Some thoughts on Iain Gray’s Scottish Science Education debate

Squeezed into a corner in a very busy Wholefoods in Giffnock on Saturday afternoon, I took some time to read the very interesting Scottish Parliament Official Report of the debate in the name of Iain Gray on the report by the Learned Societies Group on Scottish science education.


To some extent the report is out of my field. I don’t work in school education and this was primarily a debate about young people and their science education. However, I thought some points were worth my tuppence.

Opening the debate Iain Gray (East Lothian – Lab) highlighted an aspect of the report which found that

98 per cent of schools surveyed were drawing on external funding in order to marshal enough resources to teach science (col 79)

And that’s exactly the situation I’ve found myself in for the Outdoor Science project that I’ve been putting together with West College Scotland Clydebank (WCSC) and the Scottish Youth Hostelling Association (SYHA) (and which I really should have written about before now). We don’t have the money, WCSC don’t have the money and we’re indebted to the SYHA for funding the first programme and to the John Mathers Trust for funding the second. We’re still some money short from funding the third class. I think if we are serious about encouraging radically different ways of teaching science then we need to think about exactly what it is we’re funding when the usual sums of money are handed over.

Elaine Murray (Dumfriesshire – Lab) made two points that caught my attention. The first one was

Children and young people can be enthused about or turned off science at an early age. Teachers and family members can make or break a child’s interest in science, so it is vital that primary school pupils are introduced to the sciences by teachers who are enthusiastic and confident. (col 83)

I don’t disagree, but what about the parents? How do parents gain that enthusiasm and confidence? Murray offered no solution.

Adults can of course spend the day in one of the national science centres that Alasdair Allan (Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s Languages – SNP) described as

one of the jewels in the crown of science in schools, and more generally throughout Scotland (my emphasis, col 92)

and yes, maybe adults with little understanding of science go along to Glasgow Science Centre with their kids in the hope that they will become more science literate than themselves. I can imagine that. But I suspect it would need longer term engagement than a single afternoon’s entertainment. Perhaps we need a national science strategy so that adults can get a right grip on theories of electromagnetism 😉

I don’t disagree that maths as the language of science presents difficulties for some people. Many of the MSPs think so; Iain Gray makes the point in his opening remarks, Liz Smith (Conservative – Mid Scotland and Fife) makes the point and Nigel Don (Angus North and Mearns – SNP). Don’s point was particularly interesting because he wasn’t talking about science but the perception of it.

When I was young, the science subjects were perceived as being more difficult, and when my children were young the science subjects were still perceived as being more difficult…,and science will not come naturally to someone who is not particularly numerate. (col 89)

This is why memorable practical demonstrations and activities are so important, and for this simple reason: it’s possible to understand something of the science without knowing the maths that underpin that science. Talking about this today, a colleague said that activities and demonstrations provided people with a peg to hang their imagination onto. I thought that was a brilliant thing to say. I think it’s possible to be enthused by something as simple as a magnet falling through a copper pipe.

And I think that can happen at any age.

But, mostly, and at least in my limited experience, science classes gets caught up in the principles of the science as they’re represented by mathematics. Science classes become maths class. I really do hope that Liz Smith is right when she said

we are on the cusp of doing exciting things in science teaching (col 86)

Going back to that underlined bit in Dr. Allan’s remarks about science centres, it really caught my attention that he said ‘in schools’. He didn’t say in Scottish education, just ‘in schools’. Granted this was set as a debate about science in schools but it did range onto the subject of universities, graduate salaries (because people who do science don’t get wages) and employment, the economy, but not once was FE mentioned. I’d even hazard a guess that no-one even gave FE a second thought. Maybe that’s because the MSPs don’t think that science is studied and used by FE students

Smith quite rightly observes that science teaching has tended to be knowledge dominated at he expense of process. That struck me particularly forcefully because only the other day I’d been reading in The Guardian,A radical experiment to end science practicals? That’s just not true‘ by Glenys Stacey, chief executive of Ofqual, that

The only elements of practical work that have to be assessed by the teacher should be the student’s ability to select the right equipment, use it sensibly, and log the results intelligently – essential technical skills.

