Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Towards a more active classroom

Before becoming a teacher I worked in public health in the UK. One of my roles was to help disseminate data, involving seminars, workshops etc. I remember a specific occasion when I was involved with a one day workshop, delivering various public health data to a range of professionals in the field. When I came to analyse the feedback questionnaires after the event I was struck by the wide variation of responses. For example, one delegate noted that they were happy the event had been held over a full day, but would have preferred it to be held over two days so there was more time for discussion. On the other hand, a different delegate declared that they felt a full day was excessive and the proceedings could have been dispensed with in a morning. What I took from these responses was that the timing of the event was probably about right!

Similarly, when I analyse my anonymous course feedback questionnaires that I have students complete at the end of my biology course, if I see a range of responses like this I feel that I am probably getting that particular aspect of my classes about right. However, what has become clear from administering these course evaluations is that my students felt that some of my classes did not result in a suitably active classroom. Therefore this is an area that I am currently focusing on in my lesson planning. 

I'm aiming for a more active classroom with all of my classes, for example I have increased the number of lessons where students are engaged in peer-teaching. The photos below show Grade 10 students preparing for and delivering a peer-teaching activity relating to protein synthesis. 

I am also re-designing a section of my course relating to nervous systems. I have all the materials I need from previous years, but I am going to take a different approach with them in the classroom. Some classes will be problem-based, while other work will provide learners with an opportunity to develop a final output of their own choosing, e.g. an infographic, a poster, or an animation. This is also an excellent opportunity to make students' learning more visible, by including a section looking at how the human brain learns, together with recent developments in neuroscience and the way we understand learning, and encouraging students to reflect on how this relates to their own experiences as learners.

I will know in a few weeks time whether or not my attempts to make a more active classroom have been successful…

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Four days in the jungle!

Over the New Year break my wife Lisa and I achieved a long-held ambition when we spent four days hiking and sleeping overnight in the jungle of Khao Sok National Park, in the south of Thailand. 

Khao Sok is a densely-forested area of over 700km2, and includes the 165km2 Cheow Lan Lake. We went with three Thai guides who Lisa had hiked with on a previous, shorter trip: A, who runs the company, his brother Khlong, and their friend Sat.

(L-R) Sat, Khlong, A, and Lisa.
The first night was spent in the ranger’s station, which was fortunate given that it was raining heavily! The next morning, we donned our leech socks – which turned out to be invaluable - and set off. The early morning rain had slowed considerably by this time, and fortunately had stopped completely by lunchtime.

Low cloud over the dense rainforest.

The first day’s trekking covered about 7km through dense primary rainforest. Every so often we had to stop while Sat hacked away at dense tangles of plants that had overgrown the hard-to-follow path, including highly poisonous Elephant Nettle plants. This also gave us an opportunity to remove any persistent leeches...

A copper-cheeked frog (Hylarana labialis), spotted on the first day.

We stopped for the first night, and the guys quickly made a campfire and began cooking dinner. Khlong also fashioned two cups out of giant bamboo stems for us to use on the remainder of the trip. The first night was spent sleeping on a bamboo platform at the mouth of a limestone cave, following a dinner of orange curry and rice cooked over the campfire.

Our cave for the night.

The next morning we woke up to sound of gibbons calling high in the tree tops. The second day’s hiking took us through yet more varied landscapes – from rainforest to giant bamboo groves, and finally to a limestone sinkhole filled with semi-submerged trees clad in orchids. 

An Asian forest tortoise (Manouria emys).

We came across the rarely seen Asian forest tortoise, estimated by A and Khlong to be about 30 years old! There were also some ferns which, we were reliably informed, were delicious when cooked, so a few bunches were collected and included with that night’s dinner. The ferns were indeed delicious, and tasted a bit like morning glory.

Smoke from the campfire catches the evening sun.

It was next to the sinkhole lake that we spent our second night, in hammocks slung between two trees under a makeshift tarpaulin cover in case of further rain.

A strangler fig.
The next day was the final stretch of the hike. This took us through a flooded area of forest that turned out to be limestone swamp forest, a fascinating ecosystem that I’ve never encountered before.

A and myself knee-deep in the limestone swamp forest!

We reached the edge of the jungle, next to an inlet from the enormous Cheow Lan Lake and waited for a long-tail boat to come and pick us up. 

The lake is a beautiful deep green colour.

From here it was a short 20-minute boat ride to the relative luxury of floating bamboo raft houses for our final night. 

Raft houses on Cheow Lan Lake.

A well-earned beer after three days in the jungle!

After swimming and kayaking in the lake the next day, we set off on a final boat trip across the full length of the lake, taking in the majestic scenery of the towering limestone cliffs on either side of the lake.

The Three Sisters.

A doesn't yet have a web site, but if you are interested in doing a similar trip, please feel free to contact me and I can put you in touch with him. I can highly recommend A and his team, and it's an experience you won't forget! 

Sunset over Cheow Lan Lake