Of the many conundra facing new teachers, getting kids to remember things is perhaps the most challenging. I’ve lost count of the number of times I was sure that they knew something, only to discover next lesson that they have no idea what I’m talking about. In Science, this is particularly frustrating as content is cumulative: it simply isn’t possible to move forward with the curriculum unless they have mastered the foundational concepts. And with the added challenge of having to convey knowledge from three distinct, yet connected subjects within science, it’s no wonder that they struggle to remember it all.
In the new science GCSEs, there is a plethora of new knowledge that pupils need to remember – such as plant diseases caused by tobacco mosaic virus and rose black spot, and how monoclonal antibodies are used in pregnancy test kits. Furthermore, now that there are no more controlled assessments, pupils also need to remember and apply their knowledge of various practicals in an exam, too.
But it isn’t just about the GCSE exams. We want all our pupils, regardless of starting point, to foster a deep and enduring interested in science. A curious, enquiring mind can be developed through the acquisition- and most importantly, retention- of a vast array of knowledge.
At Michaela, our knowledge curriculum in science enables all pupils to learn in meticulous detail hundreds of scientific facts, concepts and processes. But if pupils are going to maintain their interest in science, or carry the subject on to A level or degree level, they need to grapple with complex concepts, and perhaps most importantly, remember the fundamental ideas that underpin them. We need to make science stick.
So how do we make science stick at Michaela?
• Drill drill drill! Overlearning is key to pupils remembering for the long term and improves their retrieval strength. This can be completed verbally or through ‘drill questions’. Here’s an example of one of our drill exercises, which we carry out at the start of every lesson:
• Knowledge organisers. This is a powerful tool to help pupils know their science terminology. It can be used as a memory tool, for revision, as an extension activity, and for setting memorisation homework. Pupils learn definitions at home and in class we discuss the application of the words they learnt. Pupils need to have this pre-requisite knowledge before they can solve, apply and enquire. (Read more in Joe Kirby’s post here)
• Quizlet. All the definitions are added to Quizlet, which aids pupils with flashcards, games and learning tools. It is very easy to add material onto the site and share with the pupils.
• Quizzes. Low stakes, weekly quizzes check that knowledge has been mastered and committed to memory. Ten random definitions are chosen from a set and these are easily checked in class. Below is an example of a typical weekly quiz: • Exam practice. I am very lucky to see my classes every day. It allows one lesson in five to focus on exam practice. Pupils really value the 25-minute exam, spending 15 minutes to complete it without the help of textbooks or knowledge organisers. They then have 10 minutes to add or change answers using these aids, which encourages them to take responsibility for their own learning, and can be very motivating.
• 1, 2, 3 chant! Apart from being a memory trick, it’s great to get pupils to practice pronunciation of words. In year 7, we chant singular words such as ‘parietal cells’ and ‘peristalsis’. We also have scientific chants such as the organelle chant, composed by our very own Olivia Dyer.
• No PowerPoint. Instead of being distracted with fonts, pictures, colours and animations, pupils are able to concentrate, such as reading a keyword several times in the text, improving their spelling and pronunciation. (See other reasons to ditch PowerPoints here).
• Comprehension tasks. Pupils read together in the class and select relevant knowledge to complete answers to skilfully constructed questions. Pupils are continually exposed to answering questions using command words. The challenge questions are added so that pupils apply their knowledge. In fact, few pupils get opportunities to do extended writing in science; as a result, many pupils struggle with the 6 mark questions at GCSEs.
• Extension tasks. Once pupils have completed their work, instead of trying to gain the teacher’s attention or mindlessly staring outside the window, pupils self-quiz using their knowledge organisers.
It astonishes me how much the pupils remember in detail using these methods. Perhaps more impressively, their mastery of the underpinning knowledge has enabled them to become far more curious about the more complex aspects of science. They are always keen to learn more, and are not afraid to grapple with trickier concepts and processes, something which I had only seen glimmers of previously, but that is now the norm at Michaela.
Watching my Head of Department Olivia Dyer speak so eloquently last Saturday (see below) reminded me yet again why I came to Michaela, and why drill and didactic teaching work best. The best way to make science stick? Just tell them! Tell them, tell them again, then test them on it to make sure they’ve remembered it. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.