They are indeed essential technical skills, but perhaps not only in the area that you’d imagine. This brings me back to the second point that Elaine Murray made

We need to encourage the offering of high-quality apprenticeships in science (col 84)

because the skills that Glenys Stacey identifies as so important are precisely the skills required of an electrician in the four out of the nine National Occupational Standards that underpin the Electrical Installation SVQ. They’re skills required in

  • testing electrical circuits
  • commissioning systems
  • diagnosing faults
  • maintaining systems

And they’re also precisely the essential skills that I’ve written into the Electrical Science Course Unit of the Electrical Installation SVQ. I really must admit that I find it particularly irritating that when a scientist or a ‘high-quality’ apprentice scientist uses these skills then they’re essential scientific skills, but when an electrician apprentice uses the same skills they are …, well they don’t get a mention in a science debate that’s for sure. There’s a larger cultural point to be made here. Perhaps we don’t need a national strategy after all; perhaps we just need to acknowledge that a lot of ordinary working people already use some of the skills and processes that scientists use in their everyday working life. I’m not for a minute suggesting that electricians should be reclassified as scientists. But if we could recognise that, as a stepping stone to a wider debate about national science literacy, then maybe there would be a beneficial knock-on effect on how parents discuss science with their children.


The Scottish Parliament Official Report: Meeting of The Parliament, 21 January 2015, Session 4, col 78-92,

File:Mandochera, Wikimedia Commons, jfmelero,, accessed 08 February 2015, CC-BY-SA 4.0

The World’s First Electric Generator, uploaded by veritasium, YouTube,, accessed 08 February 2015, Standard YouTube Licence

Thanks to Donna for the overhead shot of me.

The Student Who Wasn’t A Lump of Wood – A Fairy Tale


Once upon a time, in a school far far away there was a lump of wood. He knew he was a lump of wood because all the teachers told him so. And they could prove it. They gave him work he couldn’t do, and so they told him he was a lump of wood. They would tell him things he wasn’t interested in, and when he couldn’t remember what he wasn’t interested in, they would tell him he was a lump of wood. After a while he believed the teachers, and when I first met him he told that he was a lump of wood.

The lump of wood grew up and left school. He didn’t go to university. Nevertheless, he managed to get the sort of job that lumps of wood get, and he managed to do the type of work that lumps of wood do. He enjoyed the work – working with other lumps of wood – and he found out that he was good at it. But it didn’t mean anything because it couldn’t be very good work or worthwhile work or meaningful work if it could be done by a lump of wood.


After many years of working he was asked by the kindly forester if he’d ever thought of doing something else. ‘How could I?’ he replied. ‘I am a lump of wood.’ But the kind forester thought differently and pushed the lump of wood into the light. ‘Let’s see what you can do’, he said.

So the lump of wood took the long walk up to the numbers castle where he would meet the numbers man. The numbers man looked like one of the teachers and the lump of wood was scared and unhappy. The numbers man gave the lump of wood some numbers to play with. And the lump of wood did the number man’s test, and he got all the answers wrong. The lump of wood knew that he would fail and he did. He’d been told he was a failure and he was. He was told he was a lump of wood and now he too could prove it. ‘I am a lump of wood’ he told the numbers man.


When the good forester heard the news he was very sad. Maybe he will always be a lump of wood after all, he thought. Maybe if I spoke to the numbers man something could be done about it.  So he spoke to the numbers man. Now the numbers man was very puzzled. The numbers man had seen lumps of wood before but he had never heard one talk. He had heard the dogs bark, and the had heard he birds sing in the branches of the trees, but he’d never heard a lump of wood talk. ‘Only people could talk’, he thought to himself. When the good forester spoke to the numbers man this is what he told him. A thing that can speak can’t be a lump of wood’, he said. ‘It must be a person. Lumps of wood are not allowed at the college but people are’. The numbers man stamped the paperwork and allowed the lump of wood on to the course.

Waves of wood

And came the day when the progress of the lump of wood was to be reviewed. ‘You have lied to me’ said the numbers man, pretending to be cross.

‘I have not!’ said the lump of wood, ‘how have I lied to you?’

