What Teaching Teachers Taught Us

The other week, we were invited to showcase the droso4schools project at Loreto Sixth Form College to a group of 20 teachers from schools across Manchester. We demonstrated each of the four main resources developed so far within the droso4schools project:

A simple 5-10 minute colour reaction experiment demonstrating the genetics of enzyme activity. Click for detailed explanations.

A simple 5-10 minute colour reaction experiment demonstrating the genetics of enzyme activity. Click for detailed explanations.

  • a lesson on genetics which involves the applied use of Punnett squares and learning about scientific discovery processes (not yet available online);
  • a synoptic lesson which links up topics from genes to enzymes to evolution and involves genetic code exercises and an enzymatic activity staining assay on normal and enzyme-deficient maggots [LINK];
  • a lesson on neuroscience which involves concepts of nervous system wiring, the “5 steps to an action potentials” illustrated with seizures in epileptic flies, and paralytic flies to explain the importance and working of synapses [LINK];
  • a lesson on applying statistics using data generated in-class with a climbing assay comparing young and aged flies, then explaining how this assay is being used to study neurodegenerative disease and processes of ageing [LINK].
ActionPotentialSteps

The 5 steps to a nerve impulse (action potential). Click the image for more details.

All these lessons are excellent examples of how flies can be used as powerful teaching tools to explain curriculum-relevant concepts and contents in biology lessons (for more info see here). To bring this across to the teachers, we gave a concise overview of the first three lessons and then engaged the participants in the full lesson, which allowed the teachers to experience how the resource would work in practice.

We both felt a different kind of pressure for this event. This was not only the first time we were showcasing all currently existing droso4school resources, but also the first time we were presenting our resources to teachers, in the hope that they would teach them in the future. This was more about marketing our strategy than teaching its contents. Whilst this was of course a great opportunity to demonstrate our project, it also made us feel vulnerable: What if they didn’t like it? What if we didn’t explain something well enough? What if we missed out a key part?

On top of presenting the lessons, we also needed to set up all the various stations and resources. Usually, when we make school visits using more than one resource package at the same time, the required equipment is set up in different rooms. For us, this was not the case. We had to install 4 different experiments with the accompanying sheets in one room, and wanted it to look easy and seamless for the teachers to go from one experiment to the other. This truly was a challenge!

Thankfully, the presentation went really well. All the experiments worked, we finished with just enough time for a few questions and, most importantly, the teachers really seemed interested in what we were demonstrating to them. After the talk, a couple of teachers came up to us. They highlighted, for example, the fact that by using the climbing assay to demonstrate the Χ2 statistics test in our way, the students would be much more engaged because they use an exciting and relevant experiment with live animals and work with their own results. There was tangible interest in all the resources: What other experiments were there? What notice would they need to give us to obtain and breed the flies? Whether trips to see the Fly Facility at The University of Manchester would be possible?

On a personal level, presenting to a group like this really did help our confidence. It was also a great reminder of how much work we have already done on this project and gave both of us a great sense of achievement. Professionally, the development of our presenting skills is something we’re both really proud of. Even presenting to small groups in university classes used to be incredibly daunting. To have presented all of our resources to a group of experienced teachers and performed much better than either of us thought we could , holds us in great stead for our final year of studies, and will help us enormously also when we come to present our project work to our examiners later in the year. We also feel that this will help our nerves when it comes to getting filmed by The Royal Society next month, who will come to document one of our lessons.  It very much seems that our project really is taking off now!

Sophie & Josh

Sophie: Practical in the dark – unusual lessons from teaching

Over the last few months, since I began my placement, I have had the opportunity to watch many, many lessons, and I have even taught part or all of some. I have learnt many things about the art of teaching; the amount of work it takes to plan a well thought-out lesson, how to encourage and challenge students, but also how to please your colleagues when it’s your turn to do cake club.

However, I learned the most when I had to stand at the front and lead. In order to teach something you must truly understand it yourself. Osmosis was the topic I was given first, it is one of the more demanding areas of the AS course. When preparing for the lesson, I realised that my long neglected A level knowledge was not up to standard, and I had not been confronted with the topic in depth during my university studies. However, having to relearn the topic was advantageous as I was able, before the lesson, to predict and understand misconceptions which students may have and identify areas which they may find difficult. This meant I was able to address them in the lesson before mistakes were made and to improve the learning outcome. In future, I will take this approach forward.

