Engaging Students

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Engaging Students and Making the Learning Understandable

ABA had the opportunity to attend the presentation by one of the keynote speakers at SciCon 2014 – Tom Pringle (AKA Dr Bunhead, from TV programs such as Brainiac, Blue Peter, etc.).

This was an interactive presentation on approach and activities teachers may find useful in their classroom setting.  Tom broke down the educational ideas into two clear components: being ‘engaging’ and being ‘understandable’.  These two components are intertwined,  just like the twin strands of DNA that must always be wound together in order to function correctly.

Tom examined the overlap between the skills required (science knowledge, educational understanding, communication skills, theatrical delivery) in the performance a teacher provides every time s/he interacts with a class and the performance that science communicators, like himself, provides in a theatre, TV, public or school setting. Tom said, “as a science communicator, he had learnt a lot by studying how teachers make their science messages understandable to the different target audiences they encounter each day.”  He suggested that, in return, he may be able to offer teachers some insight into techniques he, and other science communicators, practise for making delivery more engaging.  These were especially effective for tackling disinterested pupils.

Tom commenced all this by providing us with three introductions to his talk:

  1. A standard, formal introduction.
  2. A more playful introduction using humour to create a sense of expectation and increase desire to attend to what was about to follow. He referred to this as increasing the ‘zone of forgiveness’ where the audience is still volunteering its attention in the expectation of something else engaging is to follow.
  3. He played with mnemonic devices (my name is Tom, as in short for tomato, and Pringle, like the crisps) in order to discuss a key feature of his approach: being engaging and being understandable must work in harmony. He stressed, with another comic device, that the purpose of engagement tools was to open the doors of perception of the audience so the science could be ‘sneaked in the back door’ creating a kind of ‘It’s science Jim, but not as we know it’ experience (an analogy served best for old Star Trek fans). It was vital that the engagement techniques (hooks) weren’t simply used for entertainment. Their purpose is to reinforce learning, not to serve as something to keep the kids amused (as in a magic show, where no learning occurs). “When hooks are abused they become hurdles to learning” he stressed. This situation he referred to as using “Too much tomato”, having just thrown a tomato around the room to hook the audience moments earlier.


On the basis of the idea of maintaining a harmony of being understandable and being engaging, Tom was keen to describe effective approaches generated this situation.  One particularly powerful technique, that he uses frequently and to great effect, is what he calls the ‘Wow!, Why?, Aha!’ approach.  In this case, some surprising, beautiful, confusing or otherwise engaging phenomenon is presented in a dramatic manner.  He provided examples of a crushing can demonstration and ‘vanishing’ water where it had been used both badly and well.  When used properly, such experiences provide the ‘hook’ that catches the audience’s attention.  These moments are often referred to as having the ‘Wow Factor’, though they could equally be ‘Ooooh’, ‘Aaah’ or ‘Eeek’ factors, since their purpose is to grab the senses and emotions of the audience and ‘Wow’ is not the only legitimate response.

As an aside, he pointed out that too many people set about proving that science is fun, immediately confirming the opposite.  In his opinion it is “Up to the audience to decide to what extent they enjoy or appreciate science; their emotional response is entirely their own”.

Typically following such ‘Wow!’ experience comes a silent pause where cognitive processes are kicking in and the question ‘Why?’ naturally and effortlessly arises.  In this moment exists the ‘vacuum of ignorance’.  The audience knows they don’t know, they know you know and they want you to fill that gap.  It is now that the well-constructed and understandable explanation (‘handles’ as he called them) is delivered to a fully attentive audience, leading to the desired ‘Aha!’ moment.  This, in Tom’s opinion, is the most potent motivator for lifelong enjoyment and appreciation of science.  “One ‘Aha!’ moment is worth a hundred ‘Wow!’ factors”, he said.  The joy of crystallising one’s understanding of a previously hidden or misunderstood concept is quietly yet powerfully joyful and addictive.  It is such an experience that persuades audiences to continue on the difficult road of learning science (the sciences are not easy subjects).

With further elaboration on the above approaches he observed how difficult it was to continually deliver such creative approaches to learning.  He suggested that some science time could be set aside to harness teachers’ most creative and numerous assets – their own pupils.

He demonstrated an activity, The M&S Game, (M & S standing for mystery and surprise) which was easily adaptable to primary and secondary pupils.  The purpose was to provide a potent exploratory tool for unravelling scientific thinking and scientific method in the minds of pupils.  This activity, he suggested, was a great lead-in to working with more pupil-led science activities that provide experience of genuine science investigation.  He stressed the difference between the predetermined, linear science ‘investigations’ that occur in schools and the multi-branched nature of genuine science investigations that occur in the real world.  The enormous discrepancy between these two approaches leads pupils to be ill equipped to plan and devise their own meaningful science investigations. Instead the rote learn intended outcomes and play a game of ‘Guess what the teacher wants us to find out.’  Such games never occur in real research labs!  Furthermore, pupils have no ownership of their investigation.  With no stake in the outcome and no genuine concern for discovering the answer to their investigation they can have no motivation to pursue the investigation other than enjoying ‘playing with science stuff.  The hook has become a hurdle!

In summary, he recapped some science communicator tools that had emerged throughout the talk: Playfulness, Enthusiasm, Accessibility, Creativity and Humour and exhorted the audience to go out and “Have a PEACH of a class!”