‘You told me that you were a lump of wood, but here is the review of your progess and it gives you seven A grades out of seven! How can you be a lump of wood? It simply cannot be true’.

‘That’s magic’ said the student who used to be a lump of wood, and he beamed.

‘No it isn’t’, said the numbers man.


This is not a happy ending: this is a happy beginning

This post was written as a response to The Daily Prompt from WordPress. It is a true story.


Woods, by Thomas, taken on 15 January 2014, Flickr,, accessed 25th January 2015, CC-BY-ND 2.0

OTF_Chopped_Wood_13, by Brent Leimenstoll, taken on 17 June 2013, Flickr,, accessed 25th January 2015, CC-BY-SA 2.0

Wood, by tomdz, taken on 21 February 2009, Flickr,, accessed 25th January 2015, CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Waves of Wood, by Betsle Nel, taken on 22 February 2014, Flickr,, accessed 25th January 2015, CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Wood, by Jonas Merlan, taken on 4 November 2010, Flickr,, accessed 25th January 2015, CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

14 December: #03

This week I’ve been

attending the launch event in Blackwell’s in Edinburgh of Iain MacWhirter’s book Disunited Kingdom: How Westminster Won A Referendum But Lost Scotland. In his Sunday Herald column (18-12-14), Macwhirter reckons that things can only get better for the Labour Party in Scotland, but…

discussing different approaches to the SCQF/SQA accreditation process with my opposite numbers in SNIPEF; and

negotiating how best to standardize the not entirely dissimilar outcomes that we independently produced; and

realising that after I’d done some work on what we’d agreed that I’d made a potentially fatal error in how I’d redistributed 100 hours of learning. I’d done it in such a way that the hours didn’t carry over their credit. That was pretty mind-blowing… honest, it really was! (I think I’ll explain this in a longer blog post). Thankfully nobody reads this stuff.

booking a place at the SCQF conference in February 2015

watching this Sexplanations video after discussing sex education and the presence of religious representatives on local authority education committees

signing up for Holyrood magazine weekly Education newsletter

buying books on Amazon about Outdoor Education for the STEM Camp that I’m taking pre-apprenticeship students from West College Scotland to the SYHA Stem Camp in 2015; and

Outdoor Edu books

contributing to a funding bid to help pay for this; and

writing up my (unpublished) thoughts on the ethics of how parents might best be involved when a FE establishment proposes to take engineering students, who are aged 16+, on a residential trip; but

acknowledging that I need input from experts on this

re-learning Faraday’s Law and Lenz’s Law  so that I could add them into the Electrical Installation Science portfolio that I’m writing for the new Electrical Installation SVQ.

reading the newspapers and:

shaking my head as both blue and red Tory politicians court the education vote.  Firstly, there was Nicky Morgan in The Observer, trying to undo four and a half years of Govean blobbing, and the following day Jim Murphy attempting to woo teachers in Scotland with a plan,

I will introduce Chartered Status for teachers, to attract the best talent to those worst performing schools

which struck me as a bit of a kick-in-the-teeth for some hard-working teachers. A rough wooing.

When, at the end of the week when he became leader of the north Britisher branch of the Labour party, he called for “a growing middle-class” the policy was all the easier seen in its full ‘Blairite’ splendour

continuing to slowly pick away at Peter John’s book Analyzing Public Policy. I’ve been following the regular criticisms of private schools as a way of understanding how policy is formed, and over the Xmas holiday I might have a go at a post just to collate what I’ve been learning about

 reflecting on the value of doing this type of post; and

acknowledging that I slipped behind with the publishing of this post. I need to find a system that allows me to record things as I go along, and doesn’t then take four hours to pull together. I can’t say to someone that reflective blogging is a good idea, but that I can’t manage to keep it up, or that it “only” takes a half-day to write

8 December 2014: #02

This week I’ve been

feeding the birds in the garden with peanuts covered in chilli flakes and soaked in hot chilli powder oil. I learned from Frances Ashcroft’s book, The Spark of Life, that chilli peppers taste so hot to mammals because capsaican opens the same ion channel as high temperature, and that because the brain can’t tell the difference it interprets the capsaicin signal as heat. Birds, unlike squirrels however, have a mutation in the channel which means that they’re less receptive to capsaicin. Basically they can eat from the feeder for as long as they want without looking for the nearest cool puddle to drink out of, whereas the squirrel had a sniff round once, and left well alone.

