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.

The biologist’s bookshelf

Through the threshold library

The biologist’s bookshelf

One of the first things that I did when I started this blog was to publish the bio reading list, basically a list of books that I considered useful for biology teachers and their students to read. That post is a little tired now, so I update it to the biologist’s bookshelf and include all the books that I have read since it was published.

Bad Science – by Ben Goldacre

The sixth extinction: an unnatural history – by Elizabeth Kolbert

Thirteen things that don’t make sense – by Michael Brooks

The magic of reality – by Richard Dawkins

The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks – by Rebecca Skloot

Creation: the origin of life/the future of life – by Adam Rutherford

The language of life – by Francis Collins

The rational optimist – by Matt Ridley

Quantum evolution: the new science of life – by Johnjoe Mcfadden

The diversity of life – by E.O. Wilson

Impossibility – by John Barrow

Collapse – by Jared Diamond

Thinking, fast and slow – by Daniel Kahneman

The self illusion – by Bruce Hood

The selfish gene – by Richard Dawkins

Genome – by Matt Ridley

Your inner fish – by Neil Shubin

The secret life of trees – by Colin Tudge

The man who mistook his wife for a hat – Oliver Sacks

The Handmaid’s tail – by Margaret Atwood

The Inheritors – by William Golding

The Baroque cycle – by Neal Stephenson

Seveneves – by Neal Stephenson

Aping mankind – by Raymond Tallis

Getting Darwin wrong – by Brendan Wallace

The vital question – by Nick Lane

Life Ascending – by Nick Lane

The greatest show on earth – by Richard Dawkins

The song of the Dodo – by David Quammen

The lives of a cell – by Lewis Thomas

Why evolution is true – by Jerry Coyne

Faith vs fact – by Jerry Coyne

The Serengeti rules – by Sean Carroll

Being mortal – by Atul Gawande

Patient H.M. – by Luke Dittrich

A brief history of everyone whoever lived – by Adam Rutherford

I contain multitudes – by Ed Yong

Fifty ideas you really need to know – by Hayley Birch

The violinists thumb – by Sam Keen

Neanderthal man – by Svante Paabo

The serpents promise – by Steve Jones

The education bookshelf

Through the threshold library

Education bookshelf

These are all the books that have impacted my thinking about education for better or worse since I started teaching. I include the year I read it and titles in bold mean that I would currently recommend it. If I have written a review of it this will be linked.

I include all the books about teaching that I have read (with the exception of some from my training year), firstly as a record of my own CPD and secondly because of even those books that contain arguments and ideas that I now disagree with, I recognise that my thinking about education is still fluid, open to change and these books will still have provided me with some basis for my own reflection and development.

2018

  1. What if everything you knew about education was wrong? – by David Didau – my review.
  2. Cleverlands – by Lucy Crehan
  3. Seven myths about education – by Daisy Christodoulou
  4. Making good progress? – by DaisyChristodoulou
  5. Why knowledge matters: rescuing our children from failed educational theories – by E.D. Hirsch
  6. Ouroboros –  by Greg Ashman
  7. What does this look like in the classroom? – by Carl Hendrick and Robin MacPherson

2017

  1. Why don’t students like school? – by Daniel Willingham
  2. What every teacher needs to know about psychology – by David Didau and Nick Rose
  3. The battle hymn of the tiger teachers: the Michaela way – edited by Katherine Birbalsingh

2016

  1. How to raise an adult – by Julie Lythcott-Haims – my review.
  2. What is the point of school? – by Guy Claxton
  3. Making thinking visible – by Ron Richhardt – my review.

2015

  1. The brain at school: educational neuroscience in the classroom – by John Geake
  2. Classroom-based research and evidence-based practice – by Keith Taber
  3. Ways of learning: learning theories and learning styles in the classroom – by Alan Pritchard
  4. Pedagogy of the oppressed – by Paolo Freire
  5. Visible learning for teachers – by John Hattie

2014

  1. Good work – by Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and William Damon
  2. Intelligence reframed – by Howard Gardner
  3. Contemporary theories of learning – by Knud Illeris
  4. Teaching as if life matters – by Christopher Uhl

Through the threshold library

Through the threshold library

My second daughter was born at the end of January 2017. I found the experience of adding a fourth person to our family, and the subsequent adjustment much, much more challenging than when my eldest was born, especially when we threw a house move into the mix when she was four weeks old!

A really tiny part of this whole process was my realisation in April that I had basically stopped reading since she was born. This thought really worried me. So, I thought I would take a moment to reflect on what I managed to read last year. That thought then evolved into the idea of publishing a library on my blog. So here it is

The library will be broken into bookshelves, each one published in the next few days:

Education bookshelf

These are all the books that have impacted my thinking about education for better or worse since I started teaching. I include the year I read it and titles in bold mean that I would currently recommend it. If I have written a review of it this will be linked.