sophieteaching

I have also learned through my observations that it is much better to lead students to answers rather than spoon feed them. However, in practice, student-led learning is much more difficult to achieve. For example, when I planned a lesson on evidence for DNA replication, I gave students selected background information on the famous Meselson and Stahl experiment which had proved the semi-conservative nature of DNA replication. Using existing knowledge of students about DNA replication, I asked them to work out the outcome of the experiment. Such a trial-and-error approach often means that, when students eventually get to the right answer, they are more likely to have understood and be able to retain the knowledge. I then presented them with a full and rounded explanation, so they could correct and understand potential misconceptions they may have had along the way. Learning through such active problem solving strategies trains the students in an important skill that will be useful when they have to perform in synoptic examinations, particularly in this A/B grade topic area where many of the questions tend to be challenging. However, incorporating this important inquisitive teaching style into lessons is time consuming and, in the daily school routine it takes therefore less of a priority compared to covering the content. It was a very satisfying experience that I made the effort and took the time to prepare this lesson in this way, and I got the strong impression that students gained a good understanding of this demanding topic.

In this class on DNA replication, I was also able to incorporate some creative activities, for example students modelled the outcome of the Meselson and Stahl experiment using plasticine. It allowed the students to make mistakes and to do something different than writing out notes – which is often the focus at A level. I also learned the value of having a well prepared worksheet, with the help of which the students could record and consolidate their findings after modelling the experiment. It allowed the students to work independently, which seemed to promote the problem solving approach and enabled me to focus on struggling students to provide one on one help. Although such resources take time to produce, they enable the pupils to get more out of the lesson and hopefully leave memorable impressions. Furthermore, I was able to provide an extension activity where the students attempted to demonstrate the outcome of the experiment, if dispersive or conservative replication had occurred. This provided an element of differentiation to stretch the best students.

The most difficult thing I found in these situations, was explaining a concept which I found obvious but was completely novel to students. Examples in this case were experimental procedures such as growing bacteria in a medium for several generations or the use and function of a centrifuge, which were aspects that I had experienced and done myself. Only afterwards did I realise that I had failed to provide comprehensive explanations for these aspects which were new to the students. It is in this area where I feel strongest that I need to improve through critical analysis of the lesson before I put it in practice.

During my placement, I also learned some unusual lessons, such as the importance of knowing your lesson contents well and the spirit of improvisation. One Friday, the class was doing a straightforward practical to demonstrate the effect of changing the concentration of a chemical substrate in an enzymatic reaction. Students were placing pieces of potato into differing concentrations of hydrogen peroxide and measuring the oxygen produced by the catalase-mediated enzymatic reaction – when suddenly the lights went out due to a power cut which left the laboratory without lighting and electrical equipment. There was some disruption for a short while, but the students were instructed to continue, and they did so; both the practical and the lesson were completed.  Key to this success was that the teacher knew the lesson content and theory very well, and could continue to teach through improvising in the absence of any technology. Relying on technology is tempting, but I learned that I need to be prepared to cope without it at all times! There are many obstacles when teaching, but this was not one which I anticipated – but an important lesson to remember for the future!

Josh: Leading an hour lesson

Since I started on the project and placement at the school, I have been assisting teachers in multiple ways and also taking on a teaching assistant role by spending the majority of lessons sat with particular pupils to help them focus and engage. Furthermore, I have been leading a class during an afternoon club (see previous blog). One of the main reasons for working on the ‘droso4schools’ project was to gain an insight into a teacher’s life, experiencing both the good and more challenging aspects of the job, and I have constantly been asked by colleagues and friends alike “so, do you want to be a teacher then?”

My response to the question was always the same: ‘I won’t know for sure until I take a time-tabled lesson’. Leading the afternoon club was not a true reflection on ‘real’ teaching, because the students came on a voluntary basis, making it more likely they would be engaged and respectful, and the material was not necessarily something they had to cover. A timetabled lesson is the complete opposite – the students have to be there and have to learn whatever content is presented to them, which can make it a much harder challenge to control the class. But finally, last week, I was able to take my first ‘real’ class, and I was curious to find out what impact it would have on my answer to the question about a future in teaching.

josh-teaching2

The lesson I taught was the first of the year seven ‘health’ topic, focussing on the 7 food groups, and I gave it to the class that I had spent most time and become most familiar with during the project. The lesson itself was very simple, making it an ideal lesson for me to teach. It involved a numeracy starter, some group discussions about what the food groups are and some silent, independent reading about the seven food groups and writing down why we need each one. Unfortunately, we didn’t quite get time to cover what happens if you have too little or too much of them. However, this was not an essential aspect but rather a “reserve” activity, and it was not a massive issue that we did not complete it.

