Primary Science: a tale of two practicals

Mr Smith and Mrs Jones both teach a Year 3 class in the same school. Mr Smith is an ECT (first year) and Mrs Jones is now in her 5th year of teaching.

Rocks. I don’t care what you say, they’re boring and should be left to the Geography teachers.

This term the Science topic is rocks. They both have access to the school Science Scheme of Work, which ties in with the National Curriculum Programme of Study, and has been adapted to suit the resources they have available.

In their first lesson pupils are learning about the properties of different rocks and are testing them for “hardness”.

After the lesson I take the opportunity to chat to the pupils about what they’ve learned in Science today.

Mr Smith’s class

They were learning about rocks and were testing them to see which were hardest. They had to give them a hardness score on a scale of 1 to 10. They scraped some rocks with a coin, and if nothing came off it was a low score, and if some did it was a medium score. They had a nail to hit the rocks with, and if some came off with the nail it was a higher score.

The first rock had a low score (2), the 2nd and 3rd rocks were medium (5 and 6) and the last rock was a high score because it was the hardest (8).

Mrs Jones’ class

They were learning about rocks and were testing them to see which were hardest. They were given 4 different types of rock; sandstone, marble, slate and granite. Sandstone is a sedimentary rock because its made from lots of small bits of sand or sediment pushed together. Marble and slate are metamorphic rocks which is what happens when other rocks get squashed down and heated up in the earth. Granite is an igneous rock and its made from magma that cools down.

They tested the hardness of the rocks by scraping them or hitting them with coins or nails. Mrs Jones spoke to them about how they could decide how hard the rocks were. They decided not to use a score, as there was no fair way of giving them a number from how easy they are to scrape. They decided to put them in order of hardness instead. They found that the igneous rocks where the hardest, then the metamorphic, and the sedimentary was softest.

What’s going on?

It was clear that both classes enjoyed the lesson, particularly the practical work, and they’d all learnt something, but there’s no denying there’s a difference in outcomes between the classes. So what happened?

Teachers prioritise the need to provide fun, awe and wonder moments that ensure children enjoy science. They are actively seeking to use and find great wow activities from internet ideas, video platforms and social media etc. These activities often stand alone and lack a relevant or appropriate curriculum rationale, with many relevant concepts inaccessible because the scientific explanation would be too abstract or complex. A clear rationale and articulation of why this activity is in this sequence of learning is not evident to the children or articulated by the teacher.

Bianchi et al. The 10 key issues with children’s learning in primary science in England (2021)

Mr Smith, like so many science teachers before him (at all key stages) took a look at the scheme of work, recognised that the practical would be interesting and fun for the pupils, and went into it with full gusto. And the pupils enjoyed it. But he’d not stopped to think about the underpinning rationale for doing the practical at all.

Mrs Jones did the same in her first year (and her second year too, actually). But her end of topic assessments showed a real gap in pupil knowledge about the properties of rocks, so she shifted her focus.

Mrs Jones recognised that the purpose of the practical wasn’t really about finding out how hard different rocks are. She could just tell them that. For her the practical was about

  1. making the different types of rocks tangible and real (concrete) rather than abstract concepts.
  2. Opening up a discussion about the limits of their quantitative data (scoring hardness) and looking at alternatives (rank ordering).

And for Mrs Jones the main focus of the lesson was recognising the different categories of rocks and their properties. She spent a lot of time focussing on scientific vocabulary (and the pupils articulated this to me beautifully).

Two classes. Same practical. Both classes had fun. But in one class the practical was purposeful, the intent was understood, and the breadth and depth of learning was far greater.

P.S. I know Moh’s hardness scale is a thing. Its just particularly ineffective with children. Most don’t have fingernails long or strong enough for scraping, and big burly Harry can scape a lot more off with a coin than little Larry sat next to him…

Teacher bike commuting: making it work (well)

I’ve already outlined why I’m loving the daily bike commute here. But as I’m sure you can imagine, it doesn’t come without some challenges. Here are some hopefully helpful things I’ve learned so far…

Look at the positives

Distance and commute time is going to be an obvious obstacle for many. This can be mitigated somewhat by recognising that the commute can also be part of your daily exercise routine. My bike commute takes 10-15 mins more each way than if I travelled by car. So that’s 20 to 30 mins a day wasted, right? Not if you remember that you’re getting a decent cardiovascular workout at the same time.

