Teach education

Reflections of an IB science teacher

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Teaching and Education

Driving to work one morning I found myself in that awkward position between not having enough on my mind to tolerate silence and not wanting to dull my thoughts with music. I scrolled through the various podcasts and audiobooks I have and settled for one I’d listened to countless times before – “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. I sank into the soothing, weathered voice of Michael Kramer as he retold Robert M. Pirsig’s story when a short passage from Disk 5 part 5 jumped out at me.

“The school was what could euphemistically be called a ‘teaching college.’ At a teaching college you teach and you teach and you teach with no time for research, no time for contemplation, no time for participation in outside affairs. Just teach and teach and teach until your mind grows dull and your creativity vanishes and you become an automaton saying the same dull things over and over to endless waves of innocent students who cannot understand why you are so dull, lose respect and fan this disrespect out into the community. The reason you teach and you teach and you teach is that this is a very clever way of running a college on the cheap while giving a false appearance of genuine education.”

The words hung right there in the car and refused to move. Even as Michael Kramer continued to read, all I could hear were those words. They perfectly wrapped up the frustrations that I’ve had with education since getting into the sector and allowed me to see something that had been on my mind all along.

When I decided to get into teaching I had a romanticized view of education as this enlightened cluster of academics who enjoyed a life of learning and sharing their passions. I actually had images of teachers in the staff room in deep discussions over their subjects. A physics teacher constructing an ICT unit where basic programming is used to model some physical process. Or the math’s teacher and the art teacher explaining Escher to one another. Of course, you can imagine my surprise when I first stepped into a real staff room.

With the perspective of hindsight, I know how unrealistic my expectations were. I’m a self confessed geek, and not everybody counts studying amongst their hobbies. I do however, feel that schools are making the crushing mistake of treating teachers as *just* teachers and expecting them to only need to do just that.

How many teachers have you encountered that encompass the teacher automatons that are described in the passage? Particularly those that have been in the job for a substantial amount of time. “They’ve just turned bitter” I hear people say. Once I was even told that teachers become either ‘Sinks’ or ‘Radiators’. Well, I don’t believe that for a second.

These are people who chose to study a subject and loved it so much that they decided to share that passion with younger generations. But then we took away the source of that passion. We took away their time to study. To learn. To postulate, theorize, create and most of all to appreciate their subject. We gave them back to back lessons and treated them like an infinite vessel without ever seeing the requirement for filling that vessel. Just teach it, mark it, repeat it. Teach it. Mark it. Repeat it…

*Sqwark* The atom consists of three particles *SQWARK* Protons, neutrons and *Sqwark* Electrons!

Interestingly enough, teacher subject matter knowledge has been shown to make little difference by John Hattie‘s big data crunch (Despite how others might feel). This also seemed to be the case in Sugata Mitra’s methods where a subject specialist was not even present. And you might be surprised to hear at this point that I agree with the research – I don’t think that you need to have subject specialists in the room for children to learn. I do however, believe that you need teachers to model academic learners and to maintain the upkeep of educational structures and of course, to provide expert formative evaluations of student work (Take another look at John Hattie’s report). And for a teacher to be great at this job, you need to maintain a teachers passion and love for what they are mean’t to be promoting all along – learning.



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Visualising the Question and Mapping the Response

[So, I’ve come to the conclusion that my desktop computer is now a recovery project. Perhaps when I’ve managed to restore the memory, I might find a use for various components and it will become a few new projects. However, it is about time that the clunky old thing was replaced. I’ve been craving a desktop-replacement laptop for some time now so that I’m free’d from my desk and also to make any future international moves more simple. Until then, here’s another draft post that I’ve been meaning to publish…

I hope you enjoy it.

Mr Copeland]

Generally, students are awful at understanding what a question is asking them to do. A lot of the time, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise because generally, teachers are awful at spending the time to explain to students what different command terms are actually asking the student to do. Ideally, they would be my target audience for that little rant, but they are not the sort of teachers that also spend their time reading teaching and learning blogs and I can safely assume that you have at least once guided your students through command terms. On behalf of education, thank you, and please loudly discuss how necessary this is in the next time you’re in the staff room for all around to hear.

