Wednesday, 19 June 2013

What is worth conserving?

All species have to endure competition, this may be for space, changes to predation or resources, but in some cases a species may be unable to sustain the fight and suffer population decline; we often hear of organisms such as the Black Rhino which has under 5,000 individuals and despite zealous conservation measures continues to suffer losses, for example by illegal killing for the dubious merits of treatment by extracts from their horn.

Of course periodic extinction of species has happened throughout the biological lifetime of the planet, it’s nothing new and is to be expected when conditions such as the climate change, or when catastrophic events occur such as a large meteorite impact. An example of this is the “Permian-Triassic extinction” 252 million years ago when 95% of marine species and 70% of land species were wiped out. Even species that were common and had a long history of success such as the Trilobites were not insured for this event.

They had existed for about 270 million years, but whatever happened 252 million years ago was not survivable for any of the Trilobites. It makes picking a winner species in the game of life more like a lottery. Looked at in the long view these events are not without benefit since the new ecological niches available after the departure of their previous inhabitants can encourage adaptation to incomers who in turn can evolve independently and form new species. In this extreme case, the “Permian-Triassic extinction”, recovery was slow possibly because so much biodiversity was lost.

Rocks from a time when diversity was in fashion: the Pillow Lavas of Anglesey mark the end of the Pre-Cambrian and the start of the Cambrian ‘Explosion’ in Biodiversity'

It’s not so simple for us though, we are “knowing” animals and live for a brief time in relation to the lifetime of the planet. Our cultures have often developed our sense of responsibility towards other species, but it is obviously not possible for us to prevent natural events of the death and birth of species although we feel intimately bound in the process, a good example being the Passenger Pigeon. This animal was endemic to North America and existed in immense numbers, a flock seen in 1866 took 14 hours to pass overhead, being 300 miles long and 1 mile wide and this was just one flock! By 1914 the bird was extinct. The usual suspects seem to have done for the species: its habitat had changed through increased competition and predation had increased, both brought about by our own species.

It is obviously not possible is to conserve everything so decisions on what to conserve are important. Such decisions often are based on subjective criteria, Pandas come before the Poison Dart Frog and the Florida perforate reindeer lichen can happily go bust. It is therefore important to identify criteria for conservation which are as objective as possible, this in turn poses the question of how do we select the criteria themselves. One possible criterion for conservation would be the use to humans. This has historical pedigree, for instance trees for construction and wheat for food, a plant which probably would not survive without cultivation and human aided distribution because of large size of its seeds.

There are other uses of course, medicines: willow bark as a source of aspirin has been used for centuries, but new drugs are being found in extracts from plants such as the Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) used to treat childhood leukaemia and Hodgkin’s disease. Then there is conserving as an insurance policy, preserve species so that if conditions on earth alter we will have suitable species, or at least their DNA, to help deal with the new conditions.

We may need to decide on how unique a particular species is before attempting its conservation. Looking at the morphology does not yield the answer, Peacocks look pretty amazing, but in reality are one species of many related birds in the Galliformes order which contains the Turkey and the Chicken. There are methods available to determine how unique and therefore valuable certain species are, such methods rely on cladistic relationships between species as determined by the similarity of their DNA. What this means is drawing a special graph (called a Cladogram) to display the species, the lines between the species indicate evolutionary relationship and the length of the line indicates the amount of genetic change:

The choice of preserving D, for example is poor because it shows little genetic uniqueness from E. The more unique species is B, so given the choice of preserving B or D, B must win.

Now try these questions

1. Summarise the advantages and disadvantages of major extinction events.
2. Argue the case that we may be witnessing a major extinction event, what are the driving factors for extinctions, should we do anything about it; is it feasible to resist the changes?
3. What effect does a major extinction have at the individual, species and phylum levels?
4. What can we learn about evolution from studying very ancient ecosystems such as the Burgess Shale?
5. Summarise the use of cladistics in the study of evolution. How can this study be combined with analysis of DNA sequences to decide on the uniqueness of species?
6. Why should organisms be conserved? What additional problems are there, ecological, political and social which make the preservation of species particularly difficult?
7. Make the case for the conservation of an organism of your choice.

Reading around the subject

The “Cambrian Explosion”, that is in diversity:

The importance of biological data to land developers and planners

Some examples of syllabus content for which the above exercise is relevant:

John Giles

Friday, 10 May 2013

Business News Quiz

The UK economy has avoided falling back into a recession after recording faster-than-expected growth in the first three months of the year. By what amount did the UK grow?
0.3% ( ) 1.3% ( ) 0.5% ( ) 1.5%( )

Which European countries unemployment rate soared to a new record of 27.2% of the workforce in the first quarter of 2013, according to official figures? 
Portugal ( ) France ( ) Spain ( ) Germany ( )

The eurozone's biggest bank, suffered a 25.9% fall in profits for the first three months of the year. Which bank is this?
Credit Agricole ( )   BNP Paribas ( ) HSBC ( ) Santander ( )

A broadband bill sent to a deceased man, which included a fine for late payment, has been shared more than 53,000 times by Facebook users. Which company sent this?
Virgin Media ( ) Sky ( )   Talk Talk ( ) BT Vision ( )

Who has released a mobile phone with a dedicated WhatsApp physical button. The feature triggers the cross-platform messaging app which offers a free alternative to SMS texts
Samsung ( ) HTC ( ) Apple ( )         Nokia ( )

Which technology maker has reported its first quarterly drop in profits in a decade, but said it will raise dividends for shareholders. It made a net profit of $9.5bn (£6.2bn) in the January to March quarter, down from $11.6bn last year?
Microsoft ( ) Apple ( ) Yahoo ( ) Google ( )

