How to Teach Secondary Science

‘The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe’ Flaubert

I still harbour a slight grudge against Flaubert after being forced to read Madame Bovary far too many times whilst at college. However I can’t agree more with this quote. It’s been a while in the making but my book about teaching science is finally released. Before starting I wasn’t sure that I was going to have enough to say to fill an entire book but as soon as the brainstorming began I found it difficult to stop. This book has made me a better teacher for writing it.

The premise of this book is about balance. Balancing varied pedagogy, various skills and teacher time to craft great lessons. There are lots of ideas for you to pull out the ones you like (and discard the ones you don’t) try them out and improve them to suit you.

More details can be found here.


Off Piste Science Starter


This one you might want to keep just for your KS4 students and is a good opportunity to review the science behind some of their sex education , whether taught by you or during PSHE.

First of all have a read of this news piece from the New Scientist about super-gonorrhea.

 Use as a starter with your KS4 students:

  • Print the article off for students, give them 5 minutes of reading time in silence, followed by three minutes to share their thoughts with their partner. Get them to come up with two questions to put to you for class discussion.

Or use it as a jumping board for some other conversations / debates:

  • Discuss the issues of antibiotic resistant bacteria – could it lead to extinction of our species? (You could make some link to The Walking Dead tv show where a virus with no cure essentially wipes out humans – but be careful to reiterate the difference between bacteria and viruses though)
  • What should be done about internet pharmacies?  What are their dangers and why do people resort to them?
  • How does antibiotic resistance happen? Great if you’ve been studying evolution recently.
  • Why can unprotected sex be so dangerous even if you only do it once ? 

‘Let me tell you the problem with girls…’

Tim Hunt



……and no its nothing to do with if you fall in love with them, if they fall in love with you or if they cry as unfortunately remarked by Novel laureate Tim Hunt.

The problem is how little progress is being made by women in science careers. Last week as those on parental leave frequently do,  I walked around the park with a friend, pushing our buggies and discussing post maternity life*. This friend, an exceptionally talented scientist achieved first degree honors in her degree, went on to complete a PhD and to work as a post doc at a leading UK university. She will not be returning to work when her maternity leave ends. As with many in similar situations this is due to long working hours, perilous short term academic contracts and the importance of keeping up the publication list. A review by the Science and Technology Committee researching the uptake of women in STEM careers criticised the structures that keep women from top posts, citing this a a bigger issue than uptake of STEM at school level. So what really are the issues with women in science and what can be done?

Problem 1: Women are underepresented

The main issue with this is that without women in top posts, the role models so desperately needed do not exist in good enough numbers. In physics the number of female role models is critically low and with five times boys male students taking physics A level this is unlikely to change any time soon.

rosalind-franklinMy role model at sixth form college – Rosalind Franklin who was denied the Nobel prize for her vital role in the discovery of the structure of DNA








However even with the small numbers, the influence of women in science is still too briefly advertised. Many people have been following Tim Peake’s trip into space. Some media have referred to him as the first Briton in space despite the fact that Helen Sharma had beaten him to that title 25 years previously.


In a recent interview with the Guardian Helen reflects that her low profile was due in part to how she was treated as a woman ‘I’m a scientist, but I found myself in interviews being asked where I bought my clothes. Irrelevant. And I always felt I had to be photo-ready‘.

Charities such as ‘Speakers in Schools‘ provide opportunities for speakers to go into schools. Having used them (you get one speaker a year) they are really influential for our students. Money is needed to set up something similar with one clear goal – getting women engineers, scientists and mathematicians into every school to meet all students. Scientists are busy people and without the structures and funding in place it is unlikely that they will be able to reach out to all students in the country (which should be an expectation).

Problem 2: Women in the curriculum are underrepresented

Recently, GCSE specifications have become far more traditional, with a focus on the history of science and famous experiences of the past. Whilst this is a good move as it focuses on the importance of scientific inquiry, far more could have been made of women here and an opportunity was lost.  Rosalind Franklin and Marie Curie make an appearance but that’s pretty much it. One of the focuses of the new specifications is the discovery of the atom, with many male scientists expected to be studied but lacking any mention of Maria Mayer who came up with the first formalised structure of the atom at the nuclear level. Why Mendel but not Barbara McClintock?

