Academics into Schools: What happens when you put an academics back into an A-level classroom..?

Kirsty Turner discusses bridging the gap between school and university chemistry.

Stephen Yeates
Professor Stephen Yeates

As part of my year as the Royal Society of Chemistry School Teacher Fellow at the University of Manchester I came up with the idea that if we could get academics to go into schools or colleges to teach just one A-level lesson then we would go some way to bridging the gap between school and university chemistry.  After all, I could talk until I am blue in the face about the student experience at A-level, how their skills have changed over the last decade or so; but there is nothing like actually experiencing it.  It’s this kind of ‘experiential learning’ that Ofsted love! The brave volunteer turned out to be Stephen Yeates, Professor of polymer chemistry and head of our physical chemistry section.  With that initial contact the momentum soon picked up and we had a partner college Winstanley College in Wigan and a date and a topic, introduction to kinetics.


Planning the lesson

I envisaged this as one of the main areas where Steve would see a difference between the approach in universities and schools.  Universities are to a certain extent able to set their own curriculum and outside of the basics in perhaps the first and second years of a degree course, academics can often teach their own ‘pet’ subject and set the exams to match.  So we sat down with the syllabus and I tried to give Steve a flavour of how many of the syllabus objectives it would be feasible to cover in the hour and a half lesson and how a school teacher would generally approach them.  In universities the traditional lecture is still very much alive but in schools standing and talking at students for an hour or more is positively discouraged by the expectations of both students and Ofsted.  In their planning teachers will try to plan a variety of student learning activities in order to meet the learning objectives.  The lesson plan came out briefly as: starter (5-10 mins), introduction (5-10 mins), practical activity (30-40 mins) and plenary activity (25-30 mins).


The day arrives

And so the day arrives, we have the chemicals that the college doesn’t have, we have the worksheets, Steve has no PowerPoint just his revision guide and we get lost.  The college is very welcoming and understanding and thankfully we arrive in time for the lesson.  Steve was a little nervous as the group of 17 year olds files into the room and takes their places but he does at least freely admit his nerves to them and we make a start.  It becomes clear that lesson plans are definitely an alien concept where academics are concerned, the starter and introduction part of the lesson takes about 40 mins and only a few students are brave enough to respond to Steve’s questions despite them being pitched at exactly the right level.  Steve is visibly relaxing as the lesson proceeds, not everything goes to plan with the practical but we adapt and we most definitely do not have time for the second part of the plenary.  The art of ‘winging it’ is an essential skill in an A-level teacher and I have to say it does seem to come naturally to Steve.  The data collected is imperfect but good enough to start identifying trends and suggesting rate equations.  At the end of the lesson we haven’t done everything we had planned but the students have definitely learnt something.  Steve seems to have enjoyed himself and learnt a lot along the way and we leave to discuss how we can disseminate this to the rest of our colleagues back at Manchester. 



Many thanks to the Mr Steve Unsworth, Head of Physical Sciences at Winstanley College and his Year 12 students for hosting our little experiment and the RSC for covering expenses.

Kirsty Turner

I must admit that this was one of the more daunting experiences of recent times but I thought it a great opportunity to start to understand where our students are coming from. Thanks to Kirsty for organising and everyone at Winstanley College who were excellent. The students were bright and attentive and obviously enthusiastic about their studies and looking forward to University. What struck me was how different the modes of teaching at ‘A’ level are compared to those golden days in the 70’s. On reflection when lecturing I think of when I was that student and not how the students are today. I have already started to apply some of these thoughts to how I deliver material, the jury’s still out on how it has been perceived, but I would positively encourage everyone to take up this opportunity especially those delivering year 1 material. Although nervous to start it was fun, I think I learnt a great deal and hopefully the students a little! So stand up and go forth.

Steve Yeates

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