Applying Cognitive Science Principles to Practical Work

I’ve been on a bit of a journey with practical work. When I trained to be a teacher I was told that students would remember things discovered for themselves better than they would remember things told to them. Alongside this falsehood I was also told that students couldn’t be expected to listen to me talk any longer than 5 minutes in a lesson, so I should plan a practical so that I could stop teaching talking and get them “doing something”. Finally, and most wonderfully of course, practical work ticked the elusive “K” box for kineaestic learners who were normally so difficult to cater for. Taken together these reasons led me, during training, to look for practical tasks for students to perform in as many lessons as possible and this was reenforced by largely positive feedback from my observers when I did this.

Jumping forward a couple of years and I absolutely hated practical work. My personal reflections (at the end of assessment blocks, terms and years of work) led me to realise that students had learned little during practical work. Students weren’t able to complete tasks correctly without explicit guidance, many didn’t engage properly in practical work and behaviour management was so much more difficult when every student was out of their seat. As a result, practical work was frequently incomplete, students weren’t thinking about the things I wanted them to think about and were sometimes “discovering” and remembering incorrect things because they were doing the practical work incorrectly. Most frequently though, even when I’d improved my behaviour management and written clear explicit instructions in duplicate on powerpoint and worksheets for students to follow, students were remembering the process or events of the lessons, rather than the scientific ideas that I wanted them to think about. In short, they weren’t learning what I wanted them to learn.  I despised practical work and started to ditch many practicals from my lessons.

However, in the last couple of years I’ve come back to practicals and have perhaps found a happy middle ground. Getting involved in twitter, discovering ResearchEd and #CogSciSci has led me to apply some of the principles of Cognitive Science to Science practicals to make them more effective. Slowly but surely, I’ve reintroduced more practicals back into my classroom in a way that is reasonably effective in getting kids to learn.

So here are those Cognitive Science principles (there’s only two really) and how they can be applied to practical work in Science lessons.

Cognitive Science Principle 1: Students remember what they think about.

Or as Dan Willingham but it so beautifully in “Why Don’t Student’s Like School?” Memory is the residue of thought. So…

  1. Ditch attention grabbers and competitions.

Craig Barton has his Swiss Roll story. Bob Pritchard has his flaming tampons. I have my horrific water-pistols lesson. Almost every teacher can tell you of a lesson hook gone wrong.  A lesson hook which became the focus of students attention, the thing they remembered instead of the lesson ojectives you were hoping to hang off the hook.

Science Practicals often seem to be the subject of a “hook” that will grab students attention and make the activity more engaging and relevant for students. I used to run the KS3 chromatography lesson as a “who committed the crime lesson” black pens had been collected from four suspects and compared to ink found at the scene. Next lesson I asked students to answer a chromatography question to which one student said “That’s the Headmaster’s pen, I remember he did it!” I once asked students to choreograph different types of chemical reactions though the medium of interpretive dance only for students to later tell me they remembered Josh getting the moves wrong and ruining their performance. Unsurprisingly when I asked students enagage in a competition of home-made water pistols, they did not remember the salient facts of water pressure, instead they remembered they subsequent chaos.  These attention grabbing hooks are well meant, and might lead to temporary enagement in lessons, but do not lead to students learning what we want them to, because they are thinking about the hook or competition instead. So use these with extreme caution, if at all.

  1. Minimise discovery learning.

Given students will remember what they think about, they are no more likely to remember something that they have discovered for themselves as they are to remember something told to them, as long as they are thinking about the right things. In fact, students will often make incorrect discoveries during practical work which they then remember. When students investigate current in a series circuit, students will move the ammeter around and often find the digital ammeters give differences of a hundreth of an amp or so in different positions. Whilst this can be a great opportunity for discussion on accuracy of measurements, random errors and anomalies, this is only possible if students are already familiar with the knowledge that current should be the same everywhere. If students do not already have this knowledge and are discovering this fundamental law of electrical current for themselves they will often believe that the current slowly leaks from the circuit as they have seen with their own eyes the current drop by 0.02A around the circuit.

As a general rule, I now normally teach concepts before practicals on the same subject. I reserve discovery learning for practicals, which I know from experience, are difficult for students to get wrong (e.g. stearic acid cooling curve) or which give immediate feedback they they’re doing it wrong (perhaps by using visualised instructions – see below).  However, these situations are rare, as immediate feedback (the type built into computer games that kids “discover for themselves”) is only really possible for students to identify for themselves if students know what to expect.  I can’t stand on everyone’s shoulder all the time – or can I? – See Point 5 on slow practicals, below.

  1. Make practical work hypothesis-driven.

Real science, done by real scientists in the real world is not done blindly. As I’ve written about previously, real science is hypothesis-driven. Scientists do not conduct an experiment with no idea of the outcome, they use their expertise in a subject area to hypothesise a phenomenon then carefully conduct an experiment to rule out alternative explanations (the null-hypothesis). Are your students able to predict what will happen during a practical before they start?  If they can’t predict the outcome of practical work, then in most cases I’d suggest they are probably not ready to complete the work.

Whilst it might be difficult for our novice students to fully comprehend the work they’re about to do and think it through to it’s logical conclusion, if we truly want students to act like real scientists then we will ask them to at least try and think things through before starting, having taught them the prerequisit knowledge before hand. If necessary we can use techniques such as 2-part MCQ (example below, and in previous blog) to guide students and assess whether they are ready to engage in practical work. By asking students to hypothesise the outcome we have already directed their thinking towards the key concept of the work and this remains front and centre of their thinking throughout.  Below is a hinge-point slide in my work on Enzymes. Only when students can successfully answer both parts of this question, do I know that they are ready to test their hypothesis…


  1. Use Narrative tools such as “conflict”, “complications” and “causality”.

I’ve written and spoken previously about harnessing the priviledged nature of stories in science teaching and the oral teaching tradition, which is particularly useful in non-practical lessons, however it can be used to engage students to think about the key concepts in a practical lesson too. During a practical demonstration it is often useful to stop and ask students “What happens next?” Then perhaps send students away to reconstruct the demo up to that point themselves and complete it, all the while thinking about “what will happen next?”  Similarly, during the electrolysis of solutions practical, I like to demonstrate the practical using a Copper Sulfate solution, talking the class through what is happening. Then I ask them to predict what would be different if we changed the solution to one containing Sodium Sulfate?  Take some answers from the class (hypotheses) and then send them away to do this second half of the practical themselves with the key question for the lesson at the forefront of their minds as it is the “conflict” in the story of the lesson so far.


