, but for space, learning spaces that are open and flexible. The colourful, funky, movable furniture also helps, but me and my students mainly use it for the space. We bring our own laptops if we need technology. When I think about it, it’d probably be almost as sufficient if the library was a large, indoor carpeted area. With WiFi of course 🙂

Ever since I started project-based learning four years ago, it has driven more personalised, differentiated learning where students are working at different paces and at different tasks. During the one lesson, some students are working in pairs, others in small groups, and some individually. As the teacher, I might be working with an individual student, instructing a small group or instructing the whole class. What I am finding is that traditional classrooms are no longer sufficient for the pedagogy I have developed and grown into over the past four years with project-based learning. I am finding that being in a traditional classroom, that is designed to cater for 30 students, is now starting to restrict the learning of my students. We need an open space where students can find an area that suits their learning needs for the activity.

7A in library (2)

My class working in the school library in order to access an open learning space.

In the past two terms, I have been taking my students to the library for this specific purpose – space. The past fortnight has seen my students work in teams to design, conduct and report on an investigation to test factors that affect a parachute’s descent. For this project, students have to work in groups in some parts and individually in other parts. Students always end up progressing at different rates. This is where an open learning spaces is needed to enable this kind of learning to occur efficiently. However, teaching and learning in a open space has its challenges. The main ones I found are:


  • Students need to be taught and given the experience to learn how to work in an open space where there are other classes and school staff working as well.
  • Students need to be taught how to create their own little learning space in the open learning space. This includes knowing how arrange the funky, colourful furniture for the needs of the learning activity. This is why I no longer have seating plans for my classes. Students need to be given the opportunity to choose who they work with and where to sit or stand to work productively. If teachers always do this for them with seating plans, etc, students will never develop that ability.
  • Students need to be provided with the experience to develop self-regulation. The success of working in an open learning space is highly dependent on students to work individually, small groups and large groups simultaneously.

Eventually I’d like to be in a situation where there is team teaching of larger groups of students in large, open spaces. Where teaching and learning isn’t restricted an industrial model of one teacher per 30 students in a small classroom with a seating plan.

How do you use your learning spaces?


Flipped learning isn’t about making videos


I’ve been getting a lot of questions about how I go about flipped learning for my Year 7 class since I blogged about it in a previous post. I teach my Year 7 class for English, Maths, Science, Geography and History and we use flipped learning in maths. Here are some misconceptions about flipped learning I’d like to address:

1. Flipped learning isn’t about making videos.

Flipped learning involves students watching instructional videos, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the teacher has to make those videos. Many teachers don’t want to try flipped learning because they are concerned about the time it takes to create instructional videos. This is a valid concern as creating instructional videos do take up time. Personally I have created some maths instructional videos using OfficeMix but only when I don’t find suitable instructional videos that are already freely available online. There are so, so many instructional videos on the internet that it isn’t necessary for each individual teacher to create videos and re-invent the wheel. Some of my favourite sites for maths instructional videos are ABC Splash and BBC Bitesize.

Flipped learning is not about creating videos, but rather a change in pedagogy. Instead of the teacher spending class time on whole-class instruction, whole-class instruction is done via instructional videos with students viewing those videos individually in class or at home. This enables more class time to be dedicated to student collaboration and students gaining guidance from the teacher. It enables more personalised learning as it doesn’t force all students to listen to the same instructions regardless of whether they understand it or not, like traditional instruction. It also allows students to work at their own pace. If they have been absent from school, it’s OK. They haven’t missed out on the instruction because they can watch the video. Personally I find that it works the best in maths lessons because my Year 7 class has students who are working at a Year 9 level and students who are working at a Year 5 level. Flipped learning enables me as their teacher to better personalise and differentiate their learning. The photo below shows the set-up of one flipped maths lesson where I worked with a small group of students near the whiteboard while the rest of the class used instructional videos to move on to the next concept. Flipped learning frees students from doing the same thing at the same pace.

flipped learning classroom setup

Classroom set up for one maths lesson where one group of students (near the whiteboard) needed small-group instruction and guidance from me as their teacher while the rest of the class moved onto the next concept.

So don’t let the video creation scare you off from flipped learning. Use videos that are already out there.

2. You don’t have to do flip all the time.

Just like all other teaching strategies, flipped learning isn’t the most appropriate all of the time. For me, my class has 3 hours of maths a week (a two-hour block on Wednesday and a one-hour block on Friday). I use flipped learning in the two-hour lesson and use the one-hour lesson to do formative assessment activities.

3. There’s no one-size-fits-all.

I think the “proper” flipped learning approach is for students to watch the instructional videos at home. For my students, that wouldn’t work for a range of reasons so they watch the videos in class.  Do what works for you and your students.

The key is to try it. Don’t let the video creation aspect scare you. Use videos that are already out there. Flip for a few lessons to start with and see how it goes.

