Collaboration is key to improving

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
A new course is encouraging science principal teachers to share resources and good practice to benefit pupils, says Douglas Blane

In a film scene that has inspired countless lessons and lectures, Curly, a hardbitten cowhand in City Slickers, explains to the hero that the secret to life is "just one thing".

Running a school faculty is more complicated than that, says John Richardson, director of projects at the Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre. "You can't reduce a three-day residential course to just one message. Two, maybe: improve the learning and work on your relationships.

"We need to get pupils more actively involved. There is less bad behaviour when they are interested and absorbed and can see the relevance of what they are learning.

"We also need to work on relationships at every level: management and staff, pupils and teachers, teachers and teachers."

Participants in a new course developed and run by the SSERC, funded by the Scottish Executive and designed for new and aspiring science faculty heads and principal teachers, identify new relationships and learning from fellow teachers as major benefits.

The flagship course, run two weeks ago in Crieff under the auspices of the newly opened pound;25 million National Science Learning Centre in York, had ambitious aims: to inspire and motivate, to deliver tools for effective leadership and better learning and to translate national policy and research into successful practice.

Two key documents set the policy context: A Curriculum for Excellence, with its vision of a flexible curriculum that delivers "adaptability, creativity, thinking and learning skills", and Improving Achievement in Science, with its focus on "attractive, challenging and relevant" school science, balancing the needs of the career scientist with those of the well-informed citizen.

"Our schools have traditionally been good at producing people who make their career in science," says Roseleen Kennedy, the head of science at St Paul's High in Glasgow, who led a workshop on learning styles and making science relevant, realistic and recent.

"We have to work at widening its appeal, as we all need to take decisions about science in our everyday lives.

"At our school we have a topic of the week, with pupils bringing in a newspaper cutting - on bird flu, genetics, renewable energy, global warming - for the class to discuss. That works really well."

The approach of opening labs up to pupil discussions about practical, social and ethical implications of science is no part of the traditional pedagogy of science teachers. Hence there is a need for professional development.

Departmental "at home" sessions are a novel feature of in-service learning at Beeslack High in Penicuik, Midlothian. The principal teacher of biology, Billy Dickson, who delivered a session on preparing for modern exams, explains the idea.

"They let science teachers see how pupils are taught in English and drama and learn how to organise group work and discussions," he says. "They also show us how kids adapt to the very different structures and expectations of every department.

"It's no wonder they're tired at the end of the day."

The SSERC-run course, which was organised with Scottish Executive funding for forging links with the National Science Learning Centre, joins a growing array of NSLC courses, says its professional development leader, Jeremy Airey, who lectured on the NSLC web portal that participants will use to sustain their newly formed learning community.

"We're keen that teachers in Scotland feel part of the national centre despite the distance," he says. "Having a physical presence and sharing good practice is important to that."

Four themes, present to varying degrees in all the NSLC courses, make them distinctive, says Mr Airey. "They are leadership, creativity and innovation, pedagogy - new ways to reach a wider audience - and contemporary science, which is a powerful tool to engage pupils and reignite teachers' passion for the subject."

Mr Richardson believes the new SSERC course, embodying modern ideas on learning, is a good model for future professional development. "The teachers enjoyed learning about policy and practice from Jack Jackson (HM Inspectorate of Education's specialist in science) and other experts, but a lot of very successful workshops were run for teachers by teachers," he says.

"One feature of many of their projects that will add value is collaboration across authority boundaries, which lets teachers see how the same things are done very differently around Scotland."

It is a point many of the participants have been learning to their surprise, says Deborah Aitken, the acting principal teacher of chemistry at Beath High in Fife. "Again and again the need for local authorities to share resources and good practice, so that nationally we all pull together, has come up. We have to stop reinventing the wheel.

"I guess this course, which has been a great mix of inspiring speakers and practical advice, is the beginning of that."

"We shouldn't chuck out everything we've been doing," says Ms Kennedy. "We need to go back to our schools, do something differently, see how it goes and build from there. We should try just one thing."

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