Cognitive Science Principle 2: Students have a limited working memory (a.k.a. Cognitive Load Theory).

Adam Boxer has written wonderfully and extensively on this in the past and I often have his diagram (below) in mind when I’m considering practical work and how I can minimise student’s cognitive load during practical work.


  1. Use slow practicals to minimise cognitive demand.

Again, Adam has already written extensively about this, but I’ve found in particular this approach is most useful with young KS3 students for whom much of the equipment is new. By breaking tasks up into very small steps and bringing the class back together, either silently at their desks, or collectively at the demonstration bench allows the students have easily completed each task without cognitive overload. It allows the teacher to check each step is complete (immediate feedback), and allows extensive questioning at key steps by the teacher of the class to guide the thinking of students on the key elements of the task at the important moments “look at the thermometer now that the water is boiling, what do you see?”  Whilst it can seem like the lesson is moving slower than usual, it isn’t really, and it’s certainly moving more efficiently than usual with more of the class completing the task successfully.

  1. Use visualised instructions to lower cognitive demand and provide immediate feedback.

Visualised instructions effectively use dual coding to guide students through complicated practical tasks with both written instructions and diagrams to allow students to easily set up practical equipment and complete steps in the correct order. Personally I’ve found these to be most effective with older KS4 students who are already familiar with most of the equipment being used and just need to make sure they complete the steps in the right order. A number of science teachers have been making useful visualised instructions that we can all use, including Adam Boxer, Dave Paterson and John Lindney the latter two have made visualised instructions for all the KS4 compulsory practicals.  The use of these instructions help students minimise the amount of working memory dedicated to the process of completing the task, and allows students to free up working memory, through our guidance and questioning to think about the scientific concepts involved, not just the process the practical.  When combined with techniques above such as hypothesis driven tasks, students spend more time thinking about the things we want them to think about during the practical, and less time wondering if they should pour the solution into a beaker or an evaporating basin, or indeed what the difference is between a beaker and an evoporating basin.




When planning practical lessons we should consider what students are thinking about, how we can direct their thinking towards what we want them to think about and how to minimise the information that we don’t want them to think about. By doing these things we can make practical work effective for students. BUT… and it’s a big “BUT”… there will still be times when students will learn more effectively without practical work.  We should always be willing to consider during our planning if there is an alternative task which will allow students to think about the scientific concept more clearly and without distraction? For example will students learn the complicated voltage-current relationship of a filament bulb most effectively from a tricky to complete practical, or from plotting model data given to them, followed by SLOP questions?  Sometimes, despite the approaches above, it’s still best to avoid practicals and go for something else.


This is a blog version of a talk that I gave at the ASE West of England Conference at Bath Spa in November 2019.


Confession: The Worst Lesson I Ever Taught

Part of an ocassional series of blogs from the #EduTwitter crowd confessing hineous mistakes made in the name of putting lesson engagement ahead of learning stuff.  You can read other confessions by Adam Robbins, Bob Pritchard, Grumpy Teacher & Amy Forrester.

I have on occasions pretended that I never bought into the fad of discovery learning and engagement. That I came into teaching as a career changer from academic research science knowing that traditional teaching methods of direct instruction and extensive practice were the bedrock of effective teaching and learning. But that’s not true, I came into my PGCE with those opinions, but believed my instructors when they told me these methods were old fashioned and outdated. I believed them when they told me that these were Victorian methodologies not ready for the modern digital world. I was shown a Ken Robinson TED talk and bought it; Hook, Line and Sinker. I was sold. Discovery learning was more effective, group work was king, use of technology was the future. I knew I’d need some training, it was against everything that felt natural to me as someone who’d been teaching in labs and lecture theatres for more than a decade already, so I listened to the advice I was given by my school and university mentors, because they were the experts, I was a novice, and I was determined to learn how to be an Outstanding teacher.

I tried many many things during my PGCE in the name of engagement: I had students write their own multiple choice questions, which were easy for their peers to answer because they were poor at writing distractors (if they bothered with distractors at all –  “yer mum” jokes are much funnier); I had students work in groups as sales teams for renewable energy companies; I had students work independently from blog posts I’d written so that I didn’t need to speak to the class at all, after all nothing is more boring than listening to a teacher, right? I even took a science lesson into the dance studio in order that students could choreograph their own dances that represented the signs of a chemical reaction. All of these lessons led to students learning precisely nothing that I wanted them to. But none of them come close to the slow-motion, “please wont someone stop this madness”, car-crash of the time I got bottom set year 9s to make homemade water-pistols.


The learning objectives were notionally regarding water pressure. That water pressure acts in all directions and the deeper the water the greater the pressure. I wasn’t stupid enough to plan for students to squirt them at each other and carefully planned for students to shoot at paper targets attached to a wall outside.  The “water-pistols” were to be made from plastic drinks bottles with students able to design their own by changing the size of the bottle, the size of the jet hole and how high up the bottle the jet should be placed. They would then take turns to try and shoot the target on the wall. The player with the best “shot” would win a choclate prize; competition element for the boys, see.

The class was a “difficult” one. Set 10 of 10. Just 14 students. The two teaching assistants, alongside myself and their normal class teacher meant an adult:student ratio of 1:3.5. Classroom management should be easy, right? Wrong. The hole making in the lab was managed well enough with most of the sharp metal impliements used with adult supervision and we counted the tools out and back in again, to ensure no one had helped themselves to a pocket weapon. However, things began to unravel outside.

