Science/Thinking skills: Mind spinners

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By John Dabellteacher, writer and Ofsted-trained inspector

John Dabell explains how to use scientific statements to challenge ideas and misconceptions

When delivering in-service training to teachers and advisers around the country, one of the activities I give to colleagues is a collection of true or false statements. The statements are intended as rich discussion points for small groups of three or four to engage with, in order to pinpoint what they know, what they don’t know, and what they partly know.

Sometimes the discussions reveal gaps in knowledge, misconceptions and stereotypes, which, for many teachers, can be a bit of a shock and embarrassing! Finding out that you have been unwittingly passing flawed information onto hundreds of children over the years can be painful. This is great news for professional development, though, because it champions lifelong learning. Teachers are able to take this new-found knowledge back to the classroom to challenge their children.

Common misconceptions

There are some statements that require little interpretation and are easily sorted in the minds of learners, whereas others cause all sorts of problems and argument. Of all the statements, ‘The Earth spins anticlockwise’ causes the most debate. From the dozen or so sessions I have delivered in the last year, most groups tend to answer in a fairly predictable way: the vast bulk agree and only a minority disagree, saying that the Earth spins in a clockwise direction. But who is right? The disagreement is hugely significant because it means some teachers are telling their children one thing and other teachers are telling their children something quite different. In this situation it’s tempting to just tell colleagues ‘the answer’, but drawing on secondary sources and relating a real-world experience here and there certainly helps to open eyes and widen minds.

Using words and pictures

In a lot of my sessions, I use a fictional diary entry I’ve written as a great way to get learners, young and old, thinking about how they see the world. The diary entry is an account by a garden assistant, who is instructed to buy sundials for the garden centre while the manager is away. He spots a supplier on the internet selling sundials cheaper than anywhere else in the UK, so orders in 200. In a rush to get them out on display, he fails to notice something different about them. It’s not until he’s sold 15 that he spots that the numbers are printed in a different direction to those already in stock from Spain!

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