Science - Letter from Latvia

6th January 2012 at 00:00
Innovation is important, but so is capturing hearts and minds

Ventspils is a small city in Latvia, best known for its thriving port and tourist industry. But I travelled there on a transversal study visit to find out about "innovative and creative approaches" to teaching and learning in maths and science. The focus was a Latvian state school for pupils aged 13-18 and our host, headteacher Parsla Kopmane, had organised a packed five days.

There is a vast difference between the way pupils of a similar level study in Latvia and the UK. Take Elina Mihejev, in her final year at school (equivalent to the upper-sixth in the UK). She is specialising in science and studies biology, physics, chemistry and maths, as you might expect, but also Latvian, English, Russian, sport, history, literature, psychology, politics and cultural studies. She will be required to take end-of-year exams, but only in maths, English and Latvian and a fourth subject of her choice (biology). All other subjects will be assessed by her teachers. Elina, who aims to study dentistry, spends 24 hours in lessons each week, but has approached her biology teacher to ask for extra lessons after school. In her spare time she does aerobics, reads and plays video games. She takes a job in the summer holidays.

Contrast Elina with Callum Clark, who also aims to study dentistry and studies at SRC Bede Sixth-Form in Billingham, Teesside. He's in the upper-sixth, studying A-levels in maths, biology and chemistry. In the lower-sixth, he also studied physics and critical thinking. He spends 16 hours in lessons a week and uses his leisure time to work out at the gym, and play ice hockey and video games. He has a part-time bar job for 12 hours a week.

My study visit left me with a good working knowledge of the ways Latvia is investing in improvements in teaching and learning. It was interesting to compare such different approaches - as well as identify common challenges. The UK is more innovative and creative, but in Latvia more school time is dedicated to study - something that will resonate with science teachers here struggling to cover content in reduced contact time.

On a more practical note, I was able to pick up some resources, which I will adapt for the UK curriculum. And the visit was a reminder of the benefits of embracing change and innovation, but also that the best teaching empowers students to take responsibility for their own learning. It's about winning hearts and minds.

Dr Richard Spencer is subject leader for biology, and learning development manager at SRC Bede Sixth-Form in Billingham, Teesside. He was honoured with an MBE in 2010 for services to science communication

What else

Transversal study visits are part of the European Lifelong Learning Programme funded by the European Commission and managed in the UK by Ecorys. For more information, visit Further information is also available about Latvia's reforms in science and maths.

Encourage young learners to explore their environment through the Wildlife Watch, the Wildlife Trust's junior branch.

For some fun animal-related science activities, try gregodowd's Safari Survival, which uses animal examples to explore speed-distance-time equations. Or the Woodland Trust's creepy crawlies top-trumps cards.

In the forums

In the TES science forum, teachers are chatting about their favourite pupil howlers and sharing ideas on how to teach science to low-ability students.

Find all links and resources at

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