The curriculum must be relevant to both genders and whilst the curriculum is the easiest way to ensure this happens in every school we at the teacher level can have a big impact on our classes here. We can discuss these women anyway and we can widen the implications of scientific advances to discuss a variety of areas to engage all. But when we’re busy this can be one of the first things to drop and thus a girls experience of science can vary massively from teacher to teacher.

Problem 3: Academia is not women friendly

Academia is biased towards the traditional male career, inflexible to career breaks, part time working and children and until this changes there will be more famous male scientists. Progress here is pitiful. See here for a good survey by the Royal Society of Chemistry. The survey in essence summaries that women suffer many issues making progress in their careers exceptionally difficult due to their gender. This is why Time Hunt’s terrible remark made such ripples within the community, whether said in jest or not. Universitys have a moral and financial imperative to lead the way forward here, but I’m unaware of any successful strategies as yet.


Changing such gender stereotypes is a multi generational issue which must be addressed but is one that teachers can have a really positive impact.

* I’m on maternity leave, all posts written with baby in tow and mainly written on the phone!

Earth Day


How to celebrate Earth Day ?

Realise you’ve forgotten / run out of time / prioritising moderating controlled assessments? 

Here are the kinds of things to do when you find yourself in these kind of situations:

  • A starter activity which you can differentiate to each of your classes during the day e.g play the trailer to the inconvenient truth and use a think pair share exercise after or be controversial and show students some propaganda from climate change deniers and do the same (would work best if you have recently studied global warming)
  • Start the lesson with – why is today important? Get students in groups to feedback what they think it is (you’ll get some funny answers and hopefully 1 correct one!) use this as an opportunity for a snowball discussion – RESOURCE FREE! 
  • Do you have more time? See this website
  • Do something positive – grow some plants, make bird feeders, do a recycling survey of your school
  • Give each student in your class a different endangered species (see here and get them to research why it is in trouble – make a display of this work
  • Use no paper in any lessons today or insist not one line of paper is not written on or that the most students can use is 5 lines (will teach them to be consise!)

Revision Time



Some ideas to help in the run up to the exams…

  1. Structure, Structure, Structure

Revision should never be left to the students. Do a mock exam, check out their weaknesses and plan out how you are getting through the content before the exam comes around (give yourself some grace in case students get pulled for intervention elsewhere…).

At the beginning of each series of revision lessons try using a pre assessment first to see what students know before you go over anything:

pre assessment

2. Use checklists – they’ll help students to be independent. Combine with knowledge checks of easier content (this could be some C grade questions given as a starter) so that they revise this  knowledge before they come to your class, leaving you to focus on the more challenging parts.


3. Make it fun! Revision is a great opportunity to play lots of keyword games to break up the lessons. Loads of ideas for this in the book – Splat, Articulate, Only Connect, Bingo, Against the Clock. All students need those key words in working memory – no matter how able they are.

4. Make it hard! This might be contradictory to point 4 but students need to tackle the tough stuff with you – analysing data, writing perfect 6 mark questions. They need opportunities to write and for you to respond to them.

5. They need your feedback, as much as you can manage, mostly with regard to what they do with point 5.

6. Make sure you know your stuff – know the exams back to front so you can give good advice. Know what comes up each year and what’s been missing for a while.


7. Your students are individuals, if you are going to run revision sessions make these for specific students who are struggling with the same areas, don’t just do a blanket session for all – they can do that at home.

8. Be nice – they will be bored, randomly reward them every now and then to say well done.

9. Space out your learning -revisit, make links and never just think – oh they’ve got that we can leave it now. See here for a good review of spacing.

Good Luck!


Why is science so niche?


Last week, the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau revealed that not only is he one of the most vocal leaders on feminism (the reason for which I previously held him in high regard) but that he also knows more than a thing or two about quantum physics. A journalist had sarcastically asked him about his understanding of the topic and international press have been blown away by his answer. Why such shock? His team would have briefed him before hand (he wasn’t spot on in his explanation) and he’s probably taken some interest himself- but why is this not normal for those in the public eye?

