Another chapter in my teaching

Tomorrow I will be starting another chapter in my teaching journey. I will be starting a new role as Head Teacher Secondary Studies at Concord High School. It is the first school I will be moving to where I’m not an early career teacher but as an experienced teacher and leader. However, all job changes come with challenges regardless of experience. I will have new relationships to establish with students, colleagues, parents and the community. There are new administration processes to get use to like roll marking, printing, new timetable times to remember, etc. These are some of the more specific teaching challenges for me at my new school.

Moving to a bigger school

My previous school was at just the size where all the science teachers had their own classrooms. Many of my learning routines and teaching strategies has been developed with the assumption of having my own learning space. My new school has a much larger student population so learning spaces are shared and I will be in multiple spaces each day. Things like scaffolds and project timelines on the wall will need to be adapted. I’ve already created new sets of formative assessment cards that are smaller and easier to carry around the school. At my previous schools, I used traffic light cups and A4 sized multiple choice cards that stayed in the classroom.

Teaching a new subject

At my new school I will be teaching Year 11 and 12 chemistry. I’m approved to teach chemistry but did not teach it at my previous schools where I mainly taught physics and senior science. I’m really looking forward to this as I love learning new content.

I am really looking forward to this change but also a bit nervous. What are your tips on starting at a new school?

Science with gummy bears

Gummy bears are not only a delicious treat, they also have multiple uses in science. This term my year 9 class are completing a project called Project Mars. Project Mars is a joint project with the Powerhouse Museum where students can remotely control a Mars Rover to perform experiments on a recreated Martian surface to find out whether Mars could support life.

To collect and analyse the data from these experiments on the Martian surface, students need to learn about atoms and waves, and this is where gummy bears come in. Gummy bears have come in really handy for two experiments showing the properties of light.

(1) Gummy bears and laser experiment

Gummy bears can be used to show how light is absorbed, transmitted and reflected. This activity show why objects have different colours.

Students shined a red laser light onto red gummy bears and green gummy bears. The red light will transmit and reflect on the red gummy bears, but absorbed by the green gummy bears. Students then shined a green laser light onto red gummy bears and green gummy bears and compare the observations. This experiment makes the concept of absorption, transmission and reflection of light more real to students.


(2) Gummy bear wave machine

I came across this experiment on YouTube. Gummy bears, skewers and duct tape is used to make a wave machine to demonstrate a range of properties of waves. I really like this experiment as it is a hands-on and visual way to show students properties of waves and works a lot better than skipping ropes and slinkys.



Running to read, write, listen and speak

Literacy in science has always been a huge focus for me. Not only is literacy a priority area for our school, but I like to be educating my students so they are young scientists and there’s nothing more important to a scientist than to be able to understand and communicate their ideas clearly.

I personally find reading and writing to be the easiest to integrate into high school science. However, listening and speaking are a little harder for me to embed. Just a few days ago I remembered a strategy called running dictation which I learnt from an English as a Second Language consultant a few years ago.

Running dictation is a game that students play in groups to practise their reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. The teacher puts a short passage somewhere in the classroom (in my case it was a passage on the atmosphere). Each group of students selects a reader and the rest are writers. The readers in each group need to run (or in my classroom, walk very fast as I don’t want any injures) to the passage, read it silently to themselves, remember as much as possible, run back to their team, recite what they remember to their team and the rest of the team writes it down. The first team that gets everything correct (the words, spelling, punctuation, etc) wins. You might think it’s a noisy game but because each team doesn’t want the others to hear and steal their work, they work very quietly. I did this with Year 8s the other day and they absolutely loved it. I like how it allows students the opportunities to work together as a team and speak about science.

Year 8 students in a running dictation activity

Year 8 students in a running dictation activity

I know running dictation isn’t new but I haven’t seen it used in science classes so I’d thought this blog might give other science teachers some ideas for literacy. I find that running dictation allows students to read, write listen and speak science in a fun way. It’s gets them up and moving and doesn’t make literacy seem like a drag like it sometimes is.

