What I learned about teaching biology this year 17-18

In 2016 I wrote this blog post. My answer to that question is now decidedly, yes. Content is King.

In this post, I want to explore why this is the case and outline what my ideas are now in relation to teaching biology.

The importance of content?

First, I should point out that a re-reading of my 2016 article makes me realise that I never concluded by suggesting content wasn’t king. Like all good questions, the article title helps to stimulate thought and a discussion about where we are at in our beliefs and in defending those beliefs. Really, the argument I was making was that teaching is not all about teaching content, but about teaching content AND encouraging critical thought with that content matter.

Content underpins everything. It underpins thinking. You can’t think without something to think about. It underpins understanding. You can’t understand something that is not represented as a propositional claim at a basic level. You can’t develop “skills” that aren’t grounded in some form of understanding.

When I am talking about content, I am referring to facts or propositional knowledge, statements that are thought to be true and are about the way the biological world is.

Propositional knowledge then must have primacy in teaching biology. To my mind, currently, propositional knowledge can be broken up into facts and concepts. Facts cannot be understood, they can only be known. Whereas concepts can be known and understood.

I think that to achieve deep, flexible, biological knowledge (flexible in the sense that it can be thought about in the abstract and applied in new situations) students need to achieve a conceptual understanding of the major themes in biology.

To do this they must first meet domain-specific examples. From those examples, they can then begin to pull out the commonalities to allow the mind to achieve an understanding of an abstract concept. My post here outlines how I went about this when teaching natural selection this year.

Learning domain-specific facts cumulatively builds to domain-specific conceptual understanding which accumulates in the learner being able to think in terms of these concepts and apply them elsewhere.

The importance of presenting content in the “right” sequence

Related to the idea of sequencing teaching so that we build up to conceptual understanding from specific examples, is the idea that we need to sequence teaching to avoid cognitive overload. To do this we need to think about which areas of the curriculum provide just enough challenge to engage students but not so much so they are overwhelmed.

In teaching biology, I think this is best achieved by teaching those areas with the least new propositional knowledge for the learner. Once the learner achieves mastery of this new knowledge then we can begin to add more.

In this sense, when trying to teach the understanding of the relationship of structure and function we may wish to look at studying the function first of any new example, before looking at the structures that support that function. Developing knowledge of the function of something might contain less instances of “facts” than the discrete structures that build up that function.

Once we have looked at lots of examples of, say, the relationship between surface area and diffusion, students will build up to the understanding of the relationship generally, and hopefully be able to apply this in new and novel ways.

Retrieval practice embedding content for the long-term

Drill and kill, right? Apparently not. My reading this year has convinced me that giving students the chance to practice retrieving information, not only builds their confidence that they can perform, and therefore reduces stress but also improves their ability to retrieve that information and therefore improves its storage in long term memory.

The same goes for learning the language of the subject and so now I try to begin my lessons with a fun low stakes retrieval practice activity. Low stakes in the sense that I do not record results and store them; students are not graded. For this I have prepared a deck of quizlet terms for the DP biology course and I alternate between using these or simply giving students a series of MCQ’s from last lesson, last week, last month and last term.

Interleaving & spaced practice – what might this look like in biology?

A year ago, on the Facebook AP/IB Biology teachers group, I first asked the question of what interleaving might look like in a biology course. I had been hearing a lot about interleaving during meetings and inset training from our DP Coordinator who is a Maths teacher. It seems that interleaving has been studied quite a bit in mathematics education.

When I asked the question, hardly anyone was aware of this concept amongst the biology teachers and I was stumped. I now have some ideas.

Interleaving or spaced practice is the idea that instead of learning all the content for a particular topic at once or in a set of continuous lessons, you space out the learning over time, revisiting topics over time.

In my experience, I have always taught a topic like cell structure and then moved onto the next topic, maybe membrane structure followed by membrane function – and I think that this is true of most biology courses.

In an interleaved curriculum these topics would be spaced out in time. Let’s imagine you have a 60min lesson every day with the same class, so five lessons a week. In an interleaved curriculum you may devote Mondays to cell structure, Tuesday to metabolism, Wednesday to plant physiology, Thursday to animal physiology and Friday to retrieval practice.

You would then teach the content of these units side by side over a number of weeks. It sounds a bit crazy but it has been demonstrated to improve long-term retention of learning and I am also excited by the possibility for the conceptual links you can make by teaching in this way.

 

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