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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.



How Science Works


There’s a popular video on the internet in which Richard Feynman summarises how science works in just 63 seconds.

I’m going to discuss how we look for a new law. In general we look for a new law by the following process; first we guess it.”  The audience of students laughs. “No don’t laugh, that’s really true.” continues Feynman. “Then we compute the consequences of the guess, to see if it’s right, we see what it would imply. Then we compare those computation results to nature or we say compare to experiment or experience. Compare it directly with observation to see if it works.

There’s a pregnant pause, while Feynman, the consummate story-telling teacher builds anticipation to his punchline, his key point, his lesson objective.

If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong.” Feynman clearly states, pointing at the flow diagram he has drawn on the board.

“In that simple statement is the key to science.  It doesn’t matter how beautiful your guess is, it doesn’t make a difference how smart you are, who made the guess or what his name is, if it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong.

Feynman gestures a crossing action with his arms as he says this, emphasising and repeating his key message – you can see how he was a masterful teacher as well as scientist.

That’s all there is to it” he quips and his enraptured audience laugh again.

It’s a favourite video of mine, and a few Elvis Juices to the good I can be persuaded to make it the basis of a sincerely affectionate Feynman impression.

In just one minute Richard Feynman summarises the essence of science. It beautifully illustrates the liberal and egalitarian nature of science – that there is no scientific authority and anyone’s guess can be wrong. Anyone’s guess can be right. The only authority is the careful observation and application of common sense.

This thinking is taken to an extreme conclusion by progressive educators who believe that students can discover the laws of nature for themselves if only they are taught how to conduct experiments that are fair. They believe in the egalitarian scientific world all guesses are equal until they are compared to scientific observation. Therefore the guesses of novice student are as equally valid as a Nobel Prize winners’ guess and everyone is doing “science”.

But Feynman would disagree. However, you’d only know that if you dig around for the full version of the Messenger Lectures.  In longer versions of the video Feynman goes on to discuss a hypothetical computer that makes a succession of random guesses and computes the outcomes. All possible guesses can be calculated. Guessing becomes random – a dumb man’s job. But Feynman explains, that’s not how science actually progresses, because existing knowledge means most of those guesses are impossible, or at least very unlikely. The best guesses are made by the well-informed. The knowledgable. The experts.


When I started my Ph.D. in 2003 the first thing I was told to do was read. Read everything on the subject that I was about to study.  I was sent an enormous 54-page review, written by my PhD supervisor, to read weeks before I even started, and when I started in his lab I was given selected references from that paper to read in further detail and several more papers that had been published in the year or so that had passed between the publication of his review and my starting. Given that the purpose of a PhD is to push back the boundary of human knowledge (nicely illustrated in the gif below), it’s important to know where the boundary is.


I spent at least 3 weeks reading before I even touched any lab equipment – then two months learning how to use it all the equipment. Then the next 3 months performing control experiments. Finally around 6 months into my PhD I got to do my first real experiments (as planned out by my supervisor) which would yield new data. When I showed those first results to my supervisor I recall his response was “Oh good, that’s what I expected.”  You see, he’d predicted the outcome of almost all the experiments that I conducted during that first year. That’s what happens when you’re an expert. The guesses aren’t random. They’re carefully considered from a position of expertise.

It was about a year and a half into my PhD before I started formulating my own hypotheses, and about two years before I finally conducted an experiment that hadn’t already been thought of, and correctly hypothesised by my supervisor – I was finally overtaking him as the expert in my miniscule niche of knowledge, I was on the path to passing my PhD.

A decade or so later when working as a long-in-the-tooth postdoc in a lab a colleague remarked

“the problem with modern PhD students is that they’d rather spend 3 weeks in the lab discovering something they think is new, than spend one hour in the library discovering that someone else already discovered it.”

I wonder now, with a good few years teaching under my belt, if science education in schools has not contributed to this problem – that students believe that they are best placed to discover new things for themselves, rather than read about them?


