Create a wow!

30th April 2004 at 01:00
The Early Years and Primary Teaching exhibition takes place at Manchester's G-Mex Centre on May 14 and 15. This event gives teachers of under-threes, foundation stage and primary pupils the chance to compare a vast range of resources, as well as offering an opportunity to catch up with challenging and topical issues through an extensive seminar programme

Education consultant Mark Biddiss is presenting two seminars at the exhibtion. Here he shares ideas which can add excitement to the teaching of science and maths

Let's start with a couple of "experiments" which you can do right now to set the theme. The first one is to do with perception and the science of reading (a literacy link straight away!). I want you to look through the sentence below quickly and just once, and count how many times you see the letter "F".

How many did you see? Most people (including children) see three, occasionally four. There are actually six! I bet if you only saw three: you probably saw the "F" in the words, "FINISHED", "FILES" and "SCIENTIFIC", in which case you missed the other three in the three words "OF". Maybe check again to see. But why do most people only see the first three and miss the others? What do you think might be going on? What are the possibilities? Well, most people (including children) give a range of possibilities: it's to do with the way the sentence is written; the use of capital letters; the speed at which you scan through the sentence; the fact that the sentence is broken into four lines; the three Fs most people see are at the beginning or end of words and syllables; the word "OF" is a very short word and easily missed; you pay more attention to longer and more unfamiliar words; it's to do with how "experienced" a reader you are, etc. If you think about it, these are all real possibilities based on your observations. That's how investigative science should be done. We must consider all the possibilities based on our observations. Speculation about other possibilities is perfectly OK too - in fact, I'm a great fan of speculation - but it should all still be consistent with observation.

Anyway, the next thing we do in the "scientific process" is work through our list of possibilities and devise experiments to test the possible influence of each one. Of course, implicit in all of this is the fact that it's OK to get it wrong; in this part of the scientific process we should be most concerned with "what do you think might be" going on and not so much with "what do you know is"; thinking about "what might" often encourages people to be far more creative with their ideas and that's no bad thing. So, any thoughts? (hint: think about the sound of the letter "F" in the three words where most people do see it and those where most people don't).

Now try the following maths "trick": I call it "Mental Maths Mind Magic".

You see me take a blank sheet of paper and draw something on it. I then fold the paper up to hide what I've drawn and give it to you to hold. Now it's your turn. You can use a pen and paper (even a calculator) if you want to but I'd rather you didn't. Think of a number between 1 and 5, and remember it. Got it? First, add 4 to your number, then multiply that answer by 2, then add another 6, then divide that answer by 2, and finally subtract the number you first thought of. Got it? Keep the answer in your head and unfold the folded paper I gave you to see what I drew. YES! It's the number '7'! So how do you think that trick might work? (Hint: Perhaps you could try a different number).

So, my aim is simple: I want to inspire and even excite pupils and their teachers about science and maths. In particular, I strive to get pupils thinking creatively, critically and open-mindedly about their science and maths, very much appealing to and stimulating their so called "higher order" thinking and enquiry skills, involving such things as problem solving and reasoning ie to think scientifically and mathematically.

However, I personally find many of the suggested science and maths experiments and investigations teachers use with pupils to be uninspiring, boring and dull. For example, many well-used science experiments like rolling toy cars down ramps, stirring sugar or salt into water, hanging different weights from elastic bands, and watching cress grow, tend to score somewhat poorly on my own exciting and stimulating scale, although they do have their place. In fact, and as a brief aside, teachers might use their valuable time more profitably by trying many of these sort of science experiments as "thought experiments" with their pupils (Einstein was a great fan of this approach, by the way); I find most KS2, and even many KS1, children do remarkably well with this and you'll be helping stimulate and develop their creative visualisation skills to boot. It's also a great way to explore what I like to call your and your pupils' "Innate amp; Intuitive Knowledge amp; Understanding" about a particular thing. You'll be surprised sometimes at just what you know and understand, even though you have no idea of how you came to know and understand what you do know and understand! I think this is a topic for another article.

I decided to develop a different, "complimentary approach" to grabbing interest and attention. My tried and tested method is simple: to use numerous simple but fun and novel (and even apparently mysterious and magical) demonstrations, activities, tricks, illusions, puzzles, games, brainteasers, and other similar devices as stealthy ways to present scientific and mathematical processes, ideas and investigations to you and your pupils. I have been using this method since 1997 in hundreds of schools around the UK - and it works! After all, put some novelty, fun and a hint of intrigue, mystery and magic into anything, and people will sit up and pay attention. In fact, I have found that you'll have trouble stopping them having a go. And I'm not just talking about pupils either, but parents and teachers too. If you feel excited and inspired about something you're more likely to be able to stimulate a similar feeling in your pupils.

If you like the idea of this approach, and would like to download 20 free science and maths activities to try, check out "Fun Stuff" on the ProEducation website. You'll also see details of the things we do in schools and a book I've written full of these ideas called Dr Mark's Magical Science (pound;12.99, go to the Pro Education website for contact details).

Have fun - that's Doctor's orders!

Dr Mark Biddiss is a science and maths education

consultant with Pro Education, which runs events for nursery age through to key stage 3, as well as in-service training for non-specialist teachers.

Tel: 0845

* He will be delivering two seminars at the Early Years and Primary Teaching Exhibition:

Science and Thinking Skills, 10.30am Friday May 14; and Conjuring up the magic in maths, 3pm Saturday May 15

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