Where has the science gone from our classrooms? – 13 ideas to bring it back

Having observed many lessons in my various roles Im increasingly concerned about how little scientific thinking is happening in science lessons. Bizarrely it is possible to get great results in science exams without being great scientists. We can teach students to decode exam papers and pass tests so that is what many teachers do. We give them fish instead of teaching them to fish. In a high pressure performance orientated system you cannot blame the teachers for following this approach as it is safe and works.

Some schools are fabulous and encourage risk taking. We only know how far we, or our students can go when we fail. As an AST in challenging schools I used to fail regularly and you knew you’d failed as the students gave you instant (and often brutal ) feedback. As scientists we need to view failure as a learning experience.  A teacher who has tried a radical lesson that hasn’t worked will either be treated by management as a maverick who pushes the boundaries  or as a pariah who must be compressed and homogenised.

In a recent article in the TES  here looked at what fictional teachers were favourites – All of the top ones were rule breakers with number 1 going to .. Dumbledore. We love the rule breakers but most of these would be reined in by management.

So here are some ideas to try to improve the scientists coming out of our classrooms

1 – Let the students know explicitly what a good scientist is like

How can we expect our students to know what we want to see if we never discuss it with them?

Do our students know what a great scientist student looks like?

If you ask them they say things like;

  • A boff who knows all the answers
  • Watches geeky shows
  • Isn’t cool
  • Rubbish at sports
  • Male
  • Gets top marks in tests

One of the problems is that most of our students don’t aspire to be these things, nor feel that they are capable of being an outstanding scientist.

Maybe we need to make the implicit explicit and let them know exactly  what we are looking for

The OFSTED definition of an outstanding student seems a decent starting point

Pupils show exceptional independence; they are able to think for themselves and raise their own questions about science knowledge and understanding and of scientific enquiry. They show high attainment in a full range of practical work and take the initiative in, for example, planning and carrying out their own scientific investigations. They use their scientific knowledge and understanding very effectively to give clear written and verbal explanations, solve problems and report findings formally. They work constructively with others, demonstrating common understanding, in discrete well-focused roles, but with all playing a part in successful investigations. They show significant levels of originality, imagination or creativity in their understanding and skills within the subject. Practical work is not confined to following instructions but uses a variety of contexts, including fieldwork, in which pupils are making decisions about investigations and ways of researching contemporary issues. They develop a sense of passion and commitment to science showing strong application and enthusiasm to learn more through scientific endeavour. The proportion of students choosing to study or work in science-related areas at the next phase is well above the national average.

What points can we take from this? One class I worked with reduced it to 5 key points – with some prompting as they struggled to drop their preconceived geek bias

  1. Someone who asks questions (this was alien to them!)
  2. Sees failure as a learning experience and is resilient
  3. Is curious
  4. Can think independently and scientifically
  5. Can solve problems creatively

Please list your own using the twitter hashtag #goodsciencestudents

I often come across teachers who say that they struggle to get everything done before the exams. If we had a class full of outstanding students how long would it take us to get through the syllabus? We dont have time not to develop them fully, but breaking out of the exam focussed , dependency cycle is hard.

How many science lessons are actually appropriate to and dont limit outstanding students? A useful way of checking your lesson plans are potentially outstanding is to see whether your outstanding students could show they are outstanding. If the answer is no then your lesson is limiting.

How much time do we spend on developing the students compared to simply increasing their knowledge. Maybe its time to shift the paradigm and put the pressure on the students to be better learners.

2- Do better practicals

Notice this doesn’t say do more practicals as this can be counterproductive.

A quote from  Professor Julia Buckingham, Chair of SCORE

Teaching science without practicals is like teaching swimming without a pool. It can be done but not as effectively. However we wouldn’t expect our students to be able to swim just by letting them splash happily around in the pool, we need to be systematic and very clear what they are learning and why.

