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This content is taken from the National STEM Learning Centre's online course, Managing the Practical Classroom in Secondary School Science. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds Setting the right climate for learning is vital, especially when it comes to practical work. A hands on approach to learning a practical subject, such as science, encourages students to develop working scientifically skills, problem solving, collaborative working strategies as well as other key skills. However, if students are only ‘hands on’ and not ‘minds on’ too, then key learning opportunities are lost, as students simply follow a series of instructions without actually considering what they are doing and why they are doing it.

Skip to 0 minutes and 37 seconds When planning practical work we must consider what students are going to be doing in order to keep them minds on as well as hands on, could they be justifying the use of a particular piece of equipment based on the task or its precision? Could they be explaining the purpose of each of the techniques they are undertaking, this could be to each other or as a written task, or could they draw a scientific diagram representation of their experiment. If students are not minds on and focused on the task they are completing, then their standard of behaviour may fall short of expectations, therefore keeping students engaged in their practical work will maintain a positive climate for learning.

Skip to 1 minute and 18 seconds There are times however when students behaviour doesn’t quite reach expectations, there could be a number of reasons for this, but there is one I would like to mention in detail when it comes to creating the right climate for learning. And that is the FEAR OF THE RED PEN… a lack of resilience and fear of failure. This can lead student to not completing a task or to misbehave in order to avoid the task all together, removing any risk of failure. This ‘fear of the red pen’ means that students will often give up and not even attempt to complete a task. You could use the acronym F.A.I.L. (First Attempt In Learning) to explain to students that resilience is extremely important.

Skip to 1 minute and 59 seconds The correct climate for learning, creating a classroom where it is okay to make mistakes and that by making mistakes we learn, will encourage students to attempt tasks, and if unsuccessful to try again using the same or a different approach, until the desired learning has taken place.

Fear of the red pen

Fear of the red pen stems from students resilience or possible lack thereof, a fear of getting something wrong and somehow looking foolish rather than seeing the mistake and correcting a step in the learning process.

This can cause a number of responses, students may shut down, become disengaged with the learning and fail to even attempt a task because, by not completing it they cannot get it wrong, others may become disruptive and draw others off task too.

Students must understand that getting things wrong is a key step in the learning process, and, that by trying something and getting it wrong we learn from that failure and move forwards. During this process it is important to remain positive, while developing the light bulb Thomas Edison was rumoured to have declared “I have not failed 700 times. I’ve succeeded in proving 700 ways how not to build a lightbulb.” (The truth in this is debatable but it does illustrate the point beautifully)

Classroom task

Earlier in the week we asked you to consider the positive, and negative, ways students act in your room. Based upon the ideas above, make a conscious effort to convey a ‘first attempt in learning’ during a practical lesson this week. Introduce students to the concept of FAIL: First Attempt In Learning.

What was the impact on the students’ behaviour and attitude to that investigation?

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This video is from the free online course:

Managing the Practical Classroom in Secondary School Science

National STEM Learning Centre