The planned sale of 631 UK bank branches by Lloyds Banking Group to which bank has fallen through. They have blamed the continued economic downturn and tougher regulatory environment imposed on bank?
Virgin Money ( ) Co-op ( ) Natwest ( ) HSBC ( )

Who has doubled its earnings forecast for the full year to March 2013, helped by the weaker yen and money raised from asset sales. The consumer electronics firm now expects to report net income of 40bn yen ($403m; £261m) compared with its previous forecast of 20bn yen?
Sony ( ) HTC ( ) Dell ( ) Samsung ( )

Which online retailer saw a fall in profits but rising sales in the first three months of the year. The company, which is the world's biggest online retailer by sales, recorded a net income of $82m (£53m) for the quarter, down 37% on last year?
LL Bean ( ) Best Buy  ( )   Netflix ( ) Amazon ( )

Which country  has agreed to buy 60 planes from European firm Airbus, in a deal worth $8bn (£5.2bn) at list prices. It is the first such deal since the European Union suspended the inclusion of foreign airlines in its controversial Emissions Trading Scheme.? 
United States  ( ) Russia ( ) India ( ) China ( )

Answers –

1 –
3 –
4 –
5 –
6 –
7 –
8 –
9 –
10 –

Donna Jestin

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Trio of Success: writing, improving and commenting

This activity is designed to improve students’ extended writing, primarily at KS4/5. The key foci here are:

• The process of writing, linking and arguing
• The skill of using advice to improve the quality of work
• The application of a mark-scheme to a piece of written work to make a judgement

Though the outcome of the activity can be for students to receive a mark if you choose, they need to understand that what is more important in this case is the process through which they achieved that mark.
Ideally, the activity is hosted on a wiki – a multi-editable page – on a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). If you don’t have access to this technology, then Google Drive ( allows students to set up a multi-editable document and email the link to everyone they wish to access it. Alternatively a Word document emailed from student to student would work, and if none of this takes your fancy then good old fashioned pen and paper would also suffice.


1. Split the class into equally sized teams. In the event of having an odd number of students, you could always double up roles, or introduce an element of differentiation by giving more able students more than one role. In History we tend to write a six paragraph essay (introduction, four paragraphs and a conclusion) and so my class of 18 was rather neatly divided into 3 teams which is the model on which the table below is based. However it would easily work with a different number, you simply set up a cyclical pass-on system for each of the 3 stages s modelled below.
2. Assign each student a paragraph responsibility within their team, or even better, let them make the decision themselves. Ultimately each student needs to have overall responsibility for one paragraph of the final piece of work.
3. Then you can either assign each team the same essay question, or alternatively you set each team a different question.

The 3-stage model

Stage 1 – Writing

Each team researches and writes its answer. Generally speaking they will need to write it in order – introduction – paragraphs – conclusion – and so it is a useful exercise in collaborative working as well; there can be no ‘night before it’s due’ writing!

One of the best things I have found about this exercise is that students have to pay careful attention to how the paragraphs link together to further the argument; as the thoughts preceding their own are not actually their own, they have to adapt their argument and make use of language in order to create one cohesive argument.
If you are using a wiki on the VLE, then students can all access it in order to input their paragraph. If you are using Google Drive the same applies. A word document would need to be emailed around, and pens and paper would require a cutting, sticking and photocopying job.

Stage 1.5 – you mark the first attempts

It’s important that each team have a sense of the quality of their collective attempt; individual students can look at the comments on their particular paragraph, whilst also getting a sense of how successful their team effort was in creating an overall argument. Whilst some individuals may feel this mark is not representative of their particular contribution, it doesn’t really matter – this activity is about the process.

By marking the first set of essays (three, not 18!) you can also see what each individual has achieved as well as seeing how effectively they were able to work collaboratively.

I downloaded and printed each team’s attempt, marked them by hand, and then scanned in the documents and uploaded them to the wiki for students to access electronically. You could equally use a photocopier.

Stage 2 – students improve on the first round

Each team then moves on to the ‘improvement’ stage. Keeping the same paragraph responsibility (e.g. introduction writers become introduction improvers) students then access the next team’s script, marked by you, and act on the comments made and advice given. The aim is both to read another team’s argument, and to make changes that collectively improve the quality of the work. If the essay is hosted on a wiki, or Google Drive, improvements can be made directly to the document using a different coloured text.

Stage 3 – students mark the second round

The final stage is for each team to mark the improved collective work of the other two teams (refer to the model above). Depending on your students’ familiarity with the mark-scheme, you may wish to guide them through this stage. They can of course refer to the script with your original comments completed at stage 1.5, and they are looking to mark the work as it stands, having been improved by the second team.

In this final stage, students can abandon their paragraph responsibilities and instead mark the whole piece of work. The benefit here is that they can see two versions of the work, and using the mark-scheme they can see how successfully your initial comments have been improved upon.

Charlotte Grove

Monday, 29 April 2013

Business - Top 5 Business Films

I always find that a good way to get student to really understand some of the business concepts in practice is to show clips from films – these help the students to relate the theory that they have learnt to practice in the film. Also, some of the films I have identified below are related to businesses/products that they will identify with and use on a daily basis.
I have included the trailers for each below and also what the film is about and topics it can be used for.

1. The Social Network (trailer)

This is an amazing film and a great teaching aid – for both AS start up enterprise and also A2 Unit 4 growth, ethics & the student’s research of real businesses.

Lets face it, many of our students will be ‘addicted’ to facebook and will know a little about the owner- but not how it started and the ideas of how it began.
Its also excellent to demonstrate the rapid growth of the company.

2. Rogue Trader (trailer)

Again this is an excellent film to use when studying Unit 3 window dressing, income statements – or finance in general. It’s also an great example for ethics when looking at Unit 4. 

Based on a true story, Nick Leeson, is an employee of Barings Bank who after a successful spell working for the firm's office in Indonesia is sent to Singapore as General Manager of the Trading Floor on the SIMEX exchange.