considering the validity of Daisy Choudolourou’s seventh myth of education in relation to vocational education. I think she makes a fair point about the puppets in the Romeo and Juliet class, and one that probably needs be borne in mind

planning a business meeting for OpenDataGlasgow, the local group of Open Knowledge Scotland

continuing to read Introducing Friere by Sandra Smidt

driving to Aberdeen listening to the final chapters of I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and narrated by Malala Yousafzai and Archie Panjabi

discussing with Donna Thompson from SYHA, and Joe Mulholland from West College Scotland (Clydebank) how electrical installation pre-apprentices could benefit from STEM Camp. Very exciting stuff and I need to get up to speed quickly on outdoor learning

designing some sort of fold-out device to help make learning the language of the SCQF accreditation a little easier for newbies. I started off arranging words out on a mindmap and I’m now thinking about the type of physical object that I should turn this into. I suppose it could be an online thing but when I was writing out the accreditation paperwork for the first time recently I think I’d have preferred a physical object

reading the papers;

  • learning a little about the the influential role that certain religions still have in sex education in Scottish schools. I’d already noticed that on my local authority education committee there are three religious advisers
  • noting that two weeks after Tristram Hunt wrote in The Guardian that an elected Labour Government in 2015 would stop private schools accessing business rate relief worth £700m over the next parliament unless they do more to improve the quality of education in state schools, the “Honest, I’m not Westminster’s man” candidate for the leadership of the Scottish branch office, Jim Murphy, pops up in the Sunday Herald to “urge” private schools to share more resources with poorer communities. ‘Urge’ is a weasel word, if you ask me. It’s a bit strange given that the Scottish Parliament’s Petitions Committee is already considering a public petition calling for independent schools to be stripped of their charitable status.

30 November 2014: #01

This week I’ve been:

wondering what it would have been like to board at school. By Vicky Allan’s account in The Sunday Herald it seems no fun at all.

helping organise the East Kilbride branch of the Radical Independence Campaign.

watching the videos of a workshop at the RIC conference where Liam Kane argues that RIC’s campaigning approach could learn from the popular education movement of Latin America.

reading Sandra Smidt’s Introduction to Friere, as a consequence of Kane’s talk.

participating in the SECTT, East of Scotland College Consortium.  I spoke about my experience writing the SCQF accreditation paperwork for the new SVQ in Electrical Installation. I also gave a brief update on my progress towards writing a new Electrical Installation Science course unit.

thinking about how to salvage what should have been a blog post about the SCQF process and ended up being a 3,000 word essay. It wasn’t a good blog post and it wasn’t a good essay either.

catching up with Ally Crockford to discuss possible MPhil work on the research topic of ‘Education in a radically independent Scotland’ (or something like that anyway). We chatted about the research angle and some engagement work.

finding out about how education policy is managed at my local authority level; and

making arrangements to attend my local council’s education committee meetings. I’m picking away at Peter John’s Analyzing Public Policy.

buying the new Scottish daily newspaper, The National. I do still like to read the Education section in The Guardian on a Tuesday, but there’s rarely anything about Scottish education in it. It’s simply that its focus is on the English education system, and at times The Guardian reads like it’s come from a strange place that’s going slightly mad.

Constructing a cultural norm with maths sets

So Graeme, what’s the secret?

Now, it’s not often I get mistaken for a sphinx, and since the question came out of the blue I was admittedly a little unprepared.

My interlocutor was a lecturer in plumbing and gas at West College Scotland (Paisley) and he was remarking on the recruitment of nearly thirty adult trainees in the area compared to only four plumbing apprentices.

Probably a lucky alignment of stars, I offered, hoping I could turn the conversation onto Capaldi’s first appearance as Dr Who. No such luck.

