Teaching Declarative Knowledge: Part 2

I love teaching science, but I think it’s a hard subject to teach well. Of course it’s easy to see the challenges in your own area of expertise and gloss over the ones in other subjects but science has a lot of content – a lot of declarative knowledge – and lots of different ways in which that content needs to be applied – lots of exemplars and inferences.

To teach it well, you have to make all this content accessible; you have to teach it quickly and memorably; you have to get children applying in different contexts; and you have to make links explicit.

In my last post I described three ways that I don’t think work well. Perhaps more usefully, in this post I’m going to try to outline the basic approach to teaching this kind of declarative knowledge that I want all the @SotonEd trainee teachers to have in their toolkit.

  • Carefully analyse what you want the children to know and be able to do.
  • Start with something straightforward that draws on prior knowledge
  • Explore more than one example if that makes sense.
  • Draw out the key features
  • Transfer to the more abstract general principle
  • Practise inferences
  • Review in subsequent lessons

Although that’s the sequence, there are also some things woven through:

  • Be explicit about Tier 3 (scientific) vocabulary
  • Draw diagrams
  • Model what you want
  • Insist on complete answers to oral questions
  • Include simple consolidation activities

What might that look like? Going back to the reflex arc in my previous post (which includes a careful analysis of what the children need to know)…

Start with something straightforward and concrete that draws on prior knowledge.

In this case, maybe choose one from; a loud bang, touching something hot, something sharp, seeing a low branch at the last moment before you walk into it.

Ask questions to bring out prior knowledge about the chosen example.

  • “What happens when you hear a loud bang?”
  • “Is it quick or slow?”
  • “Do you have to think about it?”
  • “What part of your body do you hear/feel/see it with?”
  • “What part of your body responds?”
  • “Why is this useful?”
  • “Does it give you a shock – what does that feel like?”

This already throws up quite a bit of what children need to know, without any new vocabulary or anything off-putting.

Explore another example. Touching something hot, perhaps. Ask roughly the same questions. Do it in a different way if you like e.g.

hot reflex

Draw out the key features. If you are working with examples, focus on what they have in common. This is a crucial bit of thinking in the planning process. How you ask the questions up to here is dependent on where you want to be at this point.

  • Don’t think.
  • Brain not involved.
  • One of the senses detects.
  • There is some kind of reaction or effect.
  • Which protects the body.

Make them think about this e.g. give them this list: for protection / brain not involved / a reaction or effect / skin / eye / ear / quick / don’t think / a sense, and get them to put each word/phrase on a Venn diagram, or make a list of common points.

You might use “sensory organ” instead of sense; either way you might need to ask them what it means. This is another crucial bit of thinking: what might not be clear to them when they first encounter it? Err on the side of caution and check or clarify.

Get this list of common points on the board. One of the key things about working memory is that it has very limited capacity. So, add some more RAM! That’s a big part of what your board can be used for.

Transfer from concrete examples to the more abstract general principle. You’ve already done some of the heavy lifting. This makes the move to the language and other aspects of the formal science much more accessible.

If you can use diagrams, do so. Here’s mine.

reflex arc

The diagram needs explaining. This is how your body links a hot finger to a moving muscle. It’s a system for transmitting a signal. It’s a one way system.

It also needs labelling. Like most of biology the vocabulary is a barrier. “A neurone is a nerve cell”; “sensory neurone because it links to one of your senses”; “motor neurone because it goes to a muscle that moves, like a motor.”

And you need to deal with how the signal is transmitted – electrical / chemical. At this point trainee teachers have a bad habit of assuming they can just use the word ‘diffusion’ (because they did it in KS3). This is exactly the mistake that widens the gap between top and bottom. Try this:

diffusion check

Practise inferences. At this point, there is no new material left to cover. But there are new ways of using it. For a start, there are a lot of ways to draw a diagram of a reflex arc. Labelling each of these with the GCSE components makes the knowledge more flexible whilst reinforcing the key vocabulary.

reflex arc diagrams

Model how to write a description of the reflex action on seeing a low branch at the last minute. Then get them to do the same thing for touching a hot object, or touching something sharp.

Use things like “Because, but, so…” to scaffold for high quality work.

reflex because but so

Maybe try “same / different”.

  • The sensory neurone is the [ same as / different to ] the ___________________because…
  • A synapse is the [ same as / different to ] a ____________________ because…

More about ideas for practising inferences, checking understanding, and consolidating, in my post for the #CogSciSci AfL Symposium.

Of course, each topic is different and has it’s own idiosyncrasies. Like I said at the start, this is what makes science teaching hard. However, I think this approach mostly works, provided enough thought (and subject knowledge) goes into analysing what the children need to know, identifying a straightforward, more concrete starting point, and clarifying how to get from that starting point to the more abstract general principle.

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