From Knowledge to Understandings

Recently (when I first started this post at least) I blogged about the best way to begin the DP biology syllabus and I was frustrated by the limitations of the syllabus to be able to pick and choose different assessment statements.

The DP biology course has always been knowledge rich. Maybe not as full as the A Level syllabus to take account of the fact that students are taking six subjects plus a summatively assessed course in Theory of Knowledgea summatively assessed research project: The Extended Essay, and their Creativity, Activity and Service Program.

Now, the IB changed the syllabus to allow more conceptual teaching, by removing the series of statements about students should be able to:… “explain x” and “state y” and grouping knowledge into brief statements under the heading of understandings, applications and skills. However, the structure of the syllabus with the essential idea for each topic tends to hamper the ability to lift assessment statements out and add them to new areas. i.e. mutations and oncogenes in topic 1.6 could be taught with topics 3.1 after 2.6. See the biology guide for the full IB syllabus.

This year, my Diploma Programme Coordinator, asked the subject departments to focus on developing their written curriculum.

It seemed timely to be asked to do this, when over the summer I had been musing about the best place to begin the course and the best ways to break up the different topics – many of the schools I have worked in simply teach the course topic by topic and the IB is keen to point out in the biology guide:

The order in which the syllabus is arranged is not the order in which it should be taught, and it is up to individual teachers to decide on an arrangement that suits their circumstances. Sections of the option material may be taught within the core or the additional higher level (AHL) material if desired or the option material can be taught as a separate unit.”

Over the course of this academic year, I have thought a lot about how best to structure the course to allow the “best” progression of concepts. Actually, I think that this is a process that began when I first started teaching my current Y13s, and I am an exceptionally slow thinker! I do remember reflecting on how to best position evolution within the course and which topics would be best coming before or after it.

But it wasn’t until this year that I have had the time within my working week or the emotional time within my personal life to really dig down and get to grips with writing up my ideas into the formal IB course outline.

I have also been exposed to new ideas about teaching and learning over the last twelve months. Last summer I read Dan Willingham’s book “Why don’t students like school?” which I think I got put onto after reading Michela’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers”.

Idea’s from cognitive science have become more and more prevalent on my twitter feed as well as I have started to interact a little more with the #CogSciSci crowd.

All this to say that my thinking has evolved in the last twelve months.

I now know that, generally speaking, content knowledge, concepts and skills are domain specific and that learners have to become fluent with a subject’s facts before they are able to transfer that to abstract concepts and develop understanding let alone build connections with other subjects.

I am also beginning to understand the concepts of retrieval practice, spaced practice, dual coding and the distinctions between declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge and how all this may apply to my subject teaching or pedagogical content knowledge as Lucy Crehan puts it in “Clever Lands”.

Translating this into biology teaching is still not well understood (or so it seems from my vantage point) but conversations like the ones below (propositional knowledge = declarative knowledge) and blogs like this one, are beginning to help me unpack this.

The finished product

The below is the finished course outline that details the units and sequence of the teaching of the course. It is an official document used in the authorization and evaluation process of IB World Schools.

The below is my SOW for the course. It has six tabs. The DP overview shows the number of teaching hours recommended by the IB for each subtopic along with my grouping of them per unit. The Year overview shows the spacing of the units through time for both Y12/Y13. The next two tabs are for the week to week (mid-term planning). The Bio and TOK tabs show the TOK links that I have chosen to focus on the topic and are to support collaborative planning with the TOK team. Finally, the PSOW tab shows the practicals that can be built into the course. The IB mandates a specific number of practical hours for both SL and HL courses.

Final Word

The other effect of this learning for me is that I am now worried about the direction that the IB is taking in its philosophy.

If research from cognitive science is telling us that learners need a solid factual knowledge base before they can build conceptual understanding then what does this say for a course whose syllabus is about “understandings” as opposed to knowledge?

I have not heard anything from the IB that shows that it is reviewing research from cognitive science. Is the IB becoming an ideologically run institution that ignores research that doesn’t fit in with its own paradigm?

What is the best place to start teaching IB DP Biology?

Every year I like to think about how I approach the delivery of the DP Biology course. I think about what are the best examples to use to illustrate concepts like the pentadactyl limb, or what is the best way to structure the teaching sequence into a coherent sequence.

