Flaming mine and pupils' desire for fun

24th March 2006 at 00:00
It was the best of lessons and it was the worst of lessons. Like The TES Scotland, I have been in formal education for 40 summers, unless the Motherwell Tufty Club counts, in which case it is 42. I have only been in formal science education for 34 years.

The bestworst lesson took place in the summer of 1972. I had just been played in to secondary school by Alice Cooper's "School's Out", cruelly released at the beginning of the English summer holidays and thus towards the end of the Scottish ones.

Our teacher was a competent, beetroot-coloured man in brown checked trousers and a matching jacket. I was three years on from being the wee boy who wanted to go to the moon, still hungry for my first taste of a real science lesson.

There followed a scary talk about the dangers of science, especially the scenario, graphically sketched by Mr Beetroot, involving hair and a Bunsen burner. As most of us boys had only just managed to persuade our parents to let our hair grow over our ears, the thought of it going up in flames was particularly unsettling.

The litany of conflagration and electrocution over, we cut to the real stuff. Get into groups, take a set of eight bottles of chemicals and a rack of test tubes, mix chemicals in the test tubes and write down what happens.

I was in heaven. Some chemicals fizzed when you mixed them. Some made blue chalky stuff. Others did nothing, so the obvious thing to do was to sling in some of the blue stuff. Though I know now that the lesson was about carefully recording observations, I have no recollection of being aware of that at the time. I was having fun.

Fast-forward to a point two years ago, before I slipped temporarily sideways to the advisory service. A P7 class visiting the high school are getting their first science lesson. I use an interactive whiteboard to show them what they are supposed to do. With state-of-the-art software simulation, I choose two bottles of chemicals from eight and add them to a test tube. I give a safety talk and off they go to do the task for real.

I tell them that the lesson is all about observing carefully and ask them to call me over if they find anything interesting, because "after 30 years of doing science I am still surprised and fascinated by the things you can find out".

How far have we come in three or four decades? On the face of it, not very.

New technology has made a difference.

Much physics lesson time in the 1970s and early 1980s was spent sticking gummed tape to dynamics trolleys. Farting ticker-timers put dots on the tapes. You had to measure 10 spaces not 10 dots, divide the length by the I sod it, let's stick the tape to the desk and make a racetrack for the trolley.

Thank goodness for electronic timers and computer interfaces. The impact of such technology is significant, but is lessened by the fact that many labs still look so old-fashioned when compared with an information technology suite in the business department.

Things are changing in other, more important ways. There is a much greater awareness of the importance of tackling misconceptions, of true investigative work as opposed to filling in a school's bespoke investigation booklet, of the need for pupils to verbalise their understanding and listen to peers articulating their own ideas.

What we need is space, less "huvtae" content, more room to manoeuvre, to adapt to local circumstances, to a changing world, and not just in science 3-14. Let's do it in the upper school too. And let's not be afraid to reinvent the wheel. If nobody had reinvented the wheel we wouldn't have crawler tracks, hovercrafts or seven-spoke alloy wheels.

Give me eight bottles of chemicals and a true curriculum for excellence, let me choose what to mix and I will be a happy man.

Gregor Steele is a physics teacher seconded to South Lanarkshire Council as a development officer and a regular columnist on the TES Scotland Opinion pages

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