Return of the Smurf & Share Ramadan

Once upon a time I was a very active blogger. I loved the interaction with other teachers around the globe and learning lots of new things. And I loved writing about what I had learnt. But you may have noticed I have not been around for a while. I last updated this blog back in 2015 after the Scientix Conference. Since that time I have moved schools (twice). After five years working in a Swedish free school where I taught science in English, I now find myself in a small school in rural Sweden teaching science and maths in Swedish. This school is not a free school. It’s what the Swedes would refer to as a kommunal school and the foreign teachers in Sweden might refer to as a “normal school”. If you read between the lines that says a lot about what those who often only spend a short time in Sweden think about non-free schools.

It’s now six years since I moved to Sweden and I just recently got my Swedish citizenship, something I am remarkably proud of. I bust my gut learning the Swedish language, filling in the tons of paperwork to get properly certified in Sweden, then sweated blood for a year adjusting to teaching my beloved physics in a language I only started learning 5.5 years ago. All in all I had a lot on my plate and that contributed a bit to my lack of blogging. I will possibly share some of those experiences in future posts.

The other issue I have had over the last 2 years is that I got ill. Very ill. After some very good experiences of the Swedish health system and the way it treats people with mental health issues, I was eventually diagnosed with a form of PTSD. One of the side effects of this time was just wanting to keep myself isolated. I kept teaching, I kept reading the research and trying new things. But interacting with the real people sapped too much energy so I couldn’t think of interacting with the virtual ones.

But now… I’M BACK! Well, sort of. My mental health is much improved but it took me a while to think of something to post about.

For those of you that are interested I shall be taking part in ShareRamadan this weekend. The person who invited me to join (via Twitter of course, you meet some of the best people on Twitter) puts their reasons very simply; if he, as a muslim, can feel OK with taking part in sharing Christian culture then he would like to invite his non-muslim friends to share in his muslim culture too.
Having done my research (i.e. asked our muslim staff) I realise this will actually mean no food and drink for 19 hours in our part of Sweden. The money I would have spent on food I shall be donating to the World Food Program.
I have chosen to do this for two reasons. Firstly, I wholeheartedly agree with my Twitter friend’s sentiments. I’m an atheist myself but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to learn about and share in other cultures. I mean, I have lived in three countries, married a man from a fourth and currently have dual nationality. Culture is something I love sharing. Secondly, one of the biggest issues facing the world at the moment is being able to produce enough food to feed everyone. Not so long ago, I had the pleasure of accompanying a group of students on a trip to the World Food Program in Denmark. They invited us there after our students made a monumental effort to raise money for the WFP. I have always taken an interest in where my food comes from but that trip really hit home how hugely important is to solve the World’s food crisis. This is my way of raising some awareness of the issues facing 20 million people in the world today.
I shall be doing my fast on June 3 2017. If you fancy joining in too it would be great to hear from you. If you want to donate to WFP, go to their website and click the button. They even have an app you can download to donate the price of a meal.

Ebacc for All. Shackles on or off?

Whenever this debate comes up, I often find myself thinking about my own KS4 experiences. GCSEs were relatively new, the term KS4 was not around. People were still discussing the audacity of a government to ditch the old O-levels. Yet still I consider myself and my high school friends to be quite well educated. Our comprehensive school did good work with all of us in my opinion.

But what about breadth? We went to a school that organised it’s day into 5 lots of 35 minute lessons, with a break in the morning and a good long (sometimes it felt too long) lunchtime. We also had a huge range of after school activities to get involved in, if we wanted. At the time it was compulsory for all students to do maths, English and Science. That was it. If I remember correctly, our year was the first year made to do Double Award Science, a crazy scheme by which you study chemistry, physics and biology as if they were studied separately to the depth of a single subject and you were assessed by just two combined exams at the very end. Stressful.

To make matters worse, those of us considered to be in the top ability range had to do both English Language and English Literature GCSES, separate subjects taught in the same time every one else just did one. So that makes 5 of my GCSES. But what about GCSE options?

I made my choices in 1990. My school had the good fortune to offer us 4 option blocks with subjects arranged in such a way as that even if you were a science geek like me you had to do a humanties subject (RE, history, geography, Latin and economics were available). We also had to pick a modern foreign language (French or German) and an arts subject (from art, music or drama and I think thinks like sewing and home ec were in this block too). Then there was a random block to choose whatever you wanted (as well as many of the other subjects already mentioned it was this block that enabled me to do IT).

So in the end I managed to get maths, music, double science, English Lit, English Lang, German, Economics, and IT. I have one other GCSE that I did as an extra subject in 6th form (Sociology, which I found not only interesting but rigorous and a welcome break to my science heavy A-level choices).

