This year my current school made the decision that the KS3 classes (years 7, 8, and 9) would be split into Biology, Chemistry and Physics. Each class would be taught by a different teacher, and be timetabled individually, in an effort to emulate KS4 and KS5 classes (year 10 and up).
This set up has been a very interesting experience for me over the past six months, as I’ve never seen anything like it before. I’d like to share with you my thoughts on this way of focusing junior science, the good and the not-so-good.
Our school runs on a 2-week timetable, and the KS3 students have 3.5 lessons of ‘science’ within that fortnight. They have a full 100min lesson each of Biology, Chemistry and Physics, and a 50min ‘Science Skills’ lesson. This skills lesson is a designated time to teach non-content-specific scientific skills such as measuring, graphing, etc.
This set up means that I only see each class once a fortnight, possibly twice if I teach them a subject as well as a skills lesson.
At first it sounded great, particularly getting the students used to learning about the sciences in the same way they will in senior (or KS4/5). It quickly became apparent that there are more challenges than benefits, at least for me personally.
One of the best tools you can have in your kit to improve the teaching/learning experience is a good rapport with your students.
Building such a rapport is strongly emphasised at university and by pastoral teams. You can help, encourage, challenge, and discipline students much more effectively when you have a rapport, even if it’s not an entirely positive one.
Even administration teams stress the need to ‘get to know your students’, and usually the first week of a new year is focused just around that.
So you can probably understand how this timetable set up has resulted in me not having a rapport with the majority of my students. To be completely honest, I still don’t know half their names, and we’re half way through the academic year over here now.
I have been shadowing a form class for the past two weeks, and feel like I already know those students so much better than 11 out of my 15 classes.
I makes me quite sad to be honest. I like building relationships with my students, getting to know them and watching them grow throughout the year. Only seeing them for 100 minutes a fortnight makes that extremely difficult.
On the plus side, if there are certain students (groups or individuals) that are not entirely pleasant, at least you only have to deal with them once a fortnight! It also means you are in a much better position to forgive and forget previous issues, and they are too.
Can you remember what you were doing before lunch two weeks ago on the Tuesday? I can’t. My students can’t.
Having two weeks between lessons is a very long time. Especially when that two weeks turns into four, or six, because you’ve missed a lesson for any number of reasons or there was a holiday break in between. One class that I saw last Friday, for example, I won’t see again for another 5 weeks due to an inset day and half-term break.
It really makes each lesson stand-alone. It’s very difficult to find continuity with such a large break in between sessions, especially when there is so much else happening in between. I didn’t realise the extent of this until I was teaching my year 10 class, and realised how much we were building on and extending knowledge over the course of our three lessons that week. I was able to say ‘remember yesterday when we were talking about blah’ and use that as an anchor for their knowledge – you just don’t get that opportunity with such a big break unless the students are very good with their memory.
On the other hand, focusing a class on one content stream has made it slightly easier to wrap my head around. I know that I have the whole year to teach x, y and z to a particular class, without changing focuses (i.e. science streams) drastically. It has also made the students more aware of the nuances of each stream, and better able to understand what biology, for example, is about in general (of course you could argue for and against this point). The students know that you are their biology teacher, and when they’re in the room with you they have to have their biology hats on.
Never mind forgetting content between classes, keeping track of homework is near impossible. Unless I specifically include it in the next lesson, I forget what I’ve set and forget to check/mark it, so how can I realistically expect the students to remember?
Our school has recently started using an online program called Show My Homework. It is fantastic. All homework is set on it, and the students and their parents (and you) receive email and/or phone notifications when it is set and when it’s close to being due. They also get a notification on Fridays of what has been set that week. It has been a life-saver in keeping on top of it all!
Aside from remembering to set it, or that it exists, it can be a blessing to set homework for such a long time period.
Given that there are two weeks between seeing the students, it is a good opportunity to set longer, research based homework tasks. This can really deepen and widen their content knowledge, and gives them the opportunity to put in as much effort as they are willing to. Some of the work I have set has come back absolutely brilliantly, and they are so proud of their effort!
Marking and Reporting
427 students. That’s how many I have with this timetable.
Marking that many books on a three week rotation is near impossible. Indeed, sometimes is just is impossible. We are doing more marking than any other department in the school, purely because of the way it has been split. Even the act of picking up and opening a book/exam is multiplied, let alone the reading, marking, and commenting. In saying that, keeping on top of book marking here (which is something we don’t do in Australia) helps me to get to know my students and their abilities better.
Thankfully the exams are shortened to the equivalent of one normal-sized exam across the three sciences, so that does reduce a bit of the marking in that sense, but not enough to make it the same as a normal exam for a normal amount of classes. It does, however, mean that you can more accurately assess their abilities in the individual science strands – you get data across the whole year instead of just a term or two.
Leading on from this is the issue of reporting – I don’t feel like I can accurately report on a student’s progress when I don’t have any real rapport, and they are being lost within the 400 other students I teach. Doing parent-teacher interviews is an interesting experience when you are working off data and your own facial-recognition abilities.
Not the Best Idea
Overall I have to say I’m pretty unimpressed with this system. The drawbacks far outweigh the benefits, and it creates a whole heap of unnecessary stress.
To be fair, this is the first year the school has tried it this way (and for me too obviously), so we are definitely ironing out the kinks of it all. Once everyone gets used to it, and if we can find a way around the rapport and marking issues, it could be done well I think. I haven’t figured out the answers to those issues yet though!
About the Author:
Emily is a secondary science and math teacher in Australia. She enjoys blogging about her experiences, facilitating the ‘light bulb’ moment in her students, and drinking tea and wine. Emily is currently on maternity leave with her first child. You can read more teaching articles from Emily here, or about her life as a new mum over at Actual Mums.