Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Search in comments
Search in excerpt
Search in posts
Search in pages
Search in groups
Search in users
Search in forums
Filter by Categories
Curricular Areas
Expressive Arts
Involving Pupils
Modern Languages
Outdoor Learning
Professional Learning
Scottish Learning Fringe
Social Studies
Bringing life into biology lessons: using the fruit fly Drosophila as a powerful modern teaching tool
August 20, 2015


LogoIn biomedical research, small model organisms such as the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster are important pillars in the process of scientific discovery. I have been using Drosophila as my organism of choice and my essential discovery tool to study fundamental principles of the nervous system (LINK1, LINK2) for 26 years.

Together with my colleague Sanjai Patel and other colleagues from the Manchester Fly Facility, I have been actively engaging in science communication for 5 years now, aiming to raise public awareness of the importance of fly research with a strong focus on school activities. From this, we realised the enormous potential that Drosophila has beyond research also for biology teaching. It is a powerful modern teaching tool not only for classical Genetics but for many curriculum-relevant areas of biology, providing unique access to informative, inspiring and memorable classroom experiments. To capitalise on this opportunity, we now collaborate with teachers and schools on the droso4schools project (see 1st movie below), developing freely available sample lessons with adjunct materials (e.g. teacher notes, risk assessments, homework tasks, exercises, experiment instructions), and a dedicated website (Resource 1) providing many helpful online resources.

Why is Drosophila so important for biomedical research?

Naturally, students want to know why flies are used to learn biology. The explanation is made easy with our two “Small fly, big impact” movies (see the two movies below), which were tested in schools with great success. Furthermore, there is a dedicated tab on our droso4schools website which provides further background information (Resource 1b). In a nutshell, the films and website explain…

  1. …that it was serendipity which brought flies into genetic research a hundred years ago,
  2. …that it were the many practical advantages and cost-effectiveness of Drosophila which made it so popular for studying the function and biology behind genes, and
  3. …that it is the astonishingly high degree of evolutionary conservation from flies to humans that makes understanding of biology in flies so relevant for biomedical research even into human disease, having led to five Nobel prizes in Physiology and Medicine so far.

Why is Drosophila so useful in biology classes?

As will become clear from the sample lessons explained in the next section, there are two important advantages for using Drosophila in classrooms, in particular (1) the breadth and depth of conceptual understanding of biology in the fly, and (2) the fact that flies are uniquely suited for live experiments in schools.

  1. Conceptual understanding: A century of cutting edge research has turned Drosophila into the conceptually best understood animal model organism that we have to date. It has not only taught us about how genes are organised on chromosomes and the rules of inheritance, but also fundamental concepts of development, nervous system function, the immune system, our biological clock and jet lag, evolution and population genetics, the genetics of learning, principles of stem cells, and even mechanisms of disease including cancer and neurodegeneration (see Resource 2b “Why the fly?”). But how does this help in classrooms?
    1. The breadth of biology topics investigated in flies provides potential teaching materials for a wide range of curriculum-relevant biology specifications, ranging from classical genetics to gene technology, gene expression, enzymes, neurobiology and even evolution and behaviour.
    2. The sheer volume of knowledge in each of those areas provides a plethora of examples, experiments, anecdotes and facts that can be used to illustrate and make lessons more engaging and entertaining.
    3. The depth and detail of conceptual understanding in flies facilitates teaching, based on the simple rationale that teaching is the easier the better the contents are understood.
  2. Live experiments: It is straightforward, cheap and ethically unproblematic to use and breed flies in schools, and there are many simple experiments that can be performed (see our sample lessons in the next section). This brings living animals into classrooms which, combined with experiments that reflect relevant contemporary research, tends to leave long-lasting experiences. I frequently talk to people who were taught classical genetics with flies decades ago and still hold positive memories.


Examples of biology contents that can be taught with flies

There are many ways in which flies can be used as teaching tools in schools. Here we will give some examples for which resources are either provided online already or can be made available upon request.

(1) Life cycle

Teaching the life cycle in primary schools is often done using metamorphosis of tadpoles into frogs or of caterpillars into butterflies, but experiencing these examples in real time can only be done during a certain period of the year and takes many weeks. With flies this can be done in one day since all life forms are available at any time, and the whole life cycle can be experienced in real time during less than two weeks (see image below and Resource 2c).


Click on this image to see its animation.

(2) Drosophila and ICT

In ICT classes, the Scratch program has become a sensible and powerful way to introduce students to the logic of computer programming, and Scratch tempts to be taken on as a hobby at home. To engage on this path, we have published a computer video game (see below and LINK) which uses the funny cartoons of the Drosophila life cycle as the basis, and where fly stocks need to be maintained against the odds of parasite infestation and infections. Since all programming code in Scratch is open, this game can be modified or further levels added and, for this, all the used figures (“sprites”) have been made available for download (LINK). Beyond this, we envisage that easy behavioural experiments in Drosophila offer ways to generate biological data that could be analysed using more advanced and well supported programming languages like Python and the cheap computing power made available through Raspberry Pis (LINK).

A Scratch video game based on the Drosophila life cycle.

A Scratch video game based on the Drosophila life cycle.