But practical work itself does not mean scientific thinking. In fact the opposite can be the case with students merely following a set of instructions . Students often are entertained but not educated by doing practicals. They may be very engaged but we need to ask the question what learning has really taken place

Alom Shaha wrote this piece in the Guardian in 2011 here 

He challenges the widely held assumption that more science experiments will lead to a better scientists. I agree with the points raised and that we need to think about the learning , not simply the engagement. I’m not sure we need less practical work though I feel it needs to be done better.

There is a terrific checklist available from the ASE that really makes you think of what value your practical has

Practical Checklist

More research from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee here

Practical Lessons and field trips

3- Make it real

Challenge their belief system and introduce them to conformation bias

Scientists are just as prone to confirmation bias as everybody else…a tendency to look for evidence to support rather than test your own ideas. Climate change as a man made event sceptics and supporters both manage to interpret the same data to support their views. An interesting article outlining both viewpoints is here 

Students should be able to test ideas and look at concepts with open minds.

4 Strategies you could try are

1) Circle of Viewpoints – Students are asked to put across opposing viewpoints for a dilemma or a decision. The structure is  I am           thinking … topic … from the point of view of ……. . I think … (give view of that person with a justification) . A question that       my view generates is ….. They then do the same for as many characters as appropriate to the task

Arguing for/against wind farms as an environmentalist / local resident / birdwatcher

2) Claim/support/question – A way of structuring ideas . What is your claim? What supports your claim?  What may be questioned about your claim?

For example I believe in evolution/creationism you could use this resource here

3) Reporters Notebook – A very powerful technique, this puts things in context for analysis

Identify the story/situation/dilemma

What are the facts? what are the events? ie what do we really know?

What are the thoughts/feelings of the parties?

What more information do you need?

What is your judgement and why?

The Daily Mail and the Guardian are ideal for this as editorials of both can show bias and offer opposite viewpoints

4) Traffic Lighting – Ideal for analysing newspapers for bias. Using different coloured highlighters

Red – Highlight strong – Sweeping statements, beliefs, feelings, self interest, one sided arguments, uncorroborated claims

Amber – Highlight milder versions of the red claims

Green – Highlight the facts or strongly evidenced claims

Veritasiums research is massive  and his videos are superb!

4- Consider Action Science

Having had a conversation with the truly inspirational Bill Robertson, Ph.D  also known as drsk8board  his website is here   it struck us how if you look at the terms of outstanding scientists what processes do skateboarders use in learning a new trick

Research either online and/or by observing others

Talk to others about the trick- pre planning

Planning what they are going to do

Risk assess it  and plan what to do to reduce the fallout of failure – they often do this very badly http://www.wikihow.com/Avoid-Injury-on-a-Skateboard

Attempt the trick often in front of others

In all likelihood fail but not be defeated but to see it as a learning experience

Analyse what went right/wrong

Evaluate, improve and attempt again (resilient)

Practice it until it becomes second nature (deliberate practice )

Create new tricks from what they have learned (extended abstract within SOLO taxonomy)

If we could harness these skills within the classroom these pupils would have the potential to be outstanding students, however they rarely are.

Getting good grades and working out how to decode exam papers are not their drivers so although they may be very good at following the process of scientific enquiry these skills are not recognised or utilised by the teacher, nor valued by the students as they dont see the relevance.  Often these students disengage with education feeling they have few skills and dont see the ones they have as being transferable 

Bizarrely these skateboarders may be engaged in purer science outside the science classroom than they do inside it. These same students often show none of these positive traits inside the classroom showing little interest in what is happening, often because they are not sufficiently challenged and dont feel that they have these skills. Many have a passion for science but an apathy towards science lessons.

What can be done about this?

What we are currently doing is failing these students. Teaching about forces and motion without relating them to their world

A paradigm shift is to take the engaging activity and to teach and learn the science through this. Bill has done this with skateboarding here

I have one it with slack lining here

Surfing provides another here

Please get in contact if you are involved in anything similar or want to know more

5 – Make it fun !!


