Wednesday, 28 October 2015

How to ... turn your classroom into a haunted house

Deck out your classroom for a spooktacular Halloween with pumpkin lanterns, scary sudoku and ghostly faces.

It’s Halloween again, the only time in the teaching calendar when it’s perfectly acceptable to come into school dressed as Dracula and plaster your classroom with spiders, ghosts and pumpkins. Creating your very own haunted classroom is an exciting, if ambitious, way to celebrate. For those willing to go the extra Halloween mile, here’s our crafty guide:

Draw your students in

A haunted pathway leading up to your classroom – refuse bags are really useful for this – will capture imaginations. You can hang spiders (see below for tips on making these), streamers and tape above it. Make a sign to direct students to your spooky setting or, for a novel twist, create a treasure hunt for students. Check out this example for inspiration.

Come up with a theme

Pirates, creatures of the night, or goblins and ghosts – there’s lots to choose from. If your theme is a haunted hospital, for example, create a section of the classroom with gruesome body parts, such as eyeballs (grapes) and brains (noodles). Or if you’re showcasing creepy creatures, put false spiders in jars filled with hand sanitiser – they’ll look eerily suspended. For more inspiration, check out these drawing exercises that explore the symmetry of black widow spiders and vampire bats.

Create an atmosphere

The sounds of your haunted setting (of which there are lots to choose from online) will have students on the edge of their seats. Involve them in creating a creepy atmosphere by getting them to record their own piece of spooky music ahead of the lesson. Or get everyone involved in a singalong with these spooky song lyrics from Musical Contexts, which can be sung with familiar tunes such as The Addams Family .

Create effective lighting by making a leaf from green card and cutting orange card into strips to make pumpkins. Put flameless tea lights at their centre for a safe but spooky mood setter.

Classroom Management: The Intervention Two-Step

All of us have had major classroom disruptions that try our patience and push our limits. These incidents can threaten our sense of control and generate fear of looking weak to other students. We fear that other students might do the same thing if we don't take a strong stance. Couple these feelings with the possibility of taking the disruption personally, and we have a recipe for disaster. It's important that we divide our response into two parts:
  • Immediate stabilization
  • Intervention to resolve these issues

Crisis Management

If you go to the emergency room, the goal is not to make you better (unless the required treatment is minor). They simply want you to stop getting worse. They do not cure -- they stabilize. Once stable, you are directed to outpatient care or regular hospitalization. The same is true for firefighters, police, soldiers and all first responders. Before taking an affirmative intervening action, they stabilize the situation, environment, perimeter or people in need. The principle of all emergency situations is stop things from getting worse before trying to make them better.

The same is true in the classroom. Often teachers try to solve an unstable situation, only to escalate to the point where any intervention might not work. To be stable, both the teacher and student need to be relatively anger free, calm and willing to listen to the other's point of view.

Calming down requires time for both the student and teacher to depersonalize the incident. Often, students will rethink what they did when given time to reflect. For example, many of us write e-mails and later, upon reflection, wish we'd never hit the send button. Having a waiting period can save us a lot of pain. Thus, this two-step process might sound time consuming. In reality, time is not a major factor. When we think about how much time it takes over the course of the year as situations worsen, we save a great deal of time with the two-step, which gives us far better results than quick, unstable interventions.

Common wisdom tells us to intervene as fast as possible, that waiting is a bad thing. I agree that waiting is not usually a good idea, but I disagree that an immediate intervention always works best. Most students and some teachers make things worse when the temperature is hot and emotions are high. It is far better to stabilize things before jumping immediately into an intervention. Lower the temperature first.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

What’s the optimum amount of homework to set a teenager?

Coaxing teenagers to sit down and do their homework is never an easy task. But is it actually worth their while to slave away for hours on end every evening? Not according to a new study of Spanish secondary school students which has concluded that the optimum amount of homework for children is around one hour a day.

Researchers at the University of Oviedo studied the maths and science homework and test results of 7,451 adolescents with an average age of around 13. They found a relationship between the amount of homework completed and children’s attainment. But the authors acknowledge they can’t say definitively that one hour of homework a night in total actually causes better test results.

Previous research in this area is both inconsistent and inconclusive. Some has shown the positive effects of homework and some its negative effects. In 2012, The Guardian reported on Department of Education research showing that two to three hours per day produced greater effects on achieving the highest results. In 2014, research at Stanford University found that too much homework can have a negative impact on children.

