Category Archives: education

Key Words in A level Biology

This post follows up from Keywords and fluency of understanding, a post written before the Autumn Term. It seems apt that I reflect back on the vocab books and weekly testing I have introduced with my Upper Sixth class.

Vocabulary book.PNG

How it looked in the classroom

Every student in my class was issued with a vocabulary book in September. This was specifically for the first topic, Plant Physiology and Biochemistry. The students themselves numbered it from 1 to 35 with two numbers per page. Examples from three different students should make this format clear, see below. I had decided the key words in advance (see appendix for the full list) and – as we gradually covered the topic – gave them words to put in the correct place. E.g. number 13 was the Calvin cycle. For homework students found a definition – handily enough there was a full glossary at the back of their textbook – copied it down and learned it for a vocab test at the start of the next lesson.

VB1.PNG

Student A – key words 23 to 26

VB2.PNG

Student B – key words 27 to 30

 

VB3.PNG

Student C – key words 31 to 34

Fortuitously the arrangement of other Upper Sixth Biology classes gave this intervention a quasi-experimental design that I could compare my class to the other three classes. The fact that the cohort numbers 40 and I have ten, exactly a quarter, in my class was further good luck. This would allow me to evaluate the vocab books and weekly testing for my class which I will now call the experimental group. All 30 other Biology A level students in the Upper Sixth did not use the vocab books or have regular key word testing, therefore these students will be called the control group.

What happened?

Good question (and for those who like a bit of value-added data (VAD) tomfoolery this will be a real treat!). Firstly, as a basic comparison the table below compares the mean average score for the Plant Physiology and Biochemistry end-of-topic test for the experimental and control groups:

Experimental Group 66%
Control Group 64%

Two percent! I have written before about gains as small as 1%, but is 2% a good result? Ultimately this does not tell us too much. The classes are all mixed-ability by the standards of the school, so it might seem that my intervention has had a positive effect. But students are organised into classes by option blocking of their other subjects, therefore I might have randomly been allocated students whose attainment is higher by chance.

This is where VAD might help. Our students are given ALIS scores which project future A level performance from GCSE results; see the clever people at CEM for more details. So I can now use the projected ALIS grade to compare to student performance in the end-of-topic test to calculate a residual. E.g. if a student is projected an A grade but scores a B their VAD residual is -1, if the same student gains an A* their residual is +1 and if they get their projected grade the residual is 0. The table below shows the average VAD residual for both groups:

Experimental Group -0.8
Control Group -1.2

This means the experimental group, on average, scored 0.8 of a grade lower than their projected grade. However, this was better than the control group where students scored, on average, 1.2 grades lower.

Does this mean anything? Well, let us muddy the waters a little by considering that the experimental group has a second teacher (an excellent person and very knowledgeable biologist) who takes them for half of their allocated teaching time. How do the experimental group’s scores compare in the topic they did with me, using vocab books and regular testing, to the topic they did with Teacher 2? The information is tabulated below:

Topic

Mean average score Average VAD residual

Plant Phys. and Biochem.

66%

-0.8

Genetics

65%

-1.1

We are still looking at very fine margins but it certainly seems that they have attained better grades, in terms of VAD, for the topic they used vocab books and regular key word testing. However, (and as all good biologists know) correlation does not mean causation. There are a huge number of reasons for this, really very small, discrepancy. For example, is the Plant Physiology and Biochemistry topic the same difficulty as the Genetics topic? Questions like this will continue to be considered as the year goes on.

What did the students think?

They have humoured me and done as asked, producing the vocab books and gamely accepting the vocab tests. They seem to not object massively to the intervention and, as the topic came to an end, were quite pleased with their final vocab books (I think). In fact, they have even suggested making the vocab test harder by mixing up previous key words.

What next?

My class / the experimental group have almost finished their second topic, Energy and Respiration, so I will have further data to consider in due course. However, their points of view are equally important to me so I have arranged a group interview with a few of the students and another separate group interview with a few students in the control group. It will be interesting to consider their responses amongst the data!

