Today was the first day of Better Biology. After two introductory classes exploring the nature of science, the theory of knowledge and critical thinking, I finally busted out my unit plan for the students and explained my vision of how I see the course progressing. I’m not going to lie – I was nervous as hell. But also excited and hopeful. I was not sure how they were going to react, but I ended up being pleasantly surprised. Before I reveal their responses, let me explain my philosophy.
If you have been reading previous blog posts you are aware that this summer I embarked on a quest of professional reinvention and rediscovery. I decided to overhaul my traditional teaching method and go back to what I know is best practice. This involved doing some research on the learning cycle, Bloom’s taxonomy, flipped learning, mastery learning, project based learning, layered curriculum and educational technology (to name a few!). By merging the key ideas from different theories of pedagogy and instructional ideologies that I felt were appropriate, I came up with a plan for my first unit of biology: Evolution and Classification. It is based on these central ideas:
1. Diligent application of the learning cycle. Each learning opportunity for the unit is categorized by a stage in the learning cycle that I have decided to use: Engage-Explore-Explain-Extend-Evaluate. I start the unit with one major “engage” activity that also acts as a diagnostic assessment. I continue with other engage activities throughout the unit to keep it interesting as well. Students then move on to explore activities including inquiry based practical/virtual labs and simulations as well as videos. These learning opportunities allow them to start to form their own knowledge and understanding of the concepts of the unit through the process of discovery. Then students move on to explain activities where they build on what they have learned during their explorations. These activities include interactive MOODLE lessons, discussion forums, textbook reading, research, direct instruction and peer tutoring. Finally once students have demonstrated an understanding of the concepts in the course and an ability to apply their understanding, they move on to extension activities where they can start to critically evaluate the ideas in the real-world, combining their knowledge with ethics, values, morality and global responsibility. These learning opportunities involved technology based projects, case studies, and other creative activities. Students are evaluated throughout the unit formatively and summatively at the end through a unit test.
2. Layered Curriculum®. Every learning opportunity belongs to a different layer. The C layer activities help students develop a basic understanding of the concepts of the unit. The B layer activities allow students to apply that knowledge in new scenarios. The A layer activities require students to make connections between science and technology, ethics, society, morals, environments etc…in a manner that asks them to think critically and be creative. Students must complete a certain number of learning opportunities at each layer – some of which are required. Students cannot move to the B layer without completing a certain number of C layer activities and the same goes for the A layer. Students cannot master the unit unless they have completed the A layer activity with some success.
3. Mastery. Students are given formative quizzes and tasks as they move from one concept to the next. Using the tracking option on MOODLE, students will not be able to progress until they have scored at least 85% on the formative quizzes. They can retake the quizzes in class every 48 hours until they master the content. Students will be provided with guidance as to which activities they should try to help them master the concepts if they are unsuccessful on one or more attempts at the formative assessment.
4. Student Centred Approach. This unit plan allows for student choice and never involves me lecturing at the front of the room. I am no longer on stage. My role in the classroom is the learning coach. I am there to guide them, answer questions, provide advice etc… There are a few required activities – especially because this is the first unit and there will be a learning curve. But for the most part, students are able to choose which opportunities will meet their needs, support their learning styles and appeal to their multiple intelligences. There is a balance of independent and collaborative options. There are visual, auditory, and hands-on lessons. There are many applications of technology yet also more traditional styles. There is the option to still receive direct teacher instruction if necessary. Students can work at their own pace yet are provided with milestones that should be reached. With this model, students are in control of their own learning within the boundaries of the required curriculum and with careful guidance from me.
5. Developing 21st Century Learning Skills. As previously discussed in my blog post ” 21st Century Overkill,” there are certain essential skills that we must foster in the classroom if we wish to create a culture of well-rounded, adaptable, literate and responsible global citizens. I have tried to prioritize the lifelong learning skills I want my students to have when they leave my classroom. Most importantly I want my students to know HOW TO LEARN independently and with self-direction. Through this unit they have the opportunity to explore various methods of acquiring knowledge and understanding until they discover which ones are most effective for their learning style. They also need to be willing and able to UNLEARN. I hope to create opportunities that challenge their pre-existing notions and misconceptions and replace them with deeper, more meaningful and long-lasting knowledge. Other skills I hope to develop include critical thinking and evaluation of information, digital literacy, collaboration, leadership, communication in a variety of methods including written, oral and multi-media, some technological fluency, problem solving, goal setting and self-reflection.
So after many, many hours creating this plan and the associated activities, it finally made its debut today. Before the unveiling I warned them that it would be unlike anything they had seen in my classes before. I encouraged them to be risk-takers and to trust me. Their response? Overwhelmingly positive. There was a buzz of excitement in the room. I think they are the most looking forward to the fact that I am giving them enough respect to take control of their learning and their classroom experience. Students were asking if ALL their classes would be this way. One even asked if we could make it a school wide policy! I am relieved that they are willing to take a chance and I have a good feeling. If you would like to see my unit plan it is attached below. Please feel free to ask for any copies of the activities I have made.
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