In short, I think my school was able to offer me a broad education that I feel set me up wonderfully for my path in life, and managed to instill in me a love of learning and reading to boot. Why is it so hard for modern schools to do this? I went to an average comprehensive, grew up in poverty on a council estate. I know many of my former classmates who have managed to become productive and happy adults who look fondly back on our time and I consider them all as well educated. What is it that is stopping schools managing to do today what my school did with me all those years ago? I certainly don’t believe it is because of lack of trained or committed staff. But it is something we need to take a long hard look at.


One of these students will be much better educated.  Apparently. One of these students will be much better educated. Apparently.

This week, School’s Minister, Nick Gibb, gave this speech setting out the social justice case for an academic curriculum – aka making the Ebacc a compulsory entitlement for all students.  When this kicks in it will have a significant effect for a lot of schools where the study of a language and/or either History or Geography are not currently compulsory at KS4.

It’s important to stress that I do agree with a lot of what is said in the speech.  In general, I agree that up to KS4, a broad curriculum with a strong academic weighting is important and should be an entitlement for all young people, regardless of their circumstances.  There’s plenty of scope to specialise and to pursue technical learning routes from 16 onwards.  I agree that too many students have been sold short by self-fulfilling low expectations…

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The things you can do with a plastic bottle

Many science curricula across the world now include sections on sustainability and there are lots of great resources around to help you teach this topic. When it comes to attitudes towards plastic, I’ve been using Dianna Cohen’s TED talk in my lessons for a number of years. Students in Sweden are so used to recycling that they often don’t realise the reason why they do it. Cohen’s talk gives a great visualisation of the problem with plastics. As well as leading to all sorts of interesting discussion questions, it often gets students wondering if Sweden’s recycling efforts are really enough to stem the flow of plastic pollution.

Previously I shared some activities for supporting sustainable development that we did as part of a two day enrichment program at school. As part of these lessons I made use of the resources from the charity Send A Cow. Recently I have found myself using the same set of resources to help my students investigate what they can do with a plastic bottle.

I got the student to brainstorm their ideas, mentioning a few fun things like using it as a cricket bat (OK so I’m currently in Sweden so that would be a brännboll bat). Then I showed them the video from Send A Cow about how they reuse plastic bottles in Uganda (part of their Lessons From Africa series of resources). There were quite a few surprises in there. I then got the students to chose one thing to do with the one plastic bottle I would give them. They would have access to scissors, glue and tape. In addition they were allowed to use anything they could find in the trash at home. Here are some of the things they came up with.


Video: How to make a cocktail from strawberry DNA

Not sure I could get away with doing this in school though. But it’s a nice take on a lab we already do and would make an excellent party trick.

DNA. It’s what encodes the genetic material of every living thing. And it also makes a yummy cocktail.

This video, which stars TED Fellow synthetic biologist Oliver Medvedik, shows you how to make a delicious adult beverage out of frozen strawberries, pineapple juice and Bacardi 151. Follow the adorably animated instructions, and you’ll be able to isolate the DNA of strawberries while making a shot. Throughout it all, Medvedik — who co-founded New York City’s community biolab GenSpace (see photos of their incredible office building) — shares the science of why he chose strawberries for this recipe and reveals exactly what each step does toward isolating DNA.

Some of you may be wondering: can you make a non-alcoholic version? Yes, says Medevik, but it would require using a substance like chloroform or phenol. Medevik explains, “It would have to be an organic solvent where the DNA is poorly…

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Dealing with Day-to-day Differentiation

Finally a bit of sense about the issue of differentiation. I have seen teachers be run ragged trying to do numerous different types of worksheet and multiple concurrent lesson activities, and in each lesson, in the name of differentiation. I prefer a more long term view myself.


This week I ran a session on differentiation with our NQTs. I felt it was a good, open session where we could all share some ideas and describe the challenges that we face in meeting the learning needs of all of our students.   The fact is that we all find it hard  – and that’s because it is; sometimes it can feel as if you’re never quite getting it right because someone or other isn’t flourishing.  As with many things in teaching, we need to aim high but we also need to be realistic, pragmatic and tolerant of imperfection in order to flourish ourselves.

To begin with we talked about the myths.

Differentiation does not mean that you must have tiered resources and tasks in every lesson.  It does not mean you should have must-should-could learning objectives. It does not mean that a lesson where every student is doing the…

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Scientix Cycle 2 – reflections on the kick-off

I have been the deputy ambassador for the Scientix project for a number of months now and I was pleased to be asked to continue this work through cycle 2 of the project. This is an exciting time for the project as it not only builds the resources and training opportunities through the portal itself, but also organises a large conference for around 600 STEM educators in Brussels.

I have previously spoken about why I got involved in the Scientix project but here I want to summarize some of the things I have learnt about the portal, especially during the most recent gathering of Scientix Ambassadors in Brussels.

