Chinese whispers

This is a simple activity that I made up for use with some year 10s. The students had to learn some small paragraphs of information on evidence for evolution and I couldn’t think of any other way to do it.

The activity involves the students getting into groups of 3 ideally. Each student is given a number 1, 2 or 3, and then has a piece of information to learn and memorise in a given time period (5 minutes or so).

After the students have memorised their information:

• the number 1 students have to teach the number 2s all of the information they learnt (it is important that the number 3s cannot hear this section).

• then the number 2’s have to pass on the same information to the number 3s

• finally the number 3s have to pass this information back to the number 1s – the point of this is so that the number 1s can correct the information or add anything that has been left out (number 2s should be involved in this section too)

If this is repeated again with the number 2s starting, and then the number 3s, then it means that each student has had to memorise, and then pass all 3 sections of information – but in a more interesting way that also allows feedback and improvement if necessary.

The students who did this activity with me enjoyed it and were able to learn the information effectively. The test for this came during a speed-dating activity a few weeks later where the students remembered this section of the topic particularly well.

The 3 questions given to the students were:

1. What were the first living things? And when did life start?

2. Where did life start?

3. Why did organisms get bigger?

Poppy Saltonstall


Reading for Understanding

– A little structure goes a long way in Science

How often do you ask students to read some information – maybe from a textbook or article – only to find that they look at the pictures, read the title and then wait for you to tell them what they should know? Perhaps it’s a consequence of the internet age, where information is written to be skimread, and pictures and pop-up ads vie for attention. Or maybe students have always struggled with this.

In order to try and find some strategies to help students become a little more independent in their reading I turned to the PEEL website. There I found an activity called “What do I know?” which encourages students to read and reread text.

To start the activity I give the students 3 questions that I want them to answer using the passage. In their books they make a grid with the questions at the top. I try and make one of the questions a little trickier so that they have to apply what they have read.

Quite often the answer to Q1 is “I don’t know” and that is fine.

The students then read through the passage, with the questions in mind. I give them a short time to do this using the countdown timer in ActivStudio. I then ask them to close the book or cover it up and have another go at answering the questions. Again, they have only a short time to do so. The students can now judge how much information they have actually picked up, and what they should be looking for.

They then read through the passage with that in mind. Again, I limit the time to a few minutes. After the second reading they fill in another row.

Depending on the complexity of the text, and how well the students are doing you can then either give them another read of the text or get them to pair-share their answers.

Quite often students are surprised at the extra information that they can find out by re-reading the text.

Some students find this activity very helpful and make a really good attempt. Others are less happy and ask if they can just make notes. However, as I point out to them, this activity means that they don’t just copy large chunks of text, and they have to be selective.

This picture shows the first two stages of the process.

And this picture shows after the second reading.

Carol Davenport

Student voice

– What Students Tell Us About Our Teaching

How often do we listen to our students, our customers? I like to think I do, but, I must confess it’s probably at a cursory level. This article is me really listening! It is based on thirty reflections completed at the end of a project by my students. It is purposely anecdotal rather than statistical as students are too often reduced to a number.

I must confess I love the final half term of school, the exams are finished and a small window of opportunity to experiment with the curriculum is granted. This summer, the Science department at our school tried something different, very different. We turned over the lessons to our students in a very real way. This is our attempt at training our year 9 students in how we want them to learn come next September. Ken Brechin was the genius behind the marvellous “Brainiac” challenge. Brainiac Science Abuse is a Sky TV show that performs weird, wacky and wild scientific experiments. This was our chance to really enthuse our students about science and give them “intellectual control”. This article is a summary of the students’ experiences and what we as teachers can learn from them.

So what was the Brainiac Challenge?

Before we proceed a brief synopsis of the Brainiac challenge will be useful. Students were assigned to groups, then had to storyboard and script an episode of Brainiac Science Abuse, and present their ideas to executive producers – their class mates. They had free reign of what science they did and which experiment to perform and explain in front of the class. They were given a substantial 6 hours of lesson time to prepare. To reflect on their experience of the challenge students were given a choice of questions to respond to.

So what did they make of this, and what does it tell us about teaching and learning?