So,today I’d like to share with you a novel way in which students can approach structuring different command terms. And this is visually, through concept mapping. All of the following concept maps were first discovered in our departmental OneNote in a section created by my head of department. There was an external link to their apparent source, so in the interests of transparency, here’s the link.

The circle map (Below) is great for getting students to just create what I like to call a “Mess of understanding” – it is everything that students think fits into the context of the topic before they have really covered enough ground to sort out the information they have.

The bubble map is good for collecting adjectives and other key words that can be used to describe a theory or a process. This is a good activity to prepare for an “outline” or “describe” question.

One of my personal favourites, the double bubble map provides students a framework for the dreaded “Compare and contrast” questions. Probably only exactly as useful as a Venn diagram, but much more fun to say! “Draw a double bubble map!”

I subscribe to the idea that we compartmentalize all knowledge, which leads me to see a real use in the tree map (below). This has obvious uses in some topics in biology but try it when teaching the EM Spectrum, crude oil fractions or molecular structures.

Sequencing maps are fantastic aids to students who struggle writing a scientific method or are having a difficulty understanding a particular process. They can be linear, branch out or loop.

The multi-flow map below is great for analysing cause and effect. Student’s add causes on the left, which flow into effects on the right.

Finally, the bridge map is a fun way of having students consider relationships and analogies. They  pair words above/below a horizontal line that they all share.

One example could be to link measurements with units or measuring devices, another perhaps to use the relating factor “Was discovered by” or “Is used for”. As I see it, this is only useful occasionally in science.  But I’d love to stand corrected!: Please share any useful examples in the comments section for other visitors to pick up 🙂

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11 things you need to know before making a PowerPoint presentation

So, my primary PC is permanently stuck on the infamous “Blue Screen of Death”. This is slowing down my plans for web domination [insert evil cackle here]. Whilst I work on saving my PC, here’s a draft post I’ve had saved for some time now. I hadn’t posted it yet because there’s still a few things I want to add for the reader. The post is complete, but you’ll have to come back another time for my video and check list I’m afraid!


I’ve always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with Microsoft PowerPoint. Overall, I think it’s a useful tool in teaching that gets a bad wrap for being severely over-used. And it’s contagious – try telling your students that they will be teaching a portion of the lesson and seeing them not rush to their computers to create a PowerPoint presentation to read from.

This has resulted to me giving students quick lessons on “How to use PowerPoint” or setting them challenges like “No words on any slide allowed” or “Five slides for five minutes”. In my experience, when used right PowerPoint is an unrivalled tool in supplementing your lesson – but it is a supplement, not a crutch.

So, here are 11 things to always remember before you PowerPoint!

1) Justify your presence

The quickest way to be ignored by your students is to lead them into thinking that everything you’re about to say is a repeat of what’s on the slide. Especially if you’ve started the lesson with “The slides are available on [Insert VLE here]”. There really is no faster way to negate your existence in the room.

So, open up every PowerPoint slide that you intend on using, ever. Cut any large blocks of text, and paste them into the “Notes” section at the bottom of the presentation editor. Now replace the text in the main PowerPoint with bullet points that summarise key points in as few words as possible (typically one or two). Finally, highlight those bullet points and set them to transition in one at a time.

Note: I’m having some major issues with the PC I’ve

Hey presto! You now have an actual PowerPoint and not a badly formatted text book!

2) Choose your font wisely

One of the lessons I vividly remember delivering to my students during my teacher training was hinged on a provocation that consisted of a short comic strip on the subject. The comic strip was written in a very unique font and I decided that I was going to go the whole hog to create a seamless PowerPoint. I actually found a downloadable font pack that somebody had made consisting of the exact font from the comics. I then matched the design of every slide to the design of the comic. Fantastic, I thought.

That was until I got into the classroom and proudly loaded up the PowerPoint, put it on presentation and got a few slides in. One of my students raised his hand and said “Sir, I can’t read any of that”. This was followed by a barrage of agreeing statements by both my students and the two members of staff who were observing this lesson.

I was forced to get them into an activity whilst I went slide by slide and changed the font to something more readable.