So we discussed economic conditions, employer confidence, previous experiences with apprentices or trainees, our relationship with the industry, and to be honest I wasn’t so much articulating a list of well thought through reasons as producing an  Emsworthian dribble of stating the bloody obvious.

Either way we were both dissatisfied by these well trodden explanations because much of the macro economic condition of the construction industry experienced by electrical contractors was bound to be similarly experienced by plumbing contractors.

There was also, I suggested, a cultural norm of apprenticeship recruitment within the electrical contracting community such that even at the depth of the economic recession the industry was still recruiting four hundred plus apprentices and adult trainees.

That was a kind of interesting thing to hear myself say, and I was left wondering how such a cultural norm is produced or established.

Es un día fantástico con sol. (Dëdalus)

Alongside doing a Future Learn MOOC, ‘Basic Science: Understanding Numbers‘, I’ve started reading Daniel Tammet’s book Thinking in Numbers. The first chapter, ‘Family Values’, uses set theory to explain how his nine siblings were considered legion in his local community. It’s a grand read. This way of thinking was new to me, and I’ve spent the last forty-eight hours in a bit of a maths induced daydream. I think I’ve grasped the basics and so here it might be necessary to take a deep breath.

In space an adult trainee is either in place x, or some other place, y. It doesn’t matter where exactly, the trainee is either here or there. Now the same applies for every other trainee, individually, and combined in every possible configuration with any of the other trainee or trainees in the set.

So, if we start with the plumbing apprentices and looking at them as a set, this can be written as

S = {p1, p2, p3, p4}

The set of all subsets is calculated by multiplying 2 by itself by the toal number of objects in the set. So for the plumbing apprentices the set of all subsets is calculated by multiplying two, by itself, four times.  This is equal to

2 x 2 x 2 x 2=16

which means that there are sixteen different ways to spot one or more of these apprentices. I would suggest that given the large area of Renfrewshire and Inverclyde that they’ve been recruited in, bumping into a plumbing apprentice in the area seems unlikely.

However, if we do the same with the group of twelve adult trainee electricians that started last week, the set can be written as

S = {at1, at2, at3, at4, Aat5, at6, at7, at8, at9, at10, at11, at12}

with the subset of all sets being equal to multiplying two, by itself, twelve times.  This is equal to

2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 = 4,096

So now, and with only three times as many members in this set, there are four thousand and ninety-six different ways to spot one or more of these trainees: this I find incredible, and it goes a long way to explain how a cultural norm is constructed. Even though there are only twelve of them it must seem like these guys are everywhere.



File:Louvre sphinx.jpg, Wikimedia Commons,, accessed 25th August 2014

Es un día fantástico con sol. (Dëdalus), taken by Ignacio Sanz, Flickr, uploaded on 23 August 2008,, accessed 24 August 2014, CC-BY-SA 2.0

Tammett, D, (2012) Thinking in Numbers: How Maths Illuminates Our Lives, Hodder & Stoughton, London

Scarcity: Why having so little means so much

I’m probably more interested in writing my response to the book than an actual book review, but Scarcity: Why having so little means so much was a worthwhile read, even if at times I thought it could have done with a bit of editorial trimming. Maybe their editor was tunnelling towards a deadline.

I recently wanted to learn a little bit about using and visualising data, and was pleased when Google announced that they would run a MOOC on the subject called Making Sense of Data. The course started in mid-March and had a cut-off date at the beginning of April. As I said in another blog post, at anytime this year I could have made use of the School of Data modules, but the cut-off date of the Google MOOC significantly gave me a deadline to focus on. I didn’t know the jargon of scarcity before reading Mullainathan and Shafir’s book but, like most everybody else, I have a lifetime of experience of responding to some of its features.

I bought the Kindle edition and when I’d finished reading, and was reviewing the bookmarks and notes I was surprised to see how many notes related to my workplace and my colleagues. I hadn’t expected that.