I am forever moaning about the quality of science in the mainstream media. Science on the news makes me switch off, even if its about an area in which I’m not well versed and Brian Cox can bore me to tears with his slow and basic explanations even as a non physicist. I have slightly more time on my hands at the moment (I’m currently on maternity leave) and so managed to listen to an excellent show on Radio 4  which for once didn’t send me to sleep. Occasionally hidden on BBC4 TV are some similar quality shows but this is far from mainstream. So why are our expectations of science so low?

Science in Schools

What is this? Is it useful to know this?

During my teaching training, what were the things we remembered best from our science education? Basic and unimportant facts – how to test for carbon dioxide, the colour a potassium salt in a flame test (lilac never purple), the cross section of a leaf and some rubbish acronyms to help remember physics equations. Because this is what we needed for our exams, so we were taught them year on year. But this is getting worse not better for our current students. Our department despair each year teaching additional science students the rules to work out if a salt is soluble or insoluble – who the hell will ever use this?!? New specifications for upcoming years still looks rubbish. Where are quarks? Theories on the extinction of dinosaurs? Graphene? Not really what people need to engage them in the science that will influence them in the future. If we want people to talk more about science then they need to know the interesting bits.

The Mainstream Media


Nina and the Neurons – Science for the toddler-  but what happens for those who have been potty trained?

It’s not just an individuals responsibility to keep up to date with science nor is it just down to education. Science does not take up enough time in the news or on TV. Funnily enough CBBC and CBeebies both have science shows for kids but what has happened to those aimed at teenagers (what’s happened to Bang Goes the Theory?) or above? Brian Cox (sorry to bring you up again) is not enough.

The Science Community


Another example of funding drying up. There are quite simply not enough outreach programs running whether through a university or museum. Not just outreach for schools but for people in the wider sense. When there is, it is poorly advertised unless you know where to look. I want an opportunity to go and see a lecture on the zika virus on a Saturday morning but guess what, it was Tuesday at 2 o clock. The Wellcome Trust does a good job here, but is far too limited to London and similar experiences should be far more available throughout the country.

So as not just to make this post a moan…..

There is much that we can do ourselves! We don’t have to have every dictated to us. So here are some ideas that I want to do more of, I’d love to hear any you’re doing.

  • Build better links with primary and secondary schools nearby, sharing better practice and going on more visits to primary schools (which could include more parents). If done more in the summer term then there should be at least some time…
  • Keep badgering experts to come and talk to our students (this is so much work) and invite the local community to come along too
  • Have science story of the week – each member of the department takes one week a term where they have to sort one wiz bang exciting 10 minute segment that can become part all year groups lessons – surely we can all give up 10 minutes off specification…


As usual, education is the easiest of the above to ‘fix’ in a large scale, what a shame this couldn’t have happened with the new GCSE specifications. This could have happened at the same time as increasing the ‘academic’ content as they are not mutually exclusive. If only the DfE was run by experts in the field…..




Making Links – The Biology of Chernobyl

In my upcoming book, there is a section on the importance of making links between areas of the curriculum, both to allow students see science not just as a list of facts but also to help interleave and space out students learning (check out Shaun Allison’s excellent post for a good outline on this).

Here is a great example to bring together Physics and Biology topics together as well as linking to science in the news.

The starting point for this lesson comes from the research outlined in this Guardian Science article about how wildlife has thrived in Chernobyl in the decades since the disaster.

This lesson would fit in really nicely after teaching nuclear fission and how it is controlled in a nuclear power plant (see my lesson on the TES website).

Starter – use a think pair share to help students to think independently about the idea.

Chernobyl Think Pair Share

Chernobyl Think Pair Share

Following on from this provide students with the data and get them to suggest reasons to explain the evidence (suggest is the command word in exams which catches students out the most).

Chernobyl Data

Chernobyl Data

Differentiation ideas:

  • For more able students provide them with the scientific paper
  • For students who need more structure, provide with additional questions – What has happened to the Elk population?  What about the Roe Deer?  Does it seem if the radiation has affected there numbers?  Why might this be?