I’m very privileged in that I teach in many different schools. Sometimes I find that the students are far more engaged in lower achieving schools than they are in the highest performing ones where they are simply compliant.

The focus on performance can lead to losing the love of learning. Many students learn to give the teacher and the examiner exactly what they want and no more.

There is always room for fun

6 – Use Evidence as a starting point

There is a focus on evidence based research and the work of Hattie and others. I think its essential we know and understand what the research is saying but not see it as everything.

Going back to the swimming analogy we looked at earlier. The most efficient way to train swimmers is a no nonsense approach of constant drills and measurements of performance. This method will produce the fastest swimmers. There should always be time for splashing around and having fun or they will only go swimming when they need to, as opposed to swimming for pleasure. There are many in education who seem focussed purely on the most efficient method to teach forgetting that these are kids and if you make things tedious they will drop it as soon as they can.

My daughter got an A* in her physics GCSE but wouldn’t consider taking it further as it ‘bored her to death’ despite having a passion for science. She was taught efficiently but without any joy or passion. and she certainly cant use physics in unfamiliar situations.  According to most research the way of teaching her was successful. But I feel we need to look beyond simple results.

She also got top marks in French but proved incapable of buying a loaf of bread in a boulangerie.

7 – Know your Teaching Style and add tools

There has been much debate on twitter and in the press of traditional vs progressive teaching styles with little consensus. We are so subject to confirmation bias and we believe what we want to believe rather than why the evidence suggests.

Im not at all sure about research based approaches as I have yet to see anything that measures how good a scientist the student is. What I do see is how good at exams they are and that is often something completely  different.

If you are a compelling speaker then keep your students compelled. If you are not, then get them doing stuff.

If you are brilliant at getting students to challenge their own beliefs and work through from confusion to clarity, then do that. If all your students do  is play around with stuff in practical lessons then stop and reconsider.

I have been working in partnership with a teacher for the last three years who has just won an award  as the highest achieving teacher of physics in the country-compared to the overall performance of the school. Our teaching styles are vastly different but we have learned much from each other and what we’ve done is obviously successful as these students are great thinkers and many go on to study Physics at degree level.

To me the most important thing is meeting the needs of the learners in front of you and for this you may need to adapt your approach.

8 – Increase the numbers of Girls in Physics

The number of students doing higher level physics has increased dramatically , but the percentage of girls have remained stubbornly at around 20%. The Institute of Physics has commissioned f research into this

They found girls are more likely to continue with physics after the age of 16 if:

Physics is taught in a way that engages with the interests of young people

There is an expectation that anyone can do physics

Classrooms are managed to ensure active participation by students

The focus of learning is ideas rather than unconnected facts

Students feel supported in their learning

Young people understand the contribution that physics makes to society and can make to their lives

More information and an action pack available here http://www.iop.org/education/teacher/support/girls_physics/action/page_41602.html

9 – Use digital tools

Sadly there is a often a huge gap between students love of science and their dislike for science lessons . The curriculum often fails to inspire or seems relevant  to them. Some teachers say that they don’t have time to go off the curriculum. I feel it is essential if we are going to encourage and develop the joy and lifelong passion for science.

aristotle – mind and heart

Use multimedia

Youtube is in valuable with twitter being the best way of sharing useful links, Get the students themselves to find the resources then add them to Pinterest

http://www.iflscience.com/ truly stunning ideas – examples of the weirdest, most hideous, most fascinating

Use Twitter

Twitter has a bad name as a medium for giving self obsessed people a platform to spread news of how wonderful they are.

However there ia another side to twitter and that is of a brilliant way  of communicating with other educators. You can enter a global staffroom of teachers happy to share resources and advice – often the opposite of what is happening in your own staffroom.

How to get started?

There are some lists on my twitter profile which may be useful as a starting point. Go to my twitter profile @natkin scroll down until you see lists – in the lists are some of the science tweeters I have found particularly useful. Then see who those people who are following and before long you will have your own personal network. Once you have this set up you will not know how you managed without it. You dont need to search for information any more it will come to you through your feed.

