Science skills for the scientifically challenged

I teach Physics and sometimes I wonder when will my students use their newly acquired knowledge of plant cells or exit velocity? Well honestly, most of them probably won’t. We’re not all destined for science. But we all use the same skills that are key for conducting good science.

Scientists in the 21st century are intensively curious, avid readers, prolific writers, effective communicators and extensive networkers. Most people, students included, would benefit from learning any number of these key skills regardless of their chosen profession. Here is my big list of the science skills that both scientists and non-scientists alike will need to be a successful member of our society.


Image credit: CAFNR

Inquiring minds

Scientists are among the most curious people in society. They have to be constantly questioning, investigating and explaining mysteries. Scientists are in charge of covering all of our “what if” and “why does” questions. They have to push conventions, uncover assumptions and think outside the box as a job. It’s not all fifty pages of intense applied calculus as its reputation might lead people to believe.

Gathering information

Once armed with a good question, scientists will then test their ideas with experimentation or research. They are responsible for the reliability of the information that they collect. Any errors in the data could lead to massive misconceptions like the iron in spinach mistake that still misleads people.

Again, what non-scientific individual would not benefit from knowing how to access reliable information to inform their opinions and decisions? It’s important as a global citizen to be able to make informed decisions as consumers and members of a democracy. Many people currently do not inform themselves with accurate information. We’ve seen this in many public debates and problems in forums like the climate change debate where people rely on the information of organisations with agendas to inform them of their best interests. However, society would have a much more positive impact on policy and consumerism if more people took the initiative to gather reliable data before making decisions or forming opinions.

Processing data

By gathering information, scientists often gather excessive amounts of data. A matrix of numbers or bookshelf of highlighted research papers does not communicate much meaningful knowledge even to a scientist. We have to process the data gathered to account for errors and identify patterns before we can be sure of the meaning behind the data.

The ability to sift through information to find the relevant points is a universally beneficial skill. Information gathering can be a bit like a fishing expedition that generates more data than needed to answer your driving question. It’s important to be able to sift out the unrelated information to focus on the data that will help inform your decision or strengthen your argument. Science can teach you!


All right, the numbers are crunched, the articles have been categorised, what now? Once the data has been gathered and analysed scientist must determine the most effective way of communicating their findings to their colleagues and the less-scientifically inclined. Scientists communicate in a whole myriad of ways both formal and informal. They write official research papers, articles for magazines and blog posts. Scientists also talk about their findings with colleagues at conferences, at parties, on YouTube and television.

Effective communication is also a universal skill as it is the way that we connect to and relate to others in our society. I think it goes without saying how effective write and aural communication would help people in almost every occupation and their personal lives.


Scientists don’t live in a vacuum. They feed off each other’s ideas, questions and challenges. Scientists are fantastic networkers despite their socially awkward reputation. They catch up at functions and parties to discuss ideas and argue about concepts.

Collaborating can also be beneficial to the non-scientist. By collaborating we reduce the need to reinvent the wheel over and over again, saving valuable time. In some professions it’s not possible to collaborate about the content but even then colleagues or friends can help with general advice about work or personal life. The ability to communicate on this level is very valuable for anyone.


Skills for the classroom

  • Asking good questions. – The application of an inquiring mind
  • Getting good information. – Gathering reliable and comprehendible data
  • Organizing information. – Getting rid of any information that doesn’t help answer your driving question
  • Communicating your findings. – Working out how to explain your new knowledge or informed decision so that others can benefit from your findings.
  • – Sharing your experience with others and taking criticism or suggestions for improvement.

Science taught this way (skills based) is often referred to as a practice-orientated curriculum. It could be the key to maintaining student engagement throughout the science curriculum.

“A practice-oriented curriculum might offer all students hope that they could find their own way of successfully doing and enjoying science, rather than having to conform to “the” singular and unrealistic scientific method.” Scientific practice and science education – C. Mody

Curiosity is dead?

Picture for me a scientist.

What did you see? Be honest. Was it an elderly man with unruly hair and disheveled appearance peering down a beak-like nose through thick glasses at some ancient text? Alright that was a little to specific but I bet that most people probably picture something like this when they hear “scientist”.

Thinking scientist

Photo credit: Rudolph Pariser

It’s only in the last few decades that society has forgotten the insatiable curiosity of scientists. Scientists have historically been incredibly creative people; musicians, poets, artists (think Leonardo Da Vinci or Aristotle).

Scientists have to be curious and creative. Their craft is asking and answering questions. That’s something we’re all born to do too. Young children are constant questioners. “What’s this?” “What’s that?” “Why?” So at what point do people stop being curious?

Many could argue that we drill the curiosity out of them at some point (maybe in high school). This is not how education is ideally conducted. Instead we should be promoting learning as applied curiosity; a natural way of exploring the world around us rather than a sequence of more terrifying assessment tasks.