This summer I have been thinking about how best to approach the start of the course. I think this is important in my context because I cannot be certain of the biological background of all of my students and I don’t want to make any assumptions about what they know.

I polled teachers on facebook and twitter about this and most teachers tend to start the course with 1.1 – introduction to cells, although other areas like to 2.1 – molecules to metabolism and 5.3 – classification of biodiversity are also popular if not nearly so as 1.1.

My issues with starting at 1.1 is that I think that while there are some essential ideas that are natural to start a Biology course; the functions of life and cell theory, there are others which are not so helpful like stem cells, gene control of differentiation, and evolution of multicellularity. Some of these concepts are tricky to get your head around and do not count as foundational knowledge, in my opinion.

What I want in the start of my DP course is to introduce students to the simplest biological concepts that will go on to serve as a foundation for future learning. I believe the functions of life and the classification of life (“what is life?” and “ok, we know how to crudely define living things, but what types of living things are there?”) are understandings that students should address before going on to look at how living things work.

What I am struggling with is this: the IB’s TSM states that topics don’t need to be taught in order, or that even subtopics don’t necessarily need to be taught in order. We should, as teachers, construct a course that draws different elements into coherent units. Personally, last year, I made a move away from going through topic by topic and tried to link subtopics into themed units. I love thinking about what topics flow well together.

But what if you want to split sub topics? Is this allowable? Obviously you could do this but, with the way the IB has structured the sub-topics each with their own “essential idea”, should you? The issues with the essential idea is that it aims to force all the understandings in that subtopic under a single umbrella. Because the essential idea is examinable, surely all the understandings, applications and skills should be kept together as they serve to illuminate the essential idea.

Personally, I think I may go ahead and chop up 1.1 so that I introduce these:

  • A2: Investigation of functions of life in Paramecium and one named photosynthetic unicellular organism.
  • U2: Organisms consisting of only one cell carry out all functions of life in that cell.

With this from 5.3:

  • U4: All organisms are classified into three domains.

Which will then act as a segway into topic 1.2 the ultrastructure of cells, before going on to consider cell theory and the then the rest of topic 5.3.

Its a little bit pick and mix, but do I run the risk of not covering the essential ideas. To solve that, what I may do is leave the essential ideas  (of these sections) for revision in grade 12. In-fact now I think about it, all the essential ideas would make great revision points.

I could get the students to memorise Allott and Mindorff’s paragraph’s that describe each essential idea and force them to regurgitate them at random points through G12…..

15-16 Term 3 Week 2


An early start 0630 into school, after washing the minibus in order to bring the IA kit back into school. Much time spent hanging up tents and re organising the kit store, making a list of items that need to be re purchase. My G10 lesson was swapped with English (I will have it back in two weeks) which freed up much of the morning for planning the next stages of the IA as there is another expedition leaving at the end of term and this time we are taking students to an area that we have not used before. Therefore maps need to be purchased, campsites booked, checkpoints identified, photographed and recced. I also used this morning to put an impassioned plea to SLT about need for support for IA to be protected next year. I am still awaiting a response…I also managed to discover and book a new campsite in the Valleé du Joux for the G11 Focus week happening this September. This place seems quite exciting as it is a tipi village and looks like a great place to take the kids to have fires, marshmellows and BBQs in the late summer for one night. I have also made some progress in planning that event which happened quicker than I thought.

Just before lunch my line manager and I had training with BridgeU, the new university guidance platform that we will utilising as a school going forward and the upshot from this is that we have arranged a session in May to roll this out to our student group in grade 11.

In the afternoon I took my G11 Biologists. We ran the following practical before the kids began preparing presentations on antibiotic resistance in bacteria and the changes in shape of Finch beaks on Daphne Major.

Download (DOCX, 37KB)

I took these videos of the practical in action


Tuesday morning was spent primarily on planning G11 and G10 Biology. I produced this workbook for DP Biology:

Download (PDF, 6.85MB)

I then went to a TOK planning meeting with my co-teaching colleague to plan the structure of TOK up until the bank holiday.

After lunch I taught TOK and G10 Biology. In TOK we continued with our investigation of religious knowledge systems; the students giving their presentations, before breaking out into a discussion that compared various features of the religions in the presentations.