The movie follows Leeson's rise as he soon becomes one of Barings' key traders. However, everything isn't as it appears —Nick is hiding huge losses as he gambles away Baring's money with little more than the bat of an eyelid from the powers-that-be back in London.

3. Wall Street (1987 original) (trailer)

This is a great one! The original is the best, and this film from the 1980’s is based on a young and impatient stockbroker who is willing to do anything to get to the top, including trading on illegal inside information taken through a ruthless and greedy corporate raider who takes the youth under his wing.
This could be used well for finance in Unit 2 & 3, as well as looking at the human resource and ethical side of how greedy he was to succeed!

4. Pirates of Silicon Valley (trailer)

Even though a new film is currently being made about Steve Jobs, this film documents the impact on the development of the personal computer of the rivalry between Apple Computer and Microsoft.

It spans the time period of the early 1970s to 1997, when Steve Jobs and Bill Gates develop a partnership after Jobs returns to Apple Computer. Fantastic for looking at technology in Units 2 & 3 and also for leadership & culture studied in unit 4.

5. Glengarry Glen Ross (trailer)

The film depicts two days in the lives of four real estate salesmen and how they become desperate when the corporate office sends a trainer to "motivate" them by announcing that, in one week, all except the top two salesmen will be fired.

Good for looking at motivation, human resources and ethics, again for units 2, 3 & 4.

Donna Jestin

Monday, 22 April 2013

Project based learning (or, How I learned to do absolutely nothing)

I have been learning a lesson from History. Not from the annals of yore but from the History department at my school. They have been trialling the use of project based learning across Key Stages 3-5 and suggested some brilliant ideas at a recent training session. Magpie-like as ever, I have swiftly been trying them out in my own classroom with some very interesting results.

The main idea that I have trialled has been the Analysis Continuum. In the original History lesson, the lesson began with an essay-style question(e.g. Was there a cultural revolution in the 1960s?), each pair of students then drew a continuum on a sheet of sugar paper from YES to NO. They were then provided with a pile of evidence (photographs, illustrations, written evidence), which they had to sort and stick onto their continuum. A points-based system was used, with 1 point being awarded for a quotation, fact or statement, 3 points for an explanation and 10 marks for a well-reasoned conclusion.

I have so far tried this with my A level Language and Literature classes. And both times it was amazing! In the Language lesson, as with the History model, it proved to be an excellent way to impart a large amount of information (in this case attitudes to language change), without me having to be at the front of the class.

It forced students to engage with the data and develop much more solid knowledge and understanding than if I had tried to 'teach' it to them. In the Literature class, I used it to do two things. Firstly to cover a significant chunk of the text and secondly to engage with a 'How far do you agree with the statement' exam question. The 'data' in this case consisted of extracts from the text and from critics and the activity really focused my students on the process of selecting evidence and weighing it up before deciding on their line of argument.

So far I have used it with KS5 but I can envisage it working really well with my GCSE students in preparation for their reading controlled assessment essays as well. The one downside of this activity is that it takes a lot of preparation, as you need to search for, select and copy a pack of evidence for each pair of students in the class. However, once the lesson has started, you will be amazed at how little you have to do.

All of my students were enthusiastically engaged and motivated, without me having to do anything at all. In fact, I felt a bit like a spare part! The points system was great because not only did it help them to focus on the features of a well-reasoned argument but it also added a competitive element to the task.

So - the result of my History lesson? I have learned to stand back and do absolutely nothing in the classroom. Finally my students are doing more than I am!

Naomi Hursthouse

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Most Multilingual Student Alex Rawling's Chinese Challenge - Week 3

A close friend once said to me that when you start learning a language, it’s like staring at a painting from really close: you can’t see much of it, and you can’t make sense of the little piece that you can. However, every time that you learn more, it’s like taking a step back, and gradually you understand how the first part fits into the wider picture. As you begin to see the whole painting, you can even start to appreciate its beauty.

This analogy has really stayed with me, and each time I learn a new language I feel myself having that sensation. This week it’s just started to happen with Chinese. In the second audio CD of the Easy Learning Mandarin Chinese course, you start to really build on the basics of the first CD, breaking up the phrases that you’ve learnt to use the words more widely, constructing more complicated, more useful sentences. I think in some ways this is the most exciting part of the learning process, as you shift up a gears and start accelerating towards speaking more naturally. As I’m starting to see the wider picture of Chinese, I’m discovering that it’s a fun language. I’m really enjoying practising the tonal system and pronunciation (although getting some strange looks on public transport), and there haven’t been any nasty grammar surprises yet. Next week I hope to be finished with the second audio CD and heading towards finishing off with the audio course so I can concentrate on the much more daunting task of reading and writing.

Superstuffs: Aspirin

250 years ago, in 1763, the President of the Royal Society in London received a letter from Rev. Edward Stone, a clergyman in Oxfordshire.  The story told in Stone’s letter began in 1758 when at the age of 56 he took a walk in the country.  He reported that he had chewed some willow bark and felt that it might have reduced various aches and pains, or “agues” as he called them.  He decided to do some careful experiments.

He collected a kilogram or so of the bark, dried it and then crushed it into a powder.  Then he started to take measured quantities at intervals of four hours and noted whether there was any change to his symptoms.  Over a few days he slowly increased the dose until he found that about 2.5g was successful.  During the next five years Stone tried out his remedy on about fifty of his neighbours and found that they too felt relief of pains and fevers.  

Stone was not the first to notice the analgesic or pain-relieving effects of willow bark although he does not seem to be aware of his predecessors.  In fact the ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates had recorded its use and people around the world used the various species of willow that grew in their vicinity.   Nevetheless, the publication of Stone’s letter in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society inspired new interest across Europe in the properties of willow bark.