(3) Principal functions of our organs

The physiological requirements for life are so fundamental that most of our organs have common evolutionary roots. An active and effective way to learn about our organs is therefore through exploring their commonalities with organs of other organisms. This strategy can capitalise on the vast knowledge that we have about the tissues and organs of Drosophila. To facilitate this, we provide a dedicated webpage describing the structures and fundamental functions of our organs in direct comparison to those of the fruit fly (Resource 1c).


(4) The genetics of alcohol metabolism


Click on this image to see its animation: A simple staining reaction for alcoholdehydrogenase activity, lasting 5-15 mins and easy to perform in the classroom.

This lesson is fully developed, was tested with eighty Year 13 students (one high achievers class, two mixed ability classes, one support class), a PowerPoint file with adjoint materials is available online (Resource 1a, e, 3b) and a dedicated webpage is available to support revision and homework tasks (Resource 1e). It is an excellent synoptic, end-of-year lesson which establishes conceptual links between at least seven curriculum-relevant biology specifications. These include fermentation, the gene to protein concept, enzyme function, pharmacology and associative learning, genetic variation, and principles of evolution. Students dissect normal and alcohol dehydrogenase deficient fly maggots and use a colour reaction to assess the maggots’ ability to metabolise alcohol. They observe the effects of alcohol consumption on normal and mutant flies, and they compare different alleles of the Adh gene by translating their DNA code into RNA and protein. This lesson offers excellent opportunities to achieve differentiation and to discuss the social relevance of alcohol and alcohol abuse.


Genes encode enzymes which catalyse specific chemical reaction that can be assayed with simple staining reactions

(5) Applying statistics to performance tests of young versus ageing flies

A simple climbing test comparing young versus old flies

A simple climbing test comparing young versus old flies

This lesson is also available as a resource online accompanied by 5 dedicated webpages (Resource 1a, d, 3a). It was tested on sixty Year 9 pupils. It uses a low-cost, easy to set-up experiment known as the “climbing test”: two groups of flies (one week old teenagers versus five week old seniors) are tapped down in two parallel vials and are given 15 seconds to climb back up, at which point a picture is taken. Students then determine how far the ten individual flies in each vial have climbed on a scale of 0 to 10, usually finding that the young flies show much better motor-performance. This is then used to draw graphs, understand the importance of sample numbers and learn to apply statistics. To illustrate relevance, concepts of ageing and neurodegeneration are introduced accompanied by activity sheets, and examples are provided on how the climbing assay is used during ageing and neurodegeneration research on flies.

(6) Classical genetics

This lesson is not yet available online, but will be sent out upon request. During this lesson, students learn about classical genetics and the practical uses of marker mutations as they are applied in contemporary research laboratories (including Punnett squares). For this, excellent low cost dissection microscopes can be used (see Resource 2c “Outreach Resources”), and we developed simple activities where student success in identifying markers is easy to monitor. Furthermore, the lesson provides an insight into the process of scientific discovery (how it was found that genes lie on chromosomes), and how this helps understanding biological phenomena in humans, such as male predisposition to colour blindness. Where transgenic flies are permitted on school grounds, modern genetic markers can also be used, in particular fly strains containing green fluorescent proteins. Using a simple hand-held fluorescent lamp with integrated camera (see Resource 2c “Outreach Resources”), gleaming organs can be observed live in these maggots.

A simple activity in which students identify genetic marker mutations

A simple activity in which students identify genetic marker mutations

(7) Fundamental principles of the nervous system

A simple illustration of wiring principles in the brain

Click on this image to see its animation: A simple illustration of wiring principles in the brain

This lesson introduces to the wiring principles of the nervous system, action potentials, and the working of synapses, illustrated by shaking epileptic flies into seizure or paralysing flies through warming them to body temperature. Where transgenic flies are permitted on school grounds, we have a set of simple experiments demonstrating the use of state-of-the-art opto- or thermo-genetics (using light or temperature to manipulate nerve cells and fly behaviours; see this TED talk).

Further ideas or requests?

Many more curriculum-relevant topics can be taught using Drosophila as a modern teaching tool, and we are curious to hear which ones would be of interest to you, and we will collaborate with you to implement such lessons. Feel free to contact us: Andreas.Prokop@manchester.ac.uk and Sanjai.Patel@manchester.ac.uk.