In G10 Biology we recapped meiosis and homologous chromosomes before beginning to look at monohybrid crosses and simple patterns of inheritance.


In the morning I had a short cover of G7 French class before my colleague arrived. After that I had a two hour Biology class. Here we finished looking at Natural Selection. I opened the class by looking at the next 20 mins of Carl Sagan’s cosmos episode 2 (I had shown the first 10 mins in a lesson described here.)

Students then delivered their presentations that they had prepared in our previous lesson before break. After break we reviewed the exams that students had taken last Friday. Students used the rubric to review the questions they got wrong and to develop a strategy for revision before I went round and addressed individual concerns.

Download (XLSX, 13KB)

After this I had another cover lesson but after 15mins of waiting for the class I discovered they were actually having map testing and so there was no need for the cover…

In the afternoon I carried on planning DP Biology and created a workbook for topic 5.3 and started on one for 5.4.

Download (PDF, 47.24MB)


On Thursday morning I finally finished packing up the dried tents from the international award expedition from the weekend before.

I spent most of the morning on administrative tasks: a little bit of time was spent on finding out about using BBC Horizon programs in my teaching. I have a lot of this digitally and I currently store them on a hard drive that I bring into school, however I would like to get them onto the internet so that I can share them with my students and I wanted to know how I could do that because all BBC Worldwide videos are blocked on YouTube. A short telephone call and I had an email address. I think that this may be possible if I have a password protected website.

I am also in the process of organising the schedule for a Dance production that will be shown in school the week after next. Well, I was under the impression that my role was simply to organise the schedule for classes to come and see the dancers performing a piece about the action potential in neurones and the affects of motor neurone disease on those neurones. However I seem to be the go to person for any questions about this event. I think it will be a great production but to be honest with everything on my plate at the moment in terms of international award, careers guidance and university guidance, I just don’t have the energy to bring to this task. I started the ball rolling this year, as I was involved in it last year, but other colleagues I would have expected to be more involved with it than me have been absolutely no assistance mainly because they are organising their own festival that is happening the day before, so I don’t blame them – but there is only so much I can bring to this production myself. Anyway some of the scheduling needed to be changed because some performances were clashing with the whole school photo because, despite approval for this event being given by the Head, no one placed this event in the school calendar. Basically its a mess, and I have to salvage what I can and move on.

In addition to this and a much higher priority in terms of my role at the school, I am organising a careers week for G10 and a careers afternoon for G8-11. I have had some parents offer their support and this week I started to pull on the university contacts I have and so on Thursday morning I began the process of contacting these universities.

I also spent a lot of that time this morning also finishing the IBDP Biology 5.4 workbook on cladistics as well as a powerpoint, shown below, which I will be teaching the week after next.

Download (PDF, 18.57MB)

the powerpoint:

Download (PPT, 12.56MB)

I have subsequently found a clip from BBC Inside Science about the Kakapo which I will use to introduce the topic of biodiversity and cladistics

In the afternoon I drove over to College Du Leman to attend an admissions talk from Oxford University. Here were my notes:


No 1 in Europe or no2 in the world after caltech

Do they have a course that is right for you – got to be something you love and are passionate about

8 weeks. 40% more work – academic challenge are you ready for the academic challenge

High predicted grades

Academic and theoretical courses

Broad and compulsory courses at the start then students have more choice becoming more specialised

Joint courses are also available although not pick and mix

Normally these add on languages

Course vs career

60% of jobs do not specify the types of degree  you need

Careers service website

Tutorials the heart of the Oxford learning experience

Supervision at Cambridge

Weekly meeting – tutor talk about what you have read and essays that have been written. Got to love your subject. You have to talk and have to do your reading.

Choose course first, choose college or open application. Start UCAS application early deadline 15th October test registration written work and tests. 2 weeks notice for interview. Usually first 2 weeks of December results announced in January. Choose firm and insurance choices

Looking at possible academic ability and potential. Genuine subject interest need to be demonstrated outside of school and a suitability for chosen course

Don’t look at particular students or schools or don’t look at irrelevant extra curricular activities don’t look for well rounded individuals just in relation to the course unless it’s super curricular those that demonstrate subject interest

38-40 depending on course 6or7 in higher level subjects these are minimum requirements

Personal statements

Plan it over the summer first

Sell yourself

Check spelling

Check grammar

Be honest

80% academic – what have you done in school and out of school to demonstrate your subject interest

Work experience, future plans, extra curricular should focus on transferable skills

Tests stretch and challenge you used for interview shortlisting.