I’d drawn two chalk lines on the playground floor. One for the shooters to stand behind and another further back, behind which students would wait their turn. I stood between the two shooters supervising the filling buckets and blocking the path by which students would shoot at each other. They wouldn’t dare squirt a teacher, right? I had this all planned out.

The first two pairs of students attempted to fire at their targets, but were actually well short, perhaps I’d mis-judged how far their homemade supersoakers would be able to reach? Students five and six had their attempts, then six loudly declared that the competition was “shit” and stepped over the white line to take another shot from from closer to the target, which he hit and declared himself the winner. This placed him now in the firing line of five who shouted “Nah man, you cheated”, changed his angle of attack and shot five.  Six laughed, turned and fired back and the two friends ran off to chase each other around the empty playground with their new toys, much to the amusement of the other students who cheered them on.

As I finally stopped five and six’s chase and stood at the back admonishing them, I let seven and eight step forward to take their turns with no human barrier between the firing stations. Unlike five and six, seven and eight were not good friends.  Seven had made a very large hole in their pistol which served to make her gun very ineffective and it did little more than make her shoes wet, much to the amusement of eight. Seven unscrewed the lid of the bottle and emptied the remaining contents over eight in retaliation for the insult. Before I could step forward to call a halt to proceedings, and in seemingly slow-motion eight responded by picking up one the buckets for filling and emptied it’s entire contents over seven.

Then all hell broke loose. There was screaming, shouting, laughing and baying. Seven, soaked to the skin, launched herself at eight and much hairpulling and slapping ensued. The shouts of “fight fight fight” caused a sea of faces to appear at the windows overlooking the playground so now several more lessons were thrown into chaos.

Myself and the usual class teacher separated the students and the remainder of the lesson was spend dealing with the fallout, seven and eight were given no punishments beyond the breaktime lost after the lesson and seven spent the rest of the day wandering around school in her PE kit. Two weeks later barely a single mark was scored by any of the students in the water pressure question in the end of chapter test, and I never taught water pressure with a homemade water pistols activity again.

How I “Trad” Flipped Learning

I introduced “flipped learning”, or at least what I’ve been calling “flipped learning”, into my 6th form classes 4 years ago and feel I’ve had some success with it. I’ve tweaked it and refined it a little over the years and am fairly happy with how things are going.

I was a little disappointed therefore to read that a Randomised Control Trial of flipped learning has shown little except short term gains for some advantaged students and exacerbated the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Whilst there are clearly flaws in the experimental design* such as the nature of the selected institute, the limited subjects and the fact that just a three lesson series in the middle of a much longer course was chosen for the trial. It seems remiss to not even ensure videos were watched…

“almost 80 percent of Math and 73 percent of Economics students in the flipped classrooms watched at least some of a video.”

… “some” of the video! What the authors clearly mean is “clicked the link”. They go on to say…

“on average, students watched roughly two out of three of the videos.”

At this point, I’m astonished there were even short term gains for anyone.

Students only accessing two thirds of the taught material is a big, perhaps fatal flaw in the study, but that’s not even the biggest flaw.  That is reserved for the total lack of input from the instructors in the trial group.  Those in the flipped learning group were given minimal guidance. During the lesson following watching the video…

“the instructors were provided clear guidance to avoid lengthy lectures during this period, but to use the opportunity to clarify specific questions.”

…so unless students asked specific questions, the instructors were not to go over any of the taught content.  Then when students were answering questions…

“Instructors were given strict guidelines to not teach the material, but instead guide the students through the worksheet and answer any questions they might have” 

…again, so unless students specifically ask a question instructors were not to explicitly teach any material.  What if a student had not understood (or not watched!) the flipped content in the video. How can a student ask pertinent questions to build their schema if they don’t fully understand where this content fits into the wider schema?

I am not surprised this minimally guided “Flipped Learning” had little impact beyond short term gains for advantaged students. Like so many progressive teaching techniques and triangles of nonsense where students guide themselves or teach each other, this model of flipped learning lets down the disadvantaged students who most need the input of teachers the most.

Now it may be that this methodology is the definition of “Flipped Learning” and if it is, then what have been doing with my classes for the last four years is not “flipped learning”. It’s actually something else. Whilst I’m not much of a fan of semantic arguments I’m going to start one here.  I’m going to describe the methodology trialled in Setren et al. as “minimally guided flipped learning”. In the hands of a “trad” teacher, I believe “flipped learning” is something else, perhaps “directly instructed flipped learning”. Let me describe what that looks like and why I think it has benefits in my 6th form classroom.


I trialled flipped learning with my sixth form classes after becoming extremely frustrated with several aspects of my sixth form lessons. Firstly the pace of lessons was excruiatingly slow. Students would listen to my teaching and make notes. I would spend ages waiting for students to finish their notes, which weren’t really notes, more hand-written facscimilies of my lecture slides. I trialled emailling students my lecture slides which after a few lessons just made students more chatty and less engaged in the lesson.  With the notes in their email inboxes they simply postponed their learning to a later, unspecified time. The majority of teenagers, given the option will procrastinate if given the option – who knew? Not Setren et al., evidently.

The second frustation of my sixth form teaching regarded student’s independent practice. Students would take worksheets away with them to complete independently at home and bring them back for subsequent marking. Often students would stop at the first difficult question handing work in with an apologetic “I did as much as I could”. Sometimes I suspected they were telling the truth, other times I suspect they used the first sign of resistance to switch from Chemistry to X-Box. With some coaching and cajouling I got them to mostly complete the worksheets, though many of those tricky questions would be incorrect, but it was still clear they were often struggling at home on their own.

I thought flipped learing might be able to kill two birds with one stone, if I could get students to watch videos and make notes at home, then perhaps the contact time with me, their teacher could be better spent answering practice questions and being able to ask an expert questions. However, I was instinctively aware of some of the pitfalls of “minimally guided flipped learning” outlined above, so I tried to head them off.

I was very lucky that I didn’t need to make any videos at all for my flipped learning; James Donkin, aka MaChemGuy had already made an exhaustive set of didactic videos explaining every specification point for A-Level Chemistry. They’re not flashy, largely consisting of James explaining and drawing things on a whiteboard, but that’s what good teachers do in a classroom, so what more do we need? But I needed to make sure students were actually watching them. Did I trust students to watch them? Frankly, no.

