Year 9 get a grip on a monk’s peas (Issue 7, Conference June 2010)

– Genuine problem-solving using the enquiry cycle lead students to discover the birth of genetics

Having had an interest in enquiry stimulated by Darren Mead and a book he lent me (How Students Learn – Science in the Classroom, National Academies Press (January 5, 2005) I thought I would attempt a mini enquiry to nurture myown understanding and ideas.

My inspiration was a 19th century Austrian monk called Gregor Mendel who had developed our understanding of genetics by breeding peas and recording the appearance of offspring in subsequent generations (which were either wrinkled or round).

What I envisaged was that the students would go through the process of scientific discovery in a similar, if much accelerated, manner to Mendel and create a model of genetics.

In doing so I hoped that they would gain an appreciation of the creative flair required by scientists and the processes by which science works. I also planned to link the process of scientific enquiry to the more general Cramlington Enquiry Cycle to show the trans-disciplinary aspects of the former.

I then gave the students a fictionalised set of Mendel’s results and asked them to find out the model of genetics using these. The results were designed to guide the students through the task as the genetics of successive generations grew more complex. I also placed an ordered set of help sheets around the room that the students could use which gave them progressively more guidance.

During the task I used a time review wheel to help the students reflect on how they were feeling, what they were up to and where they thought they were in the enquiry cycle. They had filled the first part in at the start of the first period to connect their work to their prior knowledge of genes using a rather dashing photo of Princes Philip, Charles, William and Harry as a prompt.

Initially students were wondering if peas had sex (it may have been an idea to show some pictures of Mendel at it with his paint brush!) and floundered with the rather large task before them that had taken Mendel forty years to conquer. But bit by bit the students began to start to piece together ideas – the “wrinkled gene is hidden”, “the round gene is stronger”.

They went down blind alleys, got stuck and (sometimes with coercion) reassessed their model. The time review wheel was useful to assess the student’s confidence with the task which was often proportional to progress.

The review wheel also allowed students to link what they were doing to the enquiry cycle which lead to brief class discussion of how the progress through the different stages of the cycle was not necessarily linear – “I was at gather but I think I have got it wrong so I am back to think”. Sometimes they were going through enquiry cycles rapidly; presenting ideas to each other, reviewing what they had done, and then identifying another problem which started the cycle over again.

To draw the enquiry to a close we had a thorough debrief to ensure everyone understood the principles and to introduce some standard nomenclature. Having been actively engaged with the problem those students whose progress through the enquiry had been thwarted by dead ends were eager to hear of the solution from their classmates, just as a crossword addict craves solutions.

Reflection

In conclusion using the general enquiry cycle to help students reflect on the process they went through in the Mendel enquiry gave the students a familiar frame of reference to help them describe, communicate and understand the learning process much better.

On reflection I could have encouraged students to think more about why they thought they were on a particular stage of the enquiry cycle. Simply adding “Why?” after the question “Where are you in the enquiry cycle?” in the stimulus for the time review wheel would have ensured this. Although these ideas could be drawn out with questioning I think making this a focus in the mini time reviews would have further deepened their understanding of the scientific enquiry process that was generated by mimicking Mendel’s journey of discovery.

Joe Spoor

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