There is a growing rumbling and dissatisfaction with KS3. There is little doubt that years 7 through 9 have become wasted years and, in the face of tougher GCSEs more and more teachers appear to be finding that they cannot afford for these years to be wasted.
Last year as a faculty, we identified a number of problems with our KS3 scheme of work (SOW). At that time I had worked with five (!) SOWs and I knew that our problems were far from unique. In short:
- Curriculum was loosely defined – it was unclear what exactly we were supposed to teach
- Long term retention had not been accounted for or built in
- Assessments did not match taught material
- Assessments based on extremely dodgy success criteria and obsolete leveling systems
- The proliferation of payed-for SOWs had left us with hundreds of mismatched and out of sequence resources
- When teachers had been asked to plan lessons for others they had written the jazziest and most whizz-bang one they could imagine, leading to a SOW full of lessons no-one wanted to teach
- All students require structure, but our students with SEND were especially struggling with the looseness of the course
- Students did not have effective revision/study tools and, in that absence, were relying on ineffective methods (posters and highlighting)
On a more day-to-day level, the above manifested itself as a SOW that was resource-led as opposed to one which was content-led. Teachers would open the folder on the drive, see which lessons they were supposed to teach and trawl through the powerpoints and worksheets until they found ones they liked and could use, neglecting the actual substance of what is to be taught.
The Core Question
Our response to all of the above was the creation of Core Questions (CQs). The idea of a CQ is to repackage the curriculum as a series of questions to be answered. I’ll try to illustrate the power of this simple change through an example from our C1 unit. The CQs from the first five lessons or so (we are less prescriptive and more adaptive regarding how long the material should take) are as follows:
|What is a particle?||An incredibly tiny object|
|What is an atom?||A particle made of protons, neutrons and electrons|
|What is a subatomic particle?||A particle smaller than an atom|
|What are the three subatomic particles?||Protons, neutrons and electrons|
|How are the subatomic particles arranged in an atom?||Protons and neutrons in a nucleus, electrons travel around the nucleus in shells|
|What is between the nucleus and the shells?||Nothing|
|How can atoms be different to each other?||In the number of protons, neutrons and electrons they have|
|How many different atoms are there?||118|
|What is an element?||A substance made up of only one type of atom|
|What is a chemical symbol?||A universal code which represents an element|
|What is the periodic table of the elements?||A table showing the names and symbols of all the different types of elements|
|What is a chemical bond?||A strong connection between two atoms|
|What is a compound?||A substance made of atoms of different elements chemically bonded together|
|What is a molecule?||Between 2 and about 100 atoms chemically bonded together|
|What is a mixture?||Different objects together but not chemically bonded|
Now no doubt some chemists will quibble with some of those definitions and we discussed them extensively. But look at the clarity – how clear it is what needs to be taught, and what students are expected to learn. Compare that to the National Curriculum statements:
“Pupils should be taught about:
Atoms, elements and compounds
- a simple (Dalton) atomic model
- differences between atoms, elements and compounds”
To my mind, the difference is stark. In the sections below I will address the advantages of this method and at the bottom of this page I have attached a number of example resources from the SOW which might illustrate our thinking a bit more.
Pedagogical Content Knowledge
The act of writing CQs is surprisingly difficult. It forces you to completely break down your subject knowledge into the smallest parts possible and sequence them appropriately. I hope that’s clear in my example above; even as a specialist chemist I struggled to try and pull the concepts apart into a clear, logical and appropriately sequenced order. If a concept makes reference to another concept then the other concept has to be taught first. So we do not teach what the periodic table is until we have already explicitly taught what a symbol is and what an element is. In this way we have emulated the practices of expert teachers and grown in our own pedagogical content knowledge.
Long term retention
CQs like this naturally lend themselves to retrieval practice. We have populated the Retrieval Roulette with the CQs and students are tested on it in a mini-quiz roughly every third lesson. This means that by the time students are in year 9 they will still be having regular assessment on material they covered two and a half years ago. We have been very clear that if the mini-quiz uncovers weakness in student understanding, teachers are expected then and there to go back and clear things up. In fact despite currently teaching my Year 7 class about photosynthesis, my lesson with them on Tuesday involved a ten question mini-quiz and then spent the rest of the class going over material on hydroelectric power as students were not completely fluent in the energy stores involved.