Homework can help to establish a routine and to develop independent learning skills that will be useful for professional life. Conversely, it could be argued that working at home in the evenings is the beginning of an unhealthy work-life balance and that there are academic drawbacks in studying instead of sleeping.

Not all children need to study the same

It’s unclear whether the children in the Spanish study achieve more as a result of doing the “optimum” amount of homework. Children of different abilities may take different amounts of time to complete their homework. If we subscribe to the idea that there is an “optimum” time, then we are effectively saying that children who work more quickly should complete more homework than children who work more slowly, which is arguably a disincentive for the fastest – and probably the most able – children.

Nerves of endearment: how a gentle touch affects emotions

A soft and tender caress between two people can trigger a flood of emotions, and now we may have some idea why.

Research published in Neuron today suggests that certain sensory nerve cells, known as C tactile (CT) afferents, are involved in stimulating the emotions caused by gentle physical contact.

Francis McGlone, from Liverpool John Moores University in the UK, and colleagues argue that these cells, which are found in the skin of most mammals including humans, are critical for mediating social behaviours and even in giving beings a sense of “self”.

The senses of touch

There is a general tendency to lump all our somatic senses into a single classification: the “sense of touch”. This is inaccurate, since what we call touch actually comprises several distinct sensory systems.

Mammals sense pain and temperature changes via a primordial system of nerve cells that run within the spinal cord and brain. This system can signal the temperature in the environment or the presence of harmful stimuli, and typically trigger behaviours in the search of a suitable and safe environment.

Discriminative touch, a neural process operating in pathways well separated from these primordial systems, allows us and other mammals to localise tactile stimuli on our skin.

These sensors are incredibly sensitive: they can recognise tiny details of external materials, identify the shapes of objects and allow blind people to read Braille.

Friday, 23 October 2015

How to teach … Mars

Is there life on the red planet? Could you colonise it? Inspire students across the curriculum with our lesson resources.

Mars has been the subject of human fascination for a long time, and we’re closer now than ever to sending humans to explore its surface. With the revelations that there could be flowing water (and possibly life) on it – and the release of Matt Damon’s new film, The Martian – now is a great time to engage your students in the red planet.

Here are some out-of-this-world lesson ideas to help you.


Challenge children to find out where Mars sits in our solar system with this wall chart and poster planet guide. Once they’ve located it, set your young astronauts a mission to find out more: how far is Mars from the sun? How many moons does it have? Students can record their ideas in this Mars-themed log book with from Twinkl.

With the basics covered, you can compare Mars with Earth using this poster from Nasa. What similarities and differences can they find? There are variety of classroom activities to keep young minds interested, including making a model of the solar system using coloured beads and an explanation of how to calculate the distance between the two planets.

Step into the unknown with Mars Adventure, an online group problem-solving exercise that gives students 10 minutes to select 10 items they would pack for a journey to the red planet. Points are awarded for the suitability of each item, with a final score revealed when the rocket is ready for blast off.

But what is life like when you get to Mars? This resource on building a space habitat has been designed to get students thinking about their needs and how these could be met so far away from home. In groups, ask your class to consider what kind of structure they would opt to live in – a geodesic dome or an inflatable habitat? Get them to list the features it would need to have and produce a labelled diagram before building a model.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

A Hidden Estonian “Forest Library” for Listening to Nature

Around 50% of Estonia is covered in forest. This past August, in one of the most remote corners of untouched nature, interior architecture students from the Eesti Kunstiakadeemia (Estonian Academy of Arts) in Tallinn constructed three megaphone-shaped structures as a hidden forest library, where sounds of the surrounding woods are amplified into the spaces for reading, solitude, and even meditative music performances.

The project called “Ruup,” shared by Designboom, was revealed last month in the Pähni Nature Centre. As BLDGBLOG pointed out, the design by student Birgit Õigus is reminiscent of the acoustic mirrors of World War I, used by the United Kingdom to amplify the noise of incoming German zeppelin raids (one of these concrete mirrors had a restoration completed earlier this year). No audio is yet available online, but as architectural installations, the wooden cones appear as unobtrusive constructions among the trees, offering shelter while opening an oculus view to the surrounding forest.

Friday, 16 October 2015

How to teach... behaviour management

Always smile and be consistent - here are our top lesson ideas and resources on classroom management.

