Science Week 2021: Bringing the PIRATE approach to the science classroom

Teach the pirate way.
Pirates arr great teachers.

Whenever we think of pirates, we imagine crazy seafarers out to steal whatever bounty they can find while terrorizing the high seas. Up until a few years ago, I also had the same image of pirates... until I stumbled upon a Twitter chat called ‘Teach Like a Pirate’, or TLAP for short. 

The whole premise behind TLAP was introduced by author and presenter, Dave Burgess. He promotes using a love of education to transform students’ education experiences by creating learning experiences to help them to become more engaged, eventually becoming more knowledgeable about the subject matter. 

As a science teacher, it was often hard to motivate students to learn. In a Year 7 class there is often a variation among students regarding the level of exposure they had to ‘real’ science in primary school. Many primary teachers do an amazing job at introducing their students to the world of science, however, some feel like they are not experienced or trained enough, so their students may have limited exposure to some of the harder, more challenging scientific concepts. At the other end of the spectrum, science isn’t compulsory for senior students; most students have decided whether or not they want to continue studying the subject by the middle of Year 10… and those who don’t often ‘switch off’ after any formal assessment is over.

This is where a highly engaging classroom can become a teacher’s most valuable asset. Science is a subject that allows for more than rote learning, note taking, and regurgitation of facts. It allows for exploration and experimentation, and students should have as many opportunities to do both of these as possible. Often, the most teachable moments are when a science experiment goes wrong. A mistake can provide new possibilities with lots of room for discussion, understanding and hypotheses. 

The idea behind Burgess’ ‘Teach Like a Pirate’ is actually found in the word ‘PIRATE’ used as an acronym, with each letter representing a different area of teaching that can be focused on to change a students’ experience in your classroom:

  • Passion: whether it is passion for content, professional passion or personal passion, teachers should find what they are passionate about and pass that on to students through their teaching. Passion is infectious and when you are excited about something others will be as well!
  • Immersion: how can you immerse yourself and your students into your lessons? How can you change the environment to relate to a particular concept? Teachers need to dive into the pool with the students rather than watching from the edge!
  • Rapport: by building solid relationships with students teachers can break down walls and ensure that their students are willing to contribute to their learning. When teaching science, students need to be comfortable with taking risks and thinking outside the box, as concepts can often be confronting and difficult to talk about. To me, this is the most important part of the PIRATE philosophy.
  • Ask and Analyse: we often provide feedback to our students on their performance, but how often do we ask students for their feedback? What’s working for them and what’s not? Don’t be afraid to ask the students how you can make their learning experience better.
  • Transform: once you have gathered that feedback, act on it! Your students are the ones who are taking part in your classes, so it is important that they have an opportunity to shape what that looks like.
  • Enthusiasm: none of these things can be done without having enthusiasm. It can be hard to become passionate and excited about some of the syllabus outcomes we teach, but again, enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm! Get your kids excited about coming to your class and you’ll be amazed at how the learning process for your students changes. 

While teaching, and now through my role as Head of Science at Education Perfect it is always my goal to instil a love of learning in science in students. It is such an important subject, especially in our current climate. Students (and adults) are being bombarded everyday with words like pandemic, vaccine and transmission so it is important that they are able to think critically and explore the world around them with interest, enthusiasm and an open mind.