Tough beginnings lead to first success

Overwhelmingly the students found this experience “fun”, “enjoyable” and “exciting”, although this was very much a summation of their overall experience. Progress was slow at the start since the task was so open-ended. They found it difficult to make the decision on what to do and found this frustrating with one student commenting

“Once we started designing our show I was not very enthusiastic towards it, but after a few lessons I started to enjoy it. ”

It became clear that the ownership of the learning was the enjoyable part. Would the students enjoy these lessons to the same extent if they were teacher led, or if only a short time was allocated to develop the task.

“I remember thinking and panicking are we ever going to get anywhere with this, and when would the group start working together and getting things done. ”

This quote also illustrates initial trepidation, but shows they were investing emotionally in the activity. Having an extended period of time is essential for students to properly take intellectual control over their learning, though I hope they will get quicker as time goes on. They are used to short, fragmented lessons with many and varied teacher input. They are not used to doing so on such a scale.

Our students are lucky enough to enjoy a Learn to Learn course in which the 5 R’s (Resilience, Reflection, Resourcefulness, Responsibility and Reasoning) are taught and developed. It is when students are challenged that they really get to apply the 5 R’s.

“I had to be really responsible and resilient to complete this project rang truly one comment. It was indeed the students showing these qualities, though it was a show of resilience on my part not to jump in! ”

Blank pages are full of opportunities

The open-ended nature of this challenge allowed students to take control and use many skills such as; “making decisions”, “adapting”, “team working”, “negotiating” and “solving problems” to mention a few that I did expect, as well as a few that I did not expect; “listening”, “drawing”, “designing with restrictions” and “independent learning skills”.

What struck me most, however, was the sense that students were developing and improving these skills, so what initially seemed like a large chunk, nearly two weeks, of science teaching time became a mere 6 lessons. I am wondering if we dedicate enough time to these skills within our lessons.

It is important to make it clear that the teachers did retain actual control of the class (without the students realising). This was achieved by the detailed creation of the challenge, keeping perspective on what our success criteria were and our provision of quality feedback to our students on these criteria. Another trick I used was to provide grids at the beginning of each session, which students could use to agree success criteria for themselves.

They also had the opportunity to review at the end of each session. This gave each lesson purpose and direction. We were able to comment on them in between sessions too. Students did find these useful with six students using the term success criteria (despite it not being mentioned on the review sheet. This shows that success criteria are valued by students and helps them gain a sense of achievement.

Comments ranged from “not very exciting” to “I felt proud of what we did”. Whilst others found it difficult to make comments at all “because we were so involved in the challenge”.

This highlights the need for teachers to organise and run a quiet reflection time each lesson. It would be a shame if they did not get to articulate their feelings about the experience.

Pros and Cons of group work

I must signal a word of warning, that this style of teaching does create pressure that may not always be positive. Students’ skills in negotiating and delegating can be crude and therefore could lead to inequalities in labour division. Yes, the challenge of getting things done to a strict deadline is helpful, and it is evident in the reflections that it played a major part in their learning. But this can put some individuals pushing over the edge of their comfort zones.

A lot of pressure was put on me and I didn’t like it. It was a hard job. I struggled with the script and didn’t manage to finish it.”

Although only one student reflected upon this, teachers must be aware, and spend time developing the community of your classroom. Most students made their task easier by relying on their group for assistance. One student makes this perfectly clear:

I thought this challenge would be really hard but when everyone in the group thought about it together it didn’t seem that hard anymore. ”

Students were grouped using my knowledge of their strengths, a balance by gender and one or two classroom management decisions. This class is used to working in different groups. They are familiar with the routine of arriving at the lesson, and checking the board to find out which groups they will work in that day. So new groupings are very much taken in their stride.

Only one student claimed they would have been more productive if they “worked with their friends”, but this was countered by multiple responses that said “my group was nice”, “ I liked my group” and even “it was good to work with people I wouldn’t normally work with”.

The student presentations were a revelation to me as, although I had been observing closely their progress each lesson, I had yet to see a final product. Their quality, with some variation was exceptional. They explained ideas succinctly and made it obvious that they had researched and asked questions.