Helpful resources

  1. The droso4schools website provides relevant information:
    1. an overview of the project and of available sample lessons;
    2. the “Why fly?” page explains the advantages of Drosophila in research;
    3. the “Organs” page compares tissues and organs of flies and humans with helpful overview images.
    4. the “L1-Climbing Assay” tab provides 5 pages of information supporting the motorskills experiment: (1) a description of the experiment, (2) background information on neurodegenerative diseases and ageing, (3) information of how flies are used to study these conditions, (4) a glossary of relevant terms, and (5) explanations of relevant statistics;
    5. the “L2-Alcohol” provides background information for the lesson on alcohol, covering fermentation, principles of enzymes, drug treatment of alcohol addiction, natural variation of alcohol tolerance and their genetic basis, the geographical distribution of variations and their evolutionary basis
  2. The “For the Public” area of the Manchester Fly Facility website
    1. the “Why the fly?” page complements the information on droso4schools through listing simple facts and over 80 lay articles about fly research;
    2. the “Teachers & Schools” page explains the rationale for our school work and lists the services we provide for schools to support fly lessons, as well as our past/future school events;
    3. the “Outreach Resources” page lists about 100 links to information and resources that can be useful for outreach work and teaching at school and university levels.
  3. The figshare.com resource site for download of sample lessons and adjoined resource materials
    1. zip file containing the L1-Climbing Test lesson
    2. zip file containing the L2-Alcohol lesson
  4. Manchester Fly Facility YouTube channel
    1. two educational “Small fly, big impact” movies describing the origins and importance of fly research (part 1 – “Why the fly?”) and how research in flies can help to understand disease and find potential treatments (part 2 – “Making research fly”)
    2. a film explaining the droso4school project through interviews with all involved
Using citizen science in the classroom
July 2, 2015
Learners taking photos for their citizen science projectLearners taking photos for their citizen science project

Citizen science is science that involves amateur or non-professional scientists. It may involve online tagging of photos taken by field scientists, drones or camera traps, for example Zooniverse’s PenguinWatch. Other citizen science may be game-based, for example the protein-folding game Foldit, which led gamers to solve the structure of a retrovirus enzyme in a matter of weeks – professional scientists had been trying to solve the puzzle of its structure for over a decade!

I am very interested in using citizen science in the classroom. Science education researchers Wolff-Michael Roth and Stuart Lee (not that one!) have long advocated incorporating citizen science into the school curriculum as a way to increase science literacy, leverage lifelong learning, and foster participation in community issues. It also helps to break down the barriers between learning in the classroom and the real world. I have recently started introducing my Year 11 students to a website called  Project Noah. This is an online tool for documenting biodiversity around the world. It is specifically aimed at citizen scientists, with an active community of enthusiasts and experts ready to offer suggestions and advice for identifying species.

Last year I had my students go out into the school grounds to take photos of the different organisms they found. They then returned to the classroom and uploaded their spottings to the Project Noah website. Student feedback was positive following the activity, with one student remarking that it was their favourite biology activity all year!

Based on my reflections following last year’s activity, this year I developed the project further. Instead of going out into the school grounds, I asked learners to work in small groups and to take photos of any wildlife from anywhere around Bangkok. The following week I explained the Project Noah guidelines and had them upload their wildlife photos. Then we took the work a step further – my school uses Google Apps for Education (GAFE), and we have access to Google Sites, a web site development platform. So the next step was for the students to create their own website in order to display their photos of the biodiversity to be found in and around Bangkok. This gives learners opportunities to be creative, and to produce a genuine product that will have an external audience: once complete, the website will be viewable by everyone in my school’s GAFE domain. Each group has created their own subpage within the website, and given their page a name, although I’m still unsure as to why one of the pages has been called JeffreyBio!

The work is ongoing at the moment, but the website my learners are developing is starting to take shape nicely.

Encouraging and developing questioning skills
Learners writing their questions on the board.Learners writing their questions on the board.

Whilst looking online for new approaches to encourage learner questioning, I found the Right Question Institute. They suggest that questioning is not a skill that learners are routinely encouraged to undertake, and is one that is often not explicitly taught. A strategy that they have developed to address this is the Question Formulation Technique (QFT), which encourages learners to formulate and articulate their own questions.

In this post I will briefly outline the steps involved in the QFT, full details of which can be downloaded from the Right Question Institute (it is free to sign up). I will then describe my first attempt at using this approach in class, which produced some good questions, along with a few amusing ones!

Summary of the QFT

1. The question focus – this can be anything that is used to stimulate learners’ questions, for example an image, a video, or an article.

2. Produce questions – based on the question focus, learners are instructed to:

  • Ask as many questions as they can
  • Don’t stop to answer, judge, or discuss
  • Write down every question exactly as stated
  • Change any statements into questions

Once questions have been generated, learners could write them up on flipchart paper, on the board, on Post-It notes etc.

3. Improve questions – Learners are encouraged to improve the questions. This could include, for example, a discussion around closed versus open questions, and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

4. Prioritize questions

Learners review the question list and choose the three questions that in their opinion are most important.

5. Reflect

Have learners reflect on the original question focus, what has been learned so far, and discuss how this relates to the topic at hand.

The QFT involves a shift in practice, where learners ask questions instead of the teacher. Three key thinking abilities are encouraged with this approach:

  • Divergent thinking, which may be broader, go off on a tangent, incorporate other topics, or make links beyond the classroom.
  • Convergent thinking, which allows learners to focus and prioritize.
  • Metacognitive skills, encouraging learners to think about thinking, how to ask questions, which questions are important and why.

The learner-generated questions can be used for a variety of purposes, including to:

  • Guide lesson planning
  • Increase engagement and ownership
  • Demonstrate inquiry in the classroom
  • Stimulate a fun introduction to a topic
  • Be a driving question for project-based learning
  • Make the classroom more democratic, and give learners more of a voice
  • Encourage study skills, rather than simply ‘delivering’ content

Using the QFT

I recently tried out the QFT with some of my Year 13s – they are Thai students who receive the majority of their lessons in English. This term we are taking an in-depth look at evolution. I begin this topic with a peer-teaching assignment based around the evidence for evolution. Learners work in small groups, with each group focusing on a particular strand of the evidence for evolution: fossil evidence, morphological evidence, molecular evidence and so on. I decided to try out the QFT as an engagement activity at the start of this assignment.