3) Contrast is important

This is another example of a penchant for flair actually working against you. There is a limited number of colour combinations that are easy to read, and even fewer when we consider our SEN students. Below is a list of combinations that work well for all students.

Good Bad text contrasts

4) Make every slide essential

Every time you create or use a new slide for your presentation, it should be an essential summary of information that you’re going to share with your audience that they would be lost without. If you keep placing non-useful information in front of your students, they will lose focus. And who could blame them? They live in a world of Ctrl+F, TL:DR and Google search summaries.

So, every time you create a slide I want you to ask yourself “Would my presentation not work without this slide?”

5) Your students should be active participants, not passive bystanders

A room full of professional adults might be willing to sit through a presentation where there is nothing required of them. The topic is likely to be relevant to their interests and their profession, and even during dry bits, they have the wisdom to stay focused should they miss anything that would result in an embarrassment in conversation later.

A room full of students will not tolerate dryness. It is not enough to simply reassure them that there is a test on this material in X weeks’ time and it is not enough to dish out punishments every time you think that they are losing focus. In fact, these are two sure fire ways to damage your relationship with your students.

Here are some suggestions for creating active participants:

  • Running through a controversial or debatable topic? Take a quick vote to see where your students’ opinions lie and put it on the board. Tell them that you’re going to take the vote again at the end of the presentation to see how many minds have been changed.
  • If you’re using a real life example, ask the room if anybody has any first-hand experience of this and allow a couple of minutes for them to take the floor.
  • Sometimes a topic lends itself well to a reenactment, role play or even a dance. If you can think of a reason to get the students out of their seats for a moment, do it! One of my favorite examples of this involved a biology teacher who had just run through the seven life processes with her students (Or MRS GREN / MRS NERG as you might remember it!) She then asked every student in the room to stand up and practice a mime for each process (I should note here that reproduction was very firmly taught as cradling a baby and nothing else!). She then called life processes out at random at an increasing tempo as the students tried desperately to immediately switch into the right mime. It was fantastic seeing the grade 7s rolling around with laughter as they mimicked using the toilet before switching to shivering, running about, and eating. To this day I imagine they remember their seven life processes!
  • Lace your presentation with slides that contain a single question on the content from the previous slide. This used to be a particular favourite of mine for classes of students that would even avoid taking part in the previous suggestions. I would use lollipop sticks to pick a name at random and ask that student the question. (Tip: take your time pulling out the name to give the whole class time to prepare their answer.)

6) The slides are for your audience and not for you

We half covered this in mistake #1 by placing all of our text in our notes section. However, it is still possible that you will stand there during your lesson and actually face your presentation more than you are facing your students. Please, please, I beg you, please, do not do this.

Facing your PowerPoint as you present tells your students two things. The first is that you are not prepared today. The second is that they are your secondary focus as you try to catch up. Don’t run a presentation you’re not prepared to deliver, and don’t alienate your audience by facing the wall.

7) Get out of the way

Another habit that can occur on occasion is standing directly in front of a key slide as you talk. If you avoided mistake #4, then this is going to cause problems. Don’t do it.

8) Check it works. Then check it works. Finally, check it works

The most important part of the planning process is not the hours you might put into creating your presentations. Neither is it the rehearsal of your lines. It is the five minutes right before the presentation that you give yourself to check the equipment. Do you have all of the plug ins you require? Does your video on the fifth slide play? Is the sound at the right level? Is your laptop plugged in?

9) When it doesn’t work, don’t freak out

The best laid plans of mice and men, eh?

Sometimes something will go wrong. Sometimes it will not be your fault. And sometimes you will need to make adjustments to your presentation that will retract from how great it was. However, the worst thing you can do at this point is to continue as if defeated.

10) Stay inside PowerPoint

One way that you can minimize the potential for a tech nightmare is to minimize the amount of software that you are relying on. And one way you can minimize your reliance on other programs is to just stick with PowerPoint. But that’s not the only reason I have an aversion to leaving my presentations. The other reason is that it really does just kill the illusion.

Imagine it, you’re entranced by a stunning presentation of perfectly balanced colors, a sleek font and immaculate design, when suddenly the presenter hits Escape and you see the familiar, clunky view of the PowerPoint editor. You see part of the slide timeline, including the next couple. Then you’re taken for a scramble across the presenter’s desktop, the loading screen of their web browser, their search history etc, etc…

Take your audience to another world, and keep them there.