Please message me to add more useful links and blog posts

useful Hash tags are 

#ASECHAT  – Monday nights 8-9 pm where some great science educators meet to chat


50 useful ways of using twitter in the classroom here

Attend Teachmeets

What are these?

Probably the future of CPD, these are free events hosted by schools where people sign up to deliver very short presentations. Try one – more information here 

Use Pinterest

Pinterest can be used as your own virtual resource centre. Effectively you can create your own or a departmental filing cabinet that you can add resources to at any point.

You can search within Pinterest for resources, upload them or add them from a website

Probably the most useful way though is by following people. Effectively this gives you access to their resources that are freely shared and you can plunder them to your hearts content.

If you want to plunder mine  here

Pinterest Tutorial below

10 -Give great feedback

Assessment for learning should provide the learner with useful feedback in order for them to improve. Its not simply telling them what they are doing wrong which is what many of your students may want you to do. Be less helpful – make them learn

A comprehensive blog on feedback is here but if you only do a few things these are my essentials

Dot and the round – As you go round the room mark students books, simply put a dot where they have made an error with no comment. It’s up to them to work out whats gone wrong.

Pre flight checklist – Students are given the marking criteria and then swap books so that their partner can check they have done everything and their are no errors. If the partner spots errors then

they are given back to be corrected. The partner then signs it off and hands it in.

A great idea is to plan before you teach what you are going to mark

5 minute marking – here

Feedback strategies stolen from others is http://neilatkin.com/2014/02/03/feedback-strategies/

11- Let them fail

Scientists should see failure as a learning experience.

Edison quote  I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

Thomas A. Edison

All too often our student know what the results of experiments should be or they are told how to carry out the procedure. How often do they plan and carry out their own investigations?

As teachers we have a near compulsion to intervene when we see them ‘making mistakes’

We are too helpful

Give them the opportunity to try things out and to learn from mistakes. Give them questions they can’t answer.

If we always restrict them and usually that is the case will we ever know how far can they can go?

Note: In some schools this strategy will go down very badly !

12 – Make Thinking Visible

Most students never hear scientific thinking modelled for them hence they are very poor at it. Try to get them to justify their decisions. Plan their own investigations or question data

comic strip

Whats the evidence that this is a lie?

Whenever you can model good thinking , get them to justify their claims, argue with them. Never let them get away with

Get newspaper articles — Make them aware of confirmation bias  link

Bad science in films always provokes interest – Some good examples here 

A nice literacy example is to

13 – Improve your Subject Knowledge

We can all improve our subject knowledge not because it’s not good enough, but because it can be even better

For physics the the Institute of Physics have several resources

The SPT materials support the teaching of 11-16 year olds and has a comprehensive approach that considers common misconceptions as well as teaching approaches and useful practicals here

For A level physics there are the TAP  resources here

The IOP also host a superb forum http://www.talkphysics.org/ that has a great community. You can easily post asking for ideas on teaching topics or to clear up misconceptions

For ideas on Practicals there are


For Biologists

practical biology http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/practical-biology

For Chemists

practical chenistry  http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/practical-chemistry

please send me other useful links and blogs

This blog is just some of my personal ideas of how to improve science teaching in order to produce the scientists we need for the future – educated ones, not simply qualified. We need curious and passionate people with a lifelong love of science. I worry the systems we have in place are not producing these.

Please contribute ideas and collaborate/argue/develop ideas

One thought on “Where has the science gone from our classrooms? – 13 ideas to bring it back

  1. Good reading. Well done. I’ll circulate and help spread the word but please remember there is good primary science going on and it matters! secondary teachers need to be far more aware of the reality of good primary science and dialogic opportunities and authentic assessment and build on the positive behaviours and attitudes nurtured in a primary school setting and not ignore it! Primary science pedagogy is not the same as secondary science but it is the building block not a time filler.

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