In many ways learning Biology is like learning a language. All subjects are laden with specific terminology, often with meanings that have a greater level of precision than when the words are used in everyday speech, but Biology must surely take the biscuit in this regard. The sheer scale of rote learning needed to access understanding of topics at A level is quite phenomenal. Certainly in the past I have been guilty of taking this for granted; the curse of knowledge has often led to some muddled conversations with pupils. So this year the main tweak to my A level teaching will be to focus on keywords as a way to drive a greater fluency of understanding.
As is always the case, I am neither alone nor the first to look into this. The importance of learning and recalling keyword definitions is a well-known and discussed area of education. For example, Dawn Cox’s recent post detailed her own thoughts and strategies to give pupils the best possible chance to understand Religious Studies holistically (pun most certainly intended). In Biology there has often been a focus on ‘big ideas’ that connect topics. Seeing the subject as a whole rather than as piecemeal topics is the difference between having a good understanding of Biology or an excellent one. Pupils who can interpolate within the A level topics are invariably those that do the best when confronted with atypical demands.
The word I have been using more and more to describe this sophisticated understanding is ‘fluency’. This term works well on two levels. Firstly, the more easily and articulately a pupil can express themselves is fundamental to showing what they understand, whether in writing, orally or in exam papers. Secondly, and aping the linguistic simile at the start of this post, fluency pertains to the ability to speak and write in a foreign language easily and accurately. In this case Biology is the ‘foreign language’ and once again the ease of communication is highlighted, but without the required accuracy there will be no deep understanding. Therefore, fluency within a subject depends on ease, articulation and, above all, accuracy of communication. If accuracy is the foundation of fluency, then it seems logical that having a comprehensive knowledge and understanding of keywords will allow a pupil to develop within the subject.
So what does this mean in a practical sense? What will I do differently this year in my classroom? Inspired by Dawn, I will be introducing weekly ‘vocab’ tests for my Sixth Form classes. We will spend about 5 minutes a week of lesson time looking through a selection of keywords for a topic, even if they are yet to be studied. Pupils will have a ‘vocab book’ and be expected to keep it up to date with the words covered. Then the next week they will be tested on the definitions of keywords. All of this will definitely be happening. I also hope to add in a comprehension task that will assess understanding more effectively… But this will require more time and thought. Bear with me while I try to find the right balance, but in time I hope to report any interesting findings.