In future lessons I’m going to try some of these other ideas for running dictation to make it more challenging for my students.

Giving students a say in their homework

This is probably not new but this term I’m trialling a different way of doing homework with Year 9s.

I try to make homework so it doesn’t become a workload burden for myself and my students. A lot of my students have extra-curricular activities like sport and I have had quite a few parent phone calls raising the concern between balancing their family lives and homework. I’ve also had the issue of different access to resources from home. A lot of my students love doing homework activities online, but not all of my students have internet access. To create a set of online homework activities and then another set of offline activities, for all four of my classes became too labour-intensive that there was very low return-of-investment.

So this term I’m doing something different with Year 9s. They will be given a choice in what kinds of homework they want to. The topic is on the nervous system, endocrine system and immune system.

I’ve made sure there are activities that are quite basic (like completing a table) to activities that are higher-order that require the creation of products like video. I’ve also made sure that students can choose HOW they complete their homework. They can do things electronically or on paper.

Not sure how this will go, but is worth trying. I’d love your thoughts on this, whether you’re a student, parent, teacher or anyone else.

Watch this space for updates 🙂

My 4 goals for 2014

an image of two people drawing targets

In New South Wales, Australia, the 2014 school year is just about to start so I thought I’d share with you my 4 professional goals for 2014.

Goal #1 – Keeping science real

2013 was the year where I started the journey of connecting my students with current, practising Australian scientists. This was a response to our students’ survey responses that they did not know many careers or jobs that science can lead them to. They also did not know what scientists actually do. Many students have accountants, tradespeople, bankers, etc within their families or family friends but students often do not have exposure to scientists in their everyday lives (ask a student to name a scientist and they’ll still tell you Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein; they rarely name a living scientist). We wanted to make science real in the sense that we can put real people’s faces to what the students learn in the classroom. So in 2013 our school connected with Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools, where we are now partnered with scientist Melina Georgousakis. Melina has already spoken to our Year 8s and 9s on her journey to becoming a scientist, what she does in her job and explained how the immune system and vaccinations work (that’s her area of expertise). In our end-of-topic survey, a lot of our year 9s listed Melina’s visit as the best activity of the topic. In their words the best part of the topic was “when the lady came in to talk about vaccines”. In 2014 we have plans for our Year 12 Biology students to work with Melina when they explore the immune system more deeply.

2014 will also be the year where I want to utilise social media and technology to connect students with scientists, not just in Australia but from around the world. In 2013 social media led me to connect with a postgraduate student called Ash from the University of Technology, Sydney, where he came to the school and spoke to Year 8s about his work with sharks (Year 8s were learning about the role of sharks in the ecosystem and how removing sharks as apex predators impact on the ecosystem). We also connected with Dr Mel Thompson from Deakin University and Dr Karl via Skype. In 2014 I am hoping to expand to using Twitter to connect with my students with scientists. I want to create a class Twitter account for my students and connect with scientists on Twitter. There’s so many of them such as @realscientists and Dr Cameron Webb.

Goal #2 – Embed science communication into my teaching

I was very privileged to be involved in the UTS Summer School this year where I worked with Christy, a former Questacon presenter (a science communicator who does science shows for children). She re-emphasised to me the importance of designing learning that drives students’ curiosity and create learning experiences that are memorable. One of my biggest gripes with science education is that it uses flash-bang experiments inappropriately. You hear lots of students say they just want to do pracs. You hear a lot of teachers say that all students want to do are pracs. A lot of the times I think showy experiments are wasted at school as they only serve as entertainment. Christy re-emphasised to me that showy experiments need to be set up in a way that drives students to want to know the science WHY something has happened and the journey to understanding they experience must be memorable. This can mean turning explanations into stories, plays, musical items.

One of the ideas I have this year is to have a science communication project where students work in small groups and become science communicators themselves where they design and perform an act that explains a scientific concept. If I could I’d like to make this a cross-curricular project with Drama.

