Feel the chemistry within curriculum

12th November 2010 at 00:00

Let's agree that the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is the most significant school reform for a generation. Among other things, it calls for a decentralised programme that encourages variation among schools and classrooms. Such diversity, together with controversies surrounding the development, precludes any easy definition of how teachers are expected to introduce the innovations and calls on them to act with autonomy and creativity.

Last year, the Royal Societies of Edinburgh and of Chemistry (RSE, RSC) recognised a need for exemplification of how the tasks of interpreting the CfE's "experiences and outcomes", and of translating them into classroom work, materials and laboratory or outside activities, might be addressed. The societies provided funding for a year's part-time secondment of Shona Scheuerl, a chemistry teacher, to explore this further.

The questions for this initiative were:

- How feasible is it to produce exemplar materials (in this case for chemistry) and map out teaching strategies consistent with CfE requirements?

- Are aspects of interpretation, translation and development of the "experiences and outcomes" particularly difficult?

- What support or collaboration in developing and piloting materials is helpful for the teacher in generating new ideas and approaches?

- What demands on resources and teachers' time are required for the development, and are these reasonable in schools' current circumstances?

- Is there a need for teachers to acquire additional skills that could provide a focus for CPD?

- What other priorities for CPD does the experience of the RSCRSE project suggest?

We do not claim to have complete answers to these questions, but we have made good headway.

Initially, interpreting the experiences and outcomes was a challenge. The outcomes' lack of specificity does not, in general, reflect teachers' past experiences as pupils, student teachers or practising teachers. However, by experimenting with teaching styles in keeping with the CfE ethos, Shona found the outcomes to be accommodating, allowing most chemistry topics to be introduced.

In planning a lesson, she started with some idea from everyday science, decided the CfE level at which she wanted to work, selected relevant activities and experiments, checked which science outcomes and experiences were reflected in her choices, considered whether outcomes and experiences from other curriculum areas could be included, and finally trialled and evaluated her lesson.

There is no requirement to order things in this way; one might start by choosing, say, the science outcomes and experiences. Shona's everyday science ideas have included investigations into hand warmers and potato crisps and "wash bag chemistry" which designs a new consumer product - shampoo, lip balm and moisturiser.

It was difficult to "let go" of the control of the learning. Rather than teaching the outcomes, the teacher's role has to become one of a learning facilitator who creates a classroom environment enabling pupil investigation and experiment and providing opportunities for discovery and learning.

The preparation of resources for this environment to be successful required rather more lesson preparation than usual and greater interaction with individual pupils, but rather less teaching-from-the-front.

As the teacher becomes accustomed to this, the classroom atmosphere is more relaxed. Although noise levels were above those normally tolerated, pupils were on-task, discussions were focused and everyone was engaged and enjoying the lesson.

Professional workshops co-ordinated by Shona have enabled teachers to experiment with new ideas and approaches that can provide exemplars to be adapted in classrooms. There have been eureka moments as teachers realise what other ideas could be introduced within that topic or how the same approach could be used for another topic. Feedback from such sessions has included "some excellent ideas", "great hands-on", "we'll try it out soon" and "at last some useful CPD".

However, co-operation within departments and local authorities is also essential, so that good practice will be shared and less successful approaches discussed and improved upon. Since courses in schools always require revision with lessons adapted to suit particular classes, building new resources to meet CfE need not necessarily be an onerous task. Many of Shona's lessons had few resources initially prepared for them. Her preference was for pupils to plan experiments for themselves and so "experiment worksheets" were used much less than in the past. They were replaced by sheets with "hints and starter questions" that encouraged pupils to undertake their own investigations. For collaborating teachers, these sheets started in a basic form that became more detailed as colleagues started to use the lesson materials.

CfE stresses the importance of teachers taking creative initiatives. Certainly, workshops have a significant part to play in encouraging this by giving them an opportunity to air their own proposals, but getting people to be creative is a demanding requirement and there may be a need for other approaches. Sharing ideas across authorities and more widely will also enable tried-and-tested resources to be available to all teachers, as well as opportunities for the discussion of problems.

The RSE and RSC will be launching the exemplification materials at Craigmount High in Edinburgh next Wednesday, when they will also be posted on the RSC's website with teachers' and pupils' guides. The Royal Societies hope the approach they have taken will encourage comparable initiatives in other areas of the curriculum.

Shona Scheuerl teaches chemistry at Dollar Academy

Sally Brown is former deputy principal at Stirling University.

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