A particularly pleasing outcome was the fact that they felt they had learned from other presentations. Some reflections were “the presentations we saw were filled with information and facts”, “I was impressed”, “I enjoyed watching other groups”, and my personal favourite “we didn’t just learn form our own experiment

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, but also from everyone else’s.”

The presentations were surprisingly slick for 13 year olds. Many of the presentations were enhanced by the use of ICT, images and music. Like the TV show the students had raised many questions to answer by performing an experiment or scientific demonstration.

* Which vegetable is the strongest?

* Do fruit flavoured sweets taste like fruit? – (This involved me being blindfolded and taste testing lemons and limes, I may be too trusting, though no misfortune befell me!)

* Is it possible to put Humpty Dumpty together again?

* Can you make a milk bottle fart? The students were keen to pose their own questions and took the opportunity to use question dice to help formulate them. Their quest was then to answer them with real science.

The students were asked to feedback to each other in small groups and had designed feedback tools that they distributed. This is an important reflective activity and can provide stimulus to students in future activities.

“When we watched other groups presentations I couldn’t help feeling that they were so much better than I expected ”

The peer feedback was welcomed and was based on the agreed success criteria

“We met the success criteria, getting good feedback from Mr Mead and the other teams. ”

I am glad I was mentioned here. It is nice to see my students value my feedback. They give and receive feedback consistently with me and each other, so I need not be worried peer assessment will lack the rigour that makes it valuable to its recipients.

The learner qualities of 13 year olds

Problem solving is a feature prominent in many of the student reflections, with the solving of problems adding to the enjoyment of this challenge. This was pleasing although they were not usually forthcoming in describing the thought processes involved – an area for development here. “Teamwork” and “Togetherness” were common phrases and, intriguingly, one student claimed “We overcame a problem by using black hat thinking”. This student does not embellish this thought, but he has obviously seen it as a tool which he found helpful.

During the end of lessons reviews students were issued with a table of thinking words with one group utilising these well in describing their thinking “We all imagined our end products”, “We distributed tasks and interpreted information, “We identified tasks that we have to do”, All this leads me to the conclusion that my students are just starting a journey of using tools to aid thinking, but they have begun and I hope the next step is exponential.

Target setting was also a keen feature of their reflections; these were honest about work rate with direct targets such as “Instead of wasting time talking I would get started straight away” (although I disagree with this as I observed barely any off task behaviour), or technical ones like “I would have included a PowerPoint (maybe with some music)”, “We would have rehearsed”, “Learn the script and be more enthusiastic”.

All of these would have improved the quality of their presentations. These targets show that students have high expectations of themselves and, if anything, are overly critical of their performance.

My final thought on these lessons is on the last activity my students and I did, and what inspired this article. This being the honest and expansive reflections that my students so generously indulged in. It is clear that they feel successful and proud, not only of their achievement, but also of their ability to learn.

As I said at the beginning of the article, I love the final half term where the imagination can run wild, learning is unrestrained and the students have a chance to teach me things. And these things are….

1. Plan open ended activities

2. Allow time for students to make mistakes and correct them

3. Learning is fun, as long as some challenge is provided

4. Teachers must value the 5 R’s (and other learner skills) as much as content

5. Success criteria are essential

6. Provide a variety of opportunities so that they can take control and make decisions

7. Teacher feedback is essential

8. Build a safe, risk taking environment

9. Consider student groups carefully and use different groupings regularly

10. Have high expectations of students – they will pick up on this and adopt them for themselves.

11. Plan time for reflection

12. Students are a resource for each other

As an afterthought I noticed a marked similarity between what my students told me and the “PEEL principles of teaching for quality learning”. I have faithfully listed these here for you to make a comparison for yourself. It is unsurprising to see that our students are experienced learners and know what’s what when it comes to how they should learn. To find out more all we have to do is listen.

Kagan Structures

-Circles of Decision

While teaching my more challenging BTEC science class about the intricacies of the atmosphere, I wanted to continue developing effective team work. I have recently been introducing a number of Kagan structures, which explicitly develop the collaborative skills students need to work effectively in groups, in to my lesson planning.

