In my opinion Key Stage Three is the most important time in secondary school and the time when we can have the biggest influence on students. It’s a time where we can have a significant impact both academically and socially. I even put this to Twitter and Twitter agreed: 50% of people shared this view!
The vast majority of students come to us already excited about science in Year 7. When you ask a primary student what they are looking forward to most in secondary school, science is normally high on their agenda. I think that the key question, therefore, is how do we keep students excited about science?
In my opinion, to maintain this excitement, we must make every student feel like they can succeed regardless of ability. Anything that you enjoy, anything that you get excited about, more often than not, you are successful at (in your own view, at least!)
In lessons, this excitement doesn’t just come from the stereotypical whizz-bang side of science (although this does help). Practicals are exciting for children, but how often do you see students struggling to follow a method, or ending up having to copy results from another group? This is disheartening. To maintain their excitement, your practicals need to be accessible for all. Over the past couple of years, I have come across some amazing techniques for this. My personal favourite is the use of integrated instructions. Not only do they reduce cognitive load, they also allow students to follow step-by-step instructions, ticking these off as they go (never underestimate the importance that a twelve-year-old feels when they can tick a box), but it also allows different groups of students to access these as a result of the visual. This is particularly apparent with SEND and EAL groups of students. I created the visuals below with Chemix (www.chemix.org).
It’s not enough to focus on what happens in our individual labs, though. We must feed this excitement about science into the ethos of the department and further into the community of the school. Form time is an excellent opportunity to do this. There are always scientific topics that we can discuss, whether it be climate change, which is particularly prevalent at the moment in the news thanks to Greta Thunberg, or thinking back a couple of years to the Sergio Canevaro, the surgeon who was attempting a head transplant. What human being, let alone a young teenager, would not have an opinion on that? Take other opportunities in form time too. At my school we have a fun Friday where our activities are very flexible. Why not use this time to engage the students with science? This works particularly well when you have a supportive SLT who will take part and support this. Whether you do flaming hands, mini dissections, chemistry demonstrations or applications of physics, they are all learning experiences and as they’re outside the classroom and without the constraints of students feeling like they are being assessed, it is truly science for fun. Fun with hidden learning!
Finally, provide lots of out-of-the-classroom experiences and say yes to opportunities that you get offered: by doing this we have had some amazing trips, attended some wonderful competitions and provided students with opportunities that they would never have had otherwise. You might have to fill out some paperwork for the visit, but think of the lasting benefits for the students. There is also a great advantage for you: yes, it ticks a box with the new careers guidance and Gatsby benchmarks, but teaching is all about building relationships and spending time outside of the classroom with students is a great way to do this. Let them visit other schools, let them lead sessions to teach younger students: this will not only give your students new experiences, but you are enthusing the next generation too! I have never been to a primary school and seen a student unenthusiastic about science!
So, if I am to return to the original question, what do we need to do to keep students excited about Key Stage Three science? I think the answer is to give them every chance to succeed, and not only that, but to genuinely have the self-belief that they can have success in science both inside and outside the classroom.
Adam Higgins is Second in Science at an all-boys comprehensive school in Gidea Park. He has responsibility for Key Stage Three, outreach work, and also leads on marking and feedback within the department. He has a keen interest in new teaching and learning strategies which focus on a meaningful hands-on curriculum and improving scientific literacy.