Teaching with and without equipment

Dr. Mark Winterbottom

We all need equipment in our lessons. Whether it’s a ruler or a test-tube, a pencil or a book, it can be difficult to teach without it. And whatever country we teach in, and however much specialist equipment we have, we would probably all like more of it.

But what happens if the school budget is tight, or if you live in a country where finding equipment or resources is difficult?

Well, ask yourself what you need that equipment for? You may answer that it’s simply practical; you need a class set of rulers to measure things. You may think that activities involving equipment enthuse and engage your learners. You may think students learn better ‘hands on’ because they are kinaesthetic learners – be aware that learning styles (VAK) are widely discredited now! You may think specialist equipment is important to help students understand what it means to ‘be’ a scientist, geographer, etc.

However, most importantly, think about what you want the students to do and see, and what you want them to think about and to learn, whether it’s concepts, competencies, or inquiry skills. Thinking in this way is also important if you do have equipment already; just because students look busy using equipment, they are not necessarily thinking and learning.

If you think in this way, you can work out when you need to buy equipment, and when you can replace it.

Here are 10 tips for making the most out of equipment.

1. Use ‘everyday’ resources. Make your own rulers. Find old newspapers for relevant stories. Bring in household plastic or cardboard waste for model making. Use kitchen chemicals instead of lab chemicals. Have a look at the Kitchen Chemistry from the Royal Society of Chemistry for ideas.

2. Use the outdoors: it can provide a site for inquiry, living things for ethical experimentation, and stimuli for more creative subjects.

3. Use simulations instead of experiments (particularly in science and maths), via a data projector or simply through student’s mobile phones. Have a look at PhET Interactive Simulations for some great examples.

4. Use mobile phones to take pictures. They are useful for art, for recording evidence in science or geography – you can even take a picture looking down a microscope. They can even provide a stimulus for creative writing, or for recording relevant sources in history.

5. Use apps and ebooks. There are some great apps out there for drawing, collaborative writing, science, data logging, etc. My favourites as a science teacher include Science Journal, which allows you to take readings using the sensors in your phone. Molecules lets your students see the three-dimensional shape of molecules, without needing molecular modelling kit.

6. Research ways of securing equipment at low cost. Charities like LabAid redistribute equipment from the UK to schools in developing countries.

7. Use low-resource activities that promote discussion and record the outcomes on the board. Examples include drama, role-play, problem solving, student presentations, small group work, demonstrations, whole-class questioning, think-pair-share, etc.

“Remember, it’s thinking that matters, rather than just ‘doing’ activities, and talking is the best way to make it happen.”

8. Use video sharing sites. You can find science experiments, drama productions, biographies of artists, documentaries, etc. Make sure students think about the video – a video alone does not guarantee learning.

9. Do thought experiments – ask your students what would happen if?

10. Invite local experts in, or email international experts to organise a Skype call with the class. You’ll be surprised how many people will say yes!

Are you a Cambridge IGCSE or International A Level science teacher with limited classroom equipment? Our practical workbooks suggest alternative equipment and give sample data for when you can’t carry our practical activities. Take a look at our Cambridge International AS & A Level Biology Practical Workbook as an example, or search on the site for our practical workbooks for other subjects and levels.


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