In 1838, Joseph Buchner, a German, isolated the active material from willow bark.  He called it salicilin after the Latin name for the willow, salix.  Two years later  Johann Pagenstecher, a Swiss found the same substance in a wild flower called meadowsweet (Latin name, spiraea) which was much more common.  In 1838 Raffaele Pirea, an Italian, broke salicin down to salicylic acid or 2-hydroxybenzenecarboxylic acid to give it its modern name.

Salicylic acid was found to have all the medicinal benefits of willow bark but it irritated the stomach sometimes causing more discomfort to patients than their original symptoms. The solution to this problem was found in 1853 by Charles Gerhardt, a Frenchman.  He added an extra chemical group to the salicylic acid to make it acetylsalicylic acid.  Unfortunately Gerhardt’s preparation was not very efficient.  It was another 44 years before the story was taken further.

In 1863, 100 years after Stone’s paper, Friedrich Bayer, a German, founded a company to make dyes.  By the 1890s the Bayer company had become large and successful and was manufacturing a range of chemicals including medicines.

A team of chemists searched for new drugs that could be sold profitably. One such drug, derived from the opium poppy, they called “heroin”.  One of the team, Felix Hoffman, found a much better, cheaper, method of making acetylsalicylic acid.  At first Bayer weren’t certain that the new drug was worth manufacturing but in 1899 they decided to market it with the name “aspirin”.

Almost immediately, aspirin was a great success and particularly during the great flu epidemic of 1918, when millions died and many more fell ill, aspirin gained popularity.  During the next century nearly everyone swallowed an aspirin tablet to cure a headache or reduce the fever of colds and flu.

Although tons and tons of aspirin had been manufactured no-one really understood how it worked until 1971 when John Vine, in London, discovered its action in cells.  Vine’s research won him a Nobel prize but it also suggested some other uses for aspirin.  It was found to reduce the chance of blood clots forming in blood vessels.  Today aspirin is recommended to anyone suffering or likely to suffer from heart or circulation problems.  Further research has shown that it may also have a role in fighting cancer.

Aspirin’s various medicinal properties mean that it is still an important product for Bayer and many other pharmaceutical companies and there is probably a packet of the tablets or powders in most homes.  The title of “superstuff” is certainly justified.


1.     Discuss whether Edward Stone was a good scientist in his work on willow bark.

2. Some years after Stone, Edward Jenner tested his smallpox vaccination on one subject, and William Withering tried out the heart drug, digitalis, on dozens of his patients.
Compare Stone’s and these other eighteenth century experiments with modern clinical tests involving placebos and double blind trials.

3. Why did the Bayer company give acetylsalicylic acid the trade name “aspirin”?  There are some clues in the article.

4. Explain why Buchner and Pirea’s discoveries were an improvement on using willow bark as a remedy

5.(A level) Hoffman’s method of making aspirin involved reacting salicylic acid with acetic anhydride.  The other product is ethanoic acid. Find out the structure of acetic anhydride, salicylic acid (2 hydroxybenzenecarboxylic acid) and aspirin (acetyl salicylic acid) and write a structural formula equation for the reaction.

Peter Ellis

Peter Ellis taught science (mainly chemistry) in secondary schools to GCSE and A level for 35 years and was a head of department for twenty years.  He is now a freelance writer of educational materials in science and dabbles in writing fiction. 

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Group work that works!

Groupwork, or ‘collaborative learning’, is one of the key mechanisms for engaging all students in lessons. When successful, it can enable students to better develop their understanding through the process of discussing it with their peers. Furthermore, students can discuss their own views in a less intimidating environment than whole class discussion; they can take responsibility for areas of their own learning in planning the course of the project and work in conjunction with others developing their social and team-working skills to produce something more unique and original than might otherwise result.

As teachers, we know this; so why does it so often seem to end up with groups of students scattered around the classroom, computer room or library, making liberal use of the control C, control V function in conjunction with the internet, or else catching up on the previous weekend’s gossip?
Determined to avoid a situation in which I read the contents of Wikipedia transferred to an artfully animated PowerPoint slide yet again, I decided to embark on a new approach to collaborative learning in which students have no choice but to be active, involved and engaged.

Whilst I encourage this activity for use with key stages three and four, the inspiration comes in part from the Sixth Form Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) in which students plan out their own extended project, take the initiative for meeting deadlines, and evaluate their progress as they go along. Ian Gilbert’s The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook (2010) which advocates a move from a teacher-led to student-led mindset should also be credited.

The idea

The idea is that students work in groups of up to six (although in larger groups they could share the roles, in smaller groups they could double up) and each take on a specific responsibility (see attached resource). For the duration of the lesson(s) each student has a specific role and it is up to them to execute this in accordance with your expectations. Depending on the scale of the work you are doing, you could consider apportioning marks based on how well each responsibility is fulfilled in addition to the final outcome of the work.

The key thing here is to ensure accountability – if a group fails to finish on time, this is a matter for discussion between you and the time keeper, not you and the rest of the class. If you want to know how each group is progressing, you can call a short meeting with each Team Rep – a conversation with 6 students, not 32. Gone are the days of counting glues in and out, the Resource Manager is now in charge!

Making several sets of laminated cards is a great way to ensure their durability, and to quickly bring them out during any lesson in which groupwork is to feature. My Year 8 class are now used to using them as a matter of course, and we make sure to circulate the roles each lesson so each student gains experience in the different areas of project management. The best thing for me is to see that the students are fully capable of managing their own work, when given the chance to do so. As the teacher, I can target my interventions where needed, and I can have more detailed conversations with smaller groups of students which gives me a much better understanding of the progress they are making. Lazing in the corner is no longer an option if you are going to be called to account, and the quality of work I have seen produced has improved considerably now there is a Quality Checker regulating the Wikipedia usage!