Goal #3 – Making learning, thinking and understanding visible

This year is where our faculty applies the Structured Observed Learning Framework (SOLO) for all students in Year 9. We have used this year’s implementation of the new syllabus for the Australian Curriculum as a drive for this change. See this previous post for more details. The challenge (not so much a goal) will be to evaluate the impact on student learning.

Goal #4 – A better work/life balance

Over the last few years I realise that looking after yourself is a one of the most important jobs for teachers. After reading this post on 10 tips for slowing down, I really want to make sure that my entire faculty’s wellbeing is well looked after this year. I tend to be someone who doesn’t know when to stop. I feel guilty when I’m not doing work related to school. When I’m relaxing it feels like I’m doing some kind of injustice to my students’ education. I love my job but I’m no use to my students if I burn out. From the post on 10 tips for slowing down, I want to make these changes:

  • Allocate time to opening and closing meetings

Schools are such busy places that many teachers schedule meetings right on bell times so that we are rushing from one place to another. This year I want meetings where people are now running from their classrooms, crashing down and then expected to immediately adjust their mindframes. I’m hoping that simple things like having meetings start 5-10 minutes after the bell will avoid that rush feeling that make people stress.

  • Make time to eat

Eating recess and lunch is my other goal for wellbeing this year. While this seems self-explanatory, I know many teachers don’t eat, or sit down, or even visit the bathroom during school hours because there’s just so much to do. I’m not sure how successful I’ll be at this but this year I want to reduce the number of times where I eat my sandwich while driving home.

Learning about SOLO – using self regulation and feedback to increase student achievement

This year my faculty have been designing units of work for the new NSW science syllabus for the Australian Curriculum with the Structured Observed Learning Outcome (SOLO) framework.(If you don’t know what SOLO is, watch this video for a crash course) The reason why we are investing quite heavily into SOLO is because as teachers, we know that self-regulation and quality feedback are the two of the most effective elements in increasing student achievement. SOLO, with its associated learning intentions and success criteria, will allow our faculty to develop our students’ self regulation skills and further improve the quality of teacher feedback and peer feedback.

For most of the year, we have been designing learning with the SOLO framework so that each series of lessons have learning intentions and success criteria catergorised  by the different SOLO levels of thinking and understanding. A couple of weeks ago, we went a step further. The whole faculty sat down and designed an agreed approach to how we will use these learning intentions and success criteria. As a team, we decided learning intentions, success criteria and SOLO were examples of best practice, but we need to ensure that it filters down to every individual student. We agreed that learning intentions, success criteria and SOLO must be high visible and evident in everyday teacher practice for it to have maximum impact on student achievement.

As a team we decided on the following for communicating learning intentions and success criteria to students:

  • At the start of a topic, students are given a list of the learning intentions and success criteria for the whole topic so they know where they are headed before they start learning about the topic.
  • Each lesson will have the specific learning intentions and success criteria displayed. This can be written on the board, or displayed via a data projector or interactive whiteboard.
  • The teacher will explain the learning intentions and success criteria to students at the start of the lesson.
  • At the last 10 minutes of the lesson, students are to reflect on whether they have achieved the success criteria for the lesson and what they need to do next to be successful.

As a team we also agreed that we need to teach students about SOLO. We have designed different activities for students to learn about SOLO. Here’s one of the activities

As a team we also agreed to providing student feedback using the SOLO framework.

What we hope to see are:

  • Students and teachers using a common language to discuss levels of thinking and understanding
  • Students and teachers using SOLO as a way to see current levels of thinking and learning and where that thinking and learning needs to head
  • More students moving from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Many students have a mindset that they are “not good” at science. We want our students to realise that to be good at science, there needs to be a certain level of thinking and learning that can be achieved with effort, as opposed to natural abilities. It’s part of making learning and thinking visible.

Our faculty has also devised a draft plan to evaluate the impact of SOLO on students’ achievements and mindsets, with help from a university academic. So watch this space for more updates on our SOLO journey.