Appendix

Key words for the Plant Physiology and Biochemsitry topic:

  1. Abscisic acid (ABA)
  2. Absorption spectrum
  3. Accessory pigment
  4. Action spectrum
  5. ADP
  6. Aerenchyma
  7. ATP
  8. ATP Synthase
  9. Auxin
  10. Bundle sheath cells
  11. C3 plant
  12. C4 plant
  13. Calvin cycle
  14. Carotenoid
  15. Chlorophyll
  16. Chloroplast
  17. Dormancy
  18. Endosperm
  19. Giberellin
  20. Granum
  21. IAA
  22. Light dependent reactions
  23. Light independent reactions
  24. Limiting factor
  25. Mesophyll
  26. Palisade mesophyll
  27. PEP
  28. PEP carboxylase
  29. Phosphorylation
  30. Photoautotroph
  31. Photolysis
  32. Photophosphorylation
  33. Photorespiration
  34. Photosystem
  35. Reaction centre

 

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Keywords and fluency of understanding

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.

Sweet Success

Recently I have enjoyed a ‘healthy’ discussion with a colleague about rewarding work in exercise books and reward systems in general. Although we disagree about what the reward should ultimately be, we both agree that many systems just peter out and become ineffective as a student progresses up the school. The house points / merits / commendations that work so well in the early career of a secondary school student hold no currency later on, neither with student nor teacher. Currently there is a lot of thought from the pastoral leaders at my school to try and get the best system for throughout the five years of KS3 and KS4. Reading through the blurb from other schools I can’t help but wonder whether they too suffer from the ‘Year 9 dip’; chatting with acquaintances is an easier way to get closer to the truth. Certainly a policy on rewarding work should not be merely window dressing to look good on a website or prospectus. It needs to be applied consistently and to actually engage the students, motivating them to improve and contribute to the school community in a worthwhile manner. This is where I hope we are heading.

Returning to the opening sentence of this post, the ‘healthy’ discussion on how to reward students centred on whether confectionery was a good choice of reward. Despite my musings on Jaffa Cakes, it will surprise very few people to know that I was very much against this… Not only on physical health grounds, but also the mental association of success and chocolate. I strongly believe this is not a healthy coupling to make. As part of a healthy balanced diet and with regular exercise I am all for sweets, chocolates and other unhealthy foods. In fact I am quite the chocoholic, but I do not eat chocolate to reward myself for having done something good. To equate success to sweets is a terrible policy.

PS: I am also against the random bringing in of cakes for Sixth Form classes, something that seems to have grown in popularity. In the past my classes have received short shrift when trying to bring up the subject of ‘cake Fridays’. This year my timetable has me teaching two different Upper Sixth classes after lunch during period five and six (of a six period day) on Friday. When the inevitable questions was posed I have relented, to an extent. We now have ‘fruit Fridays’, instead of cake someone brings in enough fruit to satisfy our postprandial cravings. Happily one class has totally gone for this, we’ve had blueberries, satsumas, grapes aplenty. While I am sure students would prefer cake there needs to be a good deal more ego and less id, to paraphrase Dr Freud’s suspect theory.

PPS: Just so no-one thinks I am a totally miserable so-and-so, the header image is a lovingly made Chocosaurus birthday cake for my son. It would be a bit much to have just carrot sticks and grapes!

Tomatoes and Pens: Revision Ideas

Despite what one of my colleagues might think (don’t ask!) the Pomodoro technique is a way of helping focus attention over a short period of time. It helps to break up uninteresting or hard work, not all people need to use it but it can be a valuable tool for students overwhelmed by revision and something that I would advise they at least try. Essentially you set a timer for 25 minutes and start working – during this time there should be no access to phones, internet, talking or any other distractions – once the timer starts you are on the clock until the 25 minutes is up. There is much more detail about this process in A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley, which I would highly recommend. And if you are into R2D2 you’ll want to read the mention at the bottom of Nick Dennis’ post.

Having spoken to my Upper Sixth about this method since September I finally made them work in this way during a lesson on Monday. After five minutes of setting out the task and ensuring everyone had what they needed, we set off on 25 minutes of focused revision. Everyone was engrossed in their work, actively revising by making resources, answering questions or testing their knowledge. Following this period of deep concentration I encouraged students to get up and take a stroll around the classroom. After this short break we reconvened and students were then free to work as they wished, most had questions to ask. Either I answered them or they came to agreement in discussions. Once again everyone was on task. They felt this exercise was very productive and something they will try independently in their own time.

