Sequencing facts before concepts: natural selection

I have spent a fair amount of time this year reflecting on the application of cognitive science principles in my own biology teaching. There has been plenty written about concepts like interleaving and sequencing in sciences and maths but very little that I have found about how these concepts may apply in biology teaching.

Specifically, I have written up some of my thoughts on sequencing my DP biology curriculum based  on these discussions here.

Some of what I have learned suggests that solid conceptual/abstract understanding can only be developed when novice learners have embedded factual or propositional knowledge in their own mental schemas. In addition, I have tried to think about how principles from cognitive load theory may apply in terms of biology teaching and the sequencing of content.

One example of this has been how I approached the teaching of the concept of natural selection this year for my Y12/G11 mixed SL/HL IB biology class. In the IBDP biology syllabus, this is topic 5.2 and I sequence it after 5.1 “Evidence for evolution” and before 1.5 “The origin of cells”.

I finish the evidence for evolution section by looking at the peppered moth and the changes within the populations studied by Dr Ketterwell, through this online simulation.

In the past, I have taught natural selection by going over the concept of natural selection and then looking at specific examples of it that are mentioned in the syllabus which are antibiotic resistance in bacteria and changes in the beaks of the finches of the Galapagos island of Daphne Major.

This year I sequenced the topic into three lessons (which unintentionally appear to have been interleaved as we are also doing the internal assessment at this point in time and one lesson a week is given over to just the HL students anyway) and taught specific examples of natural selection before finally generalising from these examples to the abstract concept of natural selection.

Lesson 1 – Antibiotic-resistant bacteria

We started with retrieval practice of previous material using a google slide presentation which contained four questions: one using material from the last lesson; another from last week; another from last month and another from the last term. I then asked the students to draw and label a prokaryotic cell. Something that they covered six months ago.

Once completed we moved on to watch some news reports about antibiotic-resistant infections and I asked students to discuss and articulate back to the class what they thought the key message of each of the videos were. These prompted discussion about the general nature of antibiotic resistant bacteria and I used questioning to continue this discussion amongst the class. We also discussed what antibiotics were and why they were used to treat bacterial infections as this was a concept we met when studying the immune system two weeks prior. I highlighted the possible area of confusion for students between the words antibiotic and antibody which I had picked up from examining the previous May session of exams, before going on to explain how bacteria have become resistant to antibiotics.

I then gave the class a past paper question to complete the topic and we reviewed the key points of this question from the mark scheme.

Lesson 2- Finch beak changes on Daphne Major

Again we started with retrieval practice in the same format as in lesson 1. We then conducted a physical simulation as outlined in this practical, where students mimic being finches and collecting food. This was followed by a discussion of the trends we found in the simulation and what this might tell us about birds collecting food in the wild.

We then moved onto exercise 3 from this page and when students had finished the video and quiz I asked them to summarise what happened to the finches in the film.

Lesson 3 – the concept of natural selection

After retrieval practice, we reviewed the definition of evolution we had covered in 5.1 “evidence for evolution” and I highlighted that natural selection was a mechanism by which evolution could occur. I then asked students to think back and name the three examples of natural selection that we had considered in the last few lessons. Once they had written their answers down, I went through those examples and placed them on the board. I then asked students to discuss in pairs the details of each of these examples, before snowballing into a class discussion of the details of each of the three examples: peppered moths, antibiotic-resistant bacteria and changes in finch beaks. While we discussed these I wrote down the key points from each one on a second board with each example in a column so that similar elements from each example ended up in the same row. I then discussed with the students what these key features of each of the examples were and related this to the concept of natural selection. We finished with an example question asking students to describe the process of natural selection using examples.

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