If the distance/time is a bit too far for you, maybe look at investing in an e-bike. They cost a bit more but you’ll soon make the money back on petrol savings.

Mindset shift: it’s not a race

I’m a cycling novice, and have only really ever done it for exercise purposes. Within a few days I recognised that I needed to shift my mindset from “ride as hard as you can” (step away from the Strava segments) to “get there alive and without being sweaty”. There’s a time and place for pushing yourself to see what you can do and the commute is not it.

No sweat

Exactly how I look, chilling on my way to work.

You’ve really got two options for avoiding being sweaty in school.

  1. Ride more gently on the way in so you don’t get too hot. Change your clothes when you get to work.
  2. Ride and get sweaty, shower and change in school.

Showering in school is currently not an option for me so I’ve gone with 1. I take it easy on the way to work (only actually adds a few minutes to my journey), change out of my cycling gear and get suited and booted. My route isn’t too hilly (and the main hill is at the start so a good warm up) so I’ve not had any issues yet.

The fastest route isn’t necessarily the best route

Don’t just automatically take the shortest or quickest route. It’s worth going a bit further if an alternative route is safer or more enjoyable. My route takes about 5 mins more than the quickest route, but the roads are quieter and around half of it is a lovely trail ride along a bridleway. It even goes under the M53 at one point so I get to chuckle at people stuck in traffic 😉

Ride visibly and confidently (but like there’s a £1M bounty on your head).

I’ve not had much experience of riding on the roads, so this has been a baptism of fire. Ride confidently; stuttering indecision at junctions, roundabouts etc is not good. If you’re good to go, go. But at the same time, ride defensively. Assume everyone is trying to kill you. Basically channel your inner John Wick (but with maybe a little less ultraviolence).

John should have worn a bike helmet

Forget about trying to look stylish: wear bright neon colours and have bright lights (including in flashing lights in the day time) so that you’re likely to be seen by drivers. I’d rather look like a dayglo Christmas tree than be dead.

I’ve got a Garmin Varia rear light/radar that’s an absolute godsend. It links with my Garmin 810 bike computer and bleeps at me aggressively whenever there is traffic behind me (works from quite a distance). Obviously you still need to check over your shoulder when pulling out etc but the extra awareness of traffic behind me is really useful.

Carrying essential teacher kit

First off: clothes. Two options here really

  1. Drive/get a lift in once a week and take 4 days of clothing with you. This takes a little bit of planning ahead but makes the commute much easier. I take a few suits, 4 shirts etc and leave on hangars somewhere safe in school. I bring the dirty clothes home with me each day, and the following Monday swap the suits and repeat.
  2. Take the clothes with you. I have a TwoWheelGear Garment Carrier Pannier bag. It’s not cheap but it’s an absolutely wonderful piece of kit. I can get suit, shirt, all my rain gear, lunch, laptop, everything I need into it. Adds a fair bit of weight to my bike though.

Whether you’re taking clothes with you or not, I’d recommend getting a rear bike rack and using pannier bags. Rucksacks are ok but can lead to back ache and get you all sweaty. The rear rack also lowers the centre of gravity. A decent trunk bag like this has loads of space for what you need to take with you (and clip on and off easily).

Beat the bad weather by dressing appropriately

The old adage of “there’s no bad weather, only bad clothing” applies pretty well to cycling. I have a waterproof jacket, trousers, gloves and (most importantly) shoe covers all tucked in my bag. Don’t neglect the shoe covers, riding home in soggy shoes is not pleasant.

A word of caution; clothing that keeps rain out, also tends to keep sweat in, so you’ll need to slow down a bit (wise in bad weather anyway).