So, for each flipped homework (generally a chapter or part chapter of the textbook), I write a google form for students to answer as they’re watching the video (example here). These consist of the embedded videos and some simple, straight forward questions which pretty much come up in the order in which James explains them in his videos. Some are multiple choice, some are longer responses. I’ve learned that the longer questions make a better discussion resource in class, and I’ve also learned that the questions need to be made compulsory in google forms so that students can’t opt out of answering some of them. The main purpose of these forms is to evidence that students are actually watching the material.

Things I love about the google form responses that are generated by my students:

  • I can see who is doing the work straight away when set, and who left it to 1AM the day before the deadline to watch the videos, as their submissions are date-time stamped. I can also see who hasn’t done the work at all, and once students realise I can see that, they all do the work, all of the time. No two-thirds for me.
  • I can quickly read through students responses before the lesson and see where the misconceptions lay within individual students or the class as a whole. This means that I can respond to this in my class teaching. 
  • I use students responses to extended questions as a teaching tool. I put up a selection of anonymous student responses on the board and ask students to read them all. “Can you find two mistakes?” “Can you find an answer which is right, but could be improved with more specific terminology?” “Which answer do you think is the one cut and paste from google?**” Great for generating discussion in class.

Importantly, I don’t see the flipped learning as the end of the teaching. I still use explicit direct instruction to teach much of the content again. I can focus my instruction on the important, tricky or misconcieved sections of the content. However, because students have already been through the content once their attention is entirely on me. They make few notes, and certainly don’t feel complelled to copy everything down from the board***. Students are much better at asking insightful questions which link together the content in their embryonic schema because this is the second time they have seen the content and don’t feel the urge to write down every word I say.

The time gained means we have much more time in class for application questions, recap quizzes and retrieval practice. When I started I aimed that students would no longer take worksheet of questions home but I’ve abandoned this ideal. Quite often I’ll ask students to do the first “easy” questions at home, we can return go through the answers then work together on the more tricky questions and go through the solutions at the end of the lesson****. When I say “work together” this is not group work, but students can bounce ideas of how to answer questions off each other and have me there for guidance, but they’re working through all the questions on their own.

My directly instructed flipped learning has meant that student classroom time in contact with the expert is further into schema building process. The time-rich but learning-light task of making notes is moved to homework.

The publication of the Setren et al. trial on has quite rightly seen this form of minimally guided flipped learning heavily criticised by Greg Ashman amongst others. Greg’s post has made me go back again and reflect on my own practice and I will take a close look at the disadvantaged students in my cohort over the next year. I sincerely hope that my classroom is not a centrifuge, spinning the able and advangtaged out into higher achievements whilst continuing to hold back the disadvantaged.  I’m not naive enough to suggest that even my directly instructed flipped learning would work in all contexts. I’m fully aware of the middle-class nature of my school and cohort. I’m aware that by using this methodology with 6th formers I have already selected for able and successful students. I’ve tentatively trialled flipped learning with younger learners at my school but abandoned it quickly for lack of compliance in certain groups of students which was clearly a disadvantage to them so I returned quickly to classroom Direct Instruction and have little ambition to try again.

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool traditional teacher, a proponent of direct instruction, and of just telling kids stuff, rather than finding out for themselves. I’m not going to defend the minimally guided flipped learning on trial in Setren et al. even for a second. But before we throw the baby out with the bath water can we consider that there might be benefits to the technique in certain contexts, especially if we sort out student compliance and are not stupid enough to believe that one video watched means we can abandon any classroom direct instruction.  However if someone shows that even directly instructed flipped learning widens the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged, then I’ll be the first to abandon the practice.




* there’s no such thing as a study without flaws.

** once they know you’re wise to this trick, they stop doing that.

*** I tell students that if they want exhaustive notes of the content of the course they should make them while watching the flipped videos, though point out that if they have the course textbook then they have a printed version of everything they need to know already.

**** which also means less marking for the teacher.


Starting with a new class

A lot of talk today on twitter about new starts in September, I replied to a tweet from Science NQT Mr_J_Zahn asking for tips on introduction lessons with a new class for September and I starting writing a tweet reply, which became a reply thread, which even when I was done didn’t say everything I wanted to, so decided to write this blog instead.

Firstly, we need to find a way of this not being a question asked by NQTs.  We need to get NQTs into classrooms to see teachers do this for real. I know the first day of term would be an inconvient day to bring student teachers into school, but it would be so powerful for them to see how this is done well by experienced teachers. I understand that this time is probably when teachers themselves feel most vulnerable and perhaps don’t want to open their doors to inquisitive visitors but, I for one, would happily open my door in such a situation.

During my NQT year, my first lessons with classes were, in hindsight, a disaster. I was far too jokey, too eager to be their favourite teacher and I let them make too many decisions.  It took quite some time to win those classes back in terms of respect and behaviour. I was lucky that the compliant classes of the Grammar School I was working in were fairly easy to win back, but I had to work harder than I needed to, at a time when my Sisyphean ball was heavy enough without steepening the slope. In the summer after my NQT year I read Tom Bennett’s Not Quite A Teacher, and immediately wished I’d read it the year before my NQT.  The following quote in particular resonated with me as if Tom had secretly been watching my lessons all year.

If you meet a new class and you give them any indication whatsoever that you’re Coco the Friendly Teacher, then they will mug you like a drunk in Soho. I mean it. Even the nice kids like a bit of sport.

The next year I was moving to a non-selective school and knew that my classroom management game needed to step up. I took most of the suggestions from Tom on board that year and have modifyed it slightly over the last few years. I’m fairly happy with how first lessons go now, and I give this advice to PGCE students I mentor when they start with my classes, and strongly suggest they do the same with all the classes they’re taking.  If I’d been concise with my reply to Mr Zahn’s tweet, I’d have said;

The primary purpose of the first lesson is to show you’re in charge in your room and that you care about your students and their education.

