Squaring the Circle

Early in August my wife and I went to the Isles of Scilly. Now, living in Cornwall, this isn’t exactly an adventurous holiday, but it works for us; the weather was great and it was both peaceful and beautiful. We’d booked to go over on the helicopter from Penzance but the flights were cancelled on the day of departure and we were transferred to a flight from Lands End. The aircraft was an eight seat Britten-Norman Islander; when you check in your luggage gets weighed and then so do you.

You’re told where to sit (the weight shouldn’t be in the tail); the aircraft has four double seats and is the width of a car. We were told to sit at the front (well, behind the pilot); read into this what you will, though I’ll point out that another couple weren’t allowed on (even though there was room) as they would have overloaded it. However, the approach isn’t completely inflexible. The other passengers were a young couple with their two small children; each adult sat with one of the children as it wouldn’t be great to have two young children sharing a seat in an aircraft with no gangway. The flight was amazing, viewed entirely through the windscreen and with all the instruments visible (we flew at 100 mph at a height of 950 feet). Most of the approach to the runway at St Marys is over the water (and then cliffs). The whole experience is, as they say, the business.

Two days earlier I’d been in London at a meeting about the revisions to A level science courses. There’s an expectation now that universities (and especially Russell Group members) will have a key role in developing and approving specifications. Now, this isn’t in itself a bad idea. Students studying science at A level will want, in some cases, to be able to follow one or two of their subjects through to degree level and the courses should be designed to provide an effective basis for progression. Why shouldn’t they?

What I think we should also be mindful of is that whereas A levels should be a basis for undergraduate study, that isn’t the only thing they should be. We’re headed for a situation in which everyone to the age of 18 is expected to be in education or training. That’s good, but it means we have to be able to offer a comprehensive curriculum in schools and colleges. Just as GCSEs function as a precursor for A levels but have to work in lots of other ways too, so we have to be careful that A levels don’t have too narrow a remit. If they are to provide an academic education for a broad range of students they need to be designed to support a range of outcomes.

By all means involve representatives of Russell Group universities in the development programme but for my money there are others who should be involved as well. My list of nominees would include employers (both of A level school leavers and of science graduates), teachers and students (both ones for whom the existing courses worked well and those for whom they didn’t).

Like the loading of the aircraft it has to be got right, but that doesn’t mean that a single objective is pursued to the exclusion of all other considerations.

Ed Walsh,

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Improving student writing for Extended Response Questions in AQA GCSE Sciences

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There is a long and not always easy relationship between science education and the development of literacy skills; extended response questions are probably at the sharp end of this.  Should the preparation of candidates to deal with ‘six markers’ be seen as a further burden on students and teachers and one peripheral to the central business of developing scientific knowledge and understanding? Is it seen as a key skill of a scientist to be able to construct a longer explanation? Is it best to simply be pragmatic and accept that it’s there in the exams and is worth a not insignificant number of marks? One of the hallmarks of the last year has been the high profile given to scientists, some of whom have become regular guests on news programmes and many of whom have acquitted themselves well not only in terms of the grasp of their specialism but also their ability to explain complex ideas.  This is not new of course; I would argue that it is part and parcel of being a scientist to be able to construct a longer response.  Being able to describe a procedure, compare two different approaches, or evaluate an idea is in the job description. Furthermore, many teachers have come to realise that getting students to write longer responses has a value that goes beyond simply demonstrating a competence in dealing with that type of question.  It shows whether they have understood ideas in more detail, can use key terminology in context and draw ideas together from different parts of the course. How can I improve my students’ extended responses? The AQA GCSE (9–1) Extended Response Questions Teacher Response Pack was written to offer teachers a way forward in three main ways:  The first was responding to the immediate situation if there are students in Year 11 who are underperforming and need both practice and guidance. We’ll soon know how these students will be assessed for the purposes of awarding grades this year and items like this may well figure large.  For some students, it’s more opportunities (so we’ve included dozens of such questions) and for others, it’s an unpacking of the command words.  Because AQA now use the same level descriptors each time a certain command word is used, students can be trained to respond accordingly.  An evaluate question needs a judgment, for example, and the candidate who doesn’t include one cannot get full marks. The second purpose is a more strategic view over the GCSE courses and a desire to integrate the use, both of the questions and ideas, about how to explicitly teach the skills of response over the duration of the course. The third is to support the view that it needs to be an even longer-term strategy.  We progressively develop practical skills and cornerstone concepts such as the particulate model of matter over five years; we should do the same with the skills of constructing longer responses. The constituent aspects of focusing on key terminology, quality sentence construction, and the organisation of text will serve students well on a number of fronts.  What some of our students need is repeated exposure to language and ideas.  We need to get them to not only think like a scientist but also to write like a scientist, and that won’t happen in the six weeks prior to an exam. How can I use this resource with my students? 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Ideas for re-engaging students with science this term

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