Some suggested actions

Encourage curiosity: create a classroom culture that values good questions and explores related interests. It is important to communicate to your students that you value their questions and encourage them to explore (and fill you in) on questions that you don’t have time to cover in class.

Curate creativity: become flexible about the ways in which your students can communicate their learning. Offering flexible modes of assessment can keep students interested in the process of exploring and communicate a question that appeals to their curiosity.

Show your own curiosity: model a curiosity about the world and lifelong learning as the application of a curious mind. If even the teacher has lost their passion and curiosity of a subject it’s unlikely that students will find it easy to engage in it.


Therefore engage your students with questioning and inquiry. Curiosity is a powerful motivator and as such a powerful educational tool for your classroom.

Assessment for learning

Assessments, particularly large summative assessments, are becoming an increasingly less popular amongst teachers especially since the enforcement of national standardised testing. The idea from the political powers that be is to uniformly assess the learning of all students under their jurisdiction to better appropriate funding and illustrate accountability of schools. The reality for many teachers and students is stress and distraction from the learning process.

But what are teachers to do? We can’t opt out or change the system from within. Is there a way then that we can make the most of assessments?

Photo credit: Wellington College Flickr

Photo credit: Wellington College Flickr

Retrieval Practice

So what is retrieval practice? Retrieval practice is a learning strategy that revolves around purposefully recalling information to boost learning. This recalling is often manifested in small formative assessments performed frequently.

Recent research on the technique by Mark McDaniel, a psychology professor at Washington University St. Louis, demonstrates that frequent testing can increase memory retention amongst students. At a glance it resembles the old-fashioned pop quiz, the trick however, comes into the pre and post-test activities. These activities are what define the retrieval tests as assessment as learning rather than assessment of learning.

Timely feedback

Most teachers try to give feedback within two weeks of an assessment. However, the quicker students receive the feedback, the better. Studies have shown that the further feedback is provided after an examination, the more students feel removed from the person they were when they took the test. This means that students don’t process feedback the way that we’d like them to.

In individual classrooms there are many computer programs/apps that can help speed up the marking and analysis process. My personal favourite is Google Forms that can collect, mark and analyse student responses instantly.

Exam wrappers

The inclusion of pre and post exam questions (also known as “exam wrappers” by Lovett 2013 Using Reflection and Metacognition to Improve Student Learning) get students thinking about their learning process in a metacognitive way. Personally I’d give these questions out separately before and/or after the exam. Questions include:

  • How well do you think you prepared for this test?
  • “What will you do differently in preparing for the next test? For example, will you change your study habits or try to sharpen specific skills? Please be specific. Also, what can we do to help?”
  • Based on your responses to the questions above, name at least three things you will do differently in preparing for the next test. BE SPECIFIC.”

Exam wrappers get students thinking about their study methods and learning process. Students are able to learn about how they learn from their exam preparation and can refine their study habits. Learning to learn is an integral part of the high school experience and prepares students to be 21st century learners.

Item analysis

Alright, now I’ve quizzed my students more regularly, am giving feedback promptly and am asking exam wrapper questions to get my students reflecting, what now? The crux of the growth mindset movement is teaching students to develop the ability to learn from their mistakes. To do this we need to talk about mistakes in a constructive way. The easiest way of doing this is to provide students with a deconstruction of the exam, question by question. Students should be able to see what questions they made mistakes in and why.

In this way retrieval practice actively fosters a growth mindset as the stigma is removed from making mistakes and students are empowered to learn from their mistakes. Statistically this reflective item analysis helps students address their mistakes and they are able to improve upon their results before the summative assessment.

So if we test, be sure to make it count. Prepare students with stress free quizzes. Give quick feedback. Reflect upon the process. Debrief about mistakes. And remember it’s just a test.

Google Classroom Update

If I wasn’t already a fan of Google Classroom, I am now! Google has given some awesome new features to one of my personal favourite Google Apps for education. If this is the first time you’ve heard of Google Classroom (firstly where have you been?) you can check out my previous rantings about it Streamlining Assessment or GoogleClassroom. Google Classroom has greatly reduced both the amount of paper I accumulate during my teaching and the time it takes me to provide feedback to my students about their work.

However as the honeymoon period between Google Classroom and I ended, I began to notice some of the limitations of the program. These included not being able to change the order of posts or reusing content between classes.

So whats new? There are 6 new features summed up in this infographic; pinning a post, reusing a post, posting a question, integrating with calendars, optional due dates and attaching google forms.

GoogleClassroom update

So far I’ve played with three of the new features and am thoroughly impressed. The ability to attach Google Forms was definitely something Google Classroom was lacking before. It will help give easy formative assessment because Google Forms let you install add-ons that mark forms for you (provided you ask certain styles of questions). You could attach a form at the end of a lesson to see just what resonated with students or at the beginning to check what they remember and what they need to revise before you build on that previous knowledge.

