We have all experienced students who dawdle into lessons, take a long time to get ready for learning and then only to find they don’t have their stationery! These are the students that do not engage in the classroom at all, they go through the motions and are indifferent, while they do not progress much they do not negatively affect the learning of others. Often, these are the disengaged learners who are the most difficult to reach.
Reflecting on my own pedagogy, the most useful trick that I use is the Hook. This should be an engaging, short, sharp way of introducing what is interesting in the lesson. This will improve attitude to learning and help students find a reason for paying attention.
For me, every lesson must have a Hook, when you share something with the students that just catches their imagination and they want to know more. This is often the part of my lesson that I love the most as I look at the faces of the students, some initially sceptical as I do something that at first glance seems like magic.
I look for inspiration from lots of different places. At the moment, I am channelling the theatre with the use of flash paper. This is paper that is treated with nitrocellulose and burns so completely there is no ash left over. This allows a discussion about combustion and exothermic reactions, but also you can write on the paper and literally burn it without a trace!
Then there is the seasonal touch; around Halloween, I really like torturing pumpkins as a start to a lesson about chemical reactions, exothermic changes, enthalpy change, types of combustion or reaction profile diagrams. Simply carve the pumpkin, half fill with loose sheets of toilet or blue roll and add about 50cm3 of white spirit or a similar hydrocarbon. The effect looks best when you have incomplete combustion so that soot is produced and therefore a dirty flame.
So, as we enter the festive season, what lab would be complete, without a Chemistree? This can then be used to name the lab equipment, decipher the symbol code or even to complete a selfie competition with prizes!
No party is complete without a candle, so the trick I like to show is a candle re-igniting without a flame touching the wick. Allow a candle to burn for a minute or so, so that the wax is wicking to the top of the wick. Then blow it out, and the ‘smoke’ trail will actually contain some vaporised wax (fuel). Then by touching the flame on the ‘smoke’ the fuel will re-ignite and so will the candle. See the re-ignition in slow-mo (video clip).
So, next time something catches your imagination, think about how you could incorporate it into your lessons – no matter how tenuous the link – if you were interested, then so will your students be!
Sam Holyman is Second in Science at Aylesford School in Warwick, and West Midlands ASE President. She is also author of a number of best-selling science textbooks for KS3 and GCSE, and a keen advocate of innovative teaching and learning. She was nominated in the Teacher Scientist category for the Science Council’s 100 leading practicing scientists in 2015.