But it would have had no details of how to achieve this, so this is how I do it. I hope it falls into the #WarmStrict category of things…


Some people might suggest you take your classlists around to other teachers to get their take on the students or take a look at personal data or their prior attainment data, but I try quite hard not to do this. September is a fresh start for everyone and I know I’d not be too impressed if someone listed all my previous failings and handed them out to the kids before we started, so I try to give them all as blank a slate as possible. I’d rather not know who has previous behaviour issues, or has badly underperformed. I do quickly look up SEN and mark these on my class lists especially if you need to leave a space in your seating plan for a Teaching Assistant. My school policy is that I mark Pupil Premium on my seating plan too, but I really wish I didn’t have to and I try to forget this when dealing with students. However, you should comply with the letter of your school policy though. The first day with a new class, particularly in your NQT year is not the time to fight an idealogical battle with your SLT; though you should take up that battle at a more appropriate time.

Use your class lists to make a seating plan. Again, there might be school policies to comply with, but for me, for my first meeting with a new class anything goes. I try to avoid alphabetical, as that seems to put those who regularly sit in alphabetical order with people they already know well. If I do know I’ve got a tricky behavioural customer or two (perhaps it’s a new seating plan later in the year, or I’ve taught a few of the class before) then I use my bingo card to fill in the four corners first to maximise the distance between them, but basically I fill them in randomly. I print all my seating plans and then staple them together and basically carry it around constantly as my aide memoire for about the first three weeks.

ProTip: I copy my class lists into Excel, then have a blank seating plan template in Excel so I can just copy list into the side of new plan then drag them across into the plan, rather than type them out.

Before the class arrive I place new exercise books, book inserts such as links to online resources or periodic tables to be stuck in along with glue sticks on each desk. I then write clear explicit instructions on the board. I draw the front cover of the book showing what I want them to write on the front (Their Name, Form Group; Subject; Dr Wilkinson). With Year 7s I sometimes get them to write the days of science lessons “Monday, Tuesday, Thursday” underneath to help them remember to bring their books in on those days. Next to this I put the instructions for where the inserts are to be stuck.

Bang on the bell going, I meet the new class outside my room and have them line up in silence. The science block at my school is a bit of a confusing warren, so I do a quick mental headcount and wait if significant numbers are (in)advertently late, and then let them know that now they know where my room is, tardiness will no longer be tolerated.  I welcome the students, introduce myself and tell them that when they enter in a moment they’ll be lining up along the back wall of my classroom in silence so that I can put them in a seating plan.

They come in and line up. If they don’t do this in silence they go back out again, and try again. I’ve never had to have a third attempt. This is a great opportunity to show that you are in charge and you want your instructions followed explicitly.

Once they’re in I explain that I’m going to go along each row in turn reading out the name of the student I wish to sit in each space. “Only when I’ve completed the whole row do I want anyone to move”. I read out the names slowly and clearly placing my hand on the blank exercise book at each position as I read the names.  I send back anyone who moves before the row is finished, 8-10 moving kids make a lot of noise even if their mouths are silent, don’t try and talk over the noise.  “Front row take your seats”. It feels slower, but I’m sure it’s faster than projecting the seating plan and letting students find their seats. Even if it is slower, it’s definitely calmer.

“Front row, you can now follow the instructions on the board in silence while I read out the names of the second row.”  Repeat for subsequent rows. Everyone is now sat down and the front row should have completed the personalisation of their exercise books and be sat in silence. It’s currently the only state of being they know in this room and thus it’s rare for students to have started talking.  “Did I say, discuss the cover of your book with your neighbour?”

Give the back row a minute to catch up, then I ask for their attention with my classroom catchphrase; “Show me you’re listening.” I explain this phrase is different to “silence” since they could be silently writing, or fiddling with a ruler or gluestick which has their attention instead of me and thus they haven’t shown me that they are definitely listening. We all agree therefore that “Show me you’re listening” means stop what you’re doing, stop talking, hands empty and look at the teacher.

I then introduce myself again, tell them what we’re going to learn today, unblank my projector which shows the title of today’s lesson, the date and a starter, and off we go. No gimmicks.

The starter activity or quiz for this first lesson should be something that everyone can at least start… an easy quiz on last year’s work, a list of something where there’s some easy options and more difficult ones; but if you throw something too difficult up here you’ll lose them, especially if you say “Oh this is easy – you should have learned this last year.”  If they can’t do it, say “That’s OK, you’ve probably just forgotten it, perfectly normal part of the learning process”, then reteach and question the class to tease out what they do know. Do not plough on.  But this isn’t special to lesson one, this is just good teaching practice. In this regard lesson one is the same as lesson two and three. I don’t waste time with a game or “get to know you” activity. I care too much about their education to waste their time.

What is special to lesson one is that while students are completing the starter I quickly walk along the rows doing two things; firstly I check students have underlined the date and title, a minor thing perhaps but if you set high standards for their work today, then you have set your expectations for they whole year at this high level. Secondly I ask each student what they’d like to be called this year in my class. “Do you prefer Thomas or Tom?” “Apologies, did I pronounce your name incorrectly at the start, what’s the correct pronounciation?” I make alternations to my seating plan accordingly so that I can remember and use their preferred name.

It’s a small thing perhaps, but it’s a really strong sign that you respect them as individuals. I’ve found students who much prefer to go by their middle name, or an unusual shortening of a common name, others who really dislike their name being shortened. It’s something I had a torrid time with personally at school, being called “William” or worse “Will” by teachers who never asked how they should address me. Anyone who cared about me or knew me at this time called me “Billy” so in my mind those calling me by anything else neither knew me or cared about me.  It’s really not rocket science, yet I still see reports after a whole year of teaching where students are refered to by names they or their parents never use to describe themselves.

The second purpose of my walk around is that I nearly always find students on the walk around who’ve swapped places from my seating plan.  Always by accident, “Oh, I though I was here” and yet despite the accidental nature they are always reluctant to swap back. Strange that.  But I insist they swap back, because this is the first day and it’s their way of testing whether they can bend the rules slightly. They’re testing whether they can be in charge instead of me. But they are not in charge. I will not let them win even the smallest victory today on their terms, because I will have subconsciously told them that they are in charge.