3 reasons why students are switching off science

There is a decline in student interest in science. Just type “students decline science” and hundreds of articles will come up of students not choosing to study science in post-compulsory schooling in countries like Australia, USA and the UK. At a time where technology is rapidly increasing and the world is facing issues like climate change, rapid rates of extinction, water shortage and food shortage, it is worrying to see students switching off science.

What I find more concerning is my observations that kids love watching science YouTube channels at home in their own time, but they are not enjoying school science. Something is wrong. While the reasons below for why students are switching off science are not validated by any research data, they are inklings that I have based on observations of students and numerous student surveys completed at my school on their engagement in science.

Reason #1 – Science teachers rely too much on whiz-bang experiments to make science interesting

I think every science teacher is guilty of this. I certainly am. We often use showy experiments for entertainment to keep students engaged. Instead of promoting our subject as intrinsically interesting, we use colourful and bubbly experiments to “trick” students into liking science. How many times do we have students walk into a science lab and ask “are we doing an experiment today” and groan when the answer is no. Of course experiments have a place in science, but science isn’t about setting things on fire or making things explode. Science is a way of thinking and aligns with humans’ natural curiosity of understanding of the world around us. I think we have pushed science as a subject of fire and explosions for so long that this is what students expect and they are disappointed when a unit of work or a series of lessons do not have experiments.

Reason #2 – Science lessons often do not allow all students to experience some success

In NSW, Australia, Year 8 students do a state-wide test called Essential Secondary Science Assessment (ESSA). At the end of ESSA, students are asked to rank their favourite subjects. Since 2006, year after year the results show students like PDHPE and Visual Art the most. My gut feeling is that these subjects allow ALL students to experience some success. In Visual Art, it doesn’t matter if you are a not-so-good painter or if you are as brilliant as Picasso, every single student is able to produce an artwork, which is showcased. Same with PDHPE, it doesn’t matter how bad or good you are at sport, every single student have been part of a team that has won a game and experienced the excitement of success. Not so in science. In many science lessons, students don’t produce anything that can be showcased. Only a handful of student who are “good” at science feel success. A lot of students think they are “bad” at science. This is one of the reasons why I’m a fan of project based learning (PBL). PBL enables students to create a product that shows their learning and they showcase that product to an authentic audience. This give students a sense of success.

Reason #3 – Students don’t know the careers that science can lead to

Not many students see scientists in their everyday lives. They see bankers, accountants, lawyers but they rarely see scientists or associate jobs with science. In the surveys at my school, the most common reason given for not wanting to study science in post-compulsory schooling is that they don’t need science for their job or career. While we as science teachers know that many jobs and careers require some understanding of science, do our students know? Do we link our students to current practicing scientists so they can what they learn in school is actually used in people’s jobs in real life?

At my school we have been pushing for connections with university pHd students and current scientists. Through the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), our students have been lucky enough to go to the university regularly and hear about current research conducted pHd students and meet scientists face-to-face and know that science can lead to a fulfilling career. We have utlised the scientists in schools program to have a scientist come to talk to our students about what she does in her everyday job and why finds her job fun and rewarding. We also ask parents to come to school and speak to our students. This year, we had a parent who works in the communications industry speak to our students about his job, how it requires an understanding of energy transmission and waves and how much he loves his job.

A marine biologist specialising in sharks speak to Year 8s about this job and why he loves being a scientist.

A marine biologist specialising in sharks speak to Year 8s about this job and why he loves being a scientist.

And has all this gotten results? Many of our year 10 students apply to attend UTS summer school where they can choose from film, design, science, IT and health over the Christmas holidays. In previous years I have struggled to get any students to apply for the science summer school. Everyone wanted to film and design. After a couple of years of connecting students with university science students and real scientists, we have 12 students apply for science summer school this year.

As we are entering the new syllabus for the Australian Curriculum in NSW, it is time that science teachers re-think HOW we teach science and how can we work with the scientific community to increase student engagement in science.