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Alarming ideas from a live wire

When you've been teaching for a while, it's not really a question of "best" lessons - I suppose you always aim for a certain standard, and you're always trying to do your best. Some lessons you remember better than others - this was one that went well recently, and I liked it because it combined science and design technology, and was also really useful for assessment.

I'd been doing electricity with my Year 3 class (seven to eight- year-olds), national curriculum stuff: circuits, switches, connections, insulators and conductors - and I wanted something to finish it off that would be challenging and interesting. I'd already made lighthouses and electrical toys with previous year-groups, so I thought it would make a nice change to try burglar alarms.

The children worked in groups of five or six, and I told them to choose a drawer or cupboard to put their tuck in to keep it safe. I said that later in the day our classroom ancillary was going to be a burglar and prowl round trying to steal the tuck. They had to design and make an alarm which would either light up or buzz if she tried to break into their store.

I gave each group a selection of bits and pieces - loose batteries, bulbs, buzzers, wires, paper clips, drawing pins, Sellotape - and told them they could use other things from around the classroom too - scissors or things from the junk box.

We had a talk about safety, and then set the criteria for success: a burglar alarm had to be reliable; it had to be safe; and it had to be unobtrusive so the burglar wouldn't notice it. I gave them the rest of the morning to work on the problem.

While they were doing this, I noted what particular children said to assess how well they'd understood what they'd been learning, such as what makes a good conductor or insulator. The ancillary was there to help too, and the children also learned from each other - talking about how their designs worked and making adjustments.

I think it's important to listen to all children's suggestions and not just say "Oh, that won't work." They have to try it out for themselves so I tend to accept even daft suggestions to start with.

They tackled the task in lots of different ways. One difficulty was attaching wires to the inside of a drawer in such a way that opening it made the connection which would complete a circuit. Paper clips positioned at an angle worked well, but keeping them in position was a big problem. One group used a combination of paper clips and wire, which was easier to fix in place. There was also the problem of attaching the battery to the drawer or door so that it didn't make a clunking noise every time you opened it.

From an assessment point of view, I was able to spot which children hadn't fully understood the principles we'd been covering. But the activity was also a good teaching opportunity, because a practical problem gives a context for explaining things again. When something didn't work, I helped them look for reasons why.

During the afternoon, we tested the alarms. The ancillary prowled about and tried them out. A couple were really effective. Some worked intermittently, but weren't really reliable. By the end of the day, we'd gone through all the alarms - with everyone stopping work to watch - and made an assessment of them. We made some adjustments on the basis of people's comments - it was a good opportunity for interaction, reinforcement and refreshing the way children looked at things. I think all the children felt they'd solved the problem to a greater or lesser extent, and they certainly seemed to enjoy it.

Enjoyment is crucial. I always think to myself: if I were an eight- year-old child, would I enjoy doing this? I think it's important to teaching too - the national curriculum is a really useful framework, but what I like is thinking divergently. It keeps you fresh, having new ideas and thinking up different ways of exploring and enjoying the curriculum. There'd be nothing worse than having it so prescriptive that we did it the same way every year - you have to have some scope.

Ian Boreham teaches a Year 3 class at Threemilestone Primary School, near Truro, Cornwall. He was one of the 1996 Disney Channel "Teachers of the Year".

MENU For Ian Boreham's science and technology lesson you need: batteries bulbs buzzers wires paper clips drawing pins Sellotape other things from around the classroom

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