The question focus was simply a pair of images: photos of a platypus, and of a ‘crocoduck’ – a Photoshopped image of a duck with a crocodile’s head. The aim was for students to formulate questions based on their thoughts about these two images, and how they may relate to questions around the evidence for evolution.

There were some good questions that came up, for example:

  • If these two have the same ancestor, why do they evolve to adapt to environment differently?
  • Can crocodiles fertilize with ducks?
  • Are these two animals related to one another?
  • Is there a crocoduck in real-life, and will it be carnivore or herbivore?
  • How can (the crocoduck) balance its body.
  • Does the platypus live in water?
  • Does the crocoduck fly?

There were also a few amusing questions:

  • What software was used to Photoshop the picture (of the crocoduck)
  • What the hell do they eat?
  • Is this the creation of an evil organization?
  • Has science gone too far? Illuminati confirmed!

On reflection, this was a fun and engaging activity, which did produce some good questions. Due to time constraints I was unable to spend much time with the students in terms of refining and improving their questions. However, when asked to prioritize the questions that they considered most interesting or useful, they chose the questions I would have also chosen, such as the first one in the top list above.

Another thought that has occurred to me since doing this activity is to repeat it towards the end of the course, possibly with a different artifact as the question focus. Hopefully the questions asked will be somewhat more sophisticated and the students will gain an appreciation of just how much they have learned.

I would definitely use this approach again, although I would use this particular example slightly differently, such as an engagement device prior to an assignment based around natural selection, adaptation, and environmental selective pressure, given the questions it elicited. In general though I found the QFT to be engaging for learners and very useful for generating questions.

How can we differentiate in a way that gives pupils ownership of their learning pathways?

I’m a big believer in pupil ownership of learning. After all, it’s not my brain that’s doing the work; it’s not my skills that are developing; and it’s not my exam result on a piece of paper at the end of the year. As teachers, I see our role as facilitators: enabling pupils to achieve their potential in a way that develops the skills to do it time and time again. For pupils to do this, they need to develop the independence and resilience that comes from making their own decisions about how they learn; what pace they learn at and how to approach success and failure.

I’ve been trying to achieve this with a group of Higher Biology students. These pupils are in a slightly unusual position of studying a two year Higher beginning in S4. Although this gives a lot of time for teaching the course and developing understanding, I find they often lack the independence and study skills that you might expect from older pupils taking a Higher course. To try and encourage them to make their own decisions about learning, I’ve been using SOLO taxonomy stations as a way of structuring- and differentiating- revision or flipped classroom lessons.

The idea is to use a simple quiz- usually multiple choice questions- alongside a SOLO taxonomy framework to help pupils self-assess their current levels of understanding. Once they decided which level they are working at, they set about on the task designed for that level, sometimes physically moving between tables designated for each station. The pictures below show the SOLO taxonomy framework and the recommended next steps. So for example, a pupil who is pre-structural or uni-structural may need to catch up on notes or work on keywords. At the multi-structural level, pupils are ready to try Knowledge and Understanding type questions that help them revise the facts; whilst those moving to relational are ready for more challenging questions that link the topic together, such as an essay. Finally, pupils who are working at the extended abstract level are challenged to apply and link up their knowledge, either to problem solving or new topics not yet studied.

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 08.55.25

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 08.55.48

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 08.56.03

I’ve had a lot of success with these lessons. Firstly, it gives a quick and visual way to assess individual confidence and understanding of a topic around the room, by the level at which pupils choose to work. Although I generally encourage collaborative working, it’s good to see that pupils tend to work at the level they feel confident at, rather than just following their neighbour. Secondly, it gives me the chance to provide support to ALL pupils at appropriate level. Because everyone is working at their own pace, everyone is able to at least start the task independently- even if they may require help over small challenges- which means I’m not stuck trying to help one or two of the pupils who are struggling most. This means that all pupils, including the most able, get some of my time, and get the support and push they need. Thirdly, over the course of a lesson, pupils make progress that is obvious to me and them. The tasks are designed so that around two levels can be completed in a lesson (and sometimes I use timed targets to encourage some of the lazier pupils to achieve this!), so pupils can clearly see how they have improved by moving up the levels over the course of the lesson. And from there, they know what they need to do next to achieve a deep understanding of the topic. If they get the self-assessment stage wrong, and their understanding was better or worse than they thought, they quickly realise the task is too easy or too hard and adjust their working level appropriately.

I was observed a while back delivering this style of lesson to a Higher class. Whilst the feedback was very positive, the observer posed one key question: if this were a large class of challenging S2 pupils, instead of my eleven delightful Higher pupils, could this still work?