I really enjoyed the experience of being in front of the class, and the students did all the work that was planned. A clear challenge was their tendency to chat. Although I was often able to settle the class, they usually started to talk again fairly soon after. I think the main reason for this was that I am not a teacher, and it simply did not feel right using the disciplinary system with warnings and detentions the school has in place. However, although chatty, the class was hugely inquisitive about the topics we covered in the lesson and the questions which were asked by the students – although not always relevant – clearly reflected their interest in the subject. There were questions ranging from “Why do we like eating sugar so much?” to less pertinent ones, such as “Sir, what shall I write down for a good source of water?”

After the lesson, I had a feedback session with the class’ main teacher. The comments I received were very positive and boosted my confidence for future lessons which I am scheduled to take. As I had already expected, the main challenge pointed out to me, is to command the room when disruptions are occurring and, for this, to raise my voice to a level where I am not shouting but come across as being determined. I seem to have a fairly relaxed style, but I was told that this will improve with growing confidence. Obviously, when taking on a teaching assistant role working one-on-one next to a student, raising my voice is not something I have to do very often, if at all. Anyway, raising your voice seems to have different effects on different classes: some see it as a reason to misbehave more, as they probably feel I cannot control them, whereas other classes seem to respond well to it and become more attentive. So it definitely requires experience to choose the right strategies.

So what is my conclusion with respect to the question of whether I would consider teaching? I think I would! I have now spent 11 weeks in schools and had the chance to experience all aspects of school life. I have still not been put off by anything I had to deal with (which, even on a daily basis, is a lot!), and I am certain that the few teething problems which I experienced during the lesson will be resolved when I have more experience and more confidence. Therefore, I feel it is finally time to realise that I like helping others learn and would definitely consider a future career in teaching.

A first go at teaching our own resources in school!

As reported in our first blog post, Sophie and Josh are third year students at The University of Manchester, who undergo a one year placement working on the droso4schools project of the Manchester Fly Facility. During this project, they work in our partner schools,  Trinity CoE High School and  Loreto Sixth Form College, with the aim of developing curriculum-relevant biology lessons using the fruit fly Drosophila as a powerful teaching tool (for further explanations see here). Here they share their…

Thoughts about the first lesson

afternoonclub
A few weeks ago, we tested a resource for the first time at a lunch time science club. We used the neuroscience lesson, which we taught jointly to about 40 A-level students. It was nice to have each other there for moral support on the first go! It was really enjoyable to deliver the resource to a group of students for a number of reasons:

pupilflies

A student holding a vial with fruit flies

  • Firstly, the students were really interested in what we were teaching, they asked a lot of questions at the end of the lesson and also enjoyed the practical elements. They were not only interested about what we had done with the flies in the lesson, but also asking questions about the flies and how they can be used as a powerful research tool in other areas of study, such as genetics.
  • Secondly the students were very well behaved, they listened to what we were saying and although they required some prompting, they answered all the questions we asked them.

Before the lesson we were very nervous that we were going to overrun and about the fact that this was the first time delivering this lesson. However, the timing of the lesson worked really well and the responses from the students and the way it ran made us feel confident in the work which we had put into generating the resource.

The only part of the resource which did not go as smoothly as anticipated was the “sensory discrimination task” experiment which we used to introduce to wiring princples of the sensory nervous system.  During this experiment, students use two tooth picks and ask the test person whether they sense them as two different entities or as one, when tested on the skin of your arm, hand or elsewhere. There was nothing wrong with the task itself, but we realised too late that we should have demonstrated or enacted the experiment before setting the students off to do it – rather than giving them written instructions which we wrongly assumed to be easy to follow. We therefore generated a little film (see above) which hopefully makes this task easier to explain in future lessons. But, in spite of these teething problems, the responses from students were encouraging – they were very intrigued by the differing thresholds of discrimination across the body and were keen to find out why that was. Our strategy to use this as an engaging starter had definitely worked!

sophieteaching

Sophie teaching at the afternoon club.

At the start of the lesson, it was a slight struggle to get some answers from the students, even simple ones like naming the cells of the nervous system. But we feel this was only because of the time restraints we were under – since there was not enough time to let the students come up with answers in groups, and they seemed less keen to share their individual ideas. We would have liked to be able to spend more time on this, but then we would not have been able to get through all planned content. So, in future lessons, we will give more consideration to the balance between time and content. Luckily, as the lesson went on, the students became ever keener to share their thoughts, and towards the end many questions were asked indicating that the students clearly understood what we explained and. This was extremely rewarding to observe!