The ability to manage the behaviour of your class effectively is one of the top skills that every teacher needs. Even the most meticulously planned lessons can go to pot if students misbehave.

Many practitioners, including newly-qualified teachers, are always on the lookout useful class management techniques especially before the new school year begins, so we've collected a range of useful resources to help you get the best out of your pupils.

In Positive ways to manage behaviour, Paul Dix provides a range of techniques for getting your class under control, including: establishing explicit rules and routines, providing students with clear choices around their behaviour, and letting them start each day with a clean sheet.

Further advice on some of the most common behaviour problems can be found in Classroom management strategies. Suitable for students of all ages, the resource covers dealing with pupils who are defiant, use abusive language, refuse to work or make silly noises in class. It highlights "needs-focused interventions", such as breaking up tasks into small and manageable chunks, taking time over your classroom seating plan and encouraging parental involvement. Strategies to avoid include giving ultimatums or ignoring disruptive pupils.

Coping Strategies for Teachers contains tips on preventing, reducing and managing unacceptable behaviour by focusing on time management. Ideas include: having a challenge on the board for pupils to complete as they arrive in class; giving responsibility to students for activities such as taking the register; and keeping a behaviour file to record any incidents.

To encourage positive behaviour in early years and primary Twinkl has created a range of wall display resources. These include a set of posters about good listening and a Noisometer that you can use to set and monitor noise levels in the classroom.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Do teachers in Finland have more autonomy?

Imagine this: you spend a day in a typical American public school going from one classroom to another, observing what teachers do. Then you do the same in Finland. What would you expect to see?

Many things would probably look similar. But, without a doubt, you would notice one big difference: teachers in Finland would be much less concerned about whether all students have reached the grade level, met the homework standard or feel prepared for the forthcoming standardized tests.

In my previous job as director general at the Finnish Ministry of Education in Helsinki, I had an opportunity to host scores of education delegations from the United States. They often did what I asked you to imagine above.

After spending a day or sometimes two in Finnish schools, they were puzzled. Among other things they said was the following: the atmosphere in schools is informal and relaxed. Teachers have time in school to do other things than teach. And people trust each other. A common takeaway was that Finnish teachers seem to have much more professional autonomy than teachers in the United States to help students to learn and feel well.

So what’s the evidence for teachers in Finland having more autonomy?

What we know about the teaching profession

We have more anecdotal evidence than solid research to answer this important question. And we have surprisingly little internationally comparable evidence about what teachers do in their schools.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Nobel goes for developing drugs from nature

A trio of winners found treatments for common human infections using chemicals made by bacteria and a plant.

On October 5, the 2015 Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology was awarded to three scientists who developed drugs that have saved the lives of millions of people around the world. The winners will share prize money worth $958,000. Two worked on a drug to combat infections due to tiny insect-borne worms. The third discovered a drug to treat malaria.

Each medicine was based on chemicals made by Mother Nature.

“This is one of those Nobel Prizes for drugs that have truly impacted hundreds of millions of people, no exaggeration,” says Anthony Fauci. He directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md.

One half of the award goes to William Campbell of Drew University in Madison, N.J., and Satoshi Ōmura of Kitasato University in Tokyo, Japan. They worked on a drug called ivermectin (EYE-ver-MEK-tun). It treats infections caused by roundworms, a type of parasite.

The other half of the Nobel goes to Youyou Tu of the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences in Beijing. She discovered artemisinin (AR-the-MISS-eh-nin), which is used against the parasite causing malaria. It’s spread by mosquitoes.

Together, ivermectin and artemisinin “have been more benefit to humankind than any other” drug, says Christopher Plowe. He’s an expert on parasites who works at the University of Maryland. He’s also president of the American Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. 

From a golf course

Ōmura discovered a bacterium called Streptomyces avermitilis (STREP-tow-My-sees AV-er-MY-till-is) near a golf course in Japan. This germ naturally makes avermectin. “Microorganisms are very important in nature, and … I learn from microorganisms,” Ōmura said in a telephone call with a representative of the Nobel committee.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Joyful, Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland

Forget the Common Core, Finland’s youngsters are in charge of determining what happens in the classroom.

“The changes to kindergarten make me sick,” a veteran teacher in Arkansas recently admitted to me. “Think about what you did in first grade—that’s what my 5-year-old babies are expected to do.”