Don’t forget to put the cable lock though the wheels…

Where will you store your bike when you’re at work? Some schools are lucky enough to have secure staff bike sheds (locked doors etc). Some of my colleagues will bring them in and tuck them at the back of the classroom. I leave mine on the generic bike rack outside (does have a shelter) but keep it secure with a bloody big chain though the rack, frame and rear wheel and a smaller cable lock through the rack, frame and front wheel. I leave them attached to the rack so I’m not ferrying them around (heavy). Sure, technically someone could get a circular saw and cut through it, but that’s fairly likely to attract attention during the school day and there will be easier targets.

I can also recommend the Knog Scout, a handy little bike alarm (iOS users only) that also contains a tracker that you can use with Apples Find My network.

For many people (particularly with shorter journeys) using a knackered looking, unstylish bike for commuting reduces the chance of someone bothering to nick it. You’ll see this tactic in Cambridge (old bikes chained up everywhere).

Have a backup plan

There are things that can go wrong (as with any type of commute) but you can mitigate for many of them by having a loose plan. For example

  • Feeling ill/exhausted – don’t be a hero. Get a lift with a colleague, use the car (if you have one), public transport or even use some of the money you’ve saved and get a taxi. The bike commute is meant to be both enjoyable and sustainable so don’t be a martyr. Likewise with extreme weather.
  • Bike out of order – there are times when your bike may be broken or at the bike shop for maintenance. Either do the things listed above, or have a spare bike. I’ve got an old road bike that I can use (different route required) when needed.
  • Puncture whilst commuting – this can happen with cars too so not exclusively a bike thing. Tubeless tyres can mitigate against this. If your tyres are tubeless (some will need converting) then they have a sealant in them that seals any small punctures as they occur. Failing that, learn to change an inner tube and take one with you (it’s a lot easier than changing a car tyre). Worst case scenario you need to get a mate/taxi to collect you and get you to work (or you walk the rest).

I’ve had multiple car related issues in my teaching career that have hindered my commute (punctures, minor crashes, wipers broken etc) and to be honest bike issues are generally easier to sort.

Enjoy the sleep!

Honestly, I’ve not slept this well in years. The extra exercise and the fresh air really help me get good quality sleep. Make the most of it, get to bed early and get out of bed with a spring in your step, ready for the morning commute.

Anything else?

Any questions? Obstacles stopping you from bike commuting? Feel free to post below. I might not know the answers, but if not then someone else might be able to help…

Why I’m loving the teacher bike commute

Riding the bike is the easy part!

I’m now 3 weeks into the academic year at a new school. It’s 7 to 8 miles from home, so I sold my car (we’re now a one car family) and committed to commuting by bicycle. Admittedly it’s only been a few weeks, but so far I’m absolutely loving it. Here’s why…


Cars can be (increasingly) expensive beasts to run. I took a fairly hefty pay cut when I moved school (yes I know, not necessarily sensible during a cost of living crisis, but totally worth it and no regrets). When looking at how to cut costs I did a quick back of envelope calculation and found we were spending nearly £500/month on owning and running a second car (PCP cost, fuel, tax, insurance, service costs etc). That’s a lot of money.

Once you’ve purchased your bike, cycling is very cheap. Occasional maintenance (Youtube can guide even clumsy idiots like myself through some basics, and Reddit is full of great advice) and a service or two every year (depending on mileage) is pretty much it.

Physical health

Cycling is low impact cardiovascular exercise. My commute is around 25-30 mins each way. My Garmin (connected to heart rate monitor) reckons I’m burning off over 200 kcal in each direction (depending on how hard I’m pushing). Not massive, but 400 kcal a day quickly adds up. It’s also improved the quality of my sleep. Not gonna lie, the legs ached a bit by the end of the week, but in a good way.

Mental Health

To be honest, I thought I’d begrudge the journey via bike and was doing it out of practicality. I don’t! It’s one of my favourite parts of the day (even in the rain). One of the things I disliked most about working from home was the lack of a clear start and end. Getting in the bike clears my head, and I’m lucky enough to ride through some nice country trails. The fresh air is exhilarating. It’s one of those “flow” type situations where you have to concentrate and it clears your mind of everything else.

Environmentally friendly

I mean that’s it really. I’m not pumping fumes and CO2 into the atmosphere. Wasn’t my main consideration but a real bonus.


My previous school was 13 miles away and the commute took 20-25 mins by car. My new commute takes around 15-20 mins by car, or 25-30 mins by bike. 10 mins difference. Not a big deal.