I was intrigued. Could it? Could my S2 class, who find self-assessment and working independently a real challenge, cope with making decisions about their learning in this way? Would they engage with the challenge, or would they simply use this as a way to avoid anything difficult? Inspired by a wonderful resource I found on the TES website, I used the idea of Nando’s takeaway menu as a lesson framework for a revision lesson on space and forces, with pupils selecting a starter, main course and dessert task:


Just like with the SOLO stations, pupils took a quiz prior to choosing their tasks, and used the result to inform their decisions about what to do next. Pupils choose their three tasks based on its heat level: from extra mild through to extra hot. There was a nice twist here, as I have been working with this class on higher order thinking skills, and as the heat increased, the thinking skills required became gradually HOTter… get it?!

So… was it a success? Well yes, hugely in my opinion- and that of the colleague observing my lesson. Pupil engagement was massively improved compared to other lessons with that class. Pupils had a clear understanding of what they needed to do and seemed to be genuinely enjoying undertaking the tasks set. Misconceptions were being quashed left right and centre, as I found I had more time to spend talking about the topic with individual pupils. Pupils were tackling tasks involving applying, evaluating and creating with confidence, and pupils were also clearly proud of what they were achieving at each stage. And best of all, pupils could explain clearly not only why they had chosen each task, but what thinking skills they were practicing by doing it- developing metacognition around their own learning that I’d just not realised they were capable of.

Next week I’m leading a learning conversation about this at the BOCSH conference, Talking About Learning 2015 at Inveralmond High School. I’d like to talk about the opportunities but also the challenges I’ve found using these strategies, and how others are achieving these aims. My questions will be:

1. How can we help pupils to identify current understanding, to inform their targets and next steps?

I’ve found SOLO taxonomy to be an excellent framework for helping pupils to identify the current level at which they are working. However, it is limited by how well pupils understand what is required at each level. Do they comprehend the increase in understanding required to progress? What other strategies do people use to help pupils self-assess?

2. How can we ensure pupils challenge themselves, but have the chance to succeed?

Even if pupils understand what is required at each level, are they making good decisions about what task is the most likely to help them progress? Interestingly, boys often select tasks from a level above where I would have put them; whilst girls often work below where I think they are capable. Is this due to confidence? Are they too scared to fail at the more difficult tasks? Pupils often state that they are ‘making sure they get it’ before they move. This seems like a good thing, but maybe it’s a barrier to their progression. I often encourage pupils to revise ‘outside of the comfort zone’: to revise the topics or skills that they really don’t want to- because they’re hard! How can we encourage pupils to work outside of their comfort zone, without them losing confidence in what they’ve already achieved?

3. Perhaps most importantly, how can we help pupils identify the progress they have made, and understand how they got there?

Through these lessons, pupils can see what progress they have made in their understanding, and I often ask pupils to reflect at the end of the lesson what progress they have made, and what kind of studying has helped them achieve that progress: be it revising content, applying knowledge or creating links. Is this valuable? Does it help pupils to see where they’ve come? And what strategies do others have to achieve this?

String Thing – A way to stretch , challenge and engage

Last week staff who are part of the GO Barnwell coaching project @GOBarnwell were each set their respective GO Gold teaching and learning missions. Some staff were allocated ‘string thing.’ I deliberately kept the title rather vague so that it could be open to a variety of interpretations allowing for creativity and an individualization of the task. My colleagues, Emma , Jackie and I have written up three different activities we devised within our own subject specialisms. We all found that our individual string thing activities stretched our students ,encouraging them to develop and use their high order thinking skills.


String thing – MFL

This string activity asks students to use thinking skills and categorise vocabulary. I prepared six grammatical categories (verbs, cognates, false friends, nouns, adjectives, pronouns). Each category must be linked to another with a piece of string. On this string students must place an individual item of vocabulary (which had already been cut out and placed in an envelope). For example, if one of the items were ‘visiter’ to visit, students attached this word to the piece of string that connected VERB and COGNATE. The task became harder when students had to use translation skills, discuss grammar and watch out for false friends (words that look/sound like English words which do not mean the same thing). Students had to use a range of skills involving, dictionary use, knowledge of grammar (both in French and English), guess work and team worThis activity was a huge success, students felt motivated, challenged and each had a role to play in their team. All Groups discussed grammar at length which enabled me to ask more challenging questions about the grammar system or play devil’s advocate. After preparation of this task, the whole activity was student led and independent. I would highly recommend this activity with the following advice: include sticky tape in your packs for vocabulary/ string to sit properly, include blank cards for students to write their own vocabulary (I gave bonus points to students that could include as many of these as possible)




String thing – Geography

My GCSE Geographers were at the end of the Urban World topic which had included a large number of case studies. I was keen to draw out the similarities and differences between the different locations. I colour coded the case studies to show if they were in the developed or developing world and then stuck them to the two rows of tables. I then connected the locations to each other with string forming a sort of web. Students were then asked to come up individually throughout the lesson on a rotation basis and either note a similarity or difference between examples. Similarities were recorded on yellow and differences on green. Students then stuck their respective post -it notes onto the string which connected the two case studies they’d been asked to compare and contrast.I was able to differentiate by asking different students to work on particular combinations which were more tricky. This activity encouraged them to not only think about content linked to the current topic but also material we’d covered in the rest of the syllabus previously.