The Pomodoro technique has become one of my favoured ways of working for many tasks throughout the day. However, I do not always stick to working for just 25 minutes. Sometimes I find that I am on a roll and want to finish the report or marking I am working on. Very rarely do I ever end early. Once again I would suggest that this is not necessarily a method for everyone, but definitely worth trying. I find it most helpful during those odd periods where I feel listless and lack the drive to “eat my frogs” (to use another term from A Mind for Numbers). And if you are wondering why it is called Pomodoro, this is due to the use of a tomato-shaped kitchen timer by Francesco Cirillo, the originator of the idea.

Monday’s lesson was a double, so after the Pomodoro task I handed out the old staple of revision lessons – a past exam paper. Once again I had a particular trick that I wanted students to use to help with the revision process. It has been something I have urged them to do but thought that modelling it in a lesson would help pupils see the benefits. I call this method the three pen technique, so called because you need three different coloured pens (as I type this I realise that requiring pens and the need for them to be of different hues has stirred up a lot of discussion in the past. I suggest you read this surreally brilliant blog by Whatonomy as a way of catching up on this). E.g. blue, green and red. Students would complete the paper under the following conditions:

  1. Using the blue pen and under timed exam conditions, answer all questions on the paper.
  2. Using the green pen and with the help of notes, textbooks or a classmate, add to the answers given in step 1 and finish the paper if necessary.
  3. Using the red pen use a mark scheme to add further details to the paper.

 

Come revision time I have used this technique for a while and in a number of different environments. Here are some examples of step 2 and step 3 from a student on course for a high grade:

 

Step 2:

2

Step 3:

3b

And another step 3:

3a

Should students complete a series of papers in this way it is interesting to see how the proportions of each colour change. In many ways this acts as a crude diagnostic test to see why students are losing marks. E.g. Lots of blue and red but little green can show a lack of understanding or poor choices of selecting information from their notes (or indeed poor notes to work from). Similarly a lack of blue denotes a student has not committed to memory the key aspects of a topic. It is easy to see how the combinations can help a teacher infer where a student is in terms of their revision; therefore making suggestions to help the student better prepare for their examination. It is also easy to discuss with a student how they might take this way of working as an opportunity to self-assess where they need to target revision. Therefore helping a little with the journey towards independent learning.

So there we have it. Two simple ideas that have been around for ages but can help students as they embark on revision. Both have the potential of making a student more independent and go a little further to taking ownership of their revision. And if the pen is mightier than the sword, imagine how mighty three pens are!

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

What links an inept bank robber, Charles Darwin and two Cornell University psychologists? Read on to find out!

David Dunning and Justin Kruger describe the Dunning-Kruger effect as a cognitive bias of both unskilled and highly skilled individuals. What I find most interesting is the differentiation between how the bias affects the skilled versus the unskilled.

  • Those that are relatively unskilled are biased towards thinking that they are better at a task than they actually are.
  • Whereas highly skilled individuals underestimate their competencies, instead thinking that a task that they find easy will be easy for everyone, regardless of how objectively difficult it might be.

This is aptly summed up in the statement below:

“The miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others”

(Kruger and Dunning, 1999)

This topic is such a huge source of fascination to me. One reason in particular is that it is by no means a new phenomenon. Although given its Dunning-Kruger moniker in only 1999, scientists have been aware of it well before. For example the extraordinarily talented Charles Darwin commented in the Descent of Man that

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”

(Darwin, 1871)

This covers precisely the bias of unskilled individuals; they think they know something exactly because they do not know it well enough (feel free to swap know for understand  or vice versa at any point in this post, depending on what side of that particular precipice you stand). Darwin goes on to say

“It is those who know little…who positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved”

(Darwin, 1871)

Or, less eloquently put, individuals without the skills to understand an issue will often by the first to say it is intractable. Even more interestingly we are all prone to some degree of agnosognia, or deficit of self-awareness, about ourselves. If you are not very good at something then often it can be impossible to know you are not very good at it!