11) Enjoy yourself

Note: As soon as I have the time, I’ll make a check list summarising these tips for anybody wanting to keep a copy next to their PC

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Salman Khan

In 2011 I was just starting my P.G.C.E. in physics and as much as I wanted to say I was sure I was making the right decision, I wasn’t.

I come from a large state school that had its fair share of problems, and I knew just how bad it can be in the UK. Furthermore, I was surrounded by enough peers that would stare at me in disbelief when I admitted I was considering going into education. Popular responses were “You’re crazy” or “I could never do that”. I’m not ashamed to admit that at this time, I questioned my decision.

Luckily, a few months prior to starting the P.G.C.E., a man named Salman Khan had recently been recorded at a TED conference in the hugely popular video “Let’s use Video to Reinvent Education“. As I watched this video, now almost 4 years old, Khan talked about a type of education that was completely alien to me.

One of my key memories from school was getting really good at an activity that was done at the start of every lesson and an activity that, wanting to cement my reputation as top student, I would happily volunteer for every lesson. That activity was handing out the text books. Since then, technology had come on a long way and it blew my mind to be opened up to the idea of just how useful those advances can be to education. I was utterly inspired and reassured that I was entering a sector in which exciting things were happening, and in which I could someday really make a difference.

It’s not four years later and since then I’ve successfully completed my P.G.C.E. and NQT year, lead numerous workshops on teaching and learning (Usually with a focus on mainstream ICT skills) and held a Tech Ed position at both schools in which I’ve worked. It’s safe to say that I’ve maintained my original focus.

It’s not four years later and I find myself listening to Sal Khan again, in an interview carried out by BBC Radio 4’s “The Educators“. Here Khan spends a length of the interview repeating the key benefits to video based instruction. But what stood out for me was that Khan then moved his focus onto gamification, and I think that gamification is exactly the right focus. My department is currently in a position where we have achieved a paperless environment, we’ve implemented a successful Bring Your Own Device policy and we’ve incorporated key ICT skills for research, creation and collaboration. What we need now is a system that motivates students to move through this system at a pace that challenges them. Or as Khan put it, Mastery based, self paced, peer to peer learning. We think we’ve found the right tool, but I need some real time to work with it. Watch this space.

Ultimately, I think that the behemoth that is education is slowly lumbering it’s way towards this holy grail. This promised land that anyone involved in Tech Ed can see in the distance but not quite make out the details of. We can’t say exactly what it’s going to look like, but we can feel a sense of it in our bones.

To my mind, the real turning point would be the unification of tools, and the unification of providers. “Gamification” and “Flipped learning” are both hot topics in education at the minute and the biggest frustration is trying to patch together numerous apps or websites that do different jobs for different parts of the process, and for the students I speak to it’s finding the right courses for the right programs. What we need is a single platform on which all “quanta” of knowledge is placed and laid out. That would certainly give us a big enough playing field for game or quest based learning. But this mammoth task will only happen when educators are working on a single platform, and each resource for each “quanta” (Or learning objective) is voted in or out of the system by it’s users, the students.

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How we Learn – Reflections, part 1

I am now 25% the way through “How we Learn” by Benedict Carey and I have to say that so far, I am incredibly impressed by Carey’s pace, style and the thoroughness in his research. He manages to convey the science and the theory with the right level of scepticism as to hint at it’s use without making false promises.

So, what have I learned about how we learn and how could this apply to the classroom?

1. There are two key factors in memory: Retrieval and Storage

Our capacity for storage of memories is incredible high, and in fact very few memories are not thrown into our memories storage bank. But that does not mean to say that they are stored alphabetically on some figurative bookshelf in the brain. No, memories are more like the contents of a teenagers bedroom – scattered about in a loose order. Memories of a texture linked to a particular colour, or memories of an old man’s face linked to the scent of his aftershave. We can increase storage simply by increasing the number of memories we have connected to a piece of information (More on this later).

