Teaching & Learning

Is content king?

Originally posted on August 14, 2016 @ 9:00 am

This post was written in 2016 and does not reflect my current thinking about teaching biology. Please see this post to read about my updated views on teaching the subject.

I have reached a watershed in my thinking about teaching and my philosophy about teaching science.

I trained and begun learning to teach in a school with a very robust academic record. Teachers were considered absolute experts in their field and students were, on the whole, very high achieving but who had high expectations of their teachers academically too.

In this environment I learned that the teacher’s fundamental responsibility was to be an an absolute expert in their field; if you didn’t know everything, and could not answer every question, the community of students would lose faith in you. Or at least that it is what it felt like.

I mentioned in my review of Ritchhart et al of comments made by an ex-colleague of mine which reinforced this sentiment.

In those formative days then learning to teach was about mastering your subject knowledge. Content was King. Delivered in lovely little powerpoint slides where students would simply copy down their notes and then memorise them.

I left that school confidently arrogant that I was an expert in my subject and in the IB. That any school was going to want to employ me after the time that I had spent in that school. And indeed I was partly right. I secured a position as Head of Biology at a prestigious boarding school. The time there was little different. I benefitted from working closely with the chemists and physicists, in a closely knit science department. However the sentiments were the same. Content was King. Our role as science teachers was to deliver the curriculums content. The learner profile was dismissed by the Head of Science as fluff.

Since moving on from that school I have been involved in setting up a school and taking it through its IB authorization process as the only Biology teacher and as one of two or, more recently, three science teachers. I cannot point to any single experience from this time that has been the catalyst but my thinking has begun to change. Perhaps it was being forced to seriously consider the IB’s other bits; the ATLs; the IB Learner profile. Perhaps it was being exposed to and challenged by the MYP. Perhaps it was teaching a new DP Biology syllabus with so much focus on the nature of science. Perhaps it was beginning to teach TOK. Perhaps it was becoming a workshop leader. Perhaps it was working with so many truly excellent IB educators. I don’t know.

But I now question the sentiment that content is king in science teaching.

I am beginning to think, to really think that more important than learning the content, my students need to learn to think. It might sound like an odd thing to write. It certainly feels like an odd thing to write.

I’m sure that many people who aren’t teachers would raise their eyebrows at what I wrote above. Surely, a teachers job is to teach students to think? But it’s not as simple as that. Teaching students to ask strong questions and to develop different thinking dispositions is no simple task. It’s much easier to focus on the curriculum delivery. What are my students supposed to know? Fill the time in with student-centred activities, and group work, debates and presentations and you are doing a good job right?

I’ve moved on from didactic lecture like teaching in my early days to worksheet, activity based teaching but has anything really changed? My students still present as apathetic. School is still something that they just do on the whole. I’m sure most of them forget what they “learn” instead of engaging with the deeper issues.

And this is what I want: I want my students to be engaged, passionate and switched on critically to the world around them and be scientifically literate.

How do I do that when sometimes I question my own scientific literacy?

Perhaps its time to really focus on the thinking and the types of thinking that are needed in science and needed to be developed in students of science. The trouble is I am sometimes not sure that I know what thinking really means…

In Making Thinking Visible Richhart et al (2011) discuss turning the content into a vehicle for teaching and framing certain thinking skills. It is argued that developing thinking skills is important because these skills are the tools that students will take forward into future life when the content is forgotten. They are the tools the future adults will utilize to navigate life.

The thing is, thinking doesn’t just happen. As teachers, we need to be explicit with students about the types of thinking that are useful in certain situations and provide strategies that help students learn to think in these ways. We can’t just leave it up to chance. After all, traditionally, we don’t leave the content up to chance (normally), instead, we are explicit with it. We need to give students the chance to think about their own thinking and what it means to them.

Ritchhart provides a list of “high-leverage thinking moves that serve understanding well”:

  1. Observing closely and describing what is there.
  2. Building explanations and interpretations.
  3. Reasoning with evidence.
  4. Making connections.
  5. Considering different viewpoints and perspectives.
  6. Capturing the heart and forming conclusions
  7. Wondering and asking questions
  8. Uncovering complexity and going below the surface of things

I will be posting these “moves” in my classroom as a start as well as try to relate the activities we are doing to these types of activities.

As science teachers, we need to ask ourselves: What type of thinking is important in science? More specifically what types of thinking do we want to develop in students of science? How is thinking framed in terms of the work that scientists do? What are the essential questions of science?

Clearly, the thinking moves above are addressed by different elements of scientific enquiry. Observing closely is an important part of observational studies and also hypothesis generations so is wondering and asking questions. To generate a hypothesis requires building explanations and reasoning with evidence. When we draw our data out we try to capture the heart of a problem and draw a conclusion,

Once we have a clear idea of this then we can begin to teach the thinking alongside an understanding of the nature of science through well-planned content. The difference is that our learning objective is twinned – we have a thinking objective and a content objective.

Understanding how to teach in this way is important.  Biology teacher Paul Strode has written some articles in this vein. In one he looks at reasoning like a scientist and the other deals with teaching the hypothesis. Although he still focuses on framing the content instead of necessarily framing the questioning, these are good reads. However, I feel that the questioning and thinking strategies needed to become front and centre of the teaching instead of the content.

Thinking relies heavily on questioning. In science we are trying to ask the following questions:

What do I notice?

What does that tell me?

Why does it work like this?

How can I test this idea?

How can I be sure that my findings are valid?

Or, according to strode whose list is below:

Step 1: What claim am I being asked to accept?

Step 2: What evidence supports the claim? Is the evidence valid?

Step 3: Is there another way to interpret the evidence?

Step 4: What other evidence would help me evaluate the alternatives?

Step 5: Is the claim the most reasonable one based on the evidence?

Teaching like this requires teachers to step down as the “font of knowledge” in their classrooms and have the courage to be wrong. I have worked in schools where the culture of the school would simply not allow that to happen.

As Ritchhart points out we need to be able to ask our students authentic questions, meaning that the teacher needs to not know the answer, and if teachers are worried about seemingly not knowing something how can they do this?

This academic year I am going to try and put thinking centre and front in my classroom. I just hope that the crazy timetabling and work-load pressure doesn’t push me back into easy, old habits.

2 replies on “Is content king?”

I love your metacognition here (and thanks for the shout-out!)! In the International Baccalaureate world, the Theory of Knowledge is at the center of all student learning, but I think many IB teachers and IB schools lose sight of this. It’s all about critical thinking: How do I know what I know? How is real consensus-based knowledge generated? Actually, over 100 years ago, John Dewey pushed for the teaching of skepticism and critical thinking. It’s what the American education system was originally founded on. Thus, different versions of inquiry-based learning have been practiced in science education for over a century. Most recently, inquiry-based learning proponents argue that teaching and learning must be thoughtful, problem-based, relevant and even globally critical, and action-oriented (ToK). Indeed, if science research is inherently an inquiry-based process, why shouldn’t our students engage in the practice in our classrooms? The content will then flow in naturally.

Hi Paul and thanks for the comments. I agree completely and by IB standards every teacher is a TOK teacher!

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