The difference between first grade and kindergarten may not seem like much, but what I remember about my first-grade experience in the mid-90s doesn’t match the kindergarten she described in her email: three and a half hours of daily literacy instruction, an hour and a half of daily math instruction, 20 minutes of daily “physical activity time” (officially banned from being called “recess”) and two 56-question standardized tests in literacy and math—on the fourth week of school.

That American friend—who teaches 20 students without an aide—has fought to integrate 30 minutes of “station time” into the literacy block, which includes “blocks, science, magnetic letters, play dough with letter stamps to practice words, books, and storytelling.” But the most controversial area of her classroom isn’t the blocks nor the stamps: Rather, it’s the “house station with dolls and toy food”—items her district tried to remove last year. The implication was clear: There’s no time for play in kindergarten anymore.

A working paper, “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?,” confirms what many experts have suspected for years: The American kindergarten experience has become much more academic—and at the expense of play. The late psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim, even raised the concern in an article for The Atlantic in 1987.

Researchers at the University of Virginia, led by the education-policy researcher Daphna Bassok, analyzed survey responses from American kindergarten teachers between 1998 and 2010. “Almost every dimension that we examined,” noted Bassok, “had major shifts over this period towards a heightened focus on academics, and particularly a heightened focus on literacy, and within literacy, a focus on more advanced skills than what had been taught before.”

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Do disruptive classes really get better if they include more girls?

Classrooms are highly complex environments. Maintaining a positive classroom environment, especially in classrooms that include potentially disruptive children with emotional or social problems, is very difficult, and the processes that teachers can use to achieve this are poorly understood.

But a new study has concluded that in mixed gender classrooms, the presence of more girls can apparently minimise the potentially negative effects of a difficult to manage pupil on classroom culture and attainment.

Conducted by Michael Gottfried and Aletha Harven at the University of California, this study touches on two significant and sometimes emotive topics in education: differences between boys and girls and the inclusion in schools of children with social, emotional and behaviour difficulties.

Keeping the classroom happy

Despite evidence that most behaviour in schools is good, debates around the inclusion of pupils with social and emotional needs still too often centre on the affects their inclusion has on peers and staff.

In their paper, Gottfried and Harven speculate that pupils who show aggression, immaturity, hyperactivity or more internalised behaviours such as anxiety or withdrawal absorb the teacher’s attention, leaving less time for teachers to focus on other pupils’ social, emotional and academic development.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Children who understand emotions become more attentive over time

What is going on in the minds of young children when it seems they are daydreaming or appear to be scatterbrained?

A study that my coauthor, Susanne A Denham, and I conducted recently shows that inattentive children may sometimes be absorbed in trying to figure out the emotions of their parents, siblings, teachers and friends.

Young children are vitally interested in which emotions these important people in their small social world are feeling in respect to them and others, why they are doing so and whether their emotional displays are “real” or “fake.”

We found that children who have a better knowledge of emotions have no need to ponder these questions. They become free to pay attention to their social partners, to play and to academic learning, among many other things.

Why emotion knowledge matters

The research project, named “Elefant” – short for “Emotional Learning is fantastic” – surveyed 261 children from 33 kindergartens in Lower Saxony, a state in northern Germany, as well as their teachers and parents.

Two separate surveys over an interval of 14 months were conducted. The study tested children’s “emotion knowledge”: that is, their ability to identify facial expressions of emotions and typical situations that give rise to emotions, such as happiness when receiving a birthday gift.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Talking to your babies could help them do better at school

The rate at which children learn language varies substantially from child to child. Some children show rapid vocabulary growth before they go to school, while others learn so slowly that they can end up six months to a year behind their peers.

Surely this doesn’t really matter, does it? We all learn to speak well enough eventually, so we could be forgiven for thinking that “late talkers” will simply catch up in the end.

Some of these children will catch up, reaching a good level of language proficiency by the time that they start school. But others will begin school at a considerable disadvantage, entering the education system without the ability to communicate effectively. These children typically demonstrate slower language growth than their more advantaged counterparts. But most importantly, research has found that this gap widens with age.

Oral skills are a precursor to literacy, so it’s not exactly shocking that children at a linguistic disadvantage will have immediate problems with reading and writing in the classroom. What is probably less well known is that these problems can be long lasting – so much so that they negatively and profoundly affect future academic success.

It’s no surprise then, that this growing disparity between certain groups of children has prompted researchers to identify the factors that affect language development and has inspired interventions aimed at closing the achievement gap. My recent research has worked to outline some of these.