Download resource cards

Charlotte Grove

Monday, 15 April 2013

Bringing back the Buddha

I’m sure you’ve heard the gag which goes something like this:

“Do you know what I think?”
“No, do you?”

This might sound like a snatch from some stand-up comedy duo - but, on deeper reflection, it’s a more profound retort than first appears.As has long been recognised in Eastern culture, what we think has a major role in determining our sense of well-being. According to Buddha, “We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think."

Buddha also noted a connection between our thoughts and our fate:

“To enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one's family, to bring peace to all, one must first discipline and control one's own mind. If a man can control his mind he can find the way to Enlightenment, and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him.”

John Milton (1608–74) expressed a similar sentiment in his epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’:

The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.

Put more prosaically, it’s the old glass half-full / half-empty paradox. How we think determines our outlook on life and thus affects our mental and physical health. Positive thinkers are more likely to feel good than those trapped in a gloomy cycle of hopeless pessimism. Easy to say, but often difficult to achieve!

Meditative practises such as yoga encourage students to reflect upon their own thoughts, in other words to think about what they think about, and to evaluate such thoughts with respect to their own emotional state. It is the practice of consciously monitoring thoughts which would otherwise remain subconscious. Self-help manuals refer to this subconscious narrative as ‘internal dialogue’ or ‘self-talk’. Tuning into this often noisy ‘chatter’ will better enable you to control its direction, and thus assist you in ensuring that the flow is from negative to positive rather than vice versa.

Better living through chemistry

Such a major transition in your thinking is more achievable, however, if you are also aware of the connection between bodily tension and the brain chemistry which creates such powerfully destructive emotions as anger and resentment as well as those dreadful sinking feelings which we interpret as heartache or anguish.

Medical science often describes this as a “chemical imbalance” and explains, for example, that low levels of a neurotransmitter called serotonin are associated with depression.
Of course, the reality is infinitely more complex than this might suggest. As is explained on the Harvard Medical School website [reference]:

“To be sure, chemicals are involved in this process, but it is not a simple matter of one chemical being too low and another too high. Rather, many chemicals are involved, working both inside and outside nerve cells. There are millions, even billions, of chemical reactions that make up the dynamic system that is responsible for your mood, perceptions, and how you experience life.”

Put simply, it is the innumerable combinations of our body chemistry which allow us to translate our life experiences into emotion – those numerous shades of feeling which span the vast gulf between misery and elation.

Hence another fundamental yoga insight: the practice of breathing deeply from the abdomen as opposed to taking shallow breaths from the upper chest. This is intended to calm the solar plexus region and thus dispel the harmful rigidity which helps to generate all those chemical blends associated with negative states of feeling.

This sensation of relaxation within the solar plexus chakra - chakra meaning point of spiritual energy - is achievable at will when you become more self-aware, more ‘mindful’. By regularly monitoring this area of your body as you go about your daily life, and by consciously keeping it relaxed, it is possible, over time, to redress a negative “chemical imbalance” and thus improve the quality of what you feel and, therefore, what you think.

Conversely, a tight knot of tension within this area releases a chemical cocktail which can cause real emotional pain, ranging anywhere from mild stress to agonising despair. The solar plexus is the place where, if you look in a mirror, you can see the pulse of your own heartbeat. No wonder it is often referred to as the seat of the emotions!

Medicate or meditate?

However, the closest that the UK education system seems to get to such deep spiritual insights is the type of GCSE English Language examination question which requires students to be able to summarise an author’s thoughts and feelings in a random comprehension passage. Unfortunately, there appears to be little focus on helping our children to comprehend the infinitely more important relationship between their own thoughts and feelings.

And yet the physical and mental health of our students should be of paramount importance. The NHS business services authority has revealed that the number of prescriptions for Ritalin in England rose from 158,000 in 1999 to 661,463 in 2010. There is also much concern in many quarters about the side-effects of Ritalin which can include insomnia, anxiety, nausea, decreased appetite, dizziness, headaches and skin problems.

Interestingly enough, a study conducted by Colorado University in 2010 explored the effectiveness of using cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) when treating young people diagnosed as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Out of a group of 300, 150 were given CBT plus a Ritalin-type drug whilst the remaining 150 were given CBT and a placebo. At the end of the course, both groups experienced an equally significant reduction in their symptoms and thus the determining factor in modifying their behaviour appears to have been the CBT rather than the drug.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as: “psychotherapy especially for depression that emphasizes the substitution of desirable patterns of thinking for maladaptive or faulty ones.”

And lo and behold, we have suddenly been transported back several millennia to the fundamental teachings of the Buddha. What goes around comes around. Karma and all that.
So, the solution may well be: Meditate, not Medicate.

“Far out?”
“No, Far East man!”

I don’t know, what do you think?

Om Shanti.

Peter Morrisson

Monday, 8 April 2013

Encouraging independent learning in the classroom

Independent learning is a vitally important skill for students, especially at A-level. Over the years, I have tested a variety of methods to encourage this with my students – here are a few that I have found to be particularly useful. I used these methods in my Business and Economics class but they can be adapted to suit any subject. I’ve also attached a Powerpoint presentation with more ideas – a great template for a whiteboard lesson!

Reverse Thinking: This is a great idea for a starter to the lesson or as a re-cap on previous learning. Ask the group as a whole to reverse think an idea or principle.

For example, recently I projected on the board the following: “What is the best way to destroy the success of a corporate takeover?” 

The discussion then allows students to ‘reverse think’ their idea to build upon the principles of what in fact makes an ideal corporate takeover.

By thinking in the opposite direction the alternatives become a lot clearer.This is great as an independent tool for evaluative purposes.