The students are capable of working in teams for short periods of time without swearing or hitting each other, and regularly do in activities such as ‘ask the expert’, but still struggle to communicate effectively for longer periods of time. In order to try to build these skills and reinforce their knowledge I have adapted a Kagan Circles of Decision lesson which worked extremely well.

Initially the students were split in to groups of three. The number is important for this activity. The Ninja Hamster grouping, which the class were familiar with, was used this time. This particular group structure is mixed ability with no obvious friendships. Before the lesson three hula hoops – agree, disagree and don’t know – were stuck on the ceiling. After students were introduced to these ‘Circles of Decision’ they were posed an openended question such as: “Plants are good for the atmosphere” and “Modern technology shall save the world from global warming”.

60 seconds were given to talk about the question after which time the three students in each group had to go to a different circle of decision, and be able to justify why they were standing in that opinion circle. A number of students were prompted to explain why they were standing in a particular circle and most could give a decent explanation. Where a student was struggling they were allowed to ask their group to help them out once, but they were encouraged to answer the question themselves the next time. This meant that the group had to discuss the question and understand how they could both agree and disagree with the statement and also be unsure about their opinion.

Some of the students displayed a fantastic degree of knowledge and understanding far beyond the scope of recent lessons. Everyone participated pretty equally during the discussions. During the lesson Paul Hopper and I were circulating round the groups and recording key words or sentences the students used in their discussion. We displayed these on the white board for discussion during the debrief. We then went through these statements with respect to the five R’s plus 1 and demonstrated to them the extremely high level they were working at.

They were also debriefed with respect to the level of thinking they used. They were impressed to identify they were employing some high level thinking throughout the session – Empathising with and defending positions they did not necessarily agree with, creating and evaluating arguments and frequently making links to prior understanding.

All in all an extremely successful lesson, which got students really thinking and talking about science, and considering more than one side of an argument. I am looking forward to using this again with different ability sets in the near future.

Steve Welsh

Inside-Outside Circle

Students stand in two circles – the inside circle faces out and the outside circle faces in. Every student has a partner, if there is an odd number, the spare student can ask questions then swap over half way through. The teacher (or spare student) should ask a review question then give the pairs an opportunity to discuss it. The teacher then selects a pair to answer.

Both partners need to know the answer, and if they don’t know they should consult with the pair on either side. This is a fast-paced activity in which all students are aware that, at any moment, they may be asked to share their learning with the rest of the class. It is, therefore, imperative that a safe environment is established within the group, so that all students feel confident speaking to their peers.

As you can see, a variety of styles of questions was asked. Though the same questions can be asked of every pair of students, it is possible to differentiate this activity by asking specific individuals to share certain answers, prompting them appropriately.

Consider having gentle music on in the background while they are discussing (like musical chairs) then when the music stops, the teacher asks a question. The students had fun and found the activity useful to review and reinforce new material. Add an element of speed-dating to this activity by rotating the inner, then the outer circle one place to the left after each question. This mixes up the pairs for every question, giving students access to a wide range of perceptions and levels of understanding.

Linda Rowe

Facebook Friends

-Using social networking profiles to enthuse Year 9

During my long teaching placement of my PGCE year I was given a low ability year 9 class. I felt that the behavioural challenges presented by this group were affecting pupil progression and began to question whether personalisation of learning could promote engagement during lessons.

In order to make learning more relevant I came up with the idea of using an adapted facebook page to present information on a famous scientist (facebook template downloaded from http://www.

The students were each given a facebook template to fill in alongside in question. The students had to pick out the relevant information and put it into their own words to explain the scientist’s observations, explanations, and achievements and influences on other people.

At first the students were preoccupied with filling in the description of the scientist and thinking up names for the scientist’s friends! However, they did settle down quickly and seemed to really enjoy the activity. Upon reviewing their learning the students were clearly able to show that they had met the learning outcomes for the lesson.

Relating the learning to something personal thus seemed to make the information more accessible and memorable, as well as promoting the students’ engagement in their learning.

The facebook template could be adapted to include different subheadings, depending on what you want the students to get out of the activity, and could obviously be used in lots of different subjects.

The activity could be extended by getting the students to research the information needed to fill in the template for themselves. Alternatively, or as an extension, the students could create a facebook group promoting the work of the person in question.

