Another book all Biology A level students should read

This is a follow up to a post on essential reading for anyone who is taking Biology A level. In short, I have already listed (in no particular order) The Red Queen, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Life Ascending, The Epigenetics Revolution and Darwin’s Island as books a Sixth Form biologist should read.

Following the last post, a colleague and I debated the particular merits of each book and also the titles that were left out. The original was always meant to be the first in a series, so here I am with one more recommendation.

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

Perhaps the most controversial omission from the original post was Professor Richard Dawkins. To be quite frank, I would be more than happy to add any of his back catalogue to this list. The man is a real inspiration in terms of the ground-breaking work he so eloquently summarised in The Selfish Gene. Seeing organisms as “survival machines” for the genetic material that is inherited from parent to offspring is absolutely key to the kind of ‘big idea thinking’ required to truly understand the discipline. My 30th anniversary edition sits slightly battered on a shelf in my office, bought when I started teaching to replace the even more battered version I had at university.

Dawkins’ gene’s eye view of evolution totally changes the focus of how we look at biology. Additionally, its style is accessible for pre-undergraduate students, although concentration and a sharp mind are useful to keep up with the witty and energetic prose. Don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what W D Hamilton, widely recognised as one of  most significant evolutionary theorists of the twentieth century, had to say:

“This book should be read, can be read, by almost everyone. It describes with great skill a new face of the theory of evolution.”

Still not convinced? Why not watch this short clip, The Selfish Gene Explained, from the Royal Institute to whet your appetite for the book. Following this, dive head first in to the book. Keep doing this and you will be amazed at just how much you can get from The Selfish Gene.  Just like the Necker cube mentioned in the preface to the second edition, you will see different perspectives on the theory of evolution via natural selection.

CIE Biology: How to Ace Paper 3

This post is specifically for the CIE Biology International A level qualification. What follows are my attempts to help guide students to do the best they can in the advanced practical skills exam, Paper 3. However, the information below is no substitute for proper revision and the dedicated practise of actually carrying out a variety of biology experiments. Additionally, I would strongly recommend you use the past papers section of CIE’s website to sit as many “mock” practical exams as possible.

Command words in a question


  • Say what is going on, e.g. the trend or pattern of results.
  • When describing data, always use units if appropriate (e.g. °C or cm3).


  • Say why a trend or pattern is occurring.
  • When explaining data, always link it to A level Biology.

Although describe and explain are the most common command words, you might find yourself answering questions with any of the following:

  • Calculate: use mathematics to find an answer. E.g. mean, percentage, percentage change, rate, ratio, etc.
  • Measure: use a suitable measuring instrument to take a reading, being sure to include units after the numerical answer.
  • Suggest: there is no one correct answer; you should look through the information you have been given for some clues.

Even more rarely you might find one of the below command words in a question:

  • State: give a brief answer – maybe one word or a phrase.
  • Define: give a definition – these should be concise.
  • Determine: explain how you could take measurements and calculate an answer from these measurements (e.g. in an experiment).

How many answers should I give?

  • If a question states “identify two” then only the first two responses will be marked.
  • If a question states “record observable differences” then all responses will be marked.

How great is the risk?

If a question asks you to “state the hazard with the greatest level of risk” for your practical, do not choose one you deem to be low risk. E.g. warm water in a thermostatically-controlled waterbath set at 30°C, is a hazard that is low risk and so would not gain a mark. A better answer would identify a risk that was either medium or high, e.g. hydrogen peroxide is harmful to the skin. The key is to identify a hazard with “the greatest level of risk”.

Deciding independent variable values

Give five values at roughly even intervals (e.g. every 5°C or 10 cm3) when deciding what values to use for your independent variable. Always use units if appropriate (e.g. °C or cm3).

Recording numbers and drawing tables

Do not go past one decimal place when recording the results from your experiment, usually whole numbers are fine. And always use units if appropriate (e.g. °C or cm3).

Table Headings:

  • Put the independent variable (IV) on the left and dependent (DV) on the right.
  • Draw a line between the top row and the body of the table, e.g. underline the IV and DV.
  • Use the full name of the IV and DV (e.g. temperature of hydrogen peroxide and time taken to rise).
  • Only use units  in the headings, not the body of the table (e.g. temperature of hydrogen peroxide / °C and time taken to rise / s).



  • Record results for at least five values of the IV.
  • Results should show the pattern or trend theoretically expected of the practical.
  • Use whole numbers.
  • Record results for two trials and calculate a mean average.
  • The mean average should be recorded to no more than one decimal place.

Identifying sources of error

Think carefully about your experiment, where might there have been an error? E.g. if you are looking at colour changes this is subjective and will be a source of error. Ensure you state the error and the reason it occurred.

Describe how an element of a practical can be investigated.

