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?

6 thoughts on “From Knowledge to Understandings”

  1. Hi Will

    I am also thinking a lot about my IB syllabus. This year I have amalgamated topics 6, 11 and the option. In the past I have put Evolution as my first topic to have an evolution focus throughout, but I wasn’t happy with it due to the lack of knowledge from other areas; knowledge before conceptual understanding.

    What I’m really into are Threshold Concepts by Meyer and Land. At first it took me a while to think of some of the most important concepts needed to understand biology. Now I’m getting better as I look at my lessons and filter out the core knowledge needed to fully understand.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that diffusion is a really important threshold concept that students don’t understand very well despite it coming up at GCSE and possibly KS3. This moves on to osmosis which I also consider a threshold concept. Another related one is surface area : volume. Osmosis and inter- and intra-molecular interactions (proteins) is dependent on understanding electrostatic interactions between atoms and molecules, which is another that isn’t understood well if they have only gone through “atoms want full shells” at GCSE.

    At the minute these are my top four. I tend to want to put these threshold concepts at the beginning of the course and dedicate a couple of lessons to each (at least). I’m trying to identify others. What’s your take on this?

    1. Hi Christian, thanks for comment. I’m no expert when it comes to threshold concepts but I do know the reference. I would agree that diffusion and osmosis are key concepts that unlock deeper understanding of the course. I would be interested in knowing if there are any inventories of biological threshold concepts and what the recommendations would be for teaching them.

      1. I had the same question as you for a while. I saw on twitter that some people were doing good work in chemistry compiling misconceptions and threshold concepts, so eventually I just started to record what I thought for biology at IB / A level. I’ll be happy to share my document-in-development.

        What to do about them? Well my first thought has been to, once identified, give them special place in the curriculum; determine where its introduction needs to be and invest extra time in planning those lessons and developing questions. Then also think about giving students spaced practice as much as possibly, focusing on them when they appear in other topics.

        1. That sounds like an excellent idea to collaborate on identifying these concepts in relation to the IB. Please do share with me and I would be happy to contribute whatever I can.

          1. Thanks for sharing this document Christian. Funnily enough in the last week I have come across some stuff on threshold concepts in David Didau’s “What if everything you knew about education was wrong?”

            I definitely think it is worth putting heads together on this one.

            First I want to do some work on EAL and suffixes and prefixes in biology and then fully intend to return to these concepts

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