Rebecca Price


Weaning the sixth form

– Promoting Independence in Mixed Ability Classrooms

Great ideas are often born of necessity, and though I would not recommend trialling the calamities visited on the chemistry department last year, if it were not for desperate times, the new way in which year 12 chemists worked would not have come to be. Ideas for what happened next had been seeded through many conversations with Karen, Chris and Abbie from MFL. Indeed I sat in on one of Chris Harte’s lessons with the UK’s oldest man, an Ofsted inspector, in which the students were engaged in a FLIP lesson. Here KS3 students were really taking control and deciding what they need to do to move forward. (Read more about FLIP in the next issue!!). But my story starts earlier in the year……

Last year, when the chemistry department dipped to one member of staff I found myself teaching the students for all 5 of their 7 timetabled chemistry sessions. This presented an opportunity to re-jig when topics were taught. When polled the students preferred to focus on just one topic at a time rather than follow two topics with two teachers. This meant that the pace for me and them really picked up. They simply had to become more independent, and do so very quickly. Mechanisms for quicker and more effective learning were required including feedback and support.

I created a timetable that included every staffed and independent session for their next module (Atmospheric Chemistry). The resulting grid took a little while to prepare for each group, and it took most students a lesson to organise themselves for the upcoming weeks of work, but we found we got more quality time back as a result.

In order for the students to fill in the grid they needed access to every resource they would be interacting with over the module. This included practicals, activities, texts, questions and answers. As part of the planning session they had to skim read through all these and estimate how long each task would take. Also which ones required them to be in a lab, which would be best working collaboratively, and which looked a bit too difficult to tackle individually. For the next few weeks students were working from their own big picture (which they had created) every lesson.

Taught ‘lessons’ on the most tricky concepts and teacher demonstrations were pre-timetabled on the sheets, as were topic-specific seminar sessions, the rest of the sessions available for the students to fill in as they thought appropriate.

Roughly five hours of home study was included per week as well. In the two examples included here you can see how different approaches and needs led to very different organisation each perfectly valid.

The seminar sessions involved groups of between 3 and 6 students of similar ability engaged in an entirely targeted conversation. The A/B students could consolidate quickly what they had done and be stretched and challenged appropriately, whilst those who really struggle could be given some support and encouragement.

Obviously there are still students who, like stubborn hens, refuse to produce, but now I can pick up these miscreants more easily by simply asking them to show me their planner, point to the date and the work they said they will have done by then, and get them to show me their journal for the module in which they should record everything. Cue some eyes cast to the ground and pledges of gifts of learning the following morning.

A core issue with this approach is that in most sessions the class is engaged in many activities, which means the teacher has to be completely on top of all aspects of the module at all times. A question that needs consideration for September is ‘how will this approach work when we revert to two teachers per group?’

I feel this approach really does develop students as independent learners, who are in direct control of their learning. I look forward to running a short workshop in the near future for a more in depth discussion of this model of teaching, and to see how it might be developed within the sixth form context or even further down the school.

New ideas for independent learning

With the next cohort of year 12s I intend to provide ever more opportunities for developing independent learners, responding to students’ feedback.

I intend to give them the answers to all the questions on the course. The large majority have found that they make quicker progress and can self-assess themselves better as they work if they have the answers. I was initially sceptical about this but will put in some provisos so that I can be sure they are making the progress they appear to be.

I will require evidence that work has been attempted in the following ways.

I will not be collecting vast scripts of uniform work, which is woeful to mark and largely unhelpful – the answers to all our published resources are all over the internet anyway.

I will require the full working of three levelled questions that the department has devised themselves, and are inherently google-proof. When appropriate, full and annotated working to one standard question must be submitted. And a paragraph to explain how they found the work in terms of what is easy / difficult etc.

Fergus Hegarty

Sequential questions and self correcting worksheets

– Two ideas to ideas to help students construct knowledge

After nearly 6 months on a stodgy diet of 21st century science for the hard of thinking, my year 10 students were experiencing some distress at the higher fibre content of additional science. They were being weaned on some proper chemistry, and some weren’t sure they liked it.

First up was a starter size portion of atomic structure (reviewed from a previous lesson), followed by a main course looking at formation of ions and the formulae of ionic compounds, with a bit of equation balancing for pudding.