I’ve been considering for some time how to square this circle: that good science is done from a position of expertise, that practical work is a core part of school science, that school students need to be trained how to undertake good science, and yet they are, by definition, novices. The key, I have realised is in the Hypothesis stage of an experiment.

Question, Hypothesis, List of Variables, Equipment List, Method, Risk Assessment, Results Table, Graph, Conclusions. But the most important of these is the Hypothesis.

Students are in the strongest position to understand how science works when they can take their existing knowledge then make, and explain, a good hypotheses from a position of relative expertise within that domain.

Take the following example from our Year 7 scheme of work:

Question: What is the relationship between the force of friction and the mass of an object?

When forced to hypothesise the answer to this question students are faced with just three options:

  • As mass increases friction stays the same
  • As mass increases friction decreases
  • As mass increases friction increases

Students can easily guess any of these and proceed with their experiment with little thought as to why their guess might be true. If indeed they are asked to make a hypothesis at all. Not only should students have to make a hypothesis they should also have to explain the reasoning for their hypothesis:

  • because the roughness of the surface is always the same regardless of the mass
  • because the roughness is smoothed out by increased mass pushing down
  • because the roughness is more difficult to overcome when increased mass pushes down

Only when students can predict the outcome of the experiment from a knowledgeable position are they ready to carry out the experiment.  Having to make an accurate hypothesis and explain why they have made that prediction using their knowledge makes students think, which is surely the name of the game? (Learning is the Residue of Thought as Dan Willingham says).  In practice, school students can make their hypothesis freely, or use two-part MCQs such as above if scaffolding is required, but they should have to explain why they have made it.

Rather than concentrating on identifying variables and making tests fair – which seems to be the focus of much school science – should we put more emphasis on the hypothesis and ask students to spend more time on the hypothesis of their experiment? We will likely have to teach students concepts before practicals, but by asking students to make informed hypotheses before they start practical work they will have to carefully apply their existing scientific knowledge to a problem. This has the added advantage that their data analysis becomes much more meaningful and anomalous results or completely incorrect results (due to poor experimental design) become desirable cognitive dissonance that students have to explain, rather than accept as “correct”.

This is also much closer to the reality of How Science actually Works. Science is not the random guessing of the outcomes of experiments, but the careful guessing and comparission from positions of expertise. Which is why Feynman was one of the best.


Give your name value

We have a regular Super Curricular Lecture after school. We try to have one every week, but the day bounces around a little and sometimes a week or two will go by without one; that’s not an ideal but we prioritise the quality of our speakers over the regularity, so the lecture moves around a little.
This week I was delighted to introduce Professor Randy Mrsny of Bath University. He’s an engaging and interesting Californian who researches in the field of epithelial biology. I first met him nearly a decade ago when he gave me some advice on the fellowship I was writing in my old career as a research scientist and he kindly gave me an hour of his time.
I was delighted when he agreed back in the summer to come and speak to the pupils in my school and the fact that the next mutually convenient date when he was in the country and we definitely weren’t using the hall after school was eight months away wasn’t a problem; I knew he’d be worth the wait.

We have had many university academics scientists come to speak, and most give very interesting talks about their research, however I know that Prof Mrsny has done something most scientists have not; he has sat in a room with Peter Theil and the other members of the Founders Fund and successfully had his company Trinity Biosystems funded by them. I asked him therefore if he’d talk about venture capitalism as the focus of his lecture and I suggested a title of “How to turn a good ideal into a multi-million-dollar company” and he graciously agreed.

He outlined in his lecture both the traditional venture-capitalist model (which he has also worked within) and the new Founders Fund model which is more akin to Angel Investment and gave a brief outline of his background, career pathway and the technology that his company is based on and said he could go into more detail on the science during questions.

However, all the questions from our student audience were related to the finances, the rich men that he’d met in career and how much money he’d potentially make. The final question was from the youngest member of the audience, a year 9 student* he asked “If I have a good idea, how can I even make it into a room with those investors if I have nothing to my name?”