About six weeks ago, in a not altogether uncritical remark, a close colleague told me that he didn’t work three times harder than me “he worked five times harder.” It’s a fair point because he does seem to be on the go non-stop. However he doesn’t do five times more work than me, and from my position he seems to actually do less. I’m not saying that I’m God’s gift to time-management but although we plan our workload using the same tools, he doesn’t build in slack. This means that whenever something unexpected comes along (unexpected maybe but definitely foreseeable)  he finds himself firefighting in a scarcity trap. I think he thinks that planning a week’s work means filling the week up with work, and I think management share some of the responsibility for making him that way. I’m pleased that there is now a growing acknowledgement that he needs to build in time to reflect, to let his mind out for a jog (p.198), to do some reading and to do some professional enquiry.

To achieve that though what he doesn’t need is more time. He doesn’t need an extra five or ten hours on his working week. I think if he had more time he would probably just fill it up with more things to do. He’d continue to go places he doesn’t need to go, to do things that don’t need done at that time. Instead what he needs is a different sort of time – unstructured time (p.196). He needs the support to create some bandwidth, to reflect on his performance and to build up some ‘buffer stock’ (p.224).  He needs the support to strike a balance between in-built slack and a level  of productivity that is meaningfully useful to the people he works for (employers and students) and himself. Maybe it’s time to reclaim the pejorative ‘slacker’.

I recommend Scarcity: Why having so little means so much, and especially to those people who don’t think that they have the time to read it.



Mullainathan, S., Shafir, E. (2013) Scarcity: Why having too little means so much, Penguin Books, London

‘Con Colleano on a slack-wire, circa 1920’, Wikimedia Commons,,_circa_1920.jpg, accessed 14 April 2014

Image of ‘LATE’ alarm clock sourced using Google images, Usage rights, Labelled for Reuse, Flickr,, accessed 14 April 2014 (I couldn’t gain access to Flickr to acknowledge the photographer and give details of precise license but will endeavour to resolve this)

Finding fault with fault-finding


I was talking with a trainee this week about his progress towards becoming an electrician, and I asked him about his recent on-site work.  He replied,

I haven’t being doing anything major, just some fault finding and some small installations

It’s something that I’ve heard before…that ” just“. The OED defines one of the many subtle meanings of ‘just’ as a means of placing focus on a particular word. In a weakened sense it means ‘merely’: it’s not descriptive, it’s derogatory.

As I put this post together I began to uncover so many different possible ways of comprehending what had been said to me, and about how skills are discussed in a community of practice,  that it became too dense for a single post.   So, for now, I’m just going to focus on one particular interpretation.

In the current Assessment Specification for the Electrical Installation the “practical” Performance Objectives require the Competence Base to cover fault diagnosis over a range of common faults with the Evidence Source being that ‘faults are diagnosed correctly’, (pp.81-82). That seems perfectly reasonable – one expects an electrician to correctly find faults.

In their Guide to Student-Centred Learning, Brandes and Ginnis identify the valuing of process as an attribute of a progressive learning environment, (pp.10-11). With this in mind I tried to unpack the skills involved in diagnosing faults with this trainee. This was the first time that I’d challenged this way of talking about skills, and the list we came up with can be summarised as

  • Enquiry skills
  • Analytical and Deductive skills (Logic skills)
  • Reporting skills

He was quite impressed with himself.

Since our conversation I’ve been puzzling over how an adult trainee can get to near the end of his three-year training scheme, and not realise the qualities he has? I don’t think that this can simply be attributed to individual character: it happens too often .

As I said, there’s a whole host of possible things going on here but I’m minded to suggest that if the training is such that its focus is solely upon the goal then there is a failure in the training. Back in 2007 the Scottish Government published Skills for Scotland: A Lifelong Skills Strategy. In the ministerial forward Fiona Hyslop wrote,

We need successful learners, confident individuals…We need a skilled population..We need employers that demand value, and make best use of their workforce’s skills.

but how can the trainee be confident in his skills if he doesn’t even know he has them, let alone know he’s using them?


“just, adv.”. OED Online. December 2013. Oxford University Press. 5 March 2014 <;.
Fault, by Toastybob, Flickr, taken on 19 September 2013,, accessed 08 March 2014, CC-BY-SA 2.0
Skills for Scotland: A Lifelong Skills Strategy (September 2007) The Scottish Government,, accessed 04 March 2014

vocational pedagogy in the electrical SVQ apprenticeship