May want to see some written work to

Practise the past papers tests are timed

Interview lasts 2 or 3 days can be 2nd 3rd or 4th.

Test self motivation and ability to think independently. Tutorial rehearsal. Want to see how they problem solve. Practice thinking out loud. Speak about why they think certain things. Practice expressing thoughts verbally.

Everything is looked at as a whole. Engage and explore your subject. Listening to podcasts, reading and watching.

After the admissions talk I drove back to school for a meeting with my line manager and programme coordinators to discuss the school policy for allowing students time off lessons to attend visiting university presentations and days off to attend open days.


Earth Day. A humiliating start to the day when at 0805 a senior colleague frantically runs over to the coffee machine as myself and another colleague are helping ourselves to the days first beverage and says “We need to turn this off; we are sending a terrible message to the kids”. I assume that they were talking about the electricity the machine was using and not the fact that we were guzzling coffee before we could even greet each other in the morning…

Today I introduced my grade 11 DP students to microbiology and aseptic techniques. I used the following protocols taken from the nuffield foundation website to run the practical:

1st An introduction to Aseptic techniques

Download (PDF, 331KB)

2nd An introduction to making streak plates

Download (PDF, 229KB)

We didn’t actually use any live bacteria in the practical but my technician had prepared a pretend inoculation mixture of sterile water.

Students were able to follow the instructions for the first part very well but when it came to streak plating they showed a reluctance to read the protocol (an ongoing phenomena I have observed this year – I don’t think I have ever taught a class so resistant to reading and following instructions).

The protocols could do with modifying to make them more student friendly.

After this the rest of my day was spent on international award planning. This time, I was checking and recce’ing the routes and checkpoints for our bronze qualifying journey as it will be in a new location this year. Last year we took the students to Verbier, but the terrain was far too difficult for this level and the team ended up very demotivated. So this year we are taking them to the Valleé du Joux in Vaud. I spent most of the day in the area, hiking up to checkpoints I identified and photographing them.

Back at school around 3pm I was able to upload the pictures and prepare the checkpoint handouts that we will give to students along with the maps and route cards so that they can plan their own routes through the checkpoints.

With the campsite for the expedition now booked all that remains is to give the materials to the students and create the actual checkpoint cards, with the photographs, so that we can give these out to our students.

15-16 Term 3 week 1: Adventures with shopping trolleys..

Last week on Monday we returned to school for the final term of the year. At least my colleagues did; I was hauled up in bed with a stomach bug that I had caught from my 11 month old daughter! When I returned to work on Tuesday I was left feeling drained, washed out and wiped out – a feeling that took a surprising number of days (and early nights) to get over. Anyway this is what happened in my working life last week:


A hard start to the working week. Seeing as I had missed Monday sue to illness I had also lost the planning time that I was banking on to get ready for TOK. TOK is a new subject for me to teach this year. While I relish the challenge of teaching a brand new subject and I am very interested in the subject content, I would be lying if I was to say that teaching this subject had not put me under a lot of strain this year. Not only is the concept of the subject wildly different to teaching a science subject, the style of teaching needed to make the subject inspirational is very different to what (I think) one needs to bring to a science classroom. It is unusual at to say the least. Basically it has been taking me at least two hours to plan each lesson, sometimes three, sometimes more. But it has been excellent at pushing me to go further with my teaching style; forcing me to make my teaching more discussion based. This week I had agreed with my co-teacher that I would introduce Religious Knowledge Systems as an AOK. After reading the relevant chapters from several textbooks I decided not to reinvent the wheel. After a google search I came across ideas on the links at the end of this post. Using mostly the ideas I found here plus those from the Dombrowski textbook, I created this powerpoint activities:

Download (PPTX, 57KB)

The video that is removed from the slide is religion good or bad can be seen here:

