A Level Ed Walsh Secondary Secondary Science

Ed Walsh on Science

The sweet taste of success

I recently had a novel experience in the enterprise of teaching and learning.  My daughter is learning how to drive and persuaded me to take her out for some practice.  She’s having professional instruction but the instructor was keen that she should have some additional experience.  I’m sure that a number of you will recognise this scenario.  The instructor, of course, has two advantages; one of these is a dual control car and the other is experience.

My turn first.  We went to a large empty car park on a Sunday and practiced driving the car at low speed.  You know the kind of thing – finding the biting point, co-ordinating accelerator, clutch and handbrake and driving round in circles.  The idea was, of course, to start at square one.  Getting the basics right.  Learning to walk before a sprint or marathon is attempted.  The problem is, of course, that we’d started at one of the trickiest points.  We spent approaching an hour starting, stopping and doing tight turns.  Verdict from daughter?  Hmmm.

Couple of days later it’s the instructor’s turn.  By the end of the first lesson she’s driven miles along an open road and comes back wreathed in smiles.  She has a couple of specific development points but an overall sense of making progress.  Smart cookie (the instructor, I mean – well both, really).

Learning about anything is not a tidy process.  There’s almost always a plethora of ideas, skills and judgments to make and we can always make the case for ‘mastering the basics first’.  The trouble is, success comes from confidence as well as competence and if that can be nurtured from the outset it’s likely to work better.

I remember my elder son starting at secondary school and talking to him about his first science lesson in KS3.  I was braced for an account of learning about laboratory rules and ready to assure him that investigative work wasn’t far away but, on the contrary he came home full of it.  They’d been using acids, alkalis and indicators, which he thought was great.  The Health & Safety was in there, but the teacher had realised the merit of starting with something that gave an early taste of success.  Another smart cookie.

There’s a lot of course development going on at the moment, with new KS3 programmes of study kicking in this month, A level changes next year and GCSEs not so far off.  Starting points are crucial and ones that build up a positive experience to be valued.  It doesn’t mean glossing over the tricky bits but rather getting learners to approach them with a feeling of success and if that means jiggling the running order, so be it.

Back to the driving: the other reason the instructor’s strategy worked was that it reflected why people want to drive in the first place.  She was getting from A to B so it was an authentic experience, whereas driving round a car park is fundamentally artificial.  If we can give students an early taste of what it feels like to work like a scientist it’s going to help.

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