Sitting in front of me are a new group of Year 7 students. It is their first week in high school and they look so fresh faced, eager and receptive. All of them are hurriedly commenting to each other in low tones how much they love science, before they stare at me expectantly. The inevitable question is soon asked, “Are we going to blow something up this year?”
So what do I do? The temptation to excite these wonderful young people, before they turn into my cynical teens in Year 10 and 11, is too much.
So, obligingly, throughout the year I will set fire to them with methane bubbles, make them gasp with the whoosh bottle, and giggle at elephant’s toothpaste. We will make ‘fireworks’ in November and crystals of ‘snow’ from supersaturated sodium acetate at Christmas.
Since Harry Potter came along I also do a special lesson on potions and precipitates and make Felix Felicis, the liquid luck potion, shimmering gold lead iodide in a pear shaped flask one drop at a time as they all whip out their phones and record the swirling sparkling solution in slow motion or 3D.
I pride myself on being able to turn out a demonstration almost as good as a Christmas Lecture at the Royal Institution.
The wrong way
A few years ago, while adapting and writing schemes of work for the new specification GCSEs, I began to wonder how I could engage my ‘cynical teens’ in Year 10 and 11 with the more demanding content and concepts of the new specifications.
These year groups rarely bounced into my classroom expressing a love of science anymore and I felt rather grudgingly that my efforts to excite them with mole fractions and percentage yields were less than warmly received.
After spending many evenings trying to make my Year 10 and 11 lessons more exciting, akin to my year 7 lessons, there was a creeping sensation that I had got this the wrong way around.
By giving early exposure to so much sensory stimulation in my lessons, I realised, I was conditioning students to expect this from the subject, and not to ask too many questions about the science behind the bang.
It was a passive experience, hindering learning in the crucial years in Years 7-9 where a firm foundation for theory and concepts is essential. When they reached Year 10 many were underprepared for the challenge and became progressively more disengaged with lessons that no longer delivered wonder and excitement on a plate.
They were expected to work for their scientific kicks, and they were not accustomed to this. In short, like Frankenstein’s Monster, I had to acknowledge that I had created my cynical teens.
Think like a scientist
So, I decided to make my Year 7 lessons more like my Year 10 and 11 lessons. When I was asked the eternal question, “Are we going to blow something up?” I responded with, “No, because generally scientists try to avoid doing that, and we are going to try and think like scientists think”.
I replaced the demonstrations with metacognition, encouraging my students to use a wide range of thinking approaches and celebrating when they selected the right one. We were able to spend more time making and testing hypotheses and simply asking each other why something happens.
We certainly don’t avoid practical work and I still firmly believe that students should experience the awe and wonder of science. However they are driving the experience, developing the manual dexterity to handle equipment and interpreting and shaping their own experiments.
I have noticed that having received this diet in Year 7, my Year 8s and 9s have become more intellectually confident, able to explain their own views and interpret observations.
Rather than being passive recipients of spectacular chemical experiments, they can generate ideas of their own. Spending a greater percentage of lesson time learning how to think has enabled them to break down tasks and refine their approach to multi-step problems.
The challenge ahead
As a science faculty we stopped doing the whizz, bang demonstrations at open evening, which raised more than a few eyebrows – not least of all with parents expecting to relive their memories of school science by watching their own children catch fire.
Indeed many would arrive mobile phones poised to record the exciting moment to preserve forever on Facebook. Instead, we provided a range of hands on metacognition and thinking activities for our visitors to do.
The experiments were far less dramatic but the science was much better. Very quickly parents were hands on with their children, calculating the percentage of oxygen in the air using a floating candle and working out how the mass of a particle affects the speed of diffusion using ammonia and hydrochloric acid.
We also handed out cards on how to think like a scientist and included a display of text books and GCSE exam papers for parents to browse through.
Far from discouraging visitors to the science labs, our rooms were buzzing with interest and our visitors had a true and honest view of what to expect from science as they move through the school.
Widely accepted research into the phenomenon of neuroplasticity suggests that experiences are able to change our brains, and that our brain’s structure and capacity are not fixed. Neural pathways that are regularly used strengthen, and those that are not required diminish.
It is vitally important that the experiences of students in the science classroom make and reinforce the neural pathways that they need for later study, rather than creating strong, but less useful pathways, that we expect them to abandon just when the work starts to get more challenging.
Given the right stimulation, support and their own effort, every child has the potential to be a high performer.
If we transfer to our students a belief that they can do this, more often than not they rise to the challenge of more academic expectations, fostering higher order thinking skills, independent learning and resilience.
How much more exciting could things get?
Six ways to get them excited without explosions
Use metacognition and facilitate a wide range of approaches to thinking.
Encourage students to discuss why something happens, making and testing their own hypotheses.
Provide opportunities to develop manual dexterity in handling laboratory equipment and expect students to fix problems for themselves with minimal assistance.
At open days or events give students an honest glimpse of what to expect from science as they move through the school rather than a spectacular show.
Provide experiences in the science classroom that make and reinforce the neural pathways that they need for later study.
Transfer to students a belief that they can do everything that takes place in the classroom, rather than demonstrating from the front.
Dr Joanna Rhodes M Chem, D Phil, MRSC is Assistant Principal for Science at Shelley College in West Yorkshire.
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