I also taught my grade 10 Biologists. In this lesson we recapped mitosis. I started the lesson with this hook which is essentially a review of the material we had covered at the start of this current unit:

I then had the students review the posters that they had made at the end of last term before working together to piece jumbled images of a nucleus undergoing mitosis together into a coherent, labelled sequence. Finally we completed a wordcloze exercise, summarising mitosis


Originally I had a trip out this morning with several grade 10 and 11 students to go and hear some presentations from UK universities. However there was a  last minute cancelation which left me having to cobble a two hour DP lesson together in about an hour. This was actually a relief as I was worried about missing my G11 DP Biologists all this week as I would be out on Friday as well. This lesson was a great opportunity to get some review in of the topics covered so far this academic year. We started by brainstorming all the concepts and word related to biology with no filter as they came to our heads. We then quickly placed these into the relevant topics of the DP syllabus on the board. Students then created tedious links – you pick to concepts and have to link them together in a concept map via as many steps as possible. Finally students had to pick one word and definition to write up for the G11 word wall in the lab.

After break we returned to the second lesson where we recapped topic 5.1 “evidence for evolution” before watching the first 10mins of carl sagans cosmos episode 2 – one voice in the cosmic fugue as a hook into the concept of natural selection:

We then moved on to complete the first few pages of this workbook. In our first lesson next week we will carry out a beak finch practical and students will create the natural selection presentations.

Download (PDF, 11.22MB)

In the afternoon I had my first university visit. We hosted members of the European Universities Consortium – EHL; Bocconi; IE and Carl Benz School of Engineering. The presentations were engaging and following from my visit to Esade last week, they added to my growing knowledge of the possibility for studying in English on the continent for an undergraduate degree. I am very much enjoying networking and building relationships with communities outside of our school. I feel a real sense of pride when I meet these guests and give them a tour, while explaining what we are trying to do at our school. I was disappointed by the lack of turn out. We only had three students and three parents, but the universities seemed pleased at the end. I was also pleased to have more options for summer schools for engineering outside of the UK, but still in Europe. After the meetings I had a chat with one of our parents who lamented the fact that some of the parents of our G11 students were not aware that this even was happening. We discussed communication and I wondered what I could be doing better but I do think when it comes to comms less is more. This mum was suggesting further avenues that I could communicate to parents with but I already have four or five chanels through which I send info: ManageBac, Newsletter, Letters home, emails and messages in HR. I conclude that schools need to streamline the information they send out to one or two sources and encourage the teachers and parents to all utilise those. If different groups start using different avenues, information gets lost.


This day saw me running round like a headless chicken with final preparations for the International Award Bronze Practice Expedition all morning, bar 15 minutes at homeroom time where I ran round, G9, G10 and G11 homeroom to publisce the visit from Westminster College UTAH and their talk on the US Education System. After that and checking with colleagues that they were happy to release kids early for the talk and then firing off a few emails to the spokesperson, I had a contract meeting with my line manager. At 10am I began the process of IA prep – printing off the maps and information for my supervisors and putting the staff briefing in place, before raiding the IA stores and organising the needed kit all into an IKEA shopping trolley so that it was ready to roll on Friday morning’s kit check. This was topped off by a lovely department meeting before lunch.

In the afternoon I taught my Grade 10 again. We began by reviewing the wordcloze exercise before using word, phrase sentence to learn and discuss about chromosome structure.

After the lesson, I had my second visit of the week. This presentation was much better attended and my guest gave a very succinct and helpful overview of applying to the states.

Download (PPTX, 3.9MB)

After the presentation, we had a tour and discussed the differences between teacher and counselor recommendations, and what type of information should be included in each. I thought that next time I do this then I should a) film the presentations to be included on this or another website and b) perhaps record a podcast interview of any specific questions like the difference between counselor and teacher recs.

Friday & Saturday:

International Award Expedition! Met the kids in the morning in the Dining hall at 0830. Collared by parent at 0810 would wanted to ask what happens in a lightening storm (can I have my coffee please!). Kit check and then on to the minbuses to start the hiking at 1000. I was ably assisted by some very reliable colleagues. All in all this was a successful expedition despite a very wet and wild night. I will not forget my G9 students up at 6am in the morning cooking noodles for breakfast on the Saturday morning.