That’s about it for my first lesson, I then continue as normal.  I don’t waste time with an ice-breaker, I don’t monotonously go through dozens of rules, most of which are applicable across the school and some of which won’t apply until we do practical work – I’ll go through those when it matters. I won’t make them blindly copy a list of rules or demonstrate their best handwriting. For now I get them in, show them that I’m in charge, that I care about them as individuals and that I care about their education, so we’d better get started.




Thankful for Knowledge

Within the first couple of Chemistry lessons in Year 7 I dive straight into the Periodic Table with my students. We learn the definition of elements, I tell stories of the discovery of elements of how and when they were named. I like to tell students the stories about how the symbols which don’t relate to their English names came about, because stories have a privledged place in our memories, and thus ‘natrium’ and ‘kalium’ and plumbum’ are all introduced and there’s an inevitable teaching of a bit of Latin for which I make no apologies whatsoever.

Science and Celebrity_Humphry Davys Rising Star_0

Davy’s experiments with Voltaic Cells to split apart compounds into new elements

I then send students home with a list of about 25 elements that I’d like them to learn the names (including correct spellings; I’m looking at you, fluorine) and associated symbols for. They include common elements they’ll be coming across a lot, a mix of one, and two letter symbols and quite a few where the name and the symbol have no relationship in English (hello, aforementioned sodium and potassium, but also iron and copper). Then in the next lesson I give them a test. And often I’ll suprise test them again a week or two later. They tend to do pretty well, because (and I don’t know if you’ve noticed this) most Year 7s like a test, especially a low stakes one, and possibly because by this stage in the year (Chemistry always comes after Biology), they have noticed that low-stakes quizzes in my room often come with Haribo prizes. Never explicitly in advance though, that’s a terrible way to do any rewards. No, there is just a faint suggestion that Haribo may be distributed at any time in my room, often not handed out to the clever clogs who got 15/15, their smugness (and/or possibly cheating during self marking) is reward enough, but instead maybe to everyone who scored 14 or 13. After I have checked that they didn’t actually write “flourine”, in which case I remove a mark and any prize because I am a cold-hearted monster*, and it’s not like they weren’t warned.

After this test, I tell them the good news – that never again will they have to take a Chemistry test without a periodic table in front of them to check the name, correct spelling, symbol and (currently to them) mysterious numbers associated with each element. I tell them that they do not need to remember any information found within the periodic table because it will always be given to them in an exam. I tell students that asking a Chemist to do a Chemistry exam without a periodic table is like asking a snooker player to play without a cue; an entertaining party trick perhaps, but not how things are done properly. However, I also tell them that it’ll be in their interest to remember a bit and that they’ll find they pick up quite a lot of it along the way… 

So why then, if students will always have this information at their finger tips, did I ask them to commit some of it to memory? Well, for three reasons, all of which I believe are applicable to other areas of the science curriculum and beyond:

  1. General Principles.  It is important that students understand the general principles involved.  That element symbols always start with a capital letter, and if there are two letters the second letter is lower case. I want students to know that, even if they look up information from the periodic table, because I want them to know that they can’t transpose or change the upper and lowercase letters.
  2. Fluency. There are certain bits of knowledge that I want students to simply know. Elements that come up so frequently that I want them to know what their symbols are without having to look them up on the periodic table. Elemental symbols that I would like them to have committed to long term memory without having to take up specious space within their limited working memory, by having to use the periodic table to look things up when answering an exam question.
  3. Knowledge Location. By knowing some symbols students have a reference point to use to look up further knowledge.  They know that the periodic table is the go to location when they want to know the symbol from a name, or a name from a symbol. Never again do I want a student to say that they didn’t know to use the periodic table given to them in an exam. I want students to know that the periodic table can tell them the details of the elemental symbols. I want them to be able to find Iron, Copper or Zinc quickly to check the symbol. I want them to know exactly where Carbon, Nitrogen and Oxygen are to be found on the table when in KS4 and KS5 they are using the table to check atomic masses. I don’t want GCSE students faffing around wasting time searching for common elements on the table.

It’s often said that students don’t need to learn any details in the age of Google.  Why should students need to commit anything to memory when they can “just google it”. Well, they can make mistakes, obviously, but it’s impossible to google something you have no knowledge about at all, what would you search for?

Let me illustrate this point with a little story…

Fighting in the First World War was so devastating that just 53 parishes in the whole of the UK  were spared the pain of the deaths of a serviceman sent to fight. The deathtoll was so awful that in France just a single village had all its servicemen return home. Between the wars, the author Arthur Mee coined the term “Thankful Village” for those parishes that had all servicemen return home. Of those 53 parishes, 39 would go on to experience the death of service personel in the second world war, and so there are only 14  villages without war memorials. Just 14 villages in the UK managed to go through  the first half of the 20th century without sacrificing one of their number. These villages would come to be known as “Doubly Thankful”.


The location of Thankful Villages in the UK

I only learned of these terms a few of years ago when during a half-term walk in the countryside I noticed a local village to Bath (Woolley, just off the A46 to the west, as you head down from the M4) had no war memorial and instead a plaque outside the village church described the village as doubly thankful. I was telling a History teacher at school about the village earlier this year and they’d not heard of the term Thankful Village either. I couldn’t remember then how many there were in total – but it was a quick google away on my mobile. But until you know about them, how will you know what to google to find the number of  Thankful Villages, or even find out if there is a Doubly Thankful Village nearby to you?

This is the point about knowledge. You really do need a little, despite it’s dangers, to do anything. You can’t google something you know literally nothing about, where would you start?  If you know a bit, you can quickly reference the obscure details, whether that’s the chemical symbol for protactinium (Pa), the relative atomic mass of tin (118.7), or the county with the most doubly thankful villages (Lincolnshire, 3). But until you know what thankful village or relative atomic mass mean, how to do move on?