Retrieval however, is fickle. It is gained or lost fairly quickly depending simply on how frequently the memory in question is required. Further to this, it’s capacity is limited. We can only call up a limited number of facts at any one time.However, retrieval strength can be built up quickly by simply making sure that we have to work hard to retrieve a memory. There is an interesting connection between this and a major point from the book “Bounce” by Matthew Sayed, where an example from psychologist S. W. Tyler is used to show the correlation between mental effort and memory retrieval.

2. Storage relies on connections

In point 1 we mentioned that we can increase storage by increasing the number of memories that we connected to a piece of information. This is the big picture of the well known adage that we should study in a similar environment that we expect to be tested in. The theory on this is that knew memories hand on other memories that were formed at the time – for example, studying algebra for a maths test with Jazz music playing in the background and then taking the test with the same Jazz music in the background will produce better results because notes or phrases in the Jazz music can create cues for the knew things we learnt within that revision. The real kicker here is that silence then, proves to be quite a useless study environment because it is rather void of cues or memories on which to hang this new information.

So, to form knew memories we hinge them on other memories and experiences created at the time. Therefore, to maximise memory retention we should also maximise the variety of the environments and the contexts in which we learn it.

This is one of the findings in the science of learning that I feel that we most fail at making use of. Schools do a very good job at compartmentalising subjects. “Science is science and it is taught in the science block and your science teacher is Mr Copeland and you will sit in this seat and work with this student and you will listen in silence.

Perhaps we should listen to what research is telling us and try to mix things up a little more at school. Why not borrow the P.E. hall, or the design block for science classes and create lessons that show connections between science and those subjects? Could schools have teachers rotating concepts rather than classes, meaning greater variation in the number of science teachers a student has across a year? How often are you mixing your seating plans so that students can connect different concepts to different places and partners? Is music in the classroom necessarily a bad thing if a student remembers a song and vastly increases the volume of content that comes to mind?

3. Less time more sittings

Another idea covered by the book is the idea of “spacing out” learning. Some pretty rigorous research has determined that shorter length but higher volume sessions are more effective than longer length and lower volume sessions that have the same total length of study time. For example, three 20 minute sessions spaced out over time are more effective than a single 60 minute session.

Now, quite regularly I will plan my lessons in lesson parts and activities, with previous parts or activities usually building up towards the later parts and activities. But this finding makes me wonder… What if each lesson part was actually on a different topic, but topics were repeated throughout the term? For example, in grade 6 we teach Energy, the Periodic Table and Cells. The obvious approach would be to teach “Energy” for about a term, assess, and then move on to the “Periodic Table”, and assess before finally moving onto “Cells”.

But now, what if we instead covered all three. In lower volume, but higher frequency. What if we had a lesson where there was a 20 minute activity on Energy, followed by a 20 minute activity on the Periodic Table and finally a 20 minute activity on Cells. And then next lesson we spent 30 minutes on energy and 30 minutes on the Periodic Table. And then we had a 120 minute project on Cells, but we did that in 30 minute bursts whilst alternating between the Periodic Table and Energy for the other 30 minutes…

Students would have to keep retrieving what they learnt on Energy, or the Periodic Table, or Cells. High retrieval. Even if teachers change or seating plans change, they are still working on all three disciplines. High storage.

“But student’s will keep forgetting what they learn’t”…

4. Forget to Learn

One of the biggest revelations for me in this book was the concept of “Forget to Learn”. You see, new information is “Forgotten” incredibly easily. And so it should be – “We never needed this before, we should we need it again?” our brains seem to think.  But then we call upon the information again and it is difficult, and this mental effort makes our brains think again. “Wow, I needed that information again and I really didn’t enjoy straining to remember it. I’d better make the retrieval a little higher for next time”.

In short this holds two lessons for teaching. Firstly, your students will forget stuff, and they should. Secondly, it should be a struggle to recall. And this second point creates an important addition to our new learning model. When we re-introduce topics to students we are doing them a disservice by handing them a summary of everything they should remember. We are doing then a disservice by showing them a revision video or letting them Google the answers too early on. We are essentially saying to their brains “Don’t worry about retrieval, here it all is again”.

So, perhaps in our model, we could begin each activity with a short quiz on what they should already know. No books. No Google. Just Brain.