Without missing a beat, Randy replied “Oh that’s an easy question to answer – if the only thing you have is your name, then you must give your name value.”

“How can I give my name value?” replied the Year 9 lad.

And now I’m paraphrasing, and I wish I’d recorded his answer, but it went something like this…

“You give your name value by getting the best education you can. When you leave this school, everyone should know your name as the hardest working student in the school and your teachers will help you go to a good university. Then you can get a degree and employers will know that you are someone who can finish things. Then I’d recommend a post graduate degree so that people know that yours is the name of someone who can think and question properly. Then you can get work and network with people, and in everything you do you should work hard and complete projects so that yours is the name that people can trust to get things done. Then you can take your idea into a room with the richest and most powerful people in the world and when they ask around about your name, they will hear that yours is a name they should work with, that yours is a name that gets things done, that yours is a name with real value, because it is your name.”



* the lecture series is heavily advertised within the 6th form, but we do not discourage students from other years from attending if they wish, and they regularly do.

Working Hard

The lesson finishes, the observer waves and I give a knowing nod, there’s no time to catch up now, they have a lesson to get ready for. As do I. Like mythical punctual buses, there is always another lesson just a few minutes behind this one.

We do catch up though, at lunchtime, for a friendly chat about the lesson. A friendly chat, because it’s a peer-observation as part of our Teaching & Learning Group that I’ve started this year. No grades, just useful feedback on a lesson with a particular focus each term.  The observer has some good feedback for me; a few boys on the back row who I hadn’t spotted were filling in the answers as we went through their homework, rather than marking it. There’s also the point that I really tried to cram too much into this lesson which is a fair comment, and something I need to work on. Then came the comment I’ve received in almost every lesson observation I’ve had since I first walked into a classroom five years ago…

“You’re working very hard up there.”

It’s not meant as an insult, it’s a back-handed compliment, I think.

I hope.

But the insinuation is always the same; I shouldn’t be working hard.

“You’re working harder than the kids.”




When I trained to be a teacher, I was constantly told I was working too hard in the classroom. That I was talking too much, explaining too much, that I should do less work and make the kids work harder. In my first placement I planned lessons where students taught each other; a highlight being a Year 7 lesson where students were transformed from novices with no knowledge of energy production to being Chief Scientific Officers of renewable companies within the space of twenty minutes with a single worksheet. They then answered the very perceptive questions of their sales rep peers with a mixture of misconceptions, guesswork, and good old-fashioned blaggery; a useful life skill perhaps, but the follow-up homework task suggested few had learned the desired knowledge of renewable energy resources.

I was recommended to read Jim Smith’s The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook, and I dutifully did over the Christmas between my placements. It was full of techniques for getting students to do more in class, discover more for themselves, teach each other while the teacher “did less work”… in the classroom, perhaps. But importantly, more work outside the classroom. That book, like my PGCE mentor, said my efforts should be directed towards planning and making resources. Make resources at home, on my own, since these resources weren’t available at school. If my mentor had a bank of these magical resources, she certainly wasn’t going to share them with me. I did what I could, often forking out money I could ill afford, on cobbled together lazy-teacher-style lesson resources on TES for £1.99 or more.

On my second placement, again I was told to work less hard in the classroom and to work harder outside the classroom. To plan more activities that would allow students to discover things for themselves rather than me telling them.  I was told I wasn’t working hard enough outside the classroom. That I needed to dedicate my weekends (which had been then, and remain now, sacrosanct family time) to planning elaborate lessons where students could discover things for themselves, and then also spend time at home correcting  the multitude of student misconceptions by marking their books and writing written feedback in every book.

On that second placement I was told that students’ behaviour was poor because it was five minutes in to the lesson and I was still talking. That students couldn’t be expected to listen carefully and interact with a teacher instructing and questioning them for more than five minutes and that they needed to start “working independently”. I eventually realised that students “working independently” simply meant that their private conversations and moving around the room were tolerated.

