Monthly Archives

February 2015

How Israel is enthusing Britain’s teenagers to become the next generation of scientists

By | Coaching in Education, Schools subjects advice, University advice

Since 2010, I have been providing university advice to students and their parents through my business Before that I was a secondary school teacher, Head of Science and Assistant Headteacher and published author in university guidance. I have advised hundreds of students with their university applications, helping them to choose a course and university and to write the all-important personal statement. I currently hold the post of Director of Higher Education at Immanuel College.

Parents often tell me that they wish their son or daughter to study Management or a business-related course. The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) industry, despite massive government investment, has fallen out of favour with some of my clients as a feasible industry in which to work and, ultimately, make money. Although the number of students studying STEM subjects at university, has increased (in 2014 it was 98, 000, an 18% rise since 2003), the number of STEM graduates entering STEM jobs had declined dramatically (from approximately half in 2001 to a third ten years later). However, the STEM industry offers amazing and worthwhile careers and fundamental scientific research has spawned many modern inventions such as the internet and microwaves.

Perhaps the biggest problem in UK STEM today, is the lack of women represented.  Next week  the OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) which runs PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) will publish a report which highlights a huge gender gap (13 percentage points compared to an average of one percentage point) in attainment scores between 15 year old British girls’ and boy’s performance in science literacy. This puts the UK in the bottom five of the 67 countries that take part in the assessments. However, various statisticians have questioned the validity of the methodology and analysis of these tests. Comparing Science GCSE results yields a different story: girls outperform boys in Science GCSEs. Whatever measure is used, it is clear that not enough girls do Science A-levels, which means that they do not go on to do STEM degrees, and are therefore not well- represented in the STEM industry. According to various studies, girls’ self-esteem and confidence affects how they view their abilities in Science, affecting their take-up of STEM subjects post-GCSE. Furthermore, there is a persistent image that study of STEM subjects is for boys not girls. Any way to challenge such outdated stereotypes would give a welcome boost to girls’ uptake of STEM A-levels.

I was invited to the Seventh Annual ZF (Zionist Federation) Science Week last month. On 29th January, ZF treated 31 schools (over 660 students) to a free day of Israeli medical science lectures at the Institute of Education in London. The lecture hall was packed with diverse groups of sixth form students. The aim of the day was to highlight the importance of basic research in Science and to demonstrate that Science has no borders. The lectures were based on topics introduced on the A-level Biology syllabus. The first lecture was given by Russian national, Triana Amen, who is researching aging and rejuvenation at the Hebrew University. The second lecture was given by Dr Fahed Hakim, a paediatrician researching the importance of sleep on a biochemical level at the Technion in Haifa. What was notable about these first two speakers was that that they were not Jewish, and how proud they were of their Israeli universities and research teams. The third speaker was Professor Illana Gozes who spoke about the ADNP gene sequence in Alzheimer’s disease, autism and schizophrenia. Most importantly for encouraging girls into STEM, two out of three of the speakers were women and were excellent role models for the sixth formers present.

Of course, you do not have to be female to be inspired by the event. The students were aware of how attending such an event might inform their university choices. One student said they were not sure if they wanted to study Biology or Psychology at university, and this conference helped him explore possibilities. Another student said that she attends numerous lectures and will describe some of them on her UCAS form, when she applies to university, evidencing her interest in her chosen subject. Another student, who does not intend to go to university explained that the lectures helped to contextualise her Biology A-level studies, making them more meaningful to her.

It was truly remarkable to find Israeli scientists giving up their time to visit the UK to enthuse British teenagers of all backgrounds about the wonders of Science and to encourage them to study Science at university. Perhaps, our British scientists, and in particular, our female scientists, can learn a thing or two about marketing their subject from their Israeli colleagues.

Group coaching PhD student writing habits by Paul Ramsay

By | Coaching in Education, Practitioner's Advice

The ubiquitous cry from PGR and PhD students is the wish they had started writing their thesis sooner.  Both the lure of the lab or the fieldwork to generate more data, and the remorseless obsolence of literature demanding constant reading update, distract from and/or justify avoidance of the commitment to write ”just yet…”. Compounding this are the sometimes bruising encounters some students have with their supervisors: the ‘just write’ injunction can acquire near-paradoxical qualities in the mind of such students with the effect that scholarly identity and confidence in capability are detrimented. And for international students there is the added factor that identity as student researcher is mediated through a linguistic barrier that manifests itself with an intimidating immediacy when they write. The combined effect of these factors triggers interferences that, whilst they are uniquely the product of each individual’s habitus and cultural capital, produce the common result of writing avoidance.

In my experience, a group-coached approach to these interferences has proved successful in terms of not just productivity per se, but also the enhanced confidence and motivation to rise to new writing challenges. As part of the University of Portsmouth Graduate School programme, since 2009 I have run several writing groups each year.

These small groups (each no more than 10 students) have one simple goal: to instil the habit of writing. This apparently simplistic approach belies the need to apply all of the qualities of individual coaching to this context. If we take Biggs &Tang’s ‘what the student does’ constructivism, we need to add the notion of ‘what the coach is’ into such a pedagogy to ensure we are, to paraphrase Hiefetz and Laurie, maximising higher degree student well-being not comfort. The purpose is to facilitate ‘triple loop learning’ (Hargrove) to move towards transformatory, higher order goals which, by exploiting the generativeness of peer-based writing, reading and discussion practice and experience, include the growth of identity, reflexivity and self-reflexive appreciations.

A group meets for 6 sessions during which each group member commits to submitting a piece of writing to each session deadline, reading and commenting others’ submissions, and then in the session discussing the impact each piece of writing has on them, its positive features and constructive recommendation for improvement. A key feature of this is that the focus is not on topic or subject content, nor on grammar-type issues. The group is critically interdisciplinary thus the movement for the group members is to start noticing and appreciating the qualities of the text in hand, for example its awareness of audience, coherence and cohesion. Work is not expected to be complete, indeed it can be very early draft, and the agreed word limit is a maximum of 3000 words.

All of these elements challenge the beliefs that students tend to hold about the act of writing and the writing they generate – both in terms of how critique lands with them and how they defend aspects of it.

Does it work? Not for everyone, but commonly the individual outcome is well represented by these reflective words of a second language PhD student: “The most important habit I got from the writing group was the writing process itself: writing something, and then leaving, then going back to it, tweaking it, amending it, and rephrasing it with a more critical eye. And then, that was it: there is a recipe for good writing! It is commitment and perseverance. The process of coming back to a text can take several loops but it is worth the satisfaction you have when it is pleasant to read to you and especially to others.