Sky's the limit for Higher physics

There are all kinds of ways to teach literacy across the curriculum, as Douglas Blane discovered in a science class

The boy on the bike does a stunning series of spins and somersaults, drawing gasps from the second-year science class at Kirkcaldy High, who are watching the video on the whiteboard.

Cycle stunts are easy when you start several thousand feet high by riding straight out the back of a cargo plane. The hard part is stopping, which the black-clad rider does by pulling the cord, deploying his parachute and releasing the bike, which smashes into the ground at terminal velocity.

This is teaching forces and energy like you've never seen it before and it's spectacular stuff. But videos with kids' appeal are just part of what's going on here, says physics teacher Nick Hood. "Like many teachers, I'm trying to develop my classroom practice to capture the spirit of Curriculum for Excellence."

Literacy is a focus of his efforts, he says - or literacies, since young people can be literate nowadays in many ways. "It's not just about reading and writing. It's media skills. It is digital literacy, if you like. I'm giving them permission to express themselves in science creatively, which they're much more used to doing in other subjects. The hard part can be getting them to believe that you really mean it."

The homework assignment for today is a good example. "We've got to the topic of friction," Mr Hood explains. "So how do you bring friction alive? Well, last time I told them the story of the Columbia disaster, in which friction killed the astronauts. I showed them the video, then I asked them to think about it all and give me some homework in any format they liked - a story, a poem, a haiku, a video, a sound recording, a PowerPoint, anything at all. We'll see later what they've got for me."

The motivation for Mr Hood's novel approach was the knowledge that school science can be a tough sell, and the realisation that an often unconscious assumption was making it tougher than necessary. "I'm looking at kids who are struggling with Higher physics, not because they can't do the science but because they can't access the problem through the language," he says. "They can read the words. They can even tell you what the words mean. But they can't get past the words to the science. It's the biggest problem learners have with science."

In reflecting on possible solutions, Mr Hood drew on a number of sources, he says. "I went to the Scottish Learning Festival and heard Carol Dweck talk about her fantastic work on mindsets.

"I'm a fan of Alfie Kohn, whose book Punished by Rewards talks about the massive difference between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Getting young people to learn and understand is a hard task, he says, and extrinsic rewards are not the answer if you want lifelong learning. Rewards have to come from within."

The community of teachers who blog, tweet, attend TeachMeets and share their learning was also an influence, says Mr Hood. "So, after reflecting and talking to people for a while, I tried something different last year. The topic was `sound'. I asked the second-years to convey the message that sound travels through solids, liquids and gases. How they did so was entirely up to them."

It took a little time to persuade the pupils that they really did have creative freedom with a science assignment, he says. "Then I got this wonderful video of kittens, with music and captions, which two kids had put together. The kitten meowed for food and the caption came up, `This is sound travelling through air.'

"Then they put the mother cat in the next room and she could still hear her kittens. So the caption came up saying this was sound travelling through a solid. I thought, `Great! You've got the science and the video's delightful.'"

Back with the current second-years, most have stuck safely with text for their first creative attempt. But some are beginning to grasp what's going on. As Mr Hood reads out a selection of their work, the class listens, chats, makes comments, and feeds back their thoughts.

Then two sentences into Kirsten Dobbie's submission, they fall silent and listen intently to the end (see panel). There's a moment's pause, then a ripple of applause grows to fill the room.

"That was cool," one lad comments.

Afterwards, Mr Hood agrees. "They are getting the idea. I'm still learning along with them. This is work in progress. It's a Shackleton, if you like - 50,000 rivets in close formation. But it is flying."



Kirsten's friction homework

"Seven astronauts boarded the Space Shuttle. All seven were in good shape before they went. Everything was in tip-top shape before take-off. Sadly, so suddenly, it blew up. All the astronauts died. They were 15 minutes until they landed. It was filmed live on TV. The family had to watch their kids burn alive."

Taking time to think - Georgia Hepburn

"I like how Mr Hood doesn't tell you what to do. It means you know you have time to do it - and do it how you want. Some classes tell you what to do a lot more. Obviously, some work you have to write down. But if you like what you're doing, you spend more time on it."

Scottish Learning Festival

Looking for literacy in science: some ideas and examples, by Nick Hood.

22 September, 10.45am

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