 String thing GeogGCSE 2

String thing Geog GCSE 1

String thing – Biology

My gold mission was to complete a “string thing” activity. I chose to create knowledge webs with year 11 to support their revision of the B1 and B2 units and help them to develop a deeper understanding of how biology “fits together”. I separated the students into pairs and gave them a topic within the units. They had 10 minutes to create a mind map of information about that topic. I then asked students to link their map with others with string and explain the link they had made on a placard stuck to the string.  They found the concept challenging and initially found it difficult to understand how the topics linked together. The students were really engaged in the activity and worked hard to find the links. Upon reflection, I think I left the task too open, I might improve it next time by providing some links that students can then put in the correct places to begin with. I will certainly use this activity again, it was an enjoyable and visual way to link concepts together to develop an holistic understanding of biology.





Stop motion videos to demonstrate learning
Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 20.26.54

We recently have been lucky enough to get the use of five iPads in our biology department and we have been trying to integrate them into the classroom.  I recently came across the Lego stop motion app when making movies with my own kids and thought about applications for use in the classroom.  The app is free and I very easy to use.  My s4 class has used it to create videos to show their understanding of pyramids of energy, biomass and numbers.

My advanced higher class have used the app to demonstrate their understanding of cell and tissue culture.  

Both classes loved it.  They were very engaged in the activity and were on task throughout.  They shared ideas about what to add to the videos and showed me a few new features in the app that I didn’t know about.  

The advanced higher class worked in groups of 3/4 each choosing a different cell type to culture. They then shared their video with the rest of the class (using a vga cable and adapter linked up to the projector).  It made a great explanation tool for each cell type as well as a good revision tool.  It can be used in so many areas of the course and I plan to use it more and allow pupils to be creative in explaining what they have learned.  I have added a few of the videos (the ones without the kids in them) to let you see what they did.  We have to learn how to slow the videos down a bit but I’m sure the pupils can teach me this! Hope this helps

Sarah Clark

Marking Grids
March 8, 2015
photo 1 (12)

I saw this post by Fiona Old on twitter about marking grids and thought that it would be useful in science. Recently I set my Y7 groups a takeaway homework on particles. I had some wonderful examples of work handed in : comic strips, 3D models, songs, posters and cake! I wanted to provide detailed feedback as the students had put in so much effort – but found myself wondering why I hadn’t thought about the marking when I set this homework to two classes in the same week.

photo 1 (13) photo 2 (12) photo 3 (11)

I decided to try using a marking grid. I looked through the homeworks to get an idea of comments that I would give and what pupils would need to do to improve. I also looked at some level ladders for the topic and the ‘I can’ objectives for the unit and came up with some statements for the grid. I think that some of the statements probably need to be modified but as a first attempt I think it was successful. I highlighted 2 things that I thought that students had done well and I also highlighted something that they could do to improve their work. I then left them a question that they could answer related to the improvement in DIRT time. I found that the grid made marking much quicker – but hopefully the quality of feedback for the students is not compromised. 

An example:

photo 1 (12)

I have used this approach with my Y7 and Y8 classes so far and the response from pupils has been positive. They find it easy to see the things that they have done well and what they need to do to improve their work.

Originally posted on my blog here.

Switching kids on…
October 15, 2014
Image by flickr.com/photos/mybloodyselfImage by flickr.com/photos/mybloodyself

Earlier this year I shared the outcomes of approaching a new topic with my S1 class differently. Basically, rather than starting the topic with the title, learning outcomes etc., we started with a discussion which generated questions…

Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 19.07.04

Once we have the students’ questions, we add in the experiences and outcomes and begin to bring together a topic together as a class. They then name the topic. This year it’s called ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Life’ – a fantastic title which I would never have come up with myself. What has really blown me away this year however has been their questions. The following questions are the ones they came up with which we were able to easily align to our experiences and outcomes:

  • What species are there?
  • Is there life only on Earth? How and why was life on Earth formed?
  • How was life on Earth found?
  • Why did humans evolve on Earth and not on Mars?
  • How did we change from monkeys to humans?
  • Could there have been life on Mars because there was water?
  • How does life continue every day?

However, for some reason we had a much greater variety of questions this year which left us with the following to answer…

  • Why do hammer head sharks have a hammer head?
  • What made the countries split up?
  • How do natural disasters like volcanoes, earthquakes and tornadoes occur?
  • How was the Earth made?
  • Could humans survive a meteorite hitting Earth?
  • How can animals survive in Chernobyl (Ukraine) and we can’t?
  • Where do deadly viruses come from?
  • Why were the dinosaurs killed through meteors?
  • How do viruses transfer to humans?
  • Will there ever be WWIII? What will happen if it does?
  • How does gravity work?
  • How do volcanoes erupt?
  • How far away is space?
  • What did space look like before Earth was created?
  • How does Earth stay together?
  • What will happen if meteors hit the Earth?
  • How did the Earth’s core get made?
  • What are the planets made from?
  • How big are all the planets?
  • How was the sun made?
  • What did space look like before the big bang?
  • Why is there no ozone layer in Australia?
  • Is there anything which could destroy Earth?
  • What if the hole in the ozone layer gets too big?