Equations: A really great way to start or indeed end a lesson is to ask students to create their own independent equation for a topic that you are currently studying in the classroom. For example you could ask students to create an equation that represents Competitive Advantage. On the board, write:

Competitive Advantage =

This allows for independent thought in the classroom as students come up with their own formulas – e.g Competitive Advantage = Edge over Rivals + Lower Costs + Effective Marketing. Make each student justify their equations with their peers and the classroom to further aid AFL.

Mandalas: Mandalas are a great tool for independent research and allow students to drill down into the most important elements of a topic. These are very much like a mind map, but more logical. Students first draw three circles, a target circle, inner and outer circle. (Highlighted on the PowerPoint).

In the target circle a student will place the topic of research or focus and then work outwards. The inner circle will then focus on a specific important area of that topic.
The outer circle will simply dig deeper into key terminology, facts, figures, definitions, and general theory with greater selectivity than they might otherwise do.

This method allows students to break down journals, websites, podcasts, videos, book theory and any suitable method of research into something that can easily be used as a revision or discussion tool in class.

Independent compare and contrast: Great for home study. I recently asked my students to go away and compare and contrast the differences and similarities between Chevron and Marks and Spencer using the following diagram aid. Allow the students to report back in any format that they choose using the diagram aid as a reference point. 

Diamond Nines:
 In a recent Economics class, I asked students to prioritise the cause of traffic congestion using the diamond nine model. Students ranked the priorities into those of high importance down to those of low importance in a diamond nine format. (See PowerPoint)

This is great for discussion and can be done on the interactive whiteboard easily allowing for students to manage and move the priorities around until the class comes to its desired decision.

Networking: Select five articles related closely to the theme of the lesson. Try to use ones that will specifically stretch and challenge students.

Simply stick these articles onto large sheets of sugar paper. Place these resources around the room and divide students into small groups. Give each student a coloured pen and get a group to sit with one article each for five minutes.

What assumptions does the article jump to? Is there bias within the article? What key terminology can be highlighted? What terminology do they not understand? What questions can they ask of the article?

Students then rotate onto the next article and do the same. They are to elaborate on the questions and insights offered by the last group. Once a complete network has been created, students then reflect on the articles as a whole.

What is the question?: Again great as a small independent thinking task. Provide answers only on the board and students simply have to create the questions that would support that particular answer. This really gets students thinking about the specifics of a particular topic.

Download: Powerpoint

Daniel Baker
Daniel Baker has taught KS4 and KS5 Business Studies and Economics for six years in a successful London comprehensive school. 

Monday, 1 April 2013

ICT - Programming: The 'Human Factor'

I have been reading the resumé of results from the consultation following disapplication of the Programmes of Study for ICT from the National Curriculum.  It makes interesting reading and you can find the document on:

Amongst the generally upbeat responses was an understandable worry that the status of the subject could suffer and that a programme of Teacher Training needed to be put in place if new/challenging items were to be put in place, something that we noted in the previous blog.  An interesting response was that there was a risk that in some cases a school’s ICT curriculum would be based on the skills level of the teacher rather than the ability and interest of the pupils.  In response you could say that this is true for anything taught and it goes to the heart of regarding teaching as a profession rather than a job.
Time to consider the customers?
In this blog I’m considering methods to incorporate one of the recurring themes, programming, into a new curriculum.  I am supposing this to be a central item in the eventual new National Curriculum for Computer Science/Computing/ICT or whatever the new baby is to be called and I also suppose that this is likely to be a rubbing point for many teachers and pupils.  Perhaps the efforts of the great and good are worth looking at first.  There is a curriculum, “Computer Science: A curriculum for schools” already for you to incorporate into your current provision:

Since this development has the backing of the BCS, Microsoft, Google and others it is probably close to the final document and consequently worth having a look at.  I suspect the problem in using this will be in the translation of the themes into lessons. There is a missing sub-text: for example, asserting that “both interpreted and compiled languages are “executable” does not get a lesson off to a cracking pace.  There is going to be a need for classroom teaching material in the form of a well-versed teacher and very probably, well versed teacher or not, pupil-centred text with exercises and examples.
There are many web-based learning schemes available, for example Code Academy which is a feature in the Autumn 2012 newsletter of the BCS:

A problem with many of these is the lack of specificity in the available help feedback.  If your program doesn’t run there are many possible causes.  Those of a certain age will remember the seminal book “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance” which recognised the limitations of a purely mechanical “scientific” approach to solving this type of problem.  The human approach to problem solving, with its reliance on minimum effort - “likely problems first” and even more so, “knowing you, I would expect that there is a semi-colon missing at a line end” are the short-cuts missing to a mechanical approach.  A personalised approach is needed.
Of course it’s one thing to comment and quite another to offer assistance and in an attempt to do one’s bit, I’m going to suggest classroom material for starting teaching programing to 10D strugglers, with as much emphasis on the missing 'Human factor' as this medium can provide.  This will start in the next blog, so until then,


John Giles

John Giles is an educational consultant and author specialising in IT and computing. He works closely with exam boards, and has written syllabuses and exam papers.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Welcome to the New Jerusalem

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.
(William Blake, 1804)

The year is 2013 and it’s Eastertime again, the season when most of us heed the call to purchase gaudily packaged chocolate eggs and only dimly recollect that great heroic act of self-sacrifice at Golgotha upon which the entire Christian faith is founded.

So with the recent appointment of Justin Welby as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, there is predictably much talk of the challenges that will face him as leader of the Church of England in an increasingly secular society.

According to the 2001 Census, 71% of people described themselves as Christian, thus allowing the Church to claim that Britain was still a "Christian country". However, this figure had diminished to 59% by 2011. When combined with the 2007 survey by the Christian charity Tearfund which suggested that only 10% of the UK population attend church on a weekly basis, one might be forgiven for concluding that Christianity is in terminal decline.

