Two teachers who each seized an opportunity to take the initiative tell Gerald Haigh how their ideas benefited both their schools and their personal professional development
Any teacher might flinch initially at the thought of running their department's contribution to the school's open evening, but might then reflect that it could be a satisfying exercise in management and leadership skills - a change from the daily routine and an opportunity to shine.
For Paul Hardy, biology teacher at St Cyres School in Penarth, the chance to run the biology department's part of the open evening was also something he could gain credit for in his work as a participant in the Association for Science Education's Continuing Professional Development programme. For him it was a clear opportunity to stretch his management and organisational experience.
"My head of department had been in charge of the open evening before," he says, "and I had some ideas about how to change it. I ran them by her first, and having her backing made it easier working with other members of the department."
The temptation in a science open event is to go for spectacle. Paul Hardy, though, urges caution. "There's something of a conflict," he says. "You do need to impress prospective parents and pupils, but you also have to give a realistic idea of the work that the children will be doing. There may be a temptation to go for activities that are very rare and exciting, but research suggests that pupils come from key stage 2 with false expectations of what secondary science is like. So I did not want to show activities that pupils might not touch until A-level, if ever."
He also wanted to provide things for pupils to do rather than just to look at. "We settled on a quiz sheet where all the answers were available within the displays. We trialled it first with 20 questions, but learned that was too many, so we dropped it to 10."
There was also a model of the human torso with removable parts. "Pupils timed themselves putting all the bits back in the right place," he says. "We provided a stop clock and a sheet for children to record their names and times. They really enjoyed doing that."
Also important was participation by students in the school."We tried to involve as many KS3 students as possible," he says. "For example, we had a boy demonstrating his work on photosynthesis, and a group measuring the speed of fall of sycamore seeds.
"Another group had a skeleton and some loose bones and they challenged visiting children to find them on the skeleton."
Other students showed the use of computers in the department, with one group asking visitors what they had eaten during the day and entering the results into software that showed how this broke down into the main nutrient groups.
The way to succeed, suggests Paul Hardy, is to provide a wide range of things for visitors to do, and to involve as many KS3 students as possible, although he warns that "you have to plan this well ahead, because other departments will be calling on the same students". In the end, he says, "The key is to make it realistic, but fun."
Differentiation - the challenge of catering for children of differing abilities - is a word that haunts good teachers all the time, not least when an Office for Standards in Education team starts looking round, the problem being that it is rarely done well.
One relatively simple solution is to ask a colleague to review the department's schemes of work with differentiation in mind. That is what happened at Holmer Green Upper School in High Wycombe, where chemistry teacher Caroline Messett took on the task of looking at differentiation as part of the ASE's Continuing Professional Development programme.
"I'd taught the chemistry scheme for a number of years and I knew that when I went into a classroom I would not necessarily have the right resources for all the students," she says. She felt, too, that differentiation was a weakness in her own practice, and that choosing to work on it for the department would be valuable for her own professional development.
From the start, she knew that it was not going to be just a matter of writing more worksheets. "I started to evaluate the lessons - there were some where I would need differentiated worksheets, but I also thought about more radical solutions, like splitting the class into two, doing different tasks."
She also looked at the way teachers ask questions in the classroom - a skill that some teachers, through experience or training, are better at than others. "It's a matter of thinking of three or four ways of asking the same question," she says . "So where with one pupil you'd ask a direct question, with another you'd lead them into it by drawing their attention to where they can find the answer."
Among the resources she provided was a series of help sheets for practical work - supplementary pages to be produced when a student runs into difficulty. "The idea is that when it becomes clear a student doesn't understand, the teacher provides a help sheet that gives some pointers to the next step." The danger is that a teacher may give everyone a help sheet at the start instead of waiting to see who really needs one.
Caroline Messett believes that the key to getting something done about differentiation is for someone to pick up the task, read the literature, investigate the printed resources, review the syllabus and try out different approaches in the classroom. Now, she is thinking about differentiation in A-level teaching, where, she says, "there's even less differentiation. There are times when a student has gone through a chapter and has not really an idea of what it was about. At that point we should be going away and thinking how to develop other tasks, other approaches to the same problem".
What made the difference at Holmer Green was that Caroline Messett was able to do this work and receive credit for it not only within her department but within the ASE's CPD programme.