And I won’t get stuck in traffic.

Yeah but what about…

So yes there are some logistical challenges and I appreciate it may not be possible for others. But there are often very workable solutions to these challenges (I’ll blog on these later); I didn’t ever think I could commute 80 miles/week by bike until necessity made me look more closely at it. So maybe it’s worth shifting some (or even all) of your school commute to two wheels…

Update: tempted to try the bike commute? I’ve added some hints and solutions to common challenges here.

Teaching and the pursuit of happiness

Global happiness and the anomaly of American women

I’ve slowly been working my way through Steven Pinker’s thorough (aka long), interesting and enjoyable Enlightenment Now. It’s a deeply optimistic book that looks at various measures of human progress, happiness etc and concludes that, despite the regular pessimism in the news, there has never been a better time to be alive.

In the chapter on Happiness, Pinker describes how, overall (and for nearly all social groups), levels of happiness and satisfaction have increased, and anxiety has reduced.

Are we really so unhappy? Mostly we are not. Developed countries are actually pretty happy, a majority of all countries have gotten happier, and as long as countries get richer they should get happier still. The dire warnings about plagues of loneliness, suicide, depression, and anxiety don’t survive fact-checking.

Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now (p. 283). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Pinker goes on to mention that American baby boomers haven’t gained happiness at the same rate as other people in the developed world, and in particular, American women “have become unhappier just as they have been making unprecedented gains in income, education, accomplishment, and autonomy, and in other developed countries where everyone has gotten happier, the women have been outpaced by the men.”

Why is this? Pinker’s hypothesis is that the freedom that American women have (belatedly) begun to experience brings with it some anxieties:

Now I don’t know if this is actually the case (although it’s a compelling argument), but it got me pondering the sources of my own previous anxieties and stresses, and I think it could certainly go some way to explaining them.

A singular life goal


I trained as a teacher in 2005/6 and my first school was an absolute joy to work at. I had a truly supportive department (who encouraged and nurtured me and forgave my many mistakes). I threw myself into the pedagogical style of the time (discovery learning, learning to learn etc) and was pretty good at it, purely because I was willing to put in the hours to make it work. I was regularly working 60-70 hours/week. Roughly half of each holiday was spent on schoolwork.

This got me lots of positive feedback (from pupils and staff). I was getting praise and this was a good feeling! I got rapid promotion, had a great bunch of encouraging colleagues, and the positive feedback loop continued. It kept me working all the hours under the sun (and I thought it was worth it).

This all sounds totally cringe and pathetic when I read it back now, but here’s the thing: being a teacher had become THE core aspect of my identity. It was what I was apparently good at. And when you’re good at something you tend to want to do it more (and get better). I had ambitions to keep improving, be a headteacher by my mid-thirties, a proper trailblazer.

And there was only really one way I could do that. Work more.

The problem is that teaching isn’t a job with a fixed target. You can never fully complete it. There is always more to do, things to improve. You could give every waking hour to it for a lifetime and still have areas for development. So by putting teaching at the centre of my identity, by making it my main (only?) focus in life, I had set myself an unachievable goal.

I’d set myself up to fail.

Which is pretty much what happened when my first child was born. Spending 60+ hours a week on work became both impossible and undesirable.

Moving the (life) goalposts

It took a while for me to recognise that I couldn’t manage both being the teacher I had built myself up to be AND be a decent parent. I did a suboptimal job of both for a while, and it made me unwell. Like Pinker’s unhappy American women, I had a lot of things to worry about, and a lot of ways to be frustrated. My teacher and father life goals required more mental, physical and emotional energy than I could give, and it just led to anxiety and dissatisfaction. My professional self-identify collapsed. I had to take a step back and reevaluate what I really wanted. When you’re so heavily invested in something that can be a difficult thing to do.

It took a while, but I shifted my targets to something more attainable.

  1. Family first. If I can’t support them properly, other stuff has to change
  2. Be the best damn teacher I can be, within the framework of a sensible work/life balance.

These are the criteria I now measure myself against. Challenging, but attainable, and above all, sustainable (I’ve got another 27 years before I can collect my pension!)