This downward trend in Christian observance also seems to be an integral feature within our schools. A 2011 survey conducted on behalf of BBC local radio discovered that 64% of the 500 parents surveyed reported that their children did not attend daily acts of collective worship as is required by law in all maintained schools in England.

But ironically, even if the statistics seem to suggest that we are losing our sense of godliness and are resigned to viewing ourselves merely as consumers and producers rather than spiritual beings, Christian ideals are more deeply enshrined within our political and social structures than ever before. Owing to a system of taxation which redistributes wealth by enforcing that those with a sufficient income contribute to the well-being of those who have little or none, our society can proudly boast the following unprecedented moral achievements:

• A free state education system
• The NHS
• The Health and Safety Executive
• Social services
• Social security
• Old Age Pensions
• An impartial judiciary guaranteeing civil liberties
• An impartial police force
• Universal suffrage and free and fair elections
• Freedom of speech
• Multiculturalism
• A whole raft of legislation designed to outlaw any type of prejudice or discrimination based on such factors as race, religion, age, gender or disability

And, of course, the list could go on!

Admittedly, none of the above accomplishments has reached perfection, and unfairness and inequality are still rife within our society. But just take a moment to consider what life was like for ordinary families, say, 150 years ago when the percentage of the population who regularly attended church was considerably higher.

Actually, it’s not difficult to find such a window into the past. The misery and hardships of the millions of Victorian poor are amply mirrored by the miseries and hardships of the many hundreds of millions of men, women and children who tragically struggle for survival on or below the poverty line in the developing countries of today.

It has taken a long time for humanity to reach the moral pinnacle of the modern welfare state and, although too often derided, the social progress that we have attained is more impressive than any of the obviously flashier displays of human triumph such as the Internet, satellites or the ‘man on the Moon’.

Sadly, our ultra-civilised civilisation, our New Jerusalem, is built on the edge of a precipice. The prosperity which funds all of our great humanitarian endeavours has been created through technological innovations which have enabled us to harvest ever more of the Earth’s resources. Unfortunately, this same exploitation of our once “green and pleasant” planet stands on the verge of destroying it, global warming being just one such imminent threat. Technology may yet come to our salvation, but it all hangs in an uncomfortably delicate balance.

Nevertheless, it does seem a peculiar paradox that as our society becomes ever more compassionate, God seems to have become increasingly more remote.

So what is the spiritual state of the nation that faces our new Archbishop? Secular? Perhaps. Unchristian? Certainly not!

In the words of William Cowper, another of our highly celebrated English poets, 'God moves in mysterious ways…'

Activities for Secondary R.E., P.S.H.E. and English

Read the above article with your students and then use the following list of questions as stimulus for a class discussion and/or individual/paired research.

If conducting research, each individual or group might focus on just one or two of the issues below in order to provide for a more informed class debate.

1. Does religion have any place in a modern society? Does it matter if we don’t see ourselves as spiritual beings anymore?
2. Is the United Kingdom a ‘Christian country’? Explain your reasons.
3. Do you think of Easter as primarily a religious or secular holiday?
4. Should schools encourage acts of collective Christian worships – e.g. religious assemblies? Explain your reasons.
5. Is there such a thing as the meaning of life? If so, what do you think it is?
6. Which of Christ’s teachings are enshrined within our social structures?

Peter Morrisson

Monday, 25 March 2013

Sociology - Keeping students challenged

Currently in school I am co-leading staff CPD on ‘Challenge’ across the curriculum. The focus of this project is raising the level of challenge for students at all stages of the lesson.

We are using Mike Hughes’ 4 part lesson structure as a basis for this – Context and Challenge, Receiving New Information, Making Sense of Information and Reflecting and Reviewing. By using a range of activities the aim is that throughout the 4 stages (which can of course repeat during one lesson, or span a series of lessons) the level of challenge will be ‘flowing’ with the students actively involved in their learning.
So, how do we get our Sociologists into the ‘Flow’? The key is perhaps variety, but also getting them involved in the process by using learning language to introduce tasks. For example: “Use page 117, Read the section on Racism in Wider Society, then:

1. Translate John Rex’s idea into a picture;
2. Summarise Noon’s study into no more than 20 words.” Instead of saying: “Read page 117 and make notes.”

The idea being that the students are then more actively involved in the process, and are ‘making sense’ of the information. I like this strategy as it takes seconds to alter the wording of tasks in this way! Others to try might be Reduce x into no more than x words; Identify the most important argument from the paragraph; Transform the theory into a flow chart.
A few other ideas:

Placemat Consensus: I used this for Secularisation on A2. Students draw a grid (avoids printer issues!) as below, in a 4 each student takes a section and adds as many ideas as they can in answer to a given question (eg. Is Secularisation happening worldwide?). The group then share their ideas and come to a ‘consensus’ about which are the best / most popular / most important / common and put them in the middle to feedback to the class.

Washing Line – tie some string between two chairs or two plastic bottles, the students can either write key info on post-its or you can provide them with info in small pieces, they then need to paper-clip them onto the washing line in order of importance / how much impact factors have / which sociologists most accurate etc. This activity can also be done as an opinion line, with each student representing a factor to save resources, or simply lining up according to their opinion on a question and justifying their place.

Build a Body – this is a good way of practising note-making and research skills but they think it’s something much more exciting…. Using some large paper, students are in groups and they draw around one group member. They then need to ‘annotate’ the body with the relevant information summarised from text books etc, along the way they need to prioritise the information, placing the most important/relevant info or factors with most impact, at the head and so on. This could work well for factors influencing educational achievement at AS, eg ‘Which factors both in and out of school would influence a Pakistani working class girl and her GCSE scores.’