After a mini-quiz, students peer-assess and then mark their scores on a tracker in their exercise book (which is designed to be transferred when they start a new book). We do not take these marks in or regularly ask students what they got. However, teachers will check the scores of students they are concerned about and might use it as the start of a conversation.
All CQs are published on Quizlet and I have on a number of occasions emailed parents to encourage them to practise the CQs with their children. I wrote a document explaining to parents how they can help and we regularly send this to parents via email and at parents’ evenings. A lot of our parents want to help, but until now have not had a simple and powerful method.
Student revision for assessments has been transformed. Instead of mindlessly drawing posters or highlighting notes, they now have a powerful method to practise retrieval themselves and be active partners in the development of long term retention.
“Higher Order” thinking
No doubt some people will be looking at this and thinking that this will only build rote knowledge but with no understanding. Obviously in class teachers do not just present the CQs, tell students to learn them and that’s it. We teach for understanding, but the fluency with which students can draw on these basic pieces of information is what, in the long-term, will enable them to be sophisticated and creative scientists.
To be sure, some students will get home, look at their CQs and realise they don’t fully understand this question or that question. They might then go on to learn it by rote in anticipation of a mini-quiz. Ideally, that wouldn’t happen and they would have understood to start with but the alternative is that they won’t understand to start with and that will be the end of the story. This way, we are giving them building blocks which will, when the material is re-visited, allow them to access the content much better than otherwise. I’ve outlined some more of my thinking on this here.
Research on misconceptions is, to my mind, extensive but incomplete. To me, the most important research finding is that misconceptions never really leave us (discussed at link). We can’t just teach students correct conceptions once or introduce cognitive conflict once and then move on. So we have built this into the CQs throughout. One example is the “what is between the nucleus and the shells?” example above, where students might ordinarily answer “air.” By constantly revisiting and reinforcing these ideas we can aid in the ongoing process of suppressing naive ideas. Another example is below:
|In the reaction magnesium + oxygen –> magnesium oxide, why does the mass increase?||Because oxygen atoms are being added to the magnesium ones|
In various forms this often comes up at GCSE as an “apply” type question and is traditionally answered very badly. By tackling it head on, frequently and explicitly, we help our students to embed the ideas which will one day lead to outstanding scientific thinking. (This can also be seen in the context of Rosalind Walker’s “canonical exemplars“)
Types of lesson to be taught
The whole point of our SOW is to support the curriculum (i.e. the CQs). Lessons are designed to be minimalist, to address the CQs through explanation (with or without demos), extensive drill practice and then review. The brief is that they should be “most useful to most teachers most of the time.” We did an internal vote process which led to teachers saying they did not want card sorts, storyboards, running round the room or crazy group activities. If a teacher wants to do those, that is absolutely fine. But we do not expect every teacher to do so and it is not fair to write a resource for another teacher that won’t be useful for them. Worksheets are clearly constructed and logically sequenced to test the CQs as well as push students to start transferring their knowledge to unfamiliar contexts.
The CQs are also extremely useful to our SEND and EAL students who are provided with a lot of clarity about what is being learned and powerful methods to do so. A lot of them do groundwork before the lesson which enables them to better access the learning. We also have a lot of 1:1 sessions for our students with their LSAs. We now have a powerful activity for them to be able to easily utilise to support their students. With our (fantastic) SEND department I am currently writing a short document to give LSAs information about the new SOW and some practical ideas for how they can support their students.
Much of the above is also true for our weakest students. Importantly, the CQs also allow us to feed these students some success. Traditionally, such students would struggle in lessons, struggle to revise and the do poorly in assessments. We have given them an easy route to success in the mini-quizzes and are already seeing students abandon their learned helplessness and become more motivated and driven to succeed.
Assessments are composed of three parts. First part are CQs from previous units. Half of them have the answer provided but with blanks for key words to try and allow even our weakest students to access the assessment. Next part is exactly the same but with CQs from the current unit. Final section is not based on CQs but more “application” type questions. In the C1 unit for example we might provide particle diagrams and ask students to identify elements and compounds, or giant and molecular substances or explain how they can tell that mass has been conserved.
We don’t have any objective evidence yet as to whether or not our SOW has been effective. Realistically, we won’t know for five years. But initial teacher reports have been positive, everyone feels a lot more comfortable and secure in the material and our students are talking and responding at a level beyond that which they used to. Nothing compares to standing at the front of a class, posing a complex question from material learned four months ago and seeing every single hand going up. Nothing compares.
This is an abridged version of my article on the topic in Impact, a copy of which your school should have received.