For the first time delivering a resource and a new practical element, we both feel that it went very well. We gained a lot of confidence through teaching this lesson. We are looking forward to teaching the resource to more classes in the not too distant future, and to eventually get it uploaded on the droso4schools figshare site as a resource for everybody to use and experience!

Sophie and Josh

The teacher perspective: first impressions

We now had our first taste of the teaching profession as we embarked on our placements within school. Despite working in two schools which are very close to one another and both involved in the project, we had very different experiences, which was unexpected. We therefore thought it important to reflect upon our first impressions and the direction we feel the project will go in.

First impressions – Josh

joshuaheafield Right at the beginning of my time in school, with students between the ages of 11 and 18, the early starts were crippling. I haven’t had to be up so early in a long time. Combined with this, I did not realise how tiring being in a school was. One of the main reasons for this, in my opinion, is the constant noise which comes with the school day – there is never a quiet period from the moment the students get to the school until the moment they leave.

One thing which has really stood out to me since start of the school project, is the variety of lesson structures teachers have to adopt or prefer to teach. Some classes respond much better to one style of teaching than others, regardless of the class’ ability. I have been very fortunate in my education in the sense that when an idea is explained to me, I usually understand it very quickly. Being put into sets for science classes myself, I had never truly appreciated how large the gap is between bottom and top sets of the same year. This throws up multiple challenges because teachers.have to think of multiple approaches to explain the same concept to students of different abilities – certainly something I have ever had to do before. I believe though that it will help me understand fundamental parts of science with even greater depth.

Although I have only very recently left the school environment myself, there is a lot that has changed in a short amount of time. For me, one of the largest differences is the style of homework which teachers are now setting – it is mainly tasks for students to complete on the computer. Different websites are used to test knowledge built up in lessons in a quiz format, and the performance of the students from the quizzes is then available for the teacher to see. This for me is a real step forward in teaching, as now the level of understanding of a topic is almost immediately available to the teacher and more tailored feedback can be given. Also, more time can be spent on concepts which the class as a whole struggled with.

The difficulty for me on the droso4school project is to find the balance between time spent in school and then the amount of time I am able to spend on the development of teaching ideas and resources. So far, it has been difficult to organise my time evenly between getting the needed experience in school and generating teaching materials in a way so the students get the most out of it. This really opened my eyes as to how much longer a working day for a teacher is – certainly not simply nine until half past three!

Soon I will be given the opportunity to teach our own nervous system resource, which contains a practical element on receptive fields which I have developed myself. Trying it with students for the first time, is something I am anxious but also extremely excited about!

First impressions – Sophie

sophiedemaineI also began to appreciate the difficulties in teaching the course within the time constraints and the pressure to get though work. The pace was very fast, although there was plenty of time for reflection on previous learning. However, some students were finding it difficult to keep up. For some that may just have been because biology wasn’t for them, or they had been lulled into a false sense of security with excellent GCSE results. Others probably just weren’t expecting the level of effort required in the next level of education. Either way the high expectations meant that soon they all began to adapt and gradually catch up.

In my first few weeks I saw the realities of teaching. The difficulties of producing well thought-out lessons and resources when you have full days of teaching can be demanding. Also translating an idea into something that works to really put across the point you want, isn’t as easy as I had first thought. I experienced this first hand after producing and delivering a short resource on proteins for a class. I was faced with demonstrating the complex 3D folding and levels of organisation in 20 mins. I summoned all of my creativity, and the best I could come up with was a paper folding activity. I felt as though I’d had been defeated. I thought I needed to have beautiful activities to enthuse and inspire students. To my surprise, it actually worked quite well despite teething problems with the folding and a lack of whole class participation. I felt a great sense of achievement at this, and I learnt a valuable lesson; it’s not always about producing something that works flawlessly but rather doing something that is engaging and different.

I really enjoyed my first taste of standing at the other side of the classroom. But more than that, I gained more of an appreciation of the challenges of the teaching profession. In particular that incorporating creativity into classes is much more difficult than I would have anticipated. This is where I feel our project could really be of use, providing a real-world context for the curriculum material. Using Drosophila as a tool will make it possible to bring across concepts in a different way to what students had seen within the usual classroom constraints. This can aid in retaining knowledge and understanding with greater depth. Increasingly, linking ideas is becoming of more importance in A level courses, and it is this kind of synoptic knowledge which these resources also help with. It also is an opportunity to enthuse the students in order to encourage them to potentially pursue a career in life sciences, as (too) often there is a heavy focus on medical professions.