Point 2 is what requires discipline. Some strategies that have been effective:

Now I make time for both (and other stuff)
  • I set myself loose time limits for work (and stick to them).
  • I loathe doing a bad job of something. I’d rather do less (and do it well) than compromise on quality, so I’ve had to get better at saying “sorry, but I’ve not got the capacity” to stuff (including stuff that I’d really like to do).
  • I have routines that mean regular sleep and exercise are as high priority as any other activities.
  • I recognise that guaranteeing myself time to decompress, read, spend time with the family actually makes me a better and more effective teacher.
  • I regularly check myself to make sure I’ve got the balance right, and any big professional decisions are viewed through this lens. There are a couple of occasions where I’ve moved to a role with less responsibility (and a hefty pay cut) to get the work/life balance correct. I’ve not regretted it yet.

Being a teacher can become all consuming, and shifting your identity to incorporate something else significant (like being a parent) can be a real shock. I know I’m not the only teacher who’s faced these challenges. I have colleagues and friends who are dealing with this, right now. And that’s why I’m writing this, in the hope that sharing my experience somehow helps others going through similar.

As teachers we need to be a little kinder to ourselves, reframe our goals, and play the long game. Too many good teachers leave the profession, broken by trying to do too much.

As humanists we want to be driven by compassion, but the targets of our compassion should include ourselves.

Greta Christina, Humanism and a Work/Life Balance

If you’ve experienced similar, and have found workable solutions, I’d love to hear your story.

Short review: “What if everything you knew about education was wrong?” by David Didau (@LearningSpy)

What if… by David Didau

I’ve rarely found the time (or inclination) to blog or write a book review, but this book is special.

First, a disclaimer: this is not an easy read. Not because of the style of writing (David Didau’s style is clear and enjoyable to read) but because

  1. it’s a big book (for an education book anyway)
  2. for many teachers it will challenge an awful lot of what we believe/assume to be good teaching practice.

Didau starts off by explaining how the human brain is pretty bad at making rational, evidence based decisions due to significant cognitive bias: “we make decisions on emotional grounds and then justify and rationalise our choices after the fact“. I was aware of many of these psychological principles before reading this book, but Didau summarises them brilliantly. This is almost like tenderising a steak before cooking; knowing how bad our decision making can be is essential if we are to make it through the cognitive dissonance we are about to experience…

Didau then carefully dismantles large swathes of what is standard (and considered to be good or outstanding) practice in many classrooms across the country. I won’t/can’t go into more detail here, as I feel I wouldn’t do it justice, but it’s really quite an uncomfortable experience. As a teacher who has made a very successful career utilising a “progressive” teaching style, the amount of cognitive dissonance I experienced whilst reading this book was massive. It’s clear that Didau has been through the same process himself. He does, thankfully, offer plenty of ideas (backed up by evidence) for how to improve teaching and learning.

There have been a few education books I’ve been positively evangelical about throughout my teaching career, either because they’ve summarised my beliefs about education or they’ve been immensely useful.  Inside The Black Box (Wiliam/Black), Essential Motivation In The Classroom (Gilbert), The Teacher’s Toolkit (Ginnis), How To Teach (Beadle), Visible Learning (Hattie) and Evidence Based Teaching (Petty) are all books that I’ve ended up buying for others, or raving about to schools and teachers, particularly those new to the profession. What if everything… joins that list (and at times, contradicts some of the content of the other books). However, it will be my more experienced colleagues to whom I’ll be recommending it most; we have the most cognitive dissonance to experience. This is essential reading for all who work in education (particularly school leaders). Providing a copy for staff and giving them two days inset to read (and act) on it would probably be the most effective CPD a school could do. Sadly I can’t see that happening in many schools, as those higher up in schools probably have the most dissonance to experience and the most to lose…

The challenge I now face is to take what I’ve learnt from this book and apply it to my day to day practice. I can already feel the “experienced teacher” part of me itching to start the term teaching in the way I find comfortable. The scientist/rational part of me needs to fight that. It won’t be easy (most of our education system encourages my old habits), but then (and this is a key theme of the book) learning should be hard.