Catrin Green has some ideas for teaching a knowledge-heavy curriculum

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Ensuring students know and understand the many fundamentals of science is one of the most challenging parts of being a science teacher. Many column inches are written about the knowledge versus skills debate, but in reality if students do not have a secure knowledge and understanding, they cannot think like a scientist.

When asking our students ‘what is hydrogen an example of?’ this will be a familiar response for many of us: ‘It’s an atom … uh … no it’s an element … uh … maybe it’s a compound’.

Without understanding the difference between atoms, elements, compounds and molecules, asking students to make predictions about reactions is pointless. As is trying to teach balancing equations to a student who doesn’t fully understand conservation of mass.

Scientists build on knowledge discovered by others to think creatively about new ideas, and our students need the same grounding to move forward in their own studies. Secondary school is where we must embed this foundation, but this doesn’t have to mean resorting to lecture-style chalk and talk.

The initial explanation

Where students have struggled to learn something it often comes down to how it was initially taught. If atoms, elements and compounds are taught through simple diagrams and definitions, a number of students are unlikely to really understand the difference.

Quality instruction requires thorough planning of the scaffolding needed to ensure students truly know and understand a concept. To jump straight to particle diagrams without any contextualisation is going to cause issues later down the line. Try introducing the idea of building blocks, perhaps using Lego or Skittles before moving on to modelling sets. The more creative you can be at this point, the more memorable the knowledge is going to be. Finally, cement the theory and knowledge they ultimately need to know, through in-depth explanations and examples.

Direct instruction can be useful here, but this should not mean simply lecturing students. Use careful questioning to ensure students understand each step in the learning – try to teach balancing equations without doing this and watch your students struggle as soon as they have to use their knowledge in a slightly different format. Questioning will rely on you pre-empting the likely misconceptions.

Without planning how you are going to explain a concept, their knowledge is unlikely to be solid enough to allow them to do anything other than regurgitate the basics.

Thinking long term

One of the pitfalls we can be caught out by when teaching content is to think of our curriculum as discrete units and lessons. Students don’t learn in a lesson or even a term. Teach something in September and if you don’t return to it again, that knowledge is unlikely to be retained, especially when considering a more abstract concept.

Students require regular opportunities to practice what they’ve learned, but if you make this just about completing questions you risk removing any love of learning from your students.

Firstly, plan your lesions long term, interleaving the topics as you go through the year. If you’ve just taught atoms, elements and compounds, how can you make sure you can touch upon this in every unit for the rest of the year?

And again

Review, review, review (this can be fun, I promise). Research in cognitive science shows us how important this is.1 Plan to revisit knowledge regularly using a variety of methods to be sure to engage everyone. Here are some ideas:

Pop quizzes – much less threatening than a test and evidence suggests can improve memory.2

Key word games such as Bingo, Articulate or Splat.

The ‘give me’ game is a great quiz for quickly recalling facts. For example, give me five alkali metals, give me three tests for anions, give me two reactions of the halogens. Make a list of about 10 and make it a competition to see who can get them all.

Beat the teacher – write up an answer to a question with a number of errors (focus on misconceptions here). Challenge students to find all of the errors and fix them.

Make up songs (or use Youtube) to come up with ways of remembering topics.

Get students to make up mimes, role plays or dances to help them remember processes such as the rock cycle or electrolysis and then get them to repeat them regularly.

‘Lag’ homework – give homework tasks based on lessons from three weeks earlier rather than on the content just studied.

Show students how practice is making them more successful and they’ll see the point of the hard work.

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These are a few ways of making content memorable in our content-heavy subject while keeping a love of learning alive in students. But teaching is not just the transfer of knowledge and this foundation should be used to help develop our students’ creative and analytical skills at the same time.

Catrin Green is a deputy head, former head of science and author of How to teach: secondary science from Crown House Publishing