Head of Biology Amelia Kyriakides discusses the ways in which her department has adapted to home learning and how the strategies they’ve developed will continue to benefit her GCSE cohorts on their return to school.
For many of us, adapting for home learning meant rapidly rethinking lesson planning. Quick decisions needed to be made based on zero experience of remote learning and teaching. A balance needed to be struck between conflicting pressures. This meant finding our place along several continuums: synchronous versus asynchronous; making use of everything technology can offer versus being accessible to all; revision versus new content; differentiated and bespoke versus generic and time-efficient. But we were not completely in the dark. We know how students learn. It was a matter of adapting the principles we work with on a daily basis in a new context. It might feel like trial and error, but it is trial based on a sound understanding of what works. We are responsive to errors along the way making modifications quickly.
In this blog I will outline the principles that guide the home learning model in our biology department. I am not saying it is perfect, far from it. But it is guided by what we know works and it is a good compromise between the conflicting pressures created by the current situation.
Principles underpinning our home learning model
- Accessible and convenient for students. We recognise that not all students have access to technology all of the time. Students need to be able to complete work at whatever time works in their family context. Students must be able to engage with work whether they are working from a laptop, tablet or phone.
- Manageable workload for teachers. Teachers have their own caring responsibilities meaning that workload needs to be manageable and shared between the team. Having as many classes as possible (and even year groups) working on the same topic has helped here.
- Manage cognitive load. Students will be quickly overwhelmed by complex instructions and excessive switching between resources. Instructions need to be clear and easy to follow so that students can focus on the content of the lesson.
- Focus on topics that can be learnt effectively at home. Rather than trying to teach the most challenging concepts or skills remotely, we have adjusted our curriculum plans to bring forward topics that students are likely to have more success with independently. Year 10 should have been covering genetics and year 9 should have been covering respiration. Both are challenging and teaching them remotely would risk significant misconceptions that would impact on future learning. Instead, both year 9 and 10 are now working on ecology, of which they have the pre-requisite knowledge from KS3.
- Keep the main thing the main thing. We’re looking back at the specification and focussing on the most essential knowledge.
- Scaffold the construction of meaning. Use explicit teaching strategies to carefully sequence the introduction of new concepts and guide students to think deeply about them.
- Link new learning to prior knowledge. Encourage students to connect new learning to pre-existing mental schemata.
- Check understanding. Regular formative assessment is needed to identify misconceptions and inform future planning.
- Provide opportunities for spaced retrieval practice. Essential for long term retention both of new lockdown learning and learning from back when we were in school.
What does this look like?
The simple but meaningful model relies on four different resources per topic:
- Knowledge organiser
- Retrieval question bank
- Lesson sheets (inspired by the Shed Loads of Practice SLOP model)
Biology ‘lessons’ are set on a weekly basis in accordance with our school schedule. Work is set on our online homework setting platform for students to complete at a time that is convenient for them.
At the start of a topic students are provided with a knowledge organiser and checklist. They are in the habit of self-assessing prior knowledge at the start of a new topic. This was retained in home learning in the hope that it would provide advanced organisation to prime students for upcoming lessons and begin to activate relevant prior knowledge. The knowledge organiser contains the keywords with definitions, concepts and critical examples. It is a one stop resource to support students throughout the topic.
Each lesson follows the same format and is contained within a single lesson sheet. Students work through a lesson sheet which introduces the new keywords and concepts in a short passage of text with linked videos offering clear and concise explanations. Explanation is followed by a series of carefully sequenced questions that aim to draw students’ attention to salient elements of the text and scaffold progressively deeper thinking. Once completed, students check and correct their work using an answer sheet, an important step to reduce the risk of embedding mistakes.
Meaning making through carefully sequenced questions
Questions are composed to engage students in very deliberate practice that promotes progressively deeper mental processing to build mental schemata. Devising a sequence of questions to scaffold meaning making means asking what purpose each question serves and strategically placing questions to guide students towards progressively more sophisticated understanding.
Here are the purposes of the questions asked on the example lesson sheet:
- Directing students’ attention to the most important elements of the text/video. E.g. What is a community?
- Encouraging semantic processing through elaboration. E.g. Give an example of how an animal depends on a plant.
- Distinguishing between similar concepts to build precise definitions. E.g. What is the difference between a population and a community?
- Recognising examples and non-examples to refine definitions. When grey squirrels were introduced to Britain the number of red squirrels decreased. What biotic factor caused the change in red squirrel population size?
- Making connections with prior knowledge. E.g. Light intensity is an abiotic factor affecting communities. Why does light intensity affect plant growth?
Alongside the lesson sheets, we use regular, low stakes, multiple-choice quizzes with questions for the purpose of retrieval practice alongside more diagnostic questions to lend insight into emerging misconceptions. We analyse class data and provide whole-class feedback while feeding insights forward into future planning.
At the end of a topic students engage in more retrieval practice using their knowledge organiser and a bank of retrieval questions. Students also review learning by self-assessing against their topic checklist.
As a team we produce home learning resources collaboratively meaning we can maintain high standards while balancing workload. The resources we are making have the potential to be used back at school in the future making the process more sustainable. They could be used in lessons, printed and compiled into revision booklets, used as cover work or as catch-up work for students who have missed lessons. If you don’t have time to create your own knowledge organisers or retrieval questions, the Oxford Revise series has done this for you for AQA GCSE Sciences.
Where will this take us?
We will continue to assess student progress and keep careful records. When back in school we will look to plug gaps in knowledge. We will use retrieval starters to secure knowledge and look for opportunities to make synoptic links back to lockdown learning. We will make amendments to our curriculum sequence and undoubtedly have to make difficult decisions and compromises. We will stay positive and focus on meaningful learning, engagement and success in science. Remote teaching has forced us to look again at our curriculum and rethink teaching and learning rapidly. It has made us think deeply about content and approaches. Ultimately this can only make us even better practitioners when we get back to the classroom.
Amelia Kyriakides is Head of Biology and Lead Practitioner at a comprehensive secondary school in Oxfordshire. She has led on teaching memorably and revising effectively with a focus on retrieval since completing her MSc in Learning and Teaching. Amelia’s MSc research explored the use of strategies to support long-term retention of learning in the science classroom.
*For knowledge organisers, retrieval practice and exam practice all in one place, take a look at the Oxford Revise series.