“The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is”

(Morris, 2010)

From a personal perspective there are obvious exceptions that come to my mind; I know I am not very good at singing or speaking Russian. There is no false sense of expertise in these fields! But my concern is the things that I think I am good at… Perhaps my confidence in thinking I am good at explaining the semi-conservative replication of DNA is totally misplaced? Perhaps it is a combination of the Dunning-Kruger effect twinned with “The Curse of Knowledge” (another closely linked cognitive bias, this time held by people who know a great deal on a subject and assume others know as much causing issues when they try to explain concepts)?

At times in my teaching career I have had the immodesty to think that I am good at helping students learn in general. Reverse Imposter Syndrome* might be the culprit?! I am an impostor thinking that I understand a topic, simply because I do not have the capability to realise I do not understand it. Or as Dunning put it perfectly:

“We are all just confident idiots”

(Dunning, 2014)

There have certainly been watershed moments in my time as a teacher. When looking back I have realised that certain techniques or strategies didn’t really work. Certainly reading literature on learning has allowed me to see how I can refine and improve my practice. With each epiphany helping to shed a little more of my Dunning-Kruger outlook with the realisation that I did not know enough or understand what I was trying to do to actually evaluate it properly. I might venture to suggest most teachers are subject to a little of the Dunning-Kruger effect at one time or another. We are all, and this is by no means a criticism, “confident idiots” some of the time. Conversely we also fit the bill as unconfident geniuses* at times too. 

What of the inept bank robber mentioned at the start? This is perhaps the reason I find the Dunning-Kruger effect so interesting! The story goes that a man named McArthur Wheeler inspired the eponymous psychologists. Perhaps recalling the childhood activity of using lemon juice as invisible ink, he rubbed it into his face then set off to rob two banks. To his astonishment he was arrested shortly afterwards, police simply watched the CCTV footage from each bank. The height of stupidity one might argue? Yet this was not a spur of the moment decision; Wheeler had planned this novel approach, testing the lemon juice’s effectiveness by taking a photograph. The fact that the Polaroid picture in question was empty should not surprise us, it is thought that the camera had not been set up to face him. Wheeler fitted the bill of an unskilled individual so well that he could not even take his own photograph correctly! Or in more blunt terms:

“Wheeler was too stupid to be a bank robber [so] perhaps he was also too stupid to know that he was too stupid to be a bank robber”

(Morris, 2010)

*Recently there have been suggestions that the Dunning-Kruger effect leads to Imposter Syndrome, suggesting that feelings of inadequacy are due to the skilled thinking what they do is easy, thus devaluing the skill. This is exactly the reverse of the “confident idiot”, e.g. the unconfident genius.

Sources:

Darwin, Charles, 1871, “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex”, John Murray, Introduction, p3.

Dunning, David, 2014, “We Are All Confident Idiots”, Pacific Standard, Tuesday 27th October 2014.

Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David, 1999, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 77 (6), p1121–34

Morris, Errol, 2010, “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is (Part 1)”, New York Times, Sunday 20th June, 2010.

What will SASFE be like?

Unbelievably it is just under two months until Forum on Education takes place in St Albans on Saturday 28th May. Although the official St Albans School blog has been detailing most of the information for the day itself (St Albans School Forum on Education), I thought I would take this chance to set out the vision of what delegates can expect.

Certainly SASFE will be deliberately smaller in scale than some teacher-led CPD events and education conferences. This is to encourage a collegiate and collaborative atmosphere, bringing discussion and sharing of ideas to the fore. The keynotes will be delivered in the School’s library, an intimate and scholarly setting as befitting the three distinguished speakers. Martin Robinson, of Trivium fame, will kick the day off, no doubt posing the questions that truly challenge how we think about education. Just before lunch Ian Yorston will discuss how technology can aid and abet assessment and feedback in and out of the classroom. As a final act Jill Berry will speak about leadership, bringing the curtain down on the day.

