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Sharing Biology Education Research

Members of the Biology Education research Group (BERG) are active researchers with a broad range of interests spanning education research in schools, colleges and higher education institutions. At the Association for Science Education (ASE) annual conference the group shared some of their research. Synopsis of the talks and presentations from the 2016 talks are below.

BERG Talks at the 2016 ASE conference

  1. Statistical thinking in context - Melanie Stefan
  2. Learning evolution through objects - Paul Davies and Jo Nicholl
  3. Brain science in schools - Andy Chandler-Grevatt and Jonathon Bacon
  4. The thinking 'behind the doing' of biology - Ros Roberts
  5. What's inside? - Sue Dale Tunicliffe
  6. Learning with natural history museums - Michael Reiss
  7. Teaching evolution in primary schools - Berry Billingsley and Emma Newall
  8. Re-imagining practical notebooks - Neil Ingram and Justin Dillon

1. Statistical thinking in context - download talk

Melanie Stefan - University of Edinburgh
A pilot project has been carried out in Okinawa, Japan, with undergraduate students, where the students used a check list for critically analysing an academic paper. The effectiveness of the check list was reviewed to establish how this supported their thinking and 'noticing'.

This session took the form of a workshop, with discussion and thinking activities for the audience, based around how to understand statistical and quantitative information presented in the news, particularly around health and nutrition.

In the session we first looked at the 'processed meat links with health' and 'health benefits of chocolate' stories and discussed the role of the use of data and imagery in conveying certain messages. This led to group work looking at how we might support students in 'reading' articles for information. Discussion that followed focused on a range of ideas, with a particular focus on 'context' of the news article and what type of 'data literacy' is needed.

2. Learning about evolution through objects - download talk

Paul Davies and Jo Nicholl - University College London Institute of Education
This talk presented work that has been carried at with PGCE biology students and museum experts from the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL. A project was developed to introduce the student teachers to the theory behind object-based learning, and to test its effectiveness in supporting teachers' subject and pedagogic knowledge of biological evolution.

The project involved workshops in the museum where the students carried out a series of activities focused on evidence for evolution, homologous and analogous structures and phylogenies. The activities all involved handling specimens in the museums. Each activity was then critically evaluated and suggestions made for it modification. The final stage of the project involved the students developing their own teaching activities in the museum. The project supports the development of both subject and pedagogic knowledge and is now moving into phase two working with both primary and secondary teachers (both pre- and in-service).

3. Brain science in schools - download talk

Andrew Chandler-Grevatt and Jonathan Bacon University of Sussex
The talk focused on a neuroscience project. Each student in a classroom controlled a neuron box responding to green and red lights which indicated excitatory or inhibitory inputs from other neuron boxes. This models how brain neurons produce emergent behaviour, in the case shown by playing the tune 'Mary has a little lamb'.

Jonathan and Andy came together through a new collaboration between scientist and science educationalist, which brought new perspectives on the problems they were exploring. The research moved into trials in school looking at how the neuron boxes affect teaching and learning about neuroscience. This is well timed because of the rise of 'neuromyths' and problems in teacher subject and pedagogic knowledge.

In a pilot study, year 9 and year 10 students completed questionnaires (including diagrams) on important aspects of neuroscience and then carried out the neuron box activity, with a control group for comparison. Outcomes from the data showed attitudinal shifts towards science, increased use of appropriate vocabulary and increased subject knowledge. Next stages are to develop this analysis further, and then build on the use of the intervention with more students, across phase, undergraduates and adults neuroscience project.

4. The 'thinking behind the doing' of biology - download talk

Ros Roberts - University of Durham
This talk focused on Ros and her colleagues' work on how biology practical work can support the thinking involved in linking ideas about the quality of data and its inter-relationships. Key to this is evaluating claims and analysing the evidence 'behind' claims, understanding 'What makes quality evidence?' something not explicitly laid out in the curriculum. How evidence and findings of inquiry are presented and the complexity of the process is often hidden, so the nature of the process is 'invisible'.

The 'neat' representation of ideas and evidence in science may not lead to proper understanding of what this means, a 'networking thinking' approach using concept maps offer insight and support here to reveal the 'thinking behind the doing' of science. This approach mirrors the work of real science and has been recognised within both PISA and the US Framework. It also supports understanding evidence in a precise way which allows creativity in student thinking, especially around socio-scientific issues and investigative work. It also helps to move away from the 'one scientific method' approach. Implications from this work show that students need opportunities to develop these ways of thinking and knowledge.

A paper in the March Special Edition of School Science Review, focused on maths and data, explores these ideas in detail.

5. What's Inside? - download talk

Sue Dale Tunnicliffe - University College London Institute of Education
Children have ideas about what living things look like inside. Exploration of this can come from asking them to draw what think living things look like inside.

The variety of what children remember, value, decide to show is complex and often context specific. There are interesting ideas here about how children's drawing model evolutionary histories to be revealed (c.f .ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny). The use of drawings though must be analysed with caution, especially around how well children think they can represent what they think. Plant drawings often show human characteristics, including muscles and skeletal elements. A shift away from 'human anatomy' in school would support a better understanding of anatomy and physiology of the living world. There are big issues to think about around subject knowledge and pedagogy here.

6. Learning with natural history museums - download talk

Michael Reiss - University College London Institute of Education
Funded by the Wellcome Trust and ESRC as part of the Science Learning and initiative, this project aims to explore the potential for learning through natural history museums. It is a project with collaborators from both the UK and the US.

Key features of the project are:

  • the development of instruments to understand the learning experiences of young people at natural history museums
  • the development of protocols to relate the museum experiences of visitors at individual museums to national data
  • mapping school subject curricula in terms of how natural history museums provides opportunities to meet these
  • reviewing pedagogic approaches used in museums
  • understanding what people learn at museum
  • strengthening the research and knowledge base in museums and the wide sector (somewhat overambitious for a project of this size)

7. Teaching evolution in primary schools

Berry Billingsley and Emma Newall - University of Reading
A Wellcome Trust project, the talk focused on research into the arrival of evolution in the primary curriculum. Evolution straddles many curriculum areas and is thus an important concept, beyond its place in science. It is known that teachers often lack sufficient knowledge and confidence to teach evolution. Surveys and focus groups and other data sources were used to assess teachers' views and competence in teaching evolution. Results show concerns around subject knowledge and science and religion activities. There were generally positive responses to evolution appearing in primary school.

Teachers want support in developing classroom activities, subject knowledge around tricky concepts and teaching children from different faiths. Subject knowledge is a worry for teachers and is linked to number of science specialists in primary schools. A range of potentially problematic findings around views about teaching and learning around evolution revealed a range of ideas. Suggested strategies and other materials, and CPD has arisen from the project to support teacher development which can be found on the primary evolution website.

8. Re-imagining practical notebooks - download talk

Neil Ingram and Justin Dillon - University of Bristol
Starting with a review of past exams papers from Cambridge 1957 to exemplify what ideas and approaches were needed in assessment, this talk explored how practical notebooks could be used in schools.

Under the new curriculum system, notebooks will be inspected and are highly prescribed. This makes the assessment similar to previous coursework assessment. Using Darwin's 'I think' diagram, notebooks, instead of being assessed, pristine places of work, would be messy, a place to think, a place to share and rehearse ideas e.g. the development of the writing around the 'tangled back'. To be meaningful for the student, the notebook must be different to the assessed version. Google classroom and other apps offer much promise here before transferring information to the assessed notebook.