I finally extracted begrudging praise from my second placement mentor when my PGCE culminated in planning a “dance your chemical reaction” lesson with Year 7 (one for the kinaesthetic learners), and a series of lessons for year 8, in which I said absolutely nothing to the class at all. For seven lessons. Seven whole fifty-minute lessons where I taught them… nothing; instead students worked independently using their tablet devices to read a series of blog posts on Rocks, which caused me to start this blog, and which remain on this site as memorial to mistakes of the past.  I spent these lessons walking around the room telling students to read the posts, telling them where they could find the tasks they needed to complete in chronological order, and that the answers they needed were there in the blog or on linked sites, if only they would care to read. But they didn’t read, they just chatted and then if I circulated past them and asked why they weren’t working they would say they were stuck and waiting for me.  Waiting for me to give them verbal direct instruction on a one-to-one basis.




Information can only enter a someone’s head through their eyes or their ears. You cannot eat knowledge and you cannot smell knowledge. Given that information students learn through discovery is no more likely to be remembered than information given to them isn’t it more efficient to just tell them?  Isn’t it quicker for the teacher to stand at the front and explain it clearly, to every student rather than slave away outside of classroom hours designing activities? Activities that in even a best-case scenario are only equally as effective as the best teacher explanations, but in most scenarios are less effective?  Aren’t students more likely to understand the desired concept if you remove as many cognitive barriers as possible? The more and more I learn about the various cognitive difficulties in learning new things the more convinced I am that I should make it as easy as possible to access new information.




Then there’s the workload issue. Let’s face it, even the best designed discovery learning activities, which require less than five minutes of teacher speak, still require the teacher to work hard. It’s just less visible to the casual observer. Did Jim Smith spend his lessons sat with his feet up smoking a pipe? Of course not. The “lazy teacher” still has to circulate, manage behaviour and motivate students.  If the lesson has any kind of challenging material or if the resources are anything other than spectacular then the teacher will also be circulating correcting mistakes and catching misconceptions. But you’ll never catch them all, so you’ll end up marking, or at the very least reading every book and feeding back to correct those mistakes with some direct instruction through written or verbal feedback later.  More marking, to go with more planning, all done outside of the lesson time; but at least the teacher wasn’t working hard in the lesson, eh!




The book that as had the most profound and instant impact on my teaching has been David Didau and Nick Rose’s What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology; In particular, the chapter on learning and long-term memory. I don’t recall a great deal of information on this area of psychological research being presented to me in my PGCE (or if it was, I wasn’t made to recall it at any time). But the ideas surrounding forgetting and retrieval practice were a revelation to me, and I stopped being frustrated at my student’s inability to remember stuff we did last lesson.  As a student teacher, NQT and RQT I would be hugely frustrated at the inability of my students to recall even the basic facets of the previous lesson without looking it up in their books.

“But last week, Freddie you were the CSO of a biomass burning power station, how can you not remember what Biomass means?”

Why should Freddie remember? He wasn’t actually the CSO of a biomass power station. He was pretending to be based on the single side of A4 information I gave to him which he dutifully read once before being distracted by wasp flying around the classroom. He knew and understood in that lesson. He knew when Charlotte asked him what type of materials he burned.  But he’s forgotten now. So we’ll need to recap that. In fact they’ve all forgotten…

I found the teaching experience to be a much happier and relaxed experience once I had accepted that students will forget stuff, even if I have checked they know stuff at the end of the lesson. For forgetting is natural, and memory (as Dan Willingham is oft quoted) is the residue of thought. Teachers should use their position as experts to teach kids stuff in a way that is interesting, engaging and explained as clearly as possible. That does not mean that kids will be passive, or lectured to. Good teaching follows explanation and instruction with questions. Questions that make students think about that stuff. Thinking and practicing that will help students create strong long-term memories. Finally, good teachers check students answers to questions to check their understanding, and plan subsequent teaching accordingly.

Students will still forget stuff, but if we teach efficiently, we’ll have time to go back through things, time to inter-leave topics and information, and show students how concepts are connected. That ideas do not sit in one-hour silos called “lessons”.  And with any luck, teachers wont have to work so hard outside of the classroom. For sure, this way is hard work in the classroom, but I don’t mind working hard in the classroom; it’s my job. I’m a teacher.

A Dearth of Tier 2 Vocabulary and Homonym Knowledge


“You all did question 5a really well, but 5b was a struggle for many of you. Some of you didn’t answer the question at all, others of you didn’t read it carefully and wrote the wrong answer.”

Sound familiar?  It was certainly the kind of thing that I used to say in exam feedback lessons to my students during my first couple of years as a teacher.  But I’ve come around to the idea that “not reading the question” is a problem that barely exists. Instead we have a problem of students “not comprehending the question”.  When students can’t comprehend the question then they either guess (if they’re confident and have enough self-esteem that they don’t worry about making mistakes) or they leave it blank.

Students nearly always read the question. Whilst they might occasionally skip over the “introduction to a question” jumping down to the first actual question, they are still reading the question, no student ever blunders into the answer space without reading the question. I mean, how would that work?

Vocabulary is sub-divided into three tiers, the first are words that are high frequency in spoken language. The second tier is words that are not specialised terms but are found in high frequency in written texts. The third tier is specialised terms for specific fields of study.

I was taught as a PGCE student how important it was to emphasise the key terms for each lesson to ensure that students are explicitly taught these and their meaning. As a science teacher every lesson comes with a list of new tier 3 vocabulary and I try to explicitly teach Latin and Greek word roots to try and allow students to spot patterns in the multi-syllable words they must get to grips with in science. I also ask students to think of other words with similar word roots to help them link the new vocabulary to words they already familiar with.  Similarly the proliferation of Knowledge Organisers and Key-Term Glossaries in schools are emphasising the importance of these terms to students. After all, it is impossible to answer a question about the difference between Global Warming and Climate Change if you don’t know the difference between these terms.


My anecdotal feeling is that my teaching of tier 3 vocabulary specific to science has greatly improved in recent years and fewer students make exam mistakes for a lack of knowledge of the key scientific terms required.  However, I am noticing many students still making basic errors thanks to gaps in their knowledge of Tier 2 vocabulary.


In the above example, the student has not understood the meaning of the word “impact” within the question and has listed three causes of climate change. I suspect this student is aware of the meaning of the word impact as a noun meaning a collision, but is not aware of its meaning as a verb meaning “affect on”.

Similarly, I recently had several students within a class struggle with this question in a physics paper:

“Use the graph to identify which material had the best insulating properties.” 

The graph in the question showed the temperature fall in beakers of water wrapped in polystyrene, bubble-wrap, newspaper, wool and cotton.  Many students gave the answer as “wool” since this was the best insulator out of the two fabrics wool and cotton, despite polystyrene and bubble-wrap being better than both fabrics.

In both cases, students have struggled with a knowledge of tier 2 vocabulary, and specifically tier 2 vocabulary with multiple homonyms.  Now whilst you can argue that the English language is unnecessarily complex we can do nothing about that. Indeed we seem to be unable to stop young people making it even more complex all the time. We could simplify (dumb down) written texts and exam questions to maximise student marks but given that the English language will remain complex this simply kicks the can down the road. We must instead expose our students to the complexities of the English language as much as we can through the compulsory reading of challenging texts and encouraging reading for pleasure.  It might be worth considering the range of tier 2 language you use in your teaching too, without going too Dr Johnson about it!

Finally, I implore you to treat children who make these comprehension mistakes with respect; this is a problem that can strike any of us at any time as demonstrated by a personal anecdote…

I sat my University finals at Bristol University in 2003. Each final Pharmacology exam had two parts; the first being a series of compulsory short-answer questions and a second part formed of two longer essay questions. You could choose your two essays; one from each of two groups of questions. Each group of questions contained 3 or 4 questions, each set by a single lecturer on their field of study, and we knew in advance which lecturers’ questions would be up against one another in each group.