Anyway, these are the main points I remember from the book. I’ve just challenged my own retrieval, so hopefully I’ll remember more when I’m in conversation with someone about the key points of the book. Furthermore, I’m in a coffee shop at the moment so for the occasional times I’ve had to dive into the book to remember a concept, hopefully I’ve extend my storage cues. There were actually a few things I’d forgotten, too. I must be learning!

To buy “How we Learn” by Benedict Carey, please follow the link below;

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where and Why It Happens

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Instant Ready-Structures

The first school I worked in was a behemoth. It was so large that it consisted of five buildings, one for each grade from 6-10. The building contained nowhere close to enough science labs for the number of science lessons it would hold each period, and as a result most of the teaching staff would be teaching in classrooms of the building belonging to whichever grade were to be taught. The result here was having to race across the school at the sound of the bell to make it before your next lesson. I would arrive at the classroom out of breath, clutching my teaching toolbox and whatever other materials were needed and I would want to get the lesson started before unpacking or even sitting down to log onto my computer. After all, class time was precious and I wanted everybody starting off on the right food.

I quickly developed a set of template structures that I could always have to hand. I called these my “Ready-Structures” because they required no other ingredients and lent themselves well to most if not all topics. I’ve attached them to this post – please add or take away from the structures included as you see fit. They’re designed to be printed, cut into a deck of cards and laminated. I’ve always kept mine bound together by a red bull-dog clip and close to hand at all times.

Now that I’m at a school where I have my own classroom giving me time to prepare, I can’t say I rely on these cards quite so much any more. But sometimes I will be caught off guard with potentially dead time through either technology hiccups, speedy students or having my timetable messed around with by senior leadership. Sometimes there might even be a cover lesson you find yourself in where the work left behind hasn’t quite been… enough. For times like these, I find drawing a structure from my little set of laminated cards does just the trick to get or keep the students “In the zone”.


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3,000 miles can make for a great change of perspective

Last year I moved from a school in Barnsley, North England,UK, to a school in Jumeirah, Dubai, UAE. And I want my first blog post to reflect on the question “What’s changed?”

Learning Culture

The first big change for me was the learning culture in Dubai. In Barnsley, a lot of students were from families that had encountered mass unemployment and job loss for those educated and uneducated alike. I felt a culture of distrust among students and it was a daily challenge to convince them that education was a gateway to great things. This made for a stark contrast with Dubai, where most students were from families who are doing very well because they did very well in school – their parents might be lawyers, engineers, or doctors and as a result, a lot of these students are comparably well motivated for school.

Non-contact Hours

My non-contact hours were once used shuffling seating plans in a hopeless bid to separate the talkative majority by splitting up the well-behaved minority. Or preparing various behaviour management techniques. Or following up the previous lesson’s behaviour reports and lunchtime detentions.

Now? Two words: Planning and marking. My students will run through roughly four times the volume of questions, tasks, and project work that my previous students would. And further to that, they will expect feedback the moment they click “Save”.


The single biggest change is one that I’m sure I’ll spend the majority of my time blogging about, because it is the single biggest mind shift I have experienced. And that is the shift from delivering teacher driven, content based lessons to student driven, inquiry based lessons.

When I left the UK this was a word that was being used a lot in teaching and learning sessions and educational blogs everywhere. But inside the schools I worked in and visited, I saw very little evidence of it successfully, or even seriously, being implemented. I am sure that there are many schools across the UK that are in fact doing a fantastic job at this, but in my experience there was more “talk” on this than there was “walk”. However, not for one moment did I think that teachers were the culprits for this. We were, and I believe still are, working in an environment in the UK where the way in which we are told to teach, and the way in which our students and our lessons are being assessed are not mutually agreeable. It is not possible to both give students the time and the freedom that is required for successful inquiry and have them score as highly in standardized tests as students that have learned by rote – particularly when the specification for these tests is seemingly designed to fill every classroom hour.

So to summarize before I spend my entire first post ranting , it has been refreshing to enter a curriculum which appears to be more supportive of fostering inquiry based skills in students. And one of the reasons I have started this blog is to reflect on various technology or techniques that I have implemented into my classroom to aid inquiry based learning.