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Posts tagged with: Biology

A new era begins?

On the 24th May 2010, a new SQA Qualification Design Team met in Glasgow to begin the process of coming up with a new suite of Biology National Qualifications as part of Curriculum for Excellence, which I was fortunate enough to be part of. As expected, the meetings which followed over the next few years were a bit of a roller coaster. Whilst there were times when it all seemed to be going well, and there was even the occasional laugh, there were also the obvious stresses and frustrations which go along with this sort of work. All part of the job of course, but it still took its toll at the time.

So it’s perhaps unsurprising that after years of numerous trips to Glasgow, Edinburgh and Stirling to be stuck in a conference room reading endless documents (including at weekends), followed by lengthy planning sessions for the Local Authority and in school, that I’m now actually beginning to look forward to teaching National 4 and 5 for the first time this week! Of course the qualifications and courses we’ve ended up with aren’t perfect, show me one that is, but I’m at least convinced that they are an improvement on the courses and qualifications they replace, which is ultimately all we can realistically expect to achieve.

Perhaps the most exciting thing though isn’t the new courses…it’s actually the opportunity (impetus) they’ve given us as a department to refresh the way we do things in the classroom. We’ve been making such progress with our courses in S1-3 it actually makes sense to alter our approach in the Senior Phase for these students also. Otherwise they would’ve had quite an incoherent secondary school experience.

Of course, it won’t be all plain sailing…there’s still a lot of work and learning ahead…but focusing on the learning and new opportunities will hopefully sustain me once all that work piles up…I’m pretty sure that teaching the new courses should be a lot more fun than designing and planning them!

Making Learning Real

I’m quite inspired by Ewan’s idea of a problem finder curriculum, but I’m not entirely sure how to get there to be honest…however it has encouraged me to persevere with trying to give my pupils’ greater ownership over their own learning, and making their learning more real.

I know it’s nowhere near the idea that Ewan’s proposing, but I have made a couple of recent attempts to use the web to make learning a little more real in my classroom. The first was with an Intermediate 1 Biology class who were about to learn about body temperature. As a parent, I felt that the learning might seem more relevant if the pupils were to produce a website on body temperature for new parents – something I remember being quite anxious about first time round. I knew I’d use Google Sites for the actual creation of the sites, but I didn’t feel that the pupils would buy into this completely with the horrific URLs which Google Sites uses. So I bought a domain name to try and help with this…mybabystemperature.info

You can view their sites by following the link above. The pupils really engaged with the task, many of them taking the responsibility of producing a real website with an actual audience quite seriously.

I’ve since followed this idea up with something similar, but this time the site can be used with a wider range of classes: biologyrevision.info

As you’ll see, I’ve already begun to use this with Standard Grade classes as well as Intermediate 1. Once again, the pupils seemed to really enjoy producing something which is “real” and has an actual audience. And the beauty of Google Sites is that they can collaborate and review in private and only publish once they’re happy with it.

I’m looking forward to finding better and ever more challenging ways of opening up learning in my classroom…

Do the project first!

In June of this year I was lucky enough to attend the Cramlington Learning Festival, something I’ve already mentioned on here.

One of the sessions I attended was led by the inspiring Darren Mead, who shared his Project Based Learning mantra with us: “Do the project first”. In other words, if you’re going to set a project for students to complete then we as teachers should be trying it first and showing this to the students at the outset. Darren showed us one he’d done. Whilst it was impressive that he’d gone and spent all that time making his project, one of the things that really surprised me at the time was that it wasn’t perfect – at one point his young son was doing the camera work! On reflection, I think this is fantastic. It would be potentially devasting to show the students unobtainable perfection and then ask them to try to do their own projects…

As we’re redesigning our S2 courses currently, we’ve been trying to diversify the opportunities for learning and assessment – and using these to help engage the students in the topic. For example, in our new Genetics & Reproduction topic we’re planning to ask our students to produce a documentary aimed at couples who are planning to try for a baby at the end of the topic. We’re going to share this task with them at the start of the topic, but use this to structure the actual lessons:

The six questions in the list slide provide the titles of each of the lessons in the topic. But, since Darren’s session I’d been thinking…should we be trying this first? Should we have a go at producing the documentary and ask the pupils to assess it before we start the topic…so a colleague and I went for it – remember, it’s a long way from perfection – but deliberately so…

We’ll let you know how it goes…

A Healthy Heart

Following from my previous post, I’ve been preparing the lessons for the class I’m going to using the learning cycle with – one of my S3 Intermediate 1 Biology classes.

We’ll be learning about the heart when we return after the summer break, and so I’ve been trying to use the learning cycle to plan the lessons, and then producing a powerpoint to accompany this. It’s been surprisingly tough going – mainly due to the amount of time it takes. I am also finding it fun though. It’s liberating to plan without such a focus on the textbook and I’m looking forward to seeing how the lessons go next week…

Firstly the planning…

And here’s the powerpoint…

And some other associated files…

The risk paradox

We changed our timetable this week and have made start on 2011/12, which means I got to meet my new classes and get going on their new courses. This is such a crucial time. Somehow, you’ve got to find the balance between setting the right tone with your new classes and the inevitable wind down towards the end of term. Two of my classes are making a start on their Intermediate 1 Biology courses and I’ve been fighting the strong urge to play it safe. I’ve decided to take what feels like a risky strategy, but why do I think it’s risky…?

To give a bit of context, this course kicks off by learning about the nature of health in terms of physical, mental & social health and then moves onto considering how physiological measurements of health can be taken. In the past, I wouldn’t have given too much thought on how to approach this…draw the health triangle…complete a worksheet on staying healthy…draw a table of methods of taking physiological measurements…and so on. My assumption had been that I would employ similar methods this time around, but I really didn’t want to. This was not the tone I wanted to set with my new classes and felt that if I started in this rather predictable manner, then I would struggle to ever break out of this in the future. Despite this strong desire, I was worried about taking a riskier approach. What if it didn’t work? What if the behaviour was awful?

The strange thing is, my old method wasn’t terribly successful. The pupils tended to find the content quite boring and would soon start playing up. Even worse, they wouldn’t be able to remember any of this particularly well in a few months time. So why on earth would I consider this approach to be the safe one? Is it because it resulted in a relatively quiet classroom with me in control? Or perhaps because it generated jotters filled with notes? Or maybe I just feel it’s what everyone, including the pupils, expect of me? It’s surprising how hard it is to break out of these drivers!

Anyway, despite this strange internal pressure, I managed to resist. I kicked off with some circle time to discuss how we should approach learning as a class. I followed this with a group challenge to draw the health triangle based on short 10 second individual opportunities to view one copy of it at the front. We then made a video of the whole class acting out the health triangle which we watched next lesson before designing posters for doctors’ surgeries to promote all three aspects of health. My plan for the next lessons was to break the groups up into expert teams to research and present on each of the four physiological measurements they need to know, but one of the pupils in one of the classes has suggested we make health promotion adverts instead so we’re going to do that first…

And the result? The pupils’ behaviour has been outstanding – they’ve been much more engaged and motivated so far than I would’ve anticipated from my old approaches – and more importantly, they’re really learning it. But why would I doubt that? All my experience and reading in the last few years emphatically point to these sorts of strategies being significantly more successful, but for some reason when faced with the reality of 40 new S3 pupils it still takes a bit of a leap of faith to take what feels like a risk, but really isn’t at all.