A model for sequencing in Biology – part 3

Over the past year, I have slowly developed a model of how I atomise and sequence a Biology topic. Part 1 of this series focussed on how I gradually atomise a topic from principles to big questions to sentences to facts and how each level contributes towards the sequencing of the topic into a coherent narrative. Parts 2, 3 and 4 will then explore how my instructional design builds the atoms back up, ensuring there’s practice to fluency at each level. Finally, part 5 will look at how I layer the levels in a learning episode so that you get a feel of what a lesson or a sequence of lessons using this model looks like.

I’m a big advocate of ensuring we emphasise the “why” alongside the “how” so as to minimise the opportunity for lethal mutations. However, I don’t want these blogs to lose focus so I have instead linked to blogs, articles etc. where I refer to a “why” behind my “how”. Please check out some of the these links if they’re unfamiliar.

Part 3 – Practice level 2 – sentence structures

In part 2 I outlined how I constructed deliberate practice of the facts for the topic. But facts in isolation will lead to inflexible knowledge that students cannot transfer to new contexts. I now want students to practice combining, sequencing and organising these facts into sentences.

In the past, I would happily teach the factual content of a topic before expecting students to immediately make the leap and construct extended explanations in the form of answers to 6 mark questions or similar. The majority, of course, couldn’t do this as they’d had no opportunity to practice the components of these explanations. The demand on working memory was too great as they juggled retrieving the factual content with considering how to sequence it, everything dropped out of their heads and I was left with a sea of poor or, worse, blank responses.

We, as teachers and experts of our domain, use the language and grammar of sentences so fluently that we probably don’t even notice. The curse of the expert in action. But students require the explicit teaching of this language just as they do for the scientific facts that they will write sentences about.

Now others have written far more brilliantly than I could on the ways and whys of incorporating sentence composition practice into Science. There’s a whole CogSciSci symposium on it! In fact, I’m going to insist you go and read Ruth Walker’s contribution to the symposium on “Sentences and the web of knowledge” right now. Go on, off you go!

Designing a sentence structure sequence

I’m going to outline how I would devise a question sequence that practises a relevant sentence structure for the sequenced content of Edexcel GCSE Biology Topic 7. Cast your minds back to part 1 and the selection of sentence structures I identified within the “Hormones control the fertility of human females” principle:

  • Chronological sequence of the events of the menstrual cycle e.g. Menstruation occurs before ovulation.
  • Chaining the gland, target organ and effect for each hormone e.g. FSH is secreted by the pituitary gland, stimulating a follicle to develop in the ovary.
  • Comparing the gland / target organ / effect of 2 or more of the hormones e.g. Both oestrogen and progesterone are secreted by structures in the ovary and effect the uterus lining.
  • Connecting the inhibition / stimulation relationships between the hormones e.g. Oestrogen stimulates the secretion of FSH.
  • Consequences of various scenarios e.g. If the egg is fertilised then the corpus luteum remains in the ovary secreting progesterone.

With curriculum time at a premium, it is unrealistic to expect to be able to practice each of these structures in this topic. I need to prioritise and think about a structure that has the highest utility. I can then ensure, in future topics and through homeworks, that other sentence structures are practised. The chronological sequencing of events, chaining of the gland / target organ / effect and the consequences of various scenarios could all use a cause and effect sentence structure such as “If…then…”. This structure is essentially what science is all about. If we change something, what happens (and why)? So a question sequence promoting the use of this sentence structure might look like this:

This is beyond simple factual recall now. There are multiple facts to be retrieved in each sentence. The facts are linked by key tier 2 vocabulary like “secrete”, “stimulate” and “inhibit”. The sentences require students to consider what the effects of things not happening. All of this is encouraging flexibility with the content.

But the content being retrieved here is quite narrow, all centred on the menstrual hormones. There’s a danger that the repetition of both the sentence structure and the content is going to cause students to switch off and, while successful, not actually learn anything. If I interleave either different content or different sentence structures, I introduce a desirable difficulty, maintaining a cognitive load that is conducive to learning.

I’ve focussed on interleaving by content as it’s the “Oh, these 2 things are connected!” moments I want to foster. I could interleave with closely related content such as the hormones that regulate metabolic activity to aid students in creating connections and boundaries between similar concepts or I could use less related content such as mitosis and the cell cycle to push students to move seamlessly through their schema and select the correct knowledge to retrieve. I tend to refer to the former as “natural” and the latter as “artificial” interleaving. The interleaved sequence might look like this:

Scaffolding the sequence

My experience so far is that students are not very good at using these sentence structures consistently. They very quickly drop back into the common mistakes of incomplete sentences, use of “it” rather than precise nouns or overly long and rambling sentences. To try and avoid this, I scaffold the task at the start, gradually fading this out to independent practice.

To begin with, I live model a worked example of the sentence structure. I can then draw attention to the components of the sentence structure e.g. the conjunction / comparative language and also the biological knowledge that will need to be retrieved to populate the sentence. I can also model a poor response for comparison. This is particularly useful when the poor response is technically right but lacks detail and precise vocabulary.

I’ll then have students complete a faded example on mini whiteboards while I circulate and look for common errors or individuals struggling. The faded example would be a partially completed sentence that students are expected to complete. The level of completion expected of the students can easily be varied by adding / removing parts from the sentence. The mini whiteboards help students be less concerned with getting things right first time. They know they can quickly rub things out and make corrections if they change their mind. This can be displayed as an example / problem pair, with the worked example and faded example side by side:

I can then be responsive to the needs of students in the moment. If there’s a common error in the class then I can go back to the front and do another worked example or grab a book and show and correct the mistake under the visualiser. If students are fine I can move them on to the independent practice with a quick nod or “off you go”, allowing me to maybe pull a small group of struggling students together to reteach. The possibilities are endless but, importantly, they fit the class and students in front of me and are not based on any preconceptions of ability.

Even within the independent practice, I can slowly fade the scaffolding and make the sentences more and more incomplete to gradually build student confidence. I can include success criteria such as vocabulary suggestions or sentence fragments so that students have somewhere to start. Here is the finished sequence:

It’s important to remember that this is all part of a bigger picture. The emphasis on these sentence structures can’t be a one off. They need to be embedded in all of the topics (and ideally in KS3). As I use them more and students become well-versed in them, I can see these question sequences changing for future GCSE classes so that they interleave the sentence structures as well as the content. That’s the dream anyway!

In part 4, I’ll show how I utilise this sentence structure practice to answer the big questions from my sequencing process and why I can never be without a visualiser again!

If you have any questions regarding this model, please leave a comment or get in touch through Twitter.

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