In between the keynotes delegates will attend three seminar-style workshops, led by some incredibly talented teachers from both the state and independent sectors. There will be a choice of different seminars covering a diverse range of subjects and concepts that are representative of the debates and discussions currently occurring in education. A full list can be found on the official St Albans School blog SASFE Keynotes and Seminar Information.  The workshops classification as a “seminar” is deliberate, once again reflecting the small-scale and collaborative nature of Forum on Education. These sessions will eschew didactic presentations, instead very much being an exploration and discussion of a topic to encourage a conclave of collaboration. The study group concept of the seminar returning delegates to the tutorial atmosphere of higher education and allowing discussion to flow, bringing nascent ideas to fruition.

As a reminder of the nuts and bolts of what else is on offer, tea, coffee and refreshments will be provided before, during and after the conference. Lunch is also included as part of the £30 ticket cost. Finally an on-site parking space or collection from St Albans City railway station is also part of the package, another way to try to make attending the conference as hassle-free as possible.

Writing less, better. TMLondon

I love the phrase “writing less, better” and have blogged on this idea before. Indeed the Jaffa Cake Conundrum was the title of my presentation at TMNQTHerts in October. Since then I have tried to develop simple and effective ways to encourage students to respond efficiently to written tasks. I am still amazed at how much student written work is just spurious fluff with no real meaning. Too often the task instructions are rewritten, wasting time for both the student writing the work and teacher feeding back.

My presentation at TMLondon looked at five ways of encouraging students to ditch the bluster and hone in on the task. Below is the list of ideas, perhaps you recognise the acronyms?

  1. Don’t rush! RTQ
  2. Don’t repeat the task instructions! ATQ
  3. Don’t use pronouns! Write names, key words, etc
  4. Don’t panic with exam questions! BUG
  5. Don’t overcomplicate! KISS

RTQ = Read The Question, or RTFQ*. Don’t assume you know what the task is about, read instructions carefully and ask if unsure.

ATQ = Answer The Question, or ATFQ*. Having read, and clarified where necessary, the instructions start writing something that is directly relevant and meets the success criteria.

What is the meaning of this?! Well, since you ask, it’s a pronoun used to identify a specific person or thing close at hand. What “this” certainly is not, is a good way of demonstrating a good grasp of a topic or task. By far the better course of action would be to use key words and terminology to make a more lucid and effective piece of work.

BUG = Box the command word, Underline the key words, Glance at the mark allocation. To avoid losing marks in test questions use BUG as a way of structuring a response. It surprises me that some A level students do not know the difference between describe and explain!

KISS = Keep It Simple, Stupid. This principle was apparently used by the US Navy and Lockheed aerospace (thanks Wikipedia!). Why try to make things more complicated? Sure there might be complex processes that need to be learned, but making the simple complicated is an easy trap to fall into.

KISS leads directly to the idea of “intellectual impostors”, or more accurately Intellectual Impostures by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. Richard Dawkins’ excellent book review Postmodernism disrobed in the scientific journal Nature was brought to my attention by Tim Jefferies in a tweet about UCAS personal statements. He observed that some students overcomplicate to try to appear more intelligent; this is something I can verify too. The contrast between a clear and lucid literary style to the passage below from Felix Guattari could not be starker:

“We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously.”

As Dawkins states, “an intellectual impostor with nothing to say” would not cultivate a literary style that was clear or lucid (Dawkins, R (1998) Postmodernism disrobes, Nature, vol. 394, pp141-143). Instead they create something that is quite the opposite as a kind of snake oil to obfuscate. Returning this train of thought to our students, although we should be encouraging flair in writing it should not be at the expense of clarity. An easy strategy a pupil could take to check they have not fallen into this trap is simply to read the written work out aloud. Prose that a student might think reads articulately on the page can often be byzantine, convoluted and thorny when properly analysed. This is where KISS comes to the fore!

I hope you enjoyed this post and or the TMLondon presentation. If so you might be interested in a secondary education conference on Saturday 28th May in St Albans. Tickets can be bought for just £30 through TicketSource.  Book now

Full information can be found here.

*The F stands for Full!

UPDATE:

Thanks to the wonderful Leon Cych you can now watch the two minute nano-presentation from the night itself here

Header image courtesy of canva.com