Explaining how to solve the problems would have been relatively simple, but as this was a top set class I wanted students to work out for themselves how each piece of information related to the next from first principles.

My usual strategy for doing this would have been to ask the class a series of sequential questions, using each to tease out another piece of information until the group as a whole had constructed a set of rules for writing formulae. I was discouraged from teaching this way in this instance because this would involve a lengthy bit of chat about the topic before I began and guessed (correctly) that I’d be sick of the sound of myself before any questioning started. I was also worried that if any individuals got lost it would become impossible to help them catch up if the whole class was involved.

Strategy 1: sequential question cards

I wrote down an idealised version of the dialogue I had hoped to have with the class, then chopped it up into individual questions and chunks of information which I put on numbered question cards. Students were asked to work through the questions collaboratively in groups, finishing each question before they moved on. The answers to previous questions were not given directly, but they were referred to. I worried that students would peek forward to get hints, but in fact none thought to do this.

Student response

Student groups worked through the questions at a slower pace than they might have been expected to as a whole class, but they made steady progress and were generally successful at making links between one question and the next without any external support materials such as textbooks.

Having each question on a new card encouraged students to consider them independently rather than giving them a worksheet which they might have rushed forward without completely understanding each stage. Without me having explained why elements formed particular ions, by the end of the lesson some could work out why this must be the case from first principles, which was exactly the goal I had in mind. Most did not get this far however, and there were some problems specific to this approach. My attention was spread thinly over 10 student groups, and some made early errors which I did not spot until their later efforts had dissolved into a muddy puddle of mis-comprehension.

There were also some weaker students who hid behind brighter group members, and it was hard to spot and support these individuals – although this problem would have been worse in a whole class teaching environment.

Strategy 2: Using self-correcting worksheets to highlight early misunderstandings

In the subsequent lesson, I used an idea I’d been introduced to through some collaborative work with the maths department to help students selfassess whether they had understood a step well enough to move on. Excel worksheets can be made which check students’ answers for you (returning a smiley face for a correct answer).

Using a maths template sheet, I created a workbook with 5 worksheets, one for each step in understanding I wanted students to develop. Each worksheet had 3 problems, and once all 3 were done correctly, students had to write a worked example in their books before they started the next sheet.

While students worked on these sheets in pairs or independently, I gave microteaching sessions on each stage for students who identified (based on the worksheets) that they needed it.

By the end of this lesson, many students had constructed a method for writing balanced equations for reactions where ions are formed based only on information they could get from the periodic table and their knowledge of electron structure. Others had at least consolidated their knowledge of atomic structure and how ions form.

“Through working corroboratively, Maths and Science have been able to share and reflect on good practical teaching and learning strategies. Through conversations with each other and students, we have been able to critically analyse and adapt a resource which could be used commercially across departments.

Through lesson observations we have been able to see how this resource is viewed through the eyes of a student at Cramlington. This has been such a powerful experience and would encourage teaching staff to observe lessons outside of their own department. You will be amazed at what you might find and hopefully be brimming with ideas. ”  – David Gray


Student feedback was that they enjoyed using the worksheets. They were familiar (as used so often in maths) so needed no introduction, and they felt encouraged by the instant gratification of a smiley when they got something right. Students worked very independently, so I could really focus on microteaching rather than keeping half an eye on the rest of the class.

I’m a rubbish multi-tasker, and for this reason I struggle with microteaching in a normal rambunctious classroom, but this wasn’t a problem here. Interestingly, many of the students who came forward for microteaching were those who rarely ask for help in normal lessons, and I managed to have a reasonable dialogue with one student about his learning for the first time this year. I think the fact that the smiley feedback made their misunderstandings so obvious may have helped them approach me for this.

An obvious downside of the worksheets is that they can only be used to correct questions which have a defined answer which can only be expressed in a limited number of ways. I would not use them regularly, but as a tool for helping students develop a methodology in a logic-based topic I found them very helpful. I suspect there are many other subjects where this kind of instant student feedback could be useful in making discovery learning a little bit more palatable and easier to digest.

Katherine Shorrock & David Gray