  • Use five values.
  • State how these five values will be made, e.g. if the IV is concentration of enzyme, “use simple or serial dilution” or if it is temperature “use a thermostatically-controlled waterbath at 20°C, 30°C, 40°C, 50°C and 60°C”.

Constructing graphs

  • You will normally use data that is given to you in the paper.
  • Put the IV on the x axis, DV on the y axis.
  • Use the full title from the table to label each axis, e.g. “initial rate of catalase activity / s-1“.
  • Always use units if appropriate (e.g. s or seconds but not sec).
  • Look at the values and use a logical scale. E.g. a scale of 0.06 or 0.04 for every large square of graph paper is not logical. However, a scale of 0.05 is logical.
  • Each plot will be checked to see whether it is accurate to within half a small square of the graph paper. It is recommended you use an x mark to do this.
  • There should be no labelling within the area of the graph.
  • Lines will be judged for their quality*.

Bar graphs

  • Ensure lines are not too thick, as the quality of each one will be judged*.
  • Bars can be touching. However, if you chose to leave gaps the gaps must be evenly spaced.
  • The horizontal lines at the top must be perfectly straight, parallel to the x axis.

Drawing diagrams

  • Quality of lines will be judged*.
  • No ruler straight lines for your diagram: nature is not straight!
  • No labels or writing within the drawing.
  • Label only what is asked of in the question.
  • Do not draw in anything that you do not see. E.g. smaller organelles.

Plan diagrams

  • The diagram should be at least 60 mm wide at its greatest width.
  • There should be no shading.
  • There should be no cells in  plan diagram. Do not be tempted to draw them in!
  • Use the correct section of the slide. This will be in the instructions of the questions, but make sure you actually draw what it wants you to!

Diagrams of cells

  • Cells should be at least 50 mm at their greatest width.
  • Draw exactly the number of cells stated in the question.
  • Do not include half cells. The questions always state “whole cells”.
  • Cells should not overlap but may be abutting (e.g. touching each other or sharing an outermost line).


  • Always show your working and the steps you take to come to your answer.
  • Always show units, but do not mix units. E.g. not 1 mm and 50 µm.
  • When converting units, show the conversion. E.g. 1 mm to µm: 1 x 1,000 = 1,000 µm.
  • Try not to go beyond one decimal place, or the same level of precision as is given in the question.
  • Give ratios to the lowest common denominator. E.g. 168:58 should be 84:29.

Comparing observable differences using a table

  • Organise the table as three columns; one for the differences and two for the samples. E.g


  • Underline the headings and divide the columns as per the table above.
  • If asked for differences, do not give similarities!
  • Differences would ideally be “X is thick” and “Y is thin”.

*Quality of lines

Each line you draw for a graph or drawing could be judged for its quality. E.g. whether it has been drawn by a sharp pencil as a thin and continuous line. This is really important as you don’t want to lose silly marks for not sharpening your pencil!


Image by Asim18, CC BY 2.5,

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!

EdFest Part II

Day two started with the Brexit news hanging over conversations at the Festival of Education. It was a relief when the sessions started and thoughts were turned squarely to teaching, learning, assessment ands way from the uncertainty. As with yesterday’s post what follows is a brief précis of what I enjoyed most.

Slow Education – featuring Mike Grenier, Ciran Stapleton and Rhiannon Morgans. The latter two being Head and Head of Sixth at St Joesph’s School, an establishment that is working with Grenier’s school to bridge partnerships between Sixth Form students. Slow Education sees schooling as a social exercise with a clear and defined philosophical side, moving away from the puritanical to seek a greater depth of engagement. Mike’s ferment belief that education is above and beyond measurement is one that I totally agree with in theory; I would certainly love the chance to discuss it with him further in the future. Back to the session, the real stars of the show were two Sixth Formers from St Joesph’s who spoke eloquotently and extolled the virtues of their tutorial collaboration. A great start to the day.

Questioning with Toby French – highlighted a common issue when questioning pupils; often when it is successful the teacher has to do all of the work. Why try to draw something out of a student – who quite clearly doesn’t know the answer – when you can just tell them?! His colour coded questions based on an idea from Dylan Wiliam is something I’ll try in my classroom next week. Ultimately Toby suggested we shouldn’t ‘not’ ask students questions, but we should change what we ask. He also amused me greatly by sharing an anecdote about a meeting on picking a type of font in response to my question about shifts in culture.

Martin Robinson asked “what type of teacher are you?” Having been privileged to host Martin at a recent conference it was great to hear him without the pressure of organising the event! Do we want a meritocracy? Are we happy to have the deserving poor? Are we being taken away from the core purpose of education? Are we cogs in a machine? Is bueauracracy the driver in our schools? All these questions were posed in the tradition of dialectic and made immensely interesting in Martin’s session. We were encouraged to “be heroic, be wild” as a final call to arms. Interestingly speakers from both of the sessions I had previously attended were present, which was very much standing room only.