Every student did the same thing, cast aside one lecturer’s work as too boring / too complicated / too wide ranging to narrow down the subject of the question, and revise two others; nearly everyone had a first choice and a second choice, you revised the first choice much harder than the second.  I remember the sinking feeling in my stomach as I turned over the page and read my first-choice question.

“Explain the current dearth in potassium channel blockers.”

Just eight words. And one of them was completely alien to me. I panicked. I knew why there was a lack of potassium channel blockers, I must have read a dozen papers on the subject. But in the back of my head I had this nagging thought that ‘dearth’ meant ‘many’. In the end I passed on the question and went for my second-choice. I missed a first-class degree by a couple of percentage points, which naturally I always blamed on the word dearth (rather than my shortcomings in the other papers).  Whilst I don’t think my 2:i ever held me back and I was still able to get on to my PhD programme of study, I learned an important lesson that has only really shown its importance to me in that last few years; we all have gaps in our vocabulary, even the well-read and academic. We owe it to our students to try and plug as many of them as we can now, rather than kicking the can down the road to a more important time.


I’ve already written about my love of story-telling in science teaching when extolling the virtues of Carl Sagan as a Great Explainer. Not only does a story tell the human experience behind scientific discoveries, making them less dry, but I am convinced that they help young students remember and recall more information. We have evolved over thousands of years as creatures of oral story-telling.

The #ScienceStories project therefore aims to write down some interesting stories of scientific discoveries and the scientists that made them. The #ScienceStories project is inspired by Mr Pink’s amazing #50allusions project where he and twitter’s Team English have written a series of posts on common literary allusions which students may or may not be aware of, with a view to improving their literacy and their cultural capital.

I hope that the #ScienceStories will produce a flexible resource that can be used in a number of different ways. The sheets could be read by the teacher before the lesson as inspiration to tell the story. Or the sheets could be used with specific lessons linked to those concepts, as introductory, or extension tasks.  Or cover lessons to prepare students for the next topic. I also plan to put together several related stories as mini extension booklets to use in mixed KS3 classes to stretch, challenge and inspire pupils who have completed tasks or who are seeking extra homework (these kids do exist, especially in KS3, and we should be finding ways to stimulate them).

Like #50allusions, I’d like this to be a team effort, but one with a common format so that they can be put together in a coherent booklet if necessary. You can volunteer yourself and which story you’d like to write on this spreadsheet. You can also download a blank proforma (EDIT: .doc blank proforma, now as this seemed easier) to write your story, and when you’ve finished email me (ww9066 at gmail dot com), and I can give it a quick copy edit and stick it up.

Like the #50allusions, I suggest our #ScienceStories are two pages long, the first an overview of the story with a picture or two, with questions and reflections on the reverse (in part related to the curriculum link), and then some extension questions and where students can find further reading. Take a look at some of the amazing allusions for more inspiration, which you should also pass on to your English Department.

Reckon we can have this ready to go for September, don’t you?

Update Feb 2019

So… September was optimistic, no?  But thanks to Adam Boxer’s excellent blog on Core Knowledge and the Hinterland information that frames the key knowledge, and the suggestion that the #sciencestories could make a good repository of Hinterland information I was kickstarted into giving the project a shove.  So there are now 6 finished articles with questions, extension and further reading – available as PDFs or Word documents. I hope that you can see how easy they are to write and how useful they could be as framing activities to core knowledge or extension activities for the super speedy in your class.

Update March 2019

We’ve moved fast – We’re now up to 14 stories, and I’ve learned many things I didn’t know before, such as the film actress that contributed to the invention of Wifi, an ethically dubious experiment that shed light on the nature of digestion in the stomach, the role of muslim scholars in writing the laws of refraction and the sad story of the Radium Girls who paid with their lives to teach us about the dangers of radioactivity.