If you have not yet signed up, you should. One of the big things they are going to try to implement during this cycle of the project are free webinars and more CPD opportunities for teachers. And as ever my favourite aspect is that they will translate project resources to any European language free of charge. This is very useful as it enables lots of teachers to tap into projects that are often only written in English.

I always come away from these things with a case full of interesting pamphlets and notes about the various projects you can find on the Scientix Portal.

Example TEMI Resources

Example TEMI Resources

Teaching Enquire with Mysteries Incorporated is a teacher training project promoting Inquiry Based Science Education (IBSE, yes I love acronyms too). By using the idea of a mystery they want to encourage teachers to train each other and their students on the process of solving scientific problems. Like me and many others, they believe that engagement makes it easier for students to learn and this happens in an effective way if we, the teachers, help make connections between science and student’s everyday lives. The problem is how to fit this into the constraints of curriculum requirements.

Here were some of TEMI’s key points:-

  • Presentation skills are important but have you thought about how to do this in an interesting, non-stand at the front PowerPoint way? Maybe think about using theatre in lessons for coaching in presentation skills (I am reminded of the plays by year 7 did about the story of Edward Jenna, such fun)
  • A science mystery is a phenomenon or event that provokes the perception of suspense and wonder in the learner to initiate a “Want to know”
    • WOW questions from kids OR questions that cause cognitive conflict? – not a strict definition
  • Training through enquiry labs – 2 days run by training partners across Europe
  • Makes use of the 5E learning cycle
  • Teach skills with Gradual Release of Responsibility

SAILS (King’s College London – Paul Black)

SAILS stands for Strategies for Assessment of Inquiry Learning in Science. I think in STEM education we are reasonably good at including in science, although often people think that “doing a lab” is the same thing and it isn’t. The good thing about the SAILS presentation is that I was reminded of an activity I did way back in the distant pass at a GTP/ NQT training day run by the Universities of York and Sheffield Hallam. We were given a satsuma and asked if it will float or sink. Even back then it generated a lot of discussion from the teachers. Another idea that I was presented at that conference was about investigating why mentos dropped into coke caused all those bubbles! But I digress.

This particular project was presented by staff from King’s College London and aims to give teachers some structure/ rubrics to assist in the assessment of inquiry based learning tasks.

This project looked interesting but we don’t have access to dataloggers in my school. It left me wondering whether there us somewhere in Sweden where you can borrow data loggers like you can in Finland? What about when using Chromebooks? I’d love to investigate more but think time constraints will make it difficult.


There will be a new Odysseus competition starting in 2015 and the organisers noted that the winning teams did well because they collaborated well
It is important to note that you need parental consent to take part AND to have pics and videos on the website – can’t compete without it.

Since moving to Sweden I have become more interested in the use of STEM competitions to engage students. To this end I also picked up a copy of European Schoolnet’s report into the evaluation of European Science Fairs, although I haven’t had time to read it yet.



You know you’ve made it when you think in acronyms

Every profession has it’s own jargon and as a result I have been exposed to countless acronyms throughout my teaching career. From the very useful to the outright bizarre and cheesy, these little letter combos infiltrate all aspects of the job. But after years of using other people’s aide memoirs I feel I have finally made it as a teacher because….

… I have made my own acronym.

Now I have no doubt that someone, somewhere has probably come up with the same idea. But I was sitting on a plane, eating a chocolate bar, mulling over how to help my students remember some key features they need to improve their skills at writing conclusions to their scientific inquiries. This is an important skill required in the Swedish science curriculum but students often struggle to write more sophisticated conclusions and evaluations. The same skill is used in part A2 of the Swedish national test and students really struggle with this extended essay. In this part, they are expected to use a grid full of information to make a decision and justify it, but structuring their answer can prove troublesome to some students.

This coming school year, thanks to a chocolate bar, I might have hit upon a possible solution. The answer is…

If you want to write a developed conclusion you are going to need some KEX

If you want to write a developed conclusion you are going to need some KEX


KEX is a chocolate bar you can buy in Swedish stores (and probably IKEA the world over), and if you want to write a well developed conclusion you are going to need some KEX.

K – knowledge – you need to link to what we already know and show what we have learnt

E – evidence – you need to discuss your evidence (both primary and secondary) and show how it supports your knowledge

eXplain – you need to suggest reasons for what has happened

Now the observant amongst you will no doubt see the connection here to how language teachers PEE (point, evidence, explain) and I really wish that they and social science teachers would make that connection more explicit to students. However despite my best efforts I could not get Swedish kids to PEE. My guess is because I couldn’t explain what I meant by POINT very clearly. So instead I am going to try to use something with more cultural significance for the students to see if that will help them remember what they need to do.

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