For me, booklets have been a game-changer. The combination of lean explanations, worked examples and plentiful practice have made sure my lessons run smoothly and student productivity is maximised, and I wrote about how I use them day-to-day here. This year, I’ve been teaching GCSE biology, which is a new experience for me. My subject knowledge isn’t great as despite having taught physics and chemistry to GCSE, I’ve never done biology. The booklets I’ve been using were put together by Adam Robbins, and they feature a number of passages of extended text. I think teachers (and students) can be put off by passages of challenging text like the below, so I wanted to write about how I’ve approached them to ensure that everyone is engaged and thinking throughout. You don’t need to read the whole passage to get this blog, but it’s important to see the rigour and ambition in the text.

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How I go about teaching with it:

  1. Get an exercise book

I found myself an exercise book for biology. This is where I write my notes for teaching, as detailed below.

  1. Print off the text passages

I took all the text passages out of the main booklet, double spaced them and printed them all off on separate pages. I stuck the first one in the exercise book.

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Double spacing makes it easier to highlight and take notes
  1. Go through the text before the lesson

Before I teach the material, I go through the text in order to prepare myself. I don’t do this just to aid with my subject knowledge, I do it so that I can prepare the questions I am going to ask and diagrams I am going to draw. Generally I’m looking for key words or phrases, but these aren’t always technically scientific (i.e. they could be tier 2). My reasoning in doing it like this is that not only is it an opportunity for retrieval practice, but it helps prime the ground for students to learn new content. If they are struggling with certain key words it’s that much harder to understand what’s going on.

Example of a word or phrase I would highlight What I plan to do in the class
Prokaryotic and eukaryotic Ask questions like

·         “give an example of a prokaryotic cell”

·         “give an example of a eukaryotic cell”

·         Draw and label a bacterial

·         Which are bigger, prokaryotic or eukaryotic cells?

Complexity ·         Define the word in a general sense, then discuss its application to this area (cells with different roles/functions working together)
Muscle cell ·         Draw the muscle cell

·         Ask students to label it

·         Ask students the function (“contracts”) and then validate with further questions about what “contracts” means.

·         Ask students to relate their labels to the function of the cell

Blood glucose concentration Write the phrase on a blank sheet/board, break it down into three words and ask questions like

·         What is the purpose/function of the blood?

·         What kinds of cells are in the blood?

·         Why does the body need glucose?

·         Where does the glucose come from?

·         Where in the cell is the reaction involving glucose?

·         What does concentration mean?

·         Why is controlling blood glucose concentration important?

Draw arrows coming away from the phrase to note down key definitions

This is what the book likes when I’m done:

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  1. Get a blank exercise book

I have an exercise book full of blank paper with no lines on it. Throughout the lesson, I fill up this book with diagrams and key phrases/notes, some of which I will ask the students to copy. I have an IPEVO visualiser, and I use a Stabilo Fine Black pen. At first I used a medium one, but I’ve found the fine one works better for me.

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Yes, yes I know I have terrible handwriting

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  1. Into the classroom

If there is any ground work explanation to do, that comes first. I might set the scene in terms of what we are going to be learning about and why it is important, chucking in some hinterland where appropriate. I’ll then ask a particular student to start reading, and pause them when I want to ask questions, explain something in more depth or have students take a note. Once I’m happy, I’ll ask the student to go back to the beginning of the sentence. I might have the sentence read multiple times to ensure that we really understand it, and I’ll chuck in some checks for understanding too.

Notes?

I tend to avoid having students copying stuff down unless there is a tangible benefit to them. If there’s a diagram which I’m going to come back to later, or they might need when practising, then it’s important. If you are clarifying or distilling a definition, then that’s important too. If you’re going back to really old material, then re-explaining with help from your visualiser, I think it’s a live question as to whether or not students then copy that down. Let’s say in this particular lesson I went back to discussing a particular specialised cell like the nerve cell. I might then draw the cell under the visualiser, asking students as I go, and include labels and definitions. The right move after that is probably to cover the cell and ask students to draw it from memory, then reveal the cell again for them to correct, rather than just copying it down.

Prior, pre-requisite and new knowledge

An interesting side-effect of teaching like this is the framing of three types of knowledge:

  • New knowledge: what students are learning today and haven’t learnt before, for example the principle of organisation
  • Pre-requisite knowledge: things students need to know before they can learn the new knowledge, e.g. you cannot understand the principle of organisation without some understanding of structure, function and basic cells
  • Prior knowledge: things that they know that are indirectly related, e.g. knowing the structure of a bacteria is related to organ systems, but you could happily learn about organisation without knowing anything about bacteria

Normally, new knowledge is only couched in pre-requisite knowledge. This method also couches the new knowledge in prior knowledge that is not pre-requisite. As such, it tries to continue the ongoing project of building broad and interconnected schemas so that students’ knowledge is not siloed off into neat and bounded areas, but broad, sprawling and thickly connected.

Low and slow

It can take time to teach like this. I spent one and a half 50 minute lessons over the particular passage quoted above, which some people might struggle with, both in terms of the amount of teacher direction and in terms of course/content coverage. The way I see it is that there’s a real value in not only being thorough, but also going backwards and showing students how the different topics relate to each other.

A colleague said to me that they felt this approach would take too long compared to a less directed and less text-based style. I asked them which approach they thought would make their students into better biologists to which the response was “fair enough.”

Taking time, consolidating, showing links and giving students the chance to think deeply is crucial in the science classroom. A challenging text delivered well can give your students that opportunity.

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