Struggling to get your pupils' attention? Rachel Pugh finds out how parking a puppet on your knee can give lessons a boost
A tight circle of eight-year-olds leans forward in rapt attention as Brian the bald professor describes Galileo's experiments dropping objects from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Every arm in the class shoots up when Brian, who is a puppet sitting on the knee of their teacher John Dabell, asks: "I wonder what would happen if we dropped two different pieces of paper from the top?"
"I think they would both take the same time," ventures one girl, having been given the nod by Brian to speak. The degree of enthusiasm in this science class at Derby high junior school is astonishing. Each child wants to be the first to answer Brian's question, even those who are usually reluctant to talk in class.
This scene, say husband and wife team Brenda Keogh and Stuart Naylor, is typical of what happens when puppets go into the classroom. It is set to be replicated in 4,500 schools across the UK from September as they begin a three-year project funded to the tune of pound;350,000 by GlaxoSmithKline to provide puppets (a pair per teacher) and to train staff for science teaching in primary schools.
The initial research project funded by the Nuffield Foundation involved researchers from the Institute of Education and 13 teachers from schools in Manchester and London. Intermediate results suggest that when puppets take centre stage pupils give more reasoned answers than rote learned ones (around half compared to a quarter in a puppet-free class). Teachers report that they hear themselves talking in a more child-friendly manner and asking better questions, and that children who have never responded in class before, now do so. While the researchers have not tested the full effects on attainment, all the teachers involved say that lower ability pupils in particular make big advances in understanding and do better than expected with the use of puppets.
For John Dabell this has been a transformational experience: as one of the 13 teachers taking part in the puppet trial, he has now given up his teaching job to join Ms Keogh and Mr Naylor as a trainer. "It not only changed my classroom practice," he says, "but it changed my career. I only wish I had come across puppets at training college."
Mr Dabell found he didn't need drama training or to use a special voice.
Using four puppets who he named after his friends - Brian, Tinaz, Stew and Christian - he began teaching national curriculum science topics. While naughty Stew, with his messy ginger hair and hood top, ensured the class was alive with questions about electricity, shy reserved Tinaz (an Asian girl puppet) could draw out the more timid pupils when tackling plant germination. Loud-mouthed clown Christian, with his jingly hat, would burst in when everyone needed a change of scene. The children were prepared to go to enormous lengths to help the characters understand scientific concepts.
He realised the effect he was having when an eight-year-old described the puppets as "plants providing oxygen in the classroom", and went on to use them across the curriculum and in school assemblies. "Puppets made me less of a teacher and more of an instrument," he says. "The puppets were doing most of the teaching."
Selection of puppets is crucial. Ms Keogh and Mr Naylor, who also pioneered "concept cartoons" in science teaching, found that while girls respond to figures of both sexes, boys only respond to male ones. They recommend teachers work with pairs of the figures, most of which are two-foot-high cloth figures with moveable mouths and hands from Hertfordshire-based The Puppet Company.
The target is key stage 2 children because evidence suggests older children respond as well as key stage 1 pupils. In fact, Ms Keogh and Mr Naylor are keen to use puppets with secondary age children up to GCSE level. Science teacher Andrea Fesmer from St Peter and Paul Catholic college in Widnes finds giving puppets to pupils a way of guaranteeing participation, even in Year 11 physics classes. She says: "With teenagers, getting them interested is half the battle. This is just a bit different."