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Thinking through Science

Published on 27/01/14

There is a lot to learn in science, and the key to successful learning would clearly seem to me to be engagement; tapping into young people's curiosity then giving them ownership of their work will always help to achieve this.

This is often easier said than done. When our Year 9 (8th grade) students start their IGCSE science courses the amount of factual material to be covered can appear truly daunting. The temptation to focus on didactic delivery of content is strong but that will not fully succeed without also guiding the learners into a scientific way of thinking. The "win, win" element of this approach is that in the longer term these skills will be of lasting benefit both to those who opt to study one or more sciences post-16 and to those who do not.

How do we achieve this?

There are two strands - planning every science lesson with engagement and thought at the heart, and two science modules in our Critical Thinking course.

A couple of recent examples of the former -

penguinOne of the very last lessons before Christmas - everyone exhausted and certainly there is little willingness (let alone enthusiasm) to grapple with Newton's Law of Cooling. One of our teachers, however, has produced a truly inspiring activity sheet very cleverly linked to video clips from David Attenborough's Frozen Planet. Very soon the buzz in the lab is palpable as the students use test tubes of hot water to model penguin huddles and are also busy discussing both insulation of different parts of a penguin's body and the variation in daylight hours in polar regions. Admittedly there is some rather unscientific emotion in the room by the time we have watched the last video clip - female penguins reunited with males and offspring as Spring arrives - but overall there has been a lot of engagement and a lot learnt.

The same class is back, first lesson of term and memories a bit hazy, brains not quite in gear...so we start with a puzzle.

iceTwo identical ice cubes placed on two apparently identical mats. Why does one cube melt very obviously faster than the other? Even more intriguingly why does the mat with the faster melting ice feel colder than the other block? Everyone has something to say in the ensuing discussion and very soon the students have revised thermal conduction and the meaning of heat vs. temperature barely realising they have done any work.

forensicThe Critical Thinking modules give us even more scope to concentrate on what we think matters most. In Science Investigations the students have real ownership of their projects as they are the ones who choose what to research, then plan, carry out and analyse their own experiments. They soon realise that such freedom is rather daunting but ultimately rise to the challenge of taking responsibility, and our visiting researchers from Cambridge University are always impressed with the thoughtful and creative work they see. In Forensics the emphasis is not surprisingly on Evidence. Logic, deduction, and impartiality are all key qualities encouraged by the activities, and this module is also an ideal way to develop evaluation skills. Evaluation crops up across all areas of the curriculum and is something the students often find really quite hard. The context of "will our findings stand up in court?" concentrates the mind most effectively and the concept of meaningful appraisal is suddenly clarified.

csiOnce again, lots is thought about and learnt, lots of skills are developed, and (or maybe because) the students have had a good time.