Wow! Remember, these students are in S1…which means they’re about 12 years old. Our curriculum will perhaps attempt to answer some of these over the next six years, but not all. How did we answer all these I hear you ask…well they each chose one to research at home and share back to the class as a homework project which they did brilliantly on Friday of last week. Not a perfect solution, but at least they had the chance of exploring at least one of these big questions and hearing from others about their questions too.

This whole process has really made me think…if that’s the questions they are arriving to us with, why is it so hard for us to make the space to answer them? Also, if we make no attempt to try and answer their own amazing questions is it little wonder that many of them eventually switch off to schooling? Imagine instead of being so obsessed with content in S1-3, we instead focused on those skills and attributes which we so wished our students possessed in S4 onwards? I’m not saying knowledge doesn’t matter, but I don’t think everything necessarily needs to be taught to everyone at the same time.

One of my favourite papers contains a much more complex version of the table below. Harris suggests that to get learners to see the purpose in, and even ‘own’, their own learning they need to be collaborators in the learning process:

Continuum of Learner Engagement (What) and how teachers can achieve these levels of engagement (How). Adapted from Harris (2010).

Continuum of Learner Engagement (What) and how teachers
can achieve these levels of engagement (How). Adapted from Harris (2010).

I love this idea and have been striving to find a way to make it a reality in my classroom for some time now. It really shouldn’t be that hard given that there is significant overlap between this idea and the capacities we are tasked with developing as part of the curriculum.


So, for me there seems to be a contradiction here. If we want our learners to own their own learning and develop the capacities we want them to have, we need to be able to allow them to be collaborators in the learning process. If they are to be collaborators in the learning process then we need to make the space to take their complex and challenging questions seriously as part of their curriculum.

Ultimately, if we want our kids to be switched on we have to somehow find a way of decluttering the curriculum and making the space for it to happen…

Cross-posted from fkelly.co.uk

Take your class on an Online Field Trip
August 19, 2014
Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 12.57.20

I have been a primary school teacher for more than 12 years, with the majority of my career being in the one school. I have always been a keen cook myself and take an interest in where food comes from and how it is grown. In my current post I have also been the technologies co-ordinator – part of that role is being responsible for increasing the education of food technologies throughout the school. Throughout the years I have always found that some children’s knowledge of where their food comes from is lacking. For example (taken from a lesson I conducted about healthy eating):

Me: Where do carrots come from?

Pupil: From a tin, Miss

Pupil: My mum gets them from the supermarket

Me: Who likes potatoes?

Pupil: Not me, Miss

Me: Do you like chips?

Pupil: Yes, of course

Me: They are made from potatoes

Pupil: Really, I thought the supermarket made them

Some children are unaware that fruit and vegetables are grown on farms and think that they just appear on the supermarket shelves – and they have no other experience or knowledge to contradict that belief. These children are unlikely to go and visit a farm or farmers’ market, unless it is on a school trip, so will continue to have this belief.

Due to there being less money for trips in school, and also parents can’t afford to subsidise the trips, classes are less likely to be able to go and visit farms etc.


However Tesco have launched their Eat Happy Project, and part of the resource is Farm to Fork Online Field Trips. These field trips are free and a great way for pupils to see how different foods are produced and supplied without leaving the classroom, while still giving them the real-life context of a visit and interacting with the people involved in the process.

The resources and activities before the event allow the children to gain some prior knowledge and background about the food they are learning about, changing any misconceptions about where the food comes from, and as they are already prepared, it isn’t any extra work for the teacher. They are fun activities that build up the children’s enthusiasm for the certain foods. I also created a homework task, where the children researched about the food, so they were also learning facts independently.

Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 13.00.56

The Online Field Trips themselves are interactive, using different methods of technology to keep the children interested and also engaging the children by allowing them to speak to the food producer. They also get to see other schoolchildren from different parts of the country.

The children get to pass round the food being discussed, as Tesco send a delivery to the school, they get to grow their own or make their own and then they get to take the food home, so they can share the experience with their parents and create a recipe.

My class took part in an Online Field Trip to a pasta factory in Naples, Italy. The children loved learning about Italy in the quiz prior to the event and then enjoyed seeing Guiseppe and Sam discussing the production of the different pastas – they were amazed at how many there were! This Online Field Trip was something that the children would never have experienced otherwise, as Scotland isn’t renowned for its pasta-making. The children took pasta and pesto home and we got to make our own fresh pasta as a class, as Tesco had provided us with all the ingredients. One of my pupils even made it with his mum at home from scratch! The children loved the experience of making it, just like Guiseppe!

Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 12.57.20

Prior to the Online Field Trip, we looked at the preparation activities; these fully engaged the children and built on their minimal prior knowledge, as they knew what Giuseppe was talking about when he discussed the different types of pasta.

The pupils loved interacting with Sam the presenter and Giuseppe, seeing the other schools and learning about pasta in such a fun and interactive way. We also took part in an Online Field Trip about mushrooms. The class took the mushrooms home and cooked recipes with them, some even brought back the mushroom dish for the class to taste. We also got sent ‘Grow our own mushroom’ kits.

I’d recommend this great project to any class who wish to learn more about healthy food and where it comes from. It’s free for schools and will ensure the children experience an engaging lesson whilst making great use of technology in the classroom.

