Ed Walsh

Better to do one thing well…

One of the things that is pretty well understood about the new GCSE science courses is that pupils will have to be able to plan and run investigations. So they should; it’s the bedrock of science. A lot of time and effort will go into the planning of controlled assessments to make sure that pupils stand the best possible chance.

For some teachers the approach they are planning to take is to provide pupils with a rather similar task to the controlled assessment, say a week before, to make sure that pupils understand what they need to do. Now, it’s not my place to comment on whether this is good practice. It’s likely that some pupils will appreciate the opportunity to understand what’s expected of them, others will get a little cynical about repeating work and a number of teachers will say “Well, if that’s what it needs to get the pupils the grades they deserve….”

The funny thing is though, I’m not sure it works. The number of times that teachers have commented on the capacity of pupils to miss out or misinterpret key points “even though we’d been over it only a few days before.” The truth of the matter is, I suspect, that unless the skills of investigating are embedded throughout a course, most pupils won’t suddenly pick them up just because an assessment is on the horizon.

Actually, we can go a bit further than that. Not only do the skills need to be embedded throughout the course, they also need to be developed individually. Sometimes when I’m observing a lesson a teacher will say that the practical investigation the pupils are doing “is great, because you can use it to address so many skills.” I’m sure you can; I’m not convinced that you should because I don’t think it works. If you’re keen that pupils become more proficient at, for example, writing a better conclusion, then make that the main focus of the activity. Don’t also be trying to make a big thing out of how to identify variables, how to construct a graph and how to evaluate the investigation. Refer to them by all means and remind pupils (even better, get them to remind you) what good practice looks like, but have a single main focus on the development of investigative skills.

A useful parallel can be drawn with acquiring concepts. We’d space out the acquisition of new concepts in, say, genetics or ionising radiation over a sequence of lessons. Cramming too much into one lesson is counterproductive. No doubt when schemes of work are overhauled to support the new courses much thought will be given as to which ideas are developed where, and rightly so. The same should happen with investigative skills. Like the electrons in Thomson’s “plum pudding” model of the atom they should be dotted throughout the structure and lead to an overall balance.

Now, this will need an investment of time, both in terms of planning and delivery. How about this as a thought: controlled assessments count for 25% of the marks so 25% of lesson time should be used to develop the skills that they assess. Now that should allow the skills to be progressively developed.

Ed Walsh, Science Advisor with Cornwall Learning.

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