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 https://www.flickr.com/photos/wellingtoncollege/11204119036/

Photo credit: Wellington College Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/wellingtoncollege/11204119036/

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.

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 @det.nsw.edu.au email address with the new ending @education.nsw.gov.au (the same address as students). So your Gmail email will be firstname.lastname#No@education.nsw.gov.au


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.

First Things First

Slowly but surely my first year of teaching is coming to an end yet somehow at the same time it has flown by. Looking back this year has delivered on its promise to be an incredibly gruelling and challenging year. I’ve learnt that teaching is one of the most demanding and rewarding things one can do.

I feel as though I could do better if I did this year over but such is the nature of learning. Mistakes help us to grow and learn, for a teacher they refine our practise. However I feel that it is my responsibility to impart my newly acquired wisdom for any new teachers starting out this coming year.


1. Set small realistic goals. The first year of teaching is the epitome of too much information too quick. It is important to focus on specific aspects of teaching at once. For example research and experiment with formative assessment techniques one week and classroom management theories the next. When you focus on one particular issue you can achieve much better mastery over that area instead of worrying about everything at once.

2. Reflect, take a growth mindset. Use your mistakes not as judgements of your incompetence but as part of your learning process. Take note of when methods were successful as well as unsuccessful. For a mistake not to be a failure you must use it to grow your practise not weigh on your self esteem. Keep track of your progress with a reflection diary or blog. This should help you see your improvement.

3. Celebrate successes. Share your victories with your colleagues. We fight so hard to find effective methods of teaching our students that when something works everybody deserves to know about it. It is the most amazing feeling when you really start mastering a method or when an educational risk pays off. Sharing your experiences will assist other teachers.

4. Forgive yourself. Things will not always go to plan. Even the most meticulously planned activity may go astray. Whether the factors at play are in your control or not you must reflect on what went wrong and why but at the end of the day you must forgive yourself and keep trying. The quality teaching fairy is destined to reward you blood sweat and tears eventually so power through disappointment.

5. Find a mentor. Locate yourself a veteran teacher to show you the ropes. Though you may not agree on everything its important to respect the years of experience other teachers bring to the staffroom. Gems of advice can help you avoid some common pitfalls of teaching. Also none understands the pain of the first year of teaching better than a teacher. In addition to mentors at school I follow the example of @thenerdyteacher , @cybraryman1 , @mrkempnz , @AddesaAT and @ddmeyer on their professional twitter profiles and blogs.

6. Establish a PLN: local ideas are not the only ones worth hearing. Establishing a professional learning network can give you inspiration and support on a global scale. PLNs keep you up to date with the educational theories and approaches around the globe. Your PLN can become a virtual staffroom where international teachers learn from one another and innovate together. My PLN of choice is twitter. To learn with me go to @hayleysimpson89



It is known that people learn most in challenging times and you, new teachers, are about to learn a lot and fast. Model lifelong learning because this isn’t just an intense year of your life, it’s a lifestyle. You are a teacher now.

For the Love of Feedback

Every teacher with more than a weeks experience is brutally aware of how crucial formative assessment is to ensuring students are learning in your classroom. However in my first term as a teacher I felt like I was drowning under the weight of formative assessments that I had been generating in my classroom. So I began to ponder, how do great teachers stay on top of formative assessment? How can I assess my students frequently without generating hours of work for myself? (Hours that good teachers don’t have).


For assessment to concentrate on student growth the feedback needs to be given as immediately as possible. The further students are from the assessment, the less invested they are in the feedback. So after a week of careful contemplation, here are my top 5 fast feedback methods;


1. Technology assisted feedback

Use some quick warm up questions to be answered on a technology platform like Google forms which collect responses instantaneously (depending on your internet connection) and provide instant statistics. For Google forms student results and trends can be illustrated with the Add-on Flubaroo. I find this invaluable to identifying weaknesses and misconceptions at the beginning of the lesson before I try to build on a shaky foundation. I can adjust the lesson to address misconceptions before building on them.


2. Entry and exit slips

On technology or paper, entry and exit slips provide me snapshots into student understanding each lesson. Downside, there is a day delay unless done via technology. For differentiated instruction each entry or exit slip contains choices like a menu. The choices are colour coded based on their difficulty. Students are encouraged to attempt the red questions if they are feeling confident or if they keep getting the orange questions correct.


3. Eyes down thumbs up

A method of gauging student confidence about a topic. Thumbs up for “I get this”, sideways for “Im okay but I might need some help” and thumbs down for “I don’t get this yet”.


4. Think-pair-share

Students ponder an application question for several minutes before pairing up with a partner and refining their solution. After a suitable amount of time either pairs may pair into fours or the pairs may present their solution or part of their solution to the question to the class. Many variations of this technique exist. One of my classes is a “Performance class” and love applying their skills to summarising mathematical concepts or solving problems creatively.

5. Whiteboards

A tried yet proven method where students display answers on their mini whiteboards and holding them up to show the teacher. The simplicity of this form of assessment does not cheapen its effectiveness.


I encourage you to think about how you formatively assess your students. Have a try of some of the techniques above and let me know how they work for you. Also if you use any different techniques let me know! What are your top 5?

The Rite of Passage

Last thursday I underwent another one of the legal “rites of passage” of a new teacher by being observed by my school principal. Although an incredibly stressful situation it turned out to be a highly constructive affair. I received many words of encouragement and constructive criticism from an education veteran who is passionate about the future of education, particularly the role of technology in this future.


One specific encouragement she afforded me was the nature of my entry slips or warm ups. Inspired by the urgings of my twitter friends or “tweeps” I have developed a method of conducting these warm ups using technology, specifically Google forms.


Photo from Keso S: bit.ly/googlelegopic

In a nut shell the students are linked to the google form or type in the bit.ly customised link into their task bar. Once there, students are prompted to enter their name and then answer a short number of questions based on foundational knowledge of the coming lesson or revision questions from the previous lesson.


I display the responses on the Interactive Whiteboard so students are encouraged by seeing their submission register on the screen. I personally adjust the width of the browser so the students answers remain hidden but their name displays. When students finish they pass their devices to students who forgot to bring/charge theirs.


After the submissions are in, I select “Add-ons – Flubaroo – Grade assessment” and select the answers I entered when I created the form. The add on “grades” the responses which shows instantly trends in answers and students which may need more help during the lesson. If they class under performs in a question sometimes I spend some time to revisit that concept before continuing with the lesson.


Give it a go! It will surprise you how quick and easy this is! Alternately, If I have spooked you with my wordy explanation stay posted for a pictorial or feel free to ask me.