Reusing posts is very helpful for teachers who teach the same topics to multiple classes throughout the year. This way you can keep instructions and attachments uniform between classes while letting Google Classroom store student work in their particular class folder in Google Drive.

The biggest surprise for me was how useful posting a question could be. This is a feature I didn’t know I needed until I began using it. Here Google Classroom lets you pose a question and record (and grade if you choose) student responses. You can also allow students to comment on each others responses or edit their answers. It is great for keeping track of student dialogue or getting students to post and comment in a safe environment. As the teacher you can look up which students have replied or commented in Google Classroom’s “Done” and “Not Done” designations.

Students answers to "Can you think of an example of a material that we use for a specific purpose because of its properties?"

Students answers to “Can you think of an example of a material that we use for a specific purpose because of its properties?”

Still the App is not perfect. It has its bugs. For example, if you are typing a comment or reply and somebody submits a comment, reply or post then your half written comment is deleted. Also all students are added to the “Done” list after the deadline passes. I am sure that these will be fixed soon.

Don’t let the limitations put you off! Google Classroom is still an efficient and powerful tool for education. I am excited to explore the other new features and to see what the programmers at Google have planned next for my favourite Google App for education; Google Classroom.

Streamlining Assessment


It feels like an age since I’ve had enough time to myself to reflect on my blog! I’ve definitely missed the process. Not to mention the support of my digital international staffroom. It’s been report season in my neck of the woods with Parent-Teacher night soon to follow. There have been eight assessment tasks to set, check, mark and analyse in as many weeks. In the aftermath of this I have been wondering, “how can I streamline my assessment-feedback system?”.

My solace is found in Google Classroom. I posted an informational post about Google Classroom earlier this year. Since posting, I’ve grown more and more familiar with the App. It has saved me a lot of time organising, collecting and providing feedback on student work in an efficiently paperless solution.


Tasks are added as “Assignments” and turn up in your class’ stream. As students turn in their task the counter in the top right corner goes up. Even if students don’t turn their task in you can access it in the Google Classroom folder in Google Drive. This folder is created and maintained by Google Classroom. It requires no fiddling from you but you can change things around if you want to.

By clicking the task title, you can access all turned in work and grade it. There are grading and non grading options.


My favourite feature is that you are able to comment, add to and return student work. I allow many resubmissions. I think this is important for growth mindset teaching.


I found this was a fantastic way to help students grow their skills and understanding. It also rewarded the students who were more willing to spend time improving their work.

Google Classroom also keeps your grades saved for you. There is a download button which allows you to download any of your assignments onto your computer. I favour excel documents.

Also, being powered by Google Apps, you can access your Google Classroom and Google Drive from any computer. This is a great advantage! You can’t forget or lose any marks.

In this way, I can quickly provide feedback to student work from any location without having to lug papers with me. Students can make changes based on my suggestions and return their work to me. It is convenient to have access to student work wherever I have an internet connection. It makes providing feedback quick and keeps my work and student work organised.

Already a fan? Feel free to share how you use Google Classroom to cut down on your feedback.

Sweet Probability

Sweeten Statistics with some authentic activities.


Statistics and Data can be quite a dry topic for students with many calculation quite repetitive and tedious. However you can sweeten the deal by focusing the calculations around data that is more interesting for students. This can be based around student hobbies like sports, music or celebrities. Cricket is particularly statistical and widely followed by Australians but other sports such as soccer, basketball, baseball and many others also have strong statistics.


I have seen interesting activities on the statistics of Aria winners and here is one on the Melbourne Cup I think works particularly well Melbourne Cup frequency histogram.

Another approach is to use things that are interesting themselves i.e. food. Sweet probability has proved to be a crowd favourite in my class. It has proved engaging to students from years 7 to 10 unanimously. Sweet Probability



GoogleDrive has developed a new GoogleApp called “Classroom”. This app allows you to add your students into a class group on GoogleDrive. You are able to post Announcements and Assignments onto the Classroom homepage and student work is saved onto a folder in you GoogleDrive.


Note: Australian DET teachers have a Gmail account using the start of their email address with the new ending (the same address as students). So your Gmail email will be


Students join by logging in to their DET gmail account, opening “Classroom” from the GoogleApps and entering the class code for your class. For privacy I have blurred my class code.


The neat thing about using this application is that you can assign and store all student work in the one place. Everything the class does on GoogleClassroom gets saved into the class folder on GoogleDrive where you can mark, comment or check the authorship of the work (check which group member contributed what).

So I would definitely recommend giving GoogleClassroom a try. If you have any questions about how I use GoogleClassroom you can comment below or ask me on Twitter.