Tom Sherrington started with the point that these events sometimes lack a real focus on classroom teaching. A fear that enivatably comes from the sheer scale of EdFest and the variety of speakers. However, his session was great and shared the Teaching and Learning priorities of his school, Highbury Grove. From ideas that staff should know about (even if they don’t agree with them!) to thoughts on behaviour, there was certainly something to take from his presentation. By the end Tom had achieved his goal of evoking “the heat of everyday practice”.

Another great day and I hope the ideas continue to mature in my mind over the final few weeks of the academic year. These two blogs on the Festival of Education will act as a fixed point to refer back to, as well as a rambling summary of my experience here.

EdFest Part I

I write this post with a wonderfully elated feeling. Although I thought I was prepared for the enormity of the Festival of Education at Wellington College, the vast sprawling avenue of CPD still took me by surprise. At first I feared I would not enjoy the brobdingnagian proportions, however, my current euphoria is evidence that this was a misplaced fear.

Just deciding a schedule for the day was tricky and my best laid plans were immediately changed by the delay to the start of the first session. Nevertheless I managed to see some incredibly high quality speakers; Daisy Christodoulou, Tim Oates, Germaine Greer and Sir Clive Woodward. I also met a very nice man from 9ine. If I am totally honest I made a beeline to him as his stall had water bottles, but his patter rang very true with my experiences and hopes for tech in the classroom. The same goes for Co-ordinate ECA, a new startup that aims to outsource extra-curricular activities to schools. I discussed the importance of all-round education with Jenny, one of the founders. What happens in schools beyond the classroom is incredibly important to me and I hope to hear more of their work tomorrow. I am also very grateful to Stephen of Co-ordinate for buying me a water (you might detect a correlation here; it was incredibly hot and humid when it wasn’t torrential rain and it is very important to keep hydrated!). Bumping into Jill Berry, chatting with Candida Gould and Daniel Sabato, as well as Daniel’s company during yet another biblical downpour, very much put the icing on the cake.

A brief summary of the best sessions I attended:

Daisy Christodolou – discussing issues with APP and looking to explore why it didn’t work. I particularly liked her putting into words one of the fundamental issues, namely that students who needed the feedback most could not access its meaning. It is always a pleasure to listen to Daisy, especially when she is using football-based metaphors: let’s spend more time working on passing drills than playing 11-a-side games!

Tim Oates – deliberated on whether science education has suffered as a result of the reforms to practical work. And in a word “no” it has not. This chimed with my own view, as someone who has taught IGCSE for the last five years, I see no harm in not having a controlled element to practical assessment. And my experience of teaching GCSE for five years before that made me incredibly cynical of so called ISAs, EMPAs and controlled assessment. But it was Tim’s questioning of policy makers wanting students to be “mini-scientists” – do they actually know what being a scientist is like?! – that I most agreed with. Science is full of counter-intuitive ideas that “thinking” like a scientist will never prepare a student for studying it a higher level. This echoes a particular axe I had to grind with the how science works element of GCSE science: students needed to know the ethical considerations for kidney transplantation versus kidney dialysis but did not need to know what the kidney did or its structure. Madness! Tim deserves extra praise for being so incredibly engaging that the impromptu appearance of Will Greenwood (see below) at another session in no way dampened my enthusiasm of listening to him speak.

Sir Clive Woodward is more than anything responsible for my feeling of elation, listening to him in the final slot. WARNING This post is in danger of descending into hero worship. As a schoolboy during his early tenure of England and a university student when we won the World Cup, he really is a living legend in my eyes. Watching Will Greenwood, Jonny Wilkinson, et al is a memory that is becoming more and more rose tinted. If you enjoyed Sir Clive’s Q&A session read Winning! for more insights. He referenced the one hundred one percents by suggesting we “set lots of little standards” which will all add up to make the whole better. He also identified that we have an under-reaction to success; instead of asking what went right we switch off and celebrate. Conversely our over-reaction to failure means we often become stuck in a cycle of disheartening self-evaluation. Woodward finished by suggesting one of the most important attributes is how you bounce-back from failure; specifically referencing Eddie Jones he said “failure strengthens your CV”.

With all of this still fresh in my mind I await tomorrow’s day at the Festival of Education with eager trepidation…



The Conversation – SASFE16

Saturday was an incredible day to be part of. We held our first teaching and learning event, titled Forum on Education. With a raft of great speakers taking the seminars and delivering the keynotes, I was incredibly grateful to everyone who delivered the content. Even more so I am very thankful to the delegates who attended, charging the day with a co-operative and benevolent atmosphere.

