What Schools Say

Why the best schools use Science Bits

Patricia Heather
Patricia Heather

Apricot Learning Online, UK

Apricot Online Learning is a UK provider of online, live lessons with a mission to help students succeed in real life as well as learning. Apricot works directly with both mainstream and independent schools, PRUs, Hospital Schools, Parents, MATs, and Local Authorities. We spoke to Trish Heather, Head of Science about their approach to student success and how they make a difference.   

Can you share some information about Apricot Online Learning and what you do?

My name is Patricia Heather, Head of Science at Apricot Learning Online. Apricot is a provider of online live lessons for students who don’t attend mainstream education in the UK. Our head offices are in Gloucestershire but we work remotely and have teachers throughout the UK.

Apricot works with LEAs (Local Education Authorities) and Councils to reintegrate students back into mainstream education. Our students cannot, for multiple reasons, attend mainstream schools full time or at all.

This can sometimes be a temporary medical issue or longer term mental health issue that prevents them from getting to school, but we also have private clients who choose homeschooling for their SEND children. We are most active in Years 7 to 11 but cover all student needs from Key Stage 2 right through to Key Stage 5.

We also have students who stay with us for longer periods of time and continue their journey through A levels, all the way to University. It’s rewarding and very pleasing when you’ve taught them for several years finally to see your students go on to University!

Did you see an increase in students after the pandemic?

I’d say we saw an increase in awareness. Anxiety in young people grew during the pandemic. This is a common issue with many of our students. It’s one of the main reasons they are not able to access school. Talking about mental health is more straightforward now.

Most people understand the issue better: talking about anxiety is no longer unusual. Before the pandemic people may have been less willing to accept that anxiety could play such a huge role in why students are not ready or able to learn. There’s far more acceptance now.

We can have students who are post-operative, so they’ve missed a bit of education but we also teach students who are neuro-divergent. They may have been diagnosed with ADHD or diagnosed with Autism, ADHD or other conditions. Students can be with us for six weeks or, in some cases, for many years.

One of the reasons we are successful is that all our teachers have their degree in their subject but are also QTS (Qualified Teacher Status). We know pedagogy. We know how to teach our subjects. And, we know how to work with SEND children because we come from diverse backgrounds in the educational field and have extensive training.

That’s interesting: how does that help with your students?

We help each other with our own personal experience in a live classroom. Sometimes you try everything and nothing works. We routinely have to remodel what we do for each student, depending on their needs. As teachers, we learn from each other and share knowledge. 

We’re also very flexible and don’t have a static timetable. So, for example, nine o’clock Monday morning isn’t GCSE English for everyone. It’s adapted to the student’s needs. We try to accommodate and offer different things for different situations. It’s all about responding to needs.

In what ways do you provide this custom approach for each and every child? 

One difference is that we do not use cameras in our classes. They’re a distraction for the student. We are anonymous to them and can be whoever they would like us to be. They can also be whoever they want to be. That is really quite important.

For many students, Apricot is a fresh start, and our work is to help get them back to learning. Because we can’t see them, we have to start a dialogue. Another important element, from a student perspective, is the time we take to get to know them before we get into teaching.

There’re no titles, just names: I’m just Trish who teaches science. They don’t know I’m Head of Science, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is gaining their trust and encouraging them to engage with education. In my case, to engage with science!

Maybe it will start off with science. But if that isn’t working we’ll try other things to draw them in and get them back again for the next lesson. We take time to get to know our students and it does take time to work out what works for them because there is no one size that fits all.

In some cases, we may know about trigger words or trigger situations. Sometimes, unfortunately, we uncover those as we go along. The student has the ultimate power; they can just log out. You’re making a breakthrough when they log back in and also when they come back for the next lesson.

That must be very tough but also very rewarding. 

Yes, we take a lot of time helping them realize that things can go wrong. It’s normal for things to go wrong. It should not add to your anxiety when things go wrong or if you get an answer wrong. The way we teach in Apricot is key: we focus on helping you succeed. 

We will try and push you a little at some point, but we focus on hinge lessons, rather than just hinge questions. We never move on until we’re very confident that students really have a good understanding of all the underlying stuff, not just the headlines in a particular topic.

They need to be able to make connections and link between topics. We take time to cover the syllabus as much as we can, but we are not driven by syllabus or grades: we ask, “Is it right for this student now?” One student’s success is not the same as another student’s success. Each child is different.

It’s not age-related either, which is difficult for mainstream schools who need to worry about school league tables. All these things can put additional anxiety and stress on the student. That’s completely removed with Apricot. Our mission is to rekindle the love of learning. Again, for me, in science.

When students aren’t interested, I work to interest them, because I love science. I’ll talk about my experience, try to put it into context and make it relevant. I focus on helping them see it’s not just about content, but about developing analytical skills and what we can do with sources of information.

Like any young person, they know we can use Google for information. I help them understand science is about developing skills that can help you understand all different kinds of information. And, the skills they learn will be useful for their whole life, not just my class. 

What are the greatest challenges you see when teaching science?

Helping students overcome their biggest enemy: the fear of being wrong. A lot of my work is about building trust and relationships. Making them happy and confident: helping them see that I will not criticize them or just say that they’re wrong.

What can seem small is huge and part of my work is to help them get past that. You build their confidence when they see me admit I got it wrong; I pressed the wrong button or how they should check my calculations. It’s fine to make mistakes and that’s a part of life and learning!

A phrase that I frequently use with my students is, “If you never make a mistake, you can’t actually learn anything.” And, I tell them if they get it wrong, it helps me. It shows me I need to teach that bit a little better next time. It’s very much a collaborative relationship, they have to see and understand that I care.

How do you keep students coming back for their lessons? What materials do you use?

We use Science Bits for engagement, often very specific parts of Science Bits and embed it right into our LMS to make it easier. We need to build their resilience and overcome any barriers they might have to learning. They can also access Science Bits 24/7 if they want.

Some students start off as observers in the lesson and their interest develops. They will then start to be more proactive. So they’ve got to have the opportunity to go and play with it on their own. Sometimes we might just use the Engage or sometimes the Explore, the experimental side of it.

Science Bits does that really well and it goes beyond the quality of the visuals which are great! What you get is very, very good. You can move around, choose which bits you want students to use. The way it’s contextualized is very different and unique compared to other materials I’ve seen.

If I’m going to do anything on developing vaccines, I’ll use the lovely activity where you’re vaccinating sheep and you’re waiting to see what happens. The students love it, but it’s a real life example. The visuals are fantastic, but there’s so much more there in terms of the thinking behind it.

It gets it all right: it provides what is really important for the students to experience and get that core understanding in place. What I really like is that it’s not just the highlights: it’s not a superficial treatment. Science Bits is always at the right level and short enough to gain and maintain interest.

It doesn’t go beyond what students need but then offers the same core idea in a different interactive that helps reinforce those core ideas. That’s one of the things our teachers really like: from core understanding you’ve got all the pieces you need to build deeper learning with all of your students.

With Science Bits, we’re putting solid building blocks in place for students and they’re engaged because the take on it is slightly different. It’s flexible and easy and allows you to do many different things according to the student and their particular needs at that time.

In some lessons, we can just look at a video clip. We all watch it two or three times because I only want my students to develop their observational skills. What do you notice? Then, I want you to have a go with slides two, three and four. Of course, I’ll be dipping in to see what they’re writing and doing.

The other thing I like about Science Bits is the variation of activities and tasks: how they’re nicely interwoven. Things like true/falses, a bit of multiple choice are important, particularly for students who don’t want to get it wrong. They can make a choice. It helps move them on a little bit.

There is always within a particular unit something for everybody. You can help the student become a real independent learner. You can say this bit we’ll do, maybe in 10 minutes. We’re coming back to this bit. The way it’s designed means everybody gets a go and we can talk about it together.

I can tell them that if they’ve finished they can move on, it allows them to work at their own pace. It allows them to become independent. It allows me time as a teacher: sometimes I need to focus on a student who needs help. Science Bits is a very nice piece of software and makes it all much easier.

So you find students are more engaged, and can start to learn at their own pace?

Yes, and that’s really the beauty of it. As they start to work at their own pace, you can also offer different examples around the same topic. Not everything engages all students all of the time in the same way, but Science Bits offers a lot of variety to keep their interest.

We’ve talked about finding success: how do you achieve that success?

I would say at the beginning it’s about providing an environment where they feel safe to make mistakes. They know they will not be judged and they feel ready to learn even when they don’t like your subject. There’s a level of interest that comes naturally from good relationships.

Then it’s about finding what is relevant and interesting for them. You’ve got to get them on board and work as a team: show them that you care about them being able to use that information. That’s the first step: you’ve got to have skin in the game and buy-in from your students. It’s creating a team.

That’s what we work on: the relation and relationship building. Every day is a fresh start: we have a very positive mental attitude and want to move forward. But always, you have to reinforce the relevance to them: they have to see why they should be bothered to know about this.

Once you’ve more or less crafted that relationship, you have to be mindful that you’re dealing with somebody who is fragile and still delicate. Steps should be relatively small and you have to make sure you have all of the building blocks in place before you move further. 

At times you have to go back three steps and take a different approach. Students may not want to see the same stuff again and this is where Science Bits is very good: I can look up a topic and see it in different contexts so I can always find something that appeals and helps students understand.

If they struggle with energy as a topic, I help them see beyond the concept and make it tangible with  photosynthesis and energy or energy in biological reactions. We also have energy in chemistry and then we might come back to energy and physics. They get the importance of investing time!

Sometimes, you need to get them to help you. When I want to encourage them to work alone, I’ll deliberately only get to a certain point in an activity and ask, what do you think? Can you finish that off for me? I’ve got another lesson to do now but I want us to move on to something exciting next class.

That’s getting them to start doing homework. Working more independently. I think of it this way: at the start they need you to hold their hand, but when you make them feel safe you need to help them get to the stage where they no longer need you and you can let their hand go and say: Go on. Give it a go.

And from what you say, you have students who succeed and go on to University.

Success looks different for each student but it’s wonderful to see the impact that we have by being student focused. It’s about them. It’s not about us. We learn with our students as well as teaching them. And always ask ourselves, how can we improve?

Success can be slow. It’s individual. It’s very personalized. Everybody’s at a different stage in a group, so I have to keep all the balls in the air at the same time. Our experience is that real success comes only from meeting student’s needs and knowing when you should let go of their hand. 

Thank you for taking time out from your lessons to share your insights.

Webpage: https://www.apricotlearningonline.co.uk/