Take a look behind the scenes at the Perfect Pasta Online Field Trip

The Eat Happy Project is:

  • a cross-curricular resource that fits into the experiences and outcomes of the curriculum and allows for children to gain a greater and more accurate knowledge of where food comes from and how it goes from farm to fork
  • fully inclusive for all pupils, whatever their learning abilities are, and can be adapted to different year groups and differentiated where needed
  • completely free, so doesn’t cost the pupils, schools or parents anything
  • suitable for all learning styles
  • a resource that encourages pupils’ interest in food, the health benefits and nutritional values that certain foods have, in a real-life context.
  • a resource that allows children to visit places they wouldn’t normally be able to visit, albeit virtually.
  • an easy-to-use resource for teachers that doesn’t involve time-consuming preparation time.


There are lots more Online Field Trips coming up in the autumn term:

Honey – 11 September 1.30pm

Sweetcorn – 18 September 1.30pm

Rice – 25 September (time TBC)

Broccoli – 2 October 1.30pm

Pumpkin & squash – 9 October 1.30pm

Baked beans – 6 November 1.30pm

Bread – 13 November 1.30pm

Potatoes – 20 November 1.30pm

Tea – 27 November (time TBC)

Clementines – 4 December 1.30pm

For more information about joining an Online Field Trip with your class or to use their fantastic free resources visit the Eat Happy Project website or follow them on Twitter @EatHappyProject

Cheryl Miller, P4/5 Class Teacher at Niddrie Mill Primary School, Edinburgh

A New Approach for those in Danger of Failure?

As a teacher, how does this grab you as a challenge? You are to be part of a team working with 30 pupils from the south side of Glasgow? They are identified as being at risk of disengagement, but with the potential to become successful apprentices and good citizens. You must remain true to the principles of Curriculum for Excellence. What might be different for you is that your organisation is ready to wipe the slate with your experience in the classroom. You are going to look at the pedagogies of what works and use them in your practice every day – with only three other colleagues.

“Three?” I hear you ask. Correct. The curriculum will be delivered by four teachers – Science, IT, Maths and English, but also by partner organisations, made up of the private businesses who are not only investing in the venture, but who are guaranteeing apprenticeships to those young people who complete the course and FE colleges which are guaranteeing places for the NJC leavers.

This is the plan for Newlands Junior College, the brainchild of Jim McColl, Scottish entrepreneur. His vision is to take young people who are heading for failure and give them a real prospect of success.

Scotland’s schools are very good. I don’t think that’s in question here. But there is – and always has been – a group of young people who just don’t get a good deal. They are not academically driven, have perhaps a challenging background or a family whose experience of education is entirely negative, but who nonetheless have some kind of talent or ability. They are not heading for university, but exist in a system which is designed to make them feel that the only achievement that really counts is getting in to university. Yet business is crying out for people with good practical skills and the right attitude to work.

These are exactly the people that McColl’s Newlands Junior College appears to be designed to cater for. If only they could be prevented from disengaging, as they often do.

The college has started to engage staff.  They will be working in a very special environment, with the best technology and with unrivalled opportunities to develop their pedagogical skills.

Iain White, Principal of the College and former Head Teacher of Govan High, which serves one of the most deprived areas of Scotland, makes no secret of the formula “This will be an organisation built on relationships – there will be no room for messing around, but we intend to be like a family, where – like every family – we will have our moments, but we are all here for the same reason. We will all be motivated towards what we want to achieve together. That togetherness will be based on mutual respect and a mutual understanding of what we are here for.”

And for the young people who, through the selection process, get a place, that achievement will be quite something. With resources available to equip every pupil with a handheld computer, cutting edge IT provision and links with future employers who will not only provide curriculum input, but mentoring relationships and guidance, the prospects for these otherwise potentially-failing pupils are suddenly looking dramatically brighter.

Of course schools try very hard to prevent young people dropping out. But Newlands will have some crucial advantages. It will be able to guarantee the outcomes (apprenticeships and college places for every successful leaver) . Also, it is not school. Whatever Hollywood tells us about inspirational teachers and innovative and ground-breaking approaches to learning, sometimes the problem is simply that school is the wrong place for disenchanted teenagers. Newlands Junior College, based in real place of work, with its top quality adult environment is clearly not a school. So many things are different from the quality of design to the close involvement of students in everything including the preparation of meals. At Newlands, they not only know what works, but (more importantly) for these students they know what doesn’t.

An education for the 21st century has to very different from the classroom of the past. It has to be suited to each individual in a way that is unique and inspiring. It has to connect to adult life and the real world in ways that every student can understand. Every day, every student has to feel valued and believe in the possibility of success.

I look forward to schools and indeed, colleges, of all descriptions providing a wide and varied menu of education, utilising top technology, demanding top professionals and producing top quality graduates upon whom employers can rely, as they have had an input to their education and training. The destinations are guaranteed – not as some kind of social responsibility policy – but as a real engagement between young people, their parents, teachers, employers and trainers. I look forward to more initiatives like this and not only that, but I look forward to them being supported as complementary to the current school system.

Newlands Junior College is still looking for a Science teacher and a Maths teacher, so if you think you might enjoy this kind of opportunity, check out the website and application form here.

Skip to toolbar