Esther Zarifi
Esther Zarifi has taught RE (Philosophy and Ethics) and Sociology for 8 years at a 13-18 school in a small town outside Newcastle upon Tyne.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Business: Tips for students studying AQA Unit 3: Strategies for Success

AQA Unit 3: ‘Strategies for Success’ requires A-Level students to have a full understanding of strategy in terms of finance, marketing, operations and human resources. Typically the case will be based upon a strategic decision that the business might take. The theory behind the exam is extensive; however, the following are a few key areas that from my experience need to be pushed heavily with students.

1. Making effective use of the case study is paramount. I would expect no student to even attempt the questions before understanding the real underlying issues from the case study. The use of well-placed selective arguments focused on the question means that students should spend around 10-15 minutes really understanding the case study before attempting to answer even the first question. Students need this time to plan and become more selective in identifying their key points. The use of a SWOT analysis has been particularly effective in previous years. I have often asked students to place an ‘S’ next to case evidence where a competitive advantage can be seen, an ‘W’ next to internal factors of weakness that may provide them with a competitive disadvantage, an ‘O’ next to external opportunities and a ‘T’ next to those threats that are outside of the control of the business. The need to be really selective is vital. What are the main issues that really jump out at you? Students will need to only select a few points here for deeper analysis. Often I have asked my group to break the question down and catalogue the elements of the case study in list format in terms of importance that most precisely provide the examiner with what they are looking for.

2. Often a case will ask you whether to adopt a plan or not. Possibly as with many past papers, a new management team has been installed in the business to provide a new strategic focus. Students must be able to assess the likelihood of that particular plan becoming a success. Drill down into areas of the case looking at liquidity, cash flow, Ansoffs matrix, profitability, efficiency, management capability, and competitive offering amongst other areas. With my groups previously, I have asked them to ‘reverse engineer’ the question, by simply asking them ‘What should you not include in the answer?’ By asking my business students this question it allows for a discussion within the group as to what are the most important aspects of the case, by breaking down those elements that are of least importance.

3. When completing Ratios or Investment Appraisal, students must take account of the case study and its qualitative theory and not just the quantative data that is produced from completing a formula. Of course it is vital that students can quickly and efficiently calculate ARR, Payback and NPV and provide understanding of theory behind the methods. However, their work must always be supported with the written case. For example, a student may say an organisation with above 50% gearing is overly leveraged with debt, but have they truly considered the main aims and objectives of the firm. What type of organisation are they? Many firms are able to work with high levels of gearing and this can even provide benefits for shareholders.

4. The impact of external market forces will run through the exam like a stick of rock as the case study will focus on attractiveness of the market. Students will need to have a real understanding of the influence of such forces. Accordingly, as students prepare their revision it is vital that they focus on the role of Porter’s five forces model and bring in the underlying economic drivers that will shape the market within the case study. There are plenty of great materials online for students to develop their understanding of Michael Porter; in particular the following video from Harvard Business is an excellent resource:

5. Often I have found that those middle learners who are prone to use generality and unstructured responses need to be shown how to retain focus in their answers. In particular, these students must be required to plan all of their answers before getting stuck in. This often allows them to keep their responses in the context of the case study. In particular, with the final question students must not ‘sit on the fence’. Recommendations are often the most difficult for these students as occasionally they lack the confidence here to deliver a final decision. A lesson spent on the final question only is often a lesson well spent.

Daniel Baker

Monday, 18 March 2013

Secondary Maths - Visualising the Mean

I was working recently with Mr Davaasuren. He had written some teaching material about averages and we were looking together at what he had done. We discussed some of the issues involved in helping students to understand about mode, median, mean and range.
The next morning we met again and he asked if I would like to see the model he had made the night before. You can see it in the photograph

It consists of six transparent vertical tubes with a scale next to each one. The tubes are all connected via a further horizontal tube at the bottom. 

The tubes can be filled with coloured water and there is a stopper to go in the top of each one. Mr Davaasuren carved the stoppers from erasers.

This is how it works. Suppose you have the six numbers, say 16, 18, 12, 7, 16 and 9.

First fill the tubes to the level of the lowest number, in this case 7. Since they are all connected they will all fill to the same level.

Put a stopper in the fourth tube. The level of this will stay at 7. Add liquid to bring the rest up to 9. Stopper the sixth tube. Continue in this way until the levels in each tube are the six numbers in order and there is a stopper in each tube.

First we can demonstrate the range. It is simply the difference between the highest and lowest levels.

Next the mode. There are two tubes at the same level, so that is the mode.

Next the median. Find the highest and the lowest (18 and 7) and “discard” those. That leaves 16, 12, 9 and 16. Now discard the highest and lowest of those (one of the 16s and 9). That leaves the 12 and a 16. The median is halfway between the two. We can find this by removing the stoppers from those two tubes. The levels will even up so that they are both on 14.

Finally the mean. Remove all the stoppers and the liquid in every tube will adjust to the same level – 13 – and this is the mean.

Isn’t that brilliant? Range, mode, median and mean all demonstrated at the same time. Along the way it shows why the mode might not be a good choice of average and the fact that the median for an even set of numbers if the mean of the two middle numbers.

You could also use it to discuss what happens if you change the scales. Suppose, for example, you add 10 to every number on each scale. How does that affect the range, mode, median and mean? What if you add a different number? What happens if you multiply every number by 2? Or some other number?

Mr Davaasuren intends to make a video of his Mean Machine in action and put it on a website so that teachers will be able to show it in their classrooms. Unfortunately the website is in Mongolian and unless you have a working knowledge of that language you will have difficulty using it. On the other hand, if you have some plastic tubing laying around in your garage you might be able to make your own Mean Machine.

Students often find it hard to understand why the mean is defined in the way it is. I think this visualisation of evening out the different levels is a superb way to visualise it. It made me wonder if there are other tricky mathematical topics which could be explained easily if we just had the right visual aid. Any suggestions anybody?

Chris Pearce