Jonny Berliner - science through song


Opinions and reflections on the dissemination of science from a science troubadour, educator and sci ed researcher.

Exams - a measure of what?

Exam season is upon us. Anxious students are cramming an impossible amount of content to revise, and anxious parents either worry about their children's anxiety or that they aren't anxious enough to do the revision they should be doing. Teachers are anxious about whether they managed to cram in enough revision lessons and school heads are anxious that their results will be better than last year. It's the climax of the school year and exams are the ends for which almost all educational means are justified. "Why do I need to learn this?" ask the students. "Because it will be in the exam.", replies the teacher. And whilst almost everyone agrees that exams are unpleasant, we rarely question the fact that they are the best way achieve their aims. Much has been written about the problematic effects of high stakes examinations, particularly by John White, on their deleterious effect on student wellbeing and their tendency to destroy curiosity by making students only value knowledge that leads to exam success. It is generally accepted that the benefits must outweigh the costs. After all, educational reform after educational reform keeps GCSEs and A levels exactly the same in any meaningful sense. The latest reforms, with the harder-to-achieve top grades, extra content and extra emphasis on memorised facts actually make all problems associated with high-stakes examinations worse. So what is so great about exams?

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Rote Learning Ain't All Bad

A big motivation for the revision songs that I have been writing is the new content heavy GCSE curriculum. There is a lot to remember and for the physics students they now have to remember 20 odd equations. In a meeting with the Institute of Physics a couple of years ago I outlined the benefits of using songs to remember facts such as equations. Their reaction was that they could not support the rote learning of the physics equations. This is sound educational thinking. The equations of physics provide a beautifully simple and consistent description of the universe and when you understand the physics and understand how equations are derived, the ability to remember and use them is far superior to when they have been learned parrot fashion. Since that meeting I have decided to go ahead and write a song that encourages the rote learning of these equations. I have tried to include as much explanation about the derivation of the equations but there are a lot and it would simply be too much for one song, but I decided to write it anyway for two reasons that I will briefly pick apart. The first reason comes from my experience as an educator, namely that rote learning, in a few situations, can actually be useful. The second comes from my conviction that getting GCSE students to learn physics equations is unnecessary and provides students with added stress and if a song can help then why not have one?

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Songs for super science revision

The Easter holidays are nearly over and for year 11 teachers and students this means one thing - revision, revision, revision. It can be a stressful time for teachers, students and their parents and it can be boring for students too. The new GCSE curricula for science are content heavy and students' memories will be stretched to the max. Sitting down and memorising facts is rarely fun but teachers will hopefully make the best of it by designing games and dynamic sessions for students to go over the enormous quantity of material in the short time left. If the sessions are boring then nothing gets remembered. If they are too slow then they run out of time to revise it all. So the challenge for teachers and students is to cram lots of information in without it getting boring. Students quickly tire of making mind maps and teachers struggle to find the time to make great resources but over the past year and a half, since I left the classroom, I have been working on a set of resources that might help! The struggle for parents is keep their kids on track without sounding like a nag.

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Have we lost the last of a kind?

This week’s sad news of Professor Stephen Hawking’s passing did not just rock the science world, it was major world news. He was one of the few to achieve mainstream popularity whilst producing the kind of scientific ideas that will be remembered long after his death. In many ways, he became an icon; the image that many people imagine when they think of a scientist. Much has already been written about his remarkable life, the theories he propounded, his disability, his sense of humour and his ability to communicate cutting edge cosmology to the public, and I will have nothing new to say on these, but they have got me thinking about the nature of iconic status in science, whether we can expect to ever have an icon like him again, and whether we even need one.

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Can we really expect adolescents to choose STEM?

Despite the best efforts of science teachers and science communicators to inspire the next generation, employers are struggling to fill over 40% of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) vacancies. Because STEM careers are so important to our economy, this shortage has been the focus of plenty of research which suggests that students avoid choosing STEM subjects because their self-identity is at odds with their assumptions about scientists. Many of the strategies suggested for fixing this problem involve challenging their assumptions about scientists. They are important suggestions, but will they work? I’d like to consider the possibility that a far more radical solution is needed to succeed. Ultimately, we may have to change the whole system because many adolescent brains are just not wired to want to be scientists.

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Is Sci-Comm Too Smug?

Having now notched up 15 years of experience disseminating scientific ideas in almost every way possible, as a tutor, teacher, entertainer, and presenter, I have managed to work with consumers and communicators of science from almost every background and perspective there is. Along the way, I have gained a fairly unique perspective and with that in mind, this is the first of many blogs to share my thoughts and experiences, with the aim of contributing to the discussion of how science communication (sci-comm) and science education can speak to and affect as large and diverse an audience as possible.

I want to start with a question that has been playing on my mind recently. Is sci-comm too smug?

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