Engaging girls in STEM

This year marks the second year of teaching a dedicated class for performance students at an all girls public school. Last year I was their Math teacher and now I am their Science teacher.

The biggest challenge with a class of this type is stereotypes. Literature suggests that stereotypes are a self-fulfilling prophecy in schools as students resign themselves to convenient boxes of ability, gender and race. Telling students that they are a “this type” or “that type” of person gives them permission to reserve effort in other areas. Being told that they are not a maths person because of genetics, natural ability, gender or race means that when STEM gets hard (as we all know it can), there is no point persisting. Its just not in the stars/ their blood/ their brains.

However, research shows that mathematical “ability” is more dependent on effort and mindset than it is an innate gift bestowed upon a person at birth. In my experience, the most valuable thing that you can do for your students is to reinforce a growth mindset.

After a year of growth mindset reinforcement, my performance class out performed the class average of the academic class. So much so that many of them have taken the place of students in the top class. Therefore I implore all teachers and parents to focus on growth mindset messages and stop creating stereotype boxes for students to “fit in”. Being creative and being good at STEM are not incompatible.

If you are interested in growth mindset consider reading articles by Carol Dweck and Jo Boaler.

When Digital Literacy becomes Literacy

It is no surprise that as we proceed more deeply into the technological age that is becoming increasingly important to be Digitally literate. Our students are “digital natives”, as they have grown up immersed in technology and as such its use and comprehension can come as second nature. However, their comfort with technology should not be misinterpreted as Digital Literacy. Digital literacy is not only a measure of ones ability to use and understand technology, it extents to their maturity of conduct through it. By which, I mean their adherence to the rights and responsibilities through digital platforms and their mindfulness of the digital footprint created by technology use.

digital-bookshelf (CC)

Digital literacy underpins the capacity of the individual and the nation to provide equal access to social opportunity and competition in the digital economy in which we live. Therefore the correct conduct of students through digital medium is paramount to their future success as citizens of this global society. So how as educators and parents do we teach students the true weight of digital literacy?

1. Communicate. Talk openly about the benefits and ramifications of participating on the global digital stage. Technology empowers students by giving them an international voice and connecting them with relevant global issues. Digital literacy enables students to participate in a global conversation about matters that interest and motivate students to learn.

However, Students must be made aware of the dangers of digital citizenship especially cyber-safety, privacy and the digital footprint they are leaving every time they post. Students should be engaged in discussing the possible consequences of their online conduct and taught to think about these consequences before posting content.

2. Show. Model the appropriate digital conduct to students. Show students the appropriate methods for honouring copyright and giving credit where credits due.

3. Consequences. Both positive an negative consequences should be enforced for correct and incorrect use of technology. If students are assessed on digital literacy skills they are able to focus on growing these skills over time.

On another note, we can foster the digital literacy of students by removing the focus from the technological tools used to the skills inherent in learning to use these tools. Let’s face it, in a couple of years the tools will be replaced so our students need to be comfortable experimenting with new technology. Student’s also need to learn to troubleshoot with technology and where they can find support online to help their learning.

Therefore as educators, we must be mindful of the skills we develop in students throughout their schooling career. Our main aim should be fostering the growth of active citizens of the world, which in this age means digitally literate individuals. Their digital literacy will enable them to be active participants in their technological world.

Manage Tech’s Cognitive Load

When exploring content through technology it is easy to lose students as the cognitive load inherent in the use of the technology compounds with the cognitive load from the content being explored. It is important to ensure that the technology enhances rather than hinders learning. Otherwise you are just using technology for technologies sake.

So how do we navigate around this issue? These are the three main points to consider to decrease the cognitive load in your student-centred technology use.

  1. Pick your battles. It is important that you chose only a handful of tools to use, otherwise students can get distracted by the technology. If students must learn a new technology each activity they are wasting their time and energy in the tool rather than the content.
  2. Invest. If there are particular technologies that you intend on having you students use frequently throughout the year it is with taking the time to give students some initial training. Investing time earlier on helps students focus on the content later on. Personally I use GeoGebra and GoogleSheets extensively in Mathematics so I spend a few lessons getting students familiar with the tools. This way, when it comes to activities during class, students are more comfortable working independently to achieve the activity goals. Prior to this I was having to give step-by-step instructions and student-centred activities were more teacher-centred in nature.
  3. Choice. Where you can help it, it is good to give students choices about what technology they will use. This is one of the keys to making tasks more authentic but also empowers students to choose tools that they are more comfortable using. For example, if students are asked to give a presentation, students could choose between powerpoint, keynote, prezzi or other tools depending on what they are comfortable with.

So when planning or reviewing your student-centred activities ask; are there too many tools to learn, is there not enough familiarity with the tool and can I give students a choice? Considering these simple questions can stream line your student-centred activities and save you some trouble in the future.