This year we had built in an afternoon training session with the students in early October which I think really helped the process for many of the students.

Challenges for moving forward with award: route planning time (its currently to pressured in school) proposal to use HR time; time to produce presentations at the end of the journey; managing the stores.

Ideas from the week:

  • Next time we have university visitors to the school I will arrange to film their presentations and begin to build a library of these for the school website.
  • I may also arrange to run an interview in the recording studio and make a short podcast. Topics could range from admissions procedures to overviews of the education system in different countries to advise on writing personal statements.
  • The International Award is running well at school but we still need to tighten up a few areas like goal setting with the students and I need to find ways that next year we can do this. A closer working relationship with the CAS coordinator needs to be developed but currently there just isn’t the support structure to make that easy. In particular we need to identify more long term service activities that students can get involved with.


Practical & Teaching Resource: Genetic Databases


One of the challenges I have found for teaching the new (2016) IBDP Biology syllabus is getting up to speed with the new content as expressed in the understandings, applications and skills sections of the syllabus. This has been particularly true when this new “content” implies an understanding of new technologies such as the huge rise in bioinformatics databases. To make matters worse, I am the only biology teacher in my school and I have been acutely aware of this when, stumbling across new requirements, I have had no one to bounce ideas off (or steal resources from! :))

So what do you do when you have new content that you have not taught before, that relies on an understanding of bioinformatic technology that wasn’t widely available, or covered on your masters in ecology eight years ago and you have no colleagues to help you? You go back to the drawing board…

When planning my course the year before I had shunned ordering the text book written by the chief examiner for the subject for my students on the grounds that it was too big and heavy. I had opted for a slimmer, light-weight textbook that was written by an old colleague. However, In preparation for times like this, I had purchased a copy for my own reference, not to teach from the textbook, you understand, but to refer to when I was unsure of exactly how much depth a topic needed going into (and therefore how much classtime to devote to it) or what the chief examiner had in mind when he wrote the course as part of the curriculum review committee.

While I applaud the move away from a list of learning statements as we had in the old syllabus, statements from the understandings section, like this one from topic 3.1 Genes:

The entire base sequence of human genes was sequenced in the Human Genome Project”

often leave me wondering how much time needs to be allocated to them. This is where having a copy of the chief examiners textbook comes in handy.

The Practical

Earlier this term I was teaching the IB Biology core topic 3 – Genetics and while planning came across the following statements:

3.1 S1: “Use of a database to determine differences in the base sequence of a gene in two species

3.2 S1 “Use of databases to identify the locus of a human gene and its polypeptide product”

These along with several other “application” statements in 3.1 an 3.2 left me slightly bamboozled as to how to approach teaching this, seeing as I had never used these kinds of databases in this way myself, and whats more I was left asking the question – aren’t the kinds of databases that these statements refer to way too complicated to expect 16-18 students to be able access?

Anyway, the instruction was there so I had to do something with it. In the end I referred to the Allott & Mindorf (2014) textbook along and the inthinking biology teacher resource website and combined and adapted two of their practicals to use in my classroom. The result is below:

  1. I designed a practical protocol worksheet which is available here, which could be printed out and handed to students. There is QR code which, when scanned, links to the following video.

Download (PDF, 70KB)

  1. I made the following video that takes students through the worksheet. They can be used together.


The video and the activities together take about an hour or just over to complete and do count towards practical hours on the PSOW. I am hugely indebted to the work of Allott & Mindorff and David Faure at inthinking to be able to produce this. Students are able, if they have a mobile phone and QR scanner to link directly to the film and follow the instructions. Alternatively the video can be played on a projector. Students could also complete this as a homework task but this couldn’t then count as practical.

I think that the video and the activities could be broken up into smaller individual activities as I think this may help students to process exactly and clearly what they are doing. These databases can be complex to navigate and contain a lot of information which can be overwhelming for anybody who is new to this area.

While I personally like this part of the syllabus and think that there are some possible IA ideas here, especially when combined with evolutionary studies, I can’t help but think that this material is a bit too advanced for 16-19 year old students, particularly for SL students. It is fairly niche and I would be interested to know how many universities would cover this type of bioinformatic content in their first or second years.