SASFE16 delegates deep in conversation

The format of Forum on Education was plenty of time for chatting and mingling, three 30 minute keynotes and three longer seminar sessions. A full schedule of the day can be viewed here. My greatest disappointment was that due to my role in helping the day run as smoothly as possible, I was unable to actually stop in and be part of the seminars. While I did pop in to take photos (and use unintentionally humorous session timing cards) to catch a few moments, the impossibility of being in four places at once prevented my full participation. However, all of the feedback (or should that be guidance?) on the day was incredibly positive, with delegates coming out of sessions buzzing with enthusiasm.

Martin Robinson opens the conference

Luckily I was able to listen to the entirety of the keynotes. The unmistakeable Martin Robinson, of the excellent Trivium 21C fame, kicked off proceedings with a well thought treatise on how we assess the arts. Whether posing the telling would you rather… “Hollow Crown or Game of Thrones?” or provoking our senses with modern art, I couldn’t help agreeing that “taste is destroyed if you give it a number.” This introduction to the conference was a great way to get started and certainly challenged the delegates to reassess or reaffirm their views. It certainly got people talking.

A melodic five minute drone flight over Radley College signalled the start of Ian Yorston’s pre-lunch keynote. Ostensibly he spoke on the role of using technology to enhance assessment and feedback, however, we were treated to much more besides this. In particular Ian’s signposted the tension between the “happiness agenda” versus the results driven “academic agenda” in many schools. His advice of not setting homework as this made him happier and therefore a better teacher will have struck a chord with many, especially with workload so much in the spotlight. If I had to pick one idea it would be that “IT has to be invisible” for it to be successful in schools. However, I still feel sorry for the humanoid robot that was pushed over in the video Ian showed towards the end of his talk.

Ian Yorston takes the second SASFE16 keynote


The final keynote was given by Jill Berry who continued the conversation by looking at how feedback can be used in leadership, whether for classroom or head teachers. Questions such as are we owls, lambs, foxes or donkeys were posed. There was a clear message that support and “guidance” are vital.

Indeed Jill made the point that feedback is screechy and unpleasant, whereas guidance does not invoke the same earache inducing thoughts. She also used her experience as a head to make the point that “we can learn a lot from the people we lead” and not to entertain an echo chamber of “yes men”.

Jill berry brings the curtain down on SASFE16

The end of Jill’s keynote marked the end of the conference and, from my perspective, an end to a very enjoyable day. I had hoped the event would be full of conversations, in this respect I was not disappointed. It seemed that as the day went on a theme developed, tying together the keynotes and seminars. My thanks go to all three keynote speakers and all seminar leaders; Andy Ford, Mark Pedroz, Cameron Palmer, Drew Thomson, Nick Dennis, Heather Fearn, Jen Hart, Dawn Cox, Rob Tanner, Scott Crawford, Ben Weston and Colleen Young. Additionally the behind the scenes helpers; Alison, Guy, Owen, Bernie, Kirstie, Sharon and Helen. 

Here’s looking forward to the next Forum on Education and the conversations it starts!

The Spark

Forum on Education is a teaching and learning conference being hosted in St Albans on Saturday 28th May.

I remember clearly the spark that generated my renewed passion for teaching and learning. It occurred at the inaugural Teaching, Learning and Assessment conference at Berkhamsted School in March 2013. Throughout the day I was both comforted by agreement and challenged by differing views. More impressively my eyes were opened to hardworking teachers willing to give up a day of well-earned weekend. Spark after spark of enthusiasm and possibility on show all around. Post-conference the spark started to catch. The incandescence of Twitter – with its myriad ways to interact, view and discuss education – swiftly followed and the glow became brighter. Then bursting into flames and bringing forth this very blog: tlamjs being a homage to the Teaching, Leaning and Assessment of TLAB. Numerous times my curiosity and appetite for information and discussion has been sated by interacting with and sharing ideas online with a huge host of active educationalists and teachers. The fire was fed oxygen from discussion, debate and agreement. Continuing to burn, even illuminating colleagues and friends along the way.

It is this luminosity that I hope Forum on Education will bring to its delegates, twinkling beyond to the children and colleagues they work with. A day to provide the spark for thought and reflection. The intimacy of the conference eschews the grandstanding of some events, the smaller number of delegates as a catalyst to allow more in-depth conversation to occur. Allowing conversations the oxygen to crackle into life, the flames fanned through discussion and burn throughout the day. There will be no shortage of sparks. Just look at the line-up of speakers, leading figures in education. Many have already achieved recognition for their contributions. Others are more than on their way to be the leaders of the future. This combined heat igniting a veritable feast of educational pyrotechnics that will take hold, influencing and aiding the learning of students, both now and in the years ahead.

With just under two weeks until Saturday 28th May there is still time to book a ticket to be part of the day. Act quickly as due to the nature of the day places are limited. I do hope you will be able to join us as the sparks fly upwards.

Header picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons