Curriculum Notes #1: Start out real, concrete, authentic.

Here’s the first of some short blog posts about detailed aspects of curriculum thinking.

I observed a science lesson recently where students were looking at cells and were asked to recall the differences between plant and animal cells.  A student I spoke gave me this response:  animal cells are round and plant cells are rectangles.   I asked him why he thought that and he pointed to a worksheet in his book that looked a bit like this:

animal and plant cell

Round vs Rectangle! You can see what he means! On further exploration, it transpired that this was the extent of his exposure to cells: these two diagrams. He wasn’t able to connect these dislocated representations to a wider concept of where cells are or how organisms – plants and animals – are built from cells of different types.

It seemed to me that ‘plant cell vs animal cell’ is not a good place to begin, nor is it wise to  kick off with a simple diagram.  Diagrams are representations of something real and they  don’t really make sense unless you know what the real things look like:

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I would suggest strongly that, in science and anywhere else this applies, students will form a deeper understanding in the long-term if they are exposed to real, authentic, concrete artefacts and experiences before they study them through simplified abstractions.   Before you can understand that there are some general common properties of plant cells, you need to see that plants are made of cells of many kinds, organised in tissues of similar cells; they don’t typically exist in isolation.

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The same applies to the practice of labelling diagrams.  Above we have a ladybird. I think it’s pretty strange to label the parts of a creature as a learning experience before you’ve actually seen what a real one looks like. If you’ve handled some insects  – eg by ‘pooting’ them from the grass at the back of the school in the summer – then a labelled abstraction serves a purpose: explaining your observations, making sense of your concrete experience.   Below, we have labelled plants.  For too many kids ‘stigma, style and sepal’ only exist as labels on a flower diagram – not as real objects that take a wide variety of shapes in the diversity of flowers you can find in any garden.  Let’s remember that the diagram is meant to help us learn about real things; it’s not that the real thing is an example of our diagram brought to life!  (And please, let’s not talk about Virtual Reality or Augmented Reality before we’ve exhausted Real Reality.)

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Another aspect of this is with any natural phenomenon we can demonstrate.  Before we learn the equations and definitions, let’s see it!!  Why would you want to know Fleming’s Left Hand Rule before you’ve observed the ‘force on a wire’ phenomenon for real?  Make or demonstrate a motor… then talk about the theory behind it.  This is how stories unfold.

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At a very fundamental level, I find that students typically don’t have a strong enough grasp of the particle model that underpins so much scientific understanding.  Often I think this is because they are forced to conceptualise things that are beyond their experience; they confuse steam with smoke; they confuse wax melting with wax burning.  Typically, they don’t have enough tacit knowledge of changes of state –  they’ve not spent enough time in the kitchen seeing water boil or made ice for themselves. The Ice-Water-Steam ‘story’ offers so many opportunities for forming these ideas but teachers need to have the confidence that it is worthwhile investing the time in exploring the real things.

One of my favourite chemistry lessons is boiling water.. generating a head of steam that lasts a while.  Here students can almost see the water molecules zipping around with kinetic energy, jumping off the water surface… the same molecules in a new state; the same molecules that started off in the ice cubes you melted earlier.  These real experiences form a conceptual platform; without them the  molecular diagrams are abstractions with less meaning.  As Dylan Wiliam once pointed out, some people think that in the water molecule diagram, the white space between the molecules is the water, not that the molecules ARE the water!

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These examples are all from science – my home patch.  But it applies elsewhere.  The general idea supports the need for field trips or to bring in real artefacts or at least to show videos of real things – mountain, rivers and castles – if we’re going to be studying them in any generalised form.

And what about poetry.  Too often you see poetry being taught as if poems are no more than a collection of literary features to be underlined and annotated.  But that’s not how they come into being or how they’re meant to be read.  ‘Start real’ with poetry means to let the poem speak for itself, as far as possible. Feel the words, form the imagery, capture the spirit…

Bayonet Charge by Ted Hughes

Suddenly he awoke and was running – raw
In raw-seamed hot khaki, his sweat heavy,
Stumbling across a field of clods towards a green hedge
That dazzled with rifle fire, hearing
Bullets smacking the belly out of the air –
He lugged a rifle numb as a smashed arm;
The patriotic tear that had brimmed in his eye
Sweating like molten iron from the centre of his chest,

Taught well, read aloud, with time for the poem to breathe, Bayonet Charge packs a punch.  A great English teacher can do this,  before the analytical carve-up begins.  Of course a deeper understanding enriches the poem hugely – you go back to it time and time again. But that’s not where you start.  Here’s my son’s annotated copy of Heaney’s Storm on the island.   But this is not where he began…

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I wonder where else this applies?  Start out real, concrete, authentic.


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