I sometimes feel that critics of a knowledge-rich curriculum believe that these dry details are drilled into kids in isolation. That they must remember the relative atomic mass of every element, huge chunks of Shakespeare or the dates of dozens of key battles in the first world war without context. But to me, that’s not how a knowledge curriculum works. These bits of information aren’t drilled in as dry components. They’re part of a rich whole of each subject which allow students to understand the general prinicples of the subjects that they are studying in greater depth. That remembering a few key facts will allow students build fluency in their subject by remembering some important information that is revisited frequently; by remembering the start and end dates of the wars, short quotations of important characters or the relative atomic mass of carbon then students can build fluency to their own answers to questions and not overload their working memory. And finally, they can know the location of knowledge, in exams, essays and life beyond school, they can know where to find the knowledge they want and need. Even if that is, what specifically they need to type into google.






*Footnote: I’m not really a monster, I am just a pedant, and pedantry wins prizes. And it wins marks in exams, which are like prizes if you think about it. What type of message does it send if we pretend that incorrect answers are actually correct?

The Guilty Parent

I jump into my car. It’s late and I’m cutting it fine, but I just have time to plug my phone into the tape adaptor in my car and put some music on before I drive off. I’ve built up a playlist of uplifting, sing-a-long hits that give me a pick me up.  It’s only a short drive. I’ll get three songs in at most, but it’s ten minutes of “me” time. Something that is in short supply these days.

I arrive with about 5 minutes to spare before the official end of After School Club. I’m lucky I suppose, the kid really loves the club; the staff are fantastic and his peer group of modern latchkey kids are all really friendly and supportive of each other. It’s actually possible for me to arrive too early to pick him up; before he’s had a chance to play, or god-forbid, just as they are about to start a rare 30-minutes of PC time in the computer room. But today is a bad time for a different reason. He’s tired and he’s the last kid there. He’s been the last one there for ten minutes or so and he’s noticed he’s the last to be picked up, again. He looks up from the lego and shoots me a glance. Half happy to see me, half sad that I’ve arrived later than the other parents. The second half of that look skewers my heart like an ice-cold dagger. I feel so guilty.

The guilt is so real. Many parents have to work. Many teachers. I knew what I was getting into when I trained. In fact, retraining as a teacher was in part motivated by having a toddler at home. The prospect of having all school holidays off with him over the next 18 years was a considerable pull. I made some rules back there early in my training. I made weekends sacrosanct which drove my PGCE Mentor mad, but I kept to it then and now. The school holidays were everything they were cracked up to be; work stops entirely and the days on end spent with the lad are amazing.

But this evening I’m really late, and like many evenings I’m not late due to a staff meeting or a parents evening, nothing unavoidable. I’m late because I took a football team to an away match after school. I’m late because I ran a science club for lower school students before getting started on my planning for tomorrow. I’m late because I did a 2-hour revision session for my Year 11s. I’m late because I hosted an after school seminar speaker for 6th formers. I’m late because I gave up my lunchtime for football training, or Science Journal Club and had to run my detentions after school. I’m late because I chaired the staff teaching and learning committee. I don’t have to do any of these things. They aren’t part of my contract. I feel guilty because I did them instead of picking my son up at an earlier time and spending time with him.

I feel shit just writing this.

I keep asking myself, why? Why do I do it? Should I stop doing it. Should I say “no” more often? I’ve wrestled with these questions a lot recently, inevitably, as the unavoidable workload of preparing students for exams, writing reports and marking internal exams piles up at the end of term, on top of these extras. As the tiredness creeps earlier and earlier into the day for me and the kid, and what time we do spend together is largely spent crashed out in front of the TV together. What should I do next year? Should I stop doing these extracurricular activities for my students and spend more time with my own son?

At the start of this year I did actually cut back a bit. Though it doesn’t feel like it right now. I decided that I wouldn’t run science club during the main football season from Christmas to Easter; it was not a popular decision with the science club regulars, but it did just about mean that I stayed sane during that term, rich as it is in football matches and parents evenings. But apart from that I’ve decided to carry on with pretty much everything. And I’ve come to the conclusion I’m going to carry on doing this much again next year.  Why?  Because I’d want someone to carry on offering these opportunities for my son.

My son’s primary school already offer an incredible range of extra-curricular activities at lunchtimes and after school and he makes full use of the opportunities offered; taking part in dance, chess and football clubs. He’s looking forward to Ukelele club being open to his year group next year. I’d hate it if these were withdrawn from him. I’d hate to think that the incredible range of extra-curricular opportunities currently on offer at my school weren’t available when he goes to secondary school; the sports teams’ training and matches, the drama, the choirs, the art club, the science club, the computing and programming, the warhammer, debating and journalism clubs, the visiting lectures and the final push revision sessions. I want him to have all these opportunities and more. I want all kids to have these opportunities and more. So I’m going to keep doing the extra hours for other people’s kids, until someone offers to do them instead because I sincerely hope that someone will do it for my kid, and for all the kids.

But that doesn’t make the guilt go away.

Oral Narrative & Memory – An Evolutionary Story

This blog post is based on the short talk I gave at the #CogSciSci meeting at Westminster School on Friday 31st May 2019.

I’m going to make an emotional, but hopefully rational argument as to why oral narrative (the telling of stories) is the most powerful way to impart new information to our students in the classroom.  Or put another way, high quality teacher talk is great and we should not look to limit it in the classroom.

Humans are unique in their evolution of language. That’s not to say that other animals don’t communicate with sounds and gestures, but humans alone have developed the ability to use their tongues to make such an array of sounds. Indeed the word language comes from the latin for tongue, lingua.  Human language is also modality-independent; language can be transmitted by speech in different languages, signs, gestures and written symbols with the same meaning conveyed and understood in the language centres of the brain. This modality independence is again, as far as we know, unique to homo sapiens of animal species alive today.