I include all the books about teaching that I have read, firstly as a record of my own CPD and secondly because of even those books that contain arguments and ideas that I now disagree with, I recognise that my thinking about education is still fluid, open to change and these books will still have provided me with some basis for my own reflection and development.

The biologist’s bookshelf

One of the first things that I did when I started this blog was to publish the bio reading list, basically a list of books that I considered useful for biology teachers and their students to read. That post is a little tired now, so I update it to the biologist’s bookshelf and include all the books that I have read since it was published.

The guidance bookshelf

Useful books that I use for university guidance.

The parenting bookshelf

Books that I have read and that have informed my thinking as a parent. Unsurprisingly, I suppose, they have also influenced the way that I have thought about education too.

Miscellaneous bookshelf

Simply a list of all the other books I have read recently that has nothing to do with education or biology. Quite often, especially during term time, I just find I need an escape from thinking about learning and teaching. Horror and Sci-Fi/Fantasy is where I tend to go. Now that I am moving to China, I have parted company with many of my books and so want to keep a record of them here.

My reads by year

A list of the all the books I have read each year.

Review: What if everything you knew about education was wrong?

This Easter holidays I read David Didau’s 350+ page compendium.

Basically, this book is an essential must read for any teacher. It is detailed and covers quite the range of ideas relating to classroom practice. On top of that, it is very well written, with clear and accessible language.

It is broken into four parts.

Part 1 “Why we are wrong” introduces the reader to a few general psychological concepts. Throughout the book, David references Daniel Kahneman’s work “Thinking, Fast and Slow” a lot and I think much of what is written here is sourced from that book, although, perhaps, simplified and certainly written in a much less head scratchy way. If you have read “Thinking, Fast and Slow” many of the ideas about psychological traps and biases will be familiar to you. Still, David is able to show how to apply these concepts succinctly to the classroom setting. He also provides an excellent explanation of effect sizes and the statistical techniques used to compare the effectiveness of classroom interventions before giving some real food for thought as to why this evidence might not be as robust as we think. His critique of Hattie’s work was quite surprising for me and I welcomed the explanation of a concept I had heard lots of people talk about, but nobody has ever explained.

Part 2 lays out what David refers to as the threshold concepts for learning to teach effectively. David unpicks many commonly held myths about classroom teaching and learning and makes an argument as to why many of these cherished ideas are wrong. The key idea here is that learning does not equal the same thing as performance in class. Learning is essentially an invisible process happening in peoples heads and by looking at performance in class we assume that this equates to learning in the mind of the student. Classroom observers look for evidence of “rapid and sustained” learning during class time, however learning, David makes the case for, is messy, non-linear and if it is going to be sustained cannot be rapid. Aside from the difference between learning and performance he covers concepts such the difference between novice and expert learners, the structure of our memory in terms of storage and retrieval strength and cognitive load.

After explaining our cognitive biases and how they apply in education before unpicking many myths about classroom practice held in educational circles, in part 3 David goes on to apply the cognitive concepts from part 2 directly to teaching practice. He gives a clear exposition of interleaving, the spacing effect, the testing effects and the effects of feedback. His writing will prompt you to think about these topics and how they may apply in your own planning and instruction – I know that they certainly have for me.

In the final part, he examines other pet theories in education that we could be wrong about. The first chapter deals with formative assessment and presents a surprising critique of Dylan Wiliams work, with a reply for Dylan Wiliam. There are also chapters on the problems of lesson observations, differentiation, praise among others.

One of the things that I was most surprised about and enjoyed reading was the critiques of the work by very established researchers. The work of both Hattie and Wiliam were picked apart at different points in the book. I am not sure I am fully convinced by the arguments but it was a pleasure to read something that was a little bit different in the sense that I have never come across critical reflections of these, much discussed, in schools at least, concepts before.

I also like the way the book is laid out. Now that I have read it through, I am able to easily go back and find relevant chapters for different concepts again.

This book has given me quite a bit to think about in terms of my curriculum planning and my classroom practice. Despite having just finalised my DP curriculum, I am already prompted by thoughts in this book to review it – particularly in line with David’s thesis that we should plan curriculums around threshold concepts. Doing that first involves identifying them which will probably be the springboard for my next CPD drive. However, I am fully aware that even the threshold concept of threshold concepts may turn out to be an unevidenced and unprovable claim made by education researchers and that my time here will be wasted. Only time will tell!