How to teach the reasons for the seasons


Diagram showing the Earth revolving around the Sun. Image is public domain.

Why does the Earth have seasons? This, along with other phenomena associated with Earth’s movement in space, is regularly taught throughout primary school and high school. In New South Wales, Australia, students learn the seasons from Year 3/4 through to Year 7/8.  By the time students reach high school (Year 7/8), they know that it is the Earth’s tilt and its revolution around the Sun are associated with the seasons. However, many students don’t know why or they hold the misconception that the Earth’s tilt causes the Southern Hemisphere to be a little bit closer to the Sun during some times of the year and this little bit of extra closeness to the Sun causes it to be warmer, so hence summer, and vice versa for winter. In reality, the Earth being tilted while it is revolving around the Sun results in variations of solar intensity due to varying angles of incidence. This is a very difficult concept for students to grasp. I have found the following collection of activities useful in guiding Year 7/8 students to understand the real reasons for the seasons.

Identify the misconceptions

Ask students to explain why the Earth has seasons. The majority of students will be able to say something about the Earth’s tilt and its revolution around the Sun. Many will stop there. Some will go on with the misconception about the slight changes in the distance between the hemispheres and the Sun causing the seasons.

Investigation – Angle of insolation and heat distribution

Students to work in groups in an investigation like this one to explore how the angle of insolation affects heat distribution, which in turn results in variations of temperatures and daylight hours as the Earth revolves around the Sun. I find that many students experience difficulty with this activity. Not only is the concept of seasons caused by angle of insolation challenging enough, but the activity itself is challenging as it uses challenging numeracy concepts.


I find this video from Crash Course kids effective in reinforcing the concepts discovered in the investigation.

How do you teach reasons for the seasons? Do you also find that students in Year 7/8 have difficulty understanding it conceptually? What hands-on activities do you do with your students?

How can we make Mars the perfect planet for the perfect society?

How can we make Mars the perfect planet for the perfect society?

This is the project my Year 7s will work on in Term 2. The project will be a cross-curricular project involving English, Science, Geography and History. In English, students will be reading the novel, The Giver, to explore a “perfect” society. In Science, they will be learning about space and space travel. In Geography, they will be learning about what makes a society (laws, types of government, etc) and in History, they will be learning about Ancient Rome as a society. Students will produce a range of learning artefacts for this project, including building their own “perfect” society in Minecraft.

Here’s their project outline. Keep in mind I had to frame this project with restrictions of existing assessments in place for all the subjects.

How can we make Mars the perfect planet for a perfect society-

I have also made a project progress wall in my classroom. Previously, I have found it challenging to keep track of the stages students are up to for their projects. Having the project wall will enable students to see the major milestones of the project and allow me and the whole class to visually see where everyone is up to.

This project will be launched to the class next week. Watch this space for updates 🙂

Project evaluation – What to do again? What to change next time?

My Year 7 class has just finished one of their projects. It’s semi project based learning. I usually do a quasi PBL at the start of the year to assess my students’ existing abilities to work independently and collaboratively on projects. Here’s an outline of the project.

language project

Now that this project has finished. I’d like to reflect on what worked and what can be changed next time.

What worked and should be done again

  • The theme and content of water ties Geography and Science together very well. For this project we focused on the water cycle (for both Science and Geography), the social impacts of water (Geography) and separation techniques to obtain clean water (Science).
  • Using Science and Geography as the content for English. The end project of the speech is originally an English assessment for Year 7s (whether they did PBL or not). Using the water concepts from Science and Geography as the content for the speech was a very efficient way of using time.
  • Using Google Docs as cycles of feedback. The students used Google Docs for the different formative assessment components. Using the Editing mode and Comments in Google Docs enabled an efficient way for feedback to be provided and acted on.
  • Using Google Forms for students to give feedback on each others’ final speeches.


What needs to be changed next time

  • The Driving Question. I was not a huge fan of this Driving Question. Next time I will have students create a persuasive product that convinced young people to donate to a charity that addressed water issues. I don’t know what the driving question will be for that but I think the end product is more meaningful that the current speech to their peers.
  • Sharing the end product to a wider audience. For this project this time around, we didn’t upload the videos of the students’ speeches online as many of the students did not feel confident enough to so. I originally had the idea of TED talk style speeches given by students. However, their speeches given in front of the class was still top quality. Just because it isn’t on YouTube, it doesn’t mean the end product isn’t worthy.
  • Feedback on giving speeches. For this project, we spent a lot of time on the language of persuasiveness. The speeches went through 3 cycles of feedback for each student. While we did look at some speech samples, we didn’t go through nearly enough feedback cycles for the actual act of speech giving. This is what I have to work on next time. I’m thinking of using a video annotation tool for students to annotate evidence of effective speech presentation for next time.