Paleoanthropologists debate about how human language developed and diverged from primate communication, and there are some wonderful theories such as the “Festival Origin” (emotional chanting for a celebration) or the “Putting Baby Down Origin” (that working mothers needed to call out to reassure their increasingly large but helpless offspring that they were still nearby). There is of course no record of human speech within the fossil record since the soft tissues involved have not survived. The time, and mechanisms of origin of language will therefore always be debated. However a minimum age of around 350,000 years, the time of Homo Neanderthalensis, has been proposed as the time required for the diverse range of phonemes found on the planet today to have diversified. Whilst others argue that language evolved much earlier around the time of Homo Habilis, 2,000,000 years ago.

Evidence of early human writing does exist in the archaeological record. The earliest true writing tablets survive from Sumeria around 3500 BC, whilst the earliest written counting to have survived is the Lebombo Bone a baboon bone with 29 notches carved into it which may have been used for counting days in a lunar calendar. Radiocarbon dating places the bone at 35,000 years old. Cave paintings, and rudimentary lines drawn on rocks have been found which have been dated to 78,000 years ago.

However, even the earliest estimates of crude human writing and the latest estimate for the arrival of human speech leave a gap of more than 200,000 years. That’s a long time, but perhaps not a surprising one. Anyone who has witnessed the relative ease with which a child learns to speak compared to the difficulties in learning to read and write cannot argue that written communication is a natural and implicit method of transmitting information for humans.

So for hundreds of thousands of years, early humans communicated and passed information to each other by talking. Look at this artistic impression of early humans sitting around a fire. What do you think they might be saying to each other?


Maybe on the right, the mother is telling her young children about the dangers of the water; the need to look out for crocodile-like creatures, of the need to not stray too far in without supervision in case of drowning. She checks that they remember not to eat the red berries that grow on the path to the water. In the center, a village elder has brought some foraged foods, some roots perhaps, that he has learned are rich in calories and plentiful during the cooler winter months. He is telling the younger man where to find them and how to dig them up.  On the left, two men skin an animal killed in a new type of trap that they have developed and will tell the tribe about after eating. They use the stone and wooden tools they learned how to make from their parents. The tribe will eat meat today and more often from now on, if others can learn how to make these traps.

For generations information such as how to stay safe, how to hunt, how to make tools, what foods to gather and when, and what plants and berries are poisonous has been passed from generation of early human to the next.  Not learning the oral stories would have been costly.

Pre-historic children who could not learn which mushrooms and berries are poisonous would not be able to make the mistake a second time. Prehistoric new parents who believed their children should learn life’s dangers by discovering them for themselves soon had no children. Prehistoric non-conformists who did not listen to, or participate in the traditions of the hunt, preferring their own ineffective progressive methods were subsequently shunned by the tribe and found themselves without mates.

The ability to learn and listen to orally transmitted stories would have been selected for in the human gene pool for hundreds of thousands of years. Those who could not learn stories would win prehistoric Darwin Awards and remove themselves from the gene pool. Life would have been difficult and dangerous enough that discovery learning in the young would have been lethal.

For sure, innovation and creativity would have been necessary for technological advances by adults who had learned the basics and built on this knowledge. But without brains that could learn from oral transmission of information then even new technological advances would have been quickly lost by subsequent generations.

An interesting study supports this argument. Morgan et al (2015) investigated how the making of sharp stone flakes such as those used by Homo Habilis 2,000,000 years ago could be taught by modern humans. They investigated different methods of transmitting information: a) by trying to recreate flakes when given the tools (blue bars); b) by observing an expert making flakes (green); c) by basic teaching, the tutor could re-position hands, or perform the motion slowly (yellow); d) by gestural teaching (orange) and e) by verbal teaching (red).   The graph below shows that the quality of flakes was highest when verbal teaching was used and similar graphs in the paper show that the quantity of flakes and success rate in flake production are all most effective when teaching occurred orally.

Morgan et al

The paper also showed that transmission of information along a chain (the first student becomes the teacher to the next) was most effective and longer lasting when teaching was verbal. The authors conclude that tool-making and language likely co-evolved in hominids, since without the ability to speak tool making techniques would not have proliferated and would not have been transmitted to subsequent generations. The co-evolution of tool making and language would age human language at at least 2,000,000 years old.

If this hypothesis is true, for more than 2,000,000 years our ancestors have spoken to each other and passed vital information to subsequent generations through oral communication. For more than 2,000,000 years there has been a selection pressure for individuals capable of learning information transmitted verbally.

Compared to 2,000,000 years of evolution, the brains of “21st Century Children” who happen to be born a decade or three later than their “20th Century Teachers” are essentially identical. The notion that we should change our style of teaching to suit a generation of children who happen to have iPhones is absurd. The Human brain is perfectly evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to listen to, and learn from human stories and verbal communication.

Cognitive Science teaches us that students need to forget and relearn information. That they need to actively retrieve this information from their long-term memory. That they learn better when information is dual-coded with linguistic and visio-spatial information. But these strategies are concerned with how to embed information into schema for easy retrieval. It does not tell us how to impart this information in the first instance in the most powerful way possible.

Human evolution tells us that that the most powerful way is through oral narration of stories. Our brains have evolved for millions of years to learn engaging and interesting stories that are relevant to us. High quality teacher talk that combines key information intertwined in an interesting and engaging narrative is likely to be one of the most powerful ways to impart new information. Indeed I’m finding that the #sciencestories project is most effective with my students when I read the story aloud to the whole class.

So let’s plan high quality teacher talk, stop timing how long the teacher talks for, stop placing arbitrary limits on the time a teacher stands at the front of a class. Instead let’s improve our narrative craft, learn the interesting stories so that we can engage students in the rich narrative of our subjects.

Long live the sage on the stage!

Update: On reading this post CorbynCrow pointed me towards Neil Gaiman’s wonderful poem The Mushroom Hunters. A poetic story of the first scientists (who logically were the women) I watched a video of Gaiman’s wife, Amanda Palmer, reading it (skip to 9:40 if you just want the poem) about four times back-to-back, I was blown away by it. Then I found Chris Riddell’s illustrations of the poem, and I was totally in love.  One day, framed versions of these will line the corridor into my science department.