The power of visualisation for all Science learners and how to go #amplifiEDU

A short walk the other day around the High School Science wing at Graded – The American School of São Paulo,  provided an awesome glimpse into several different teaching strategies that had in common the power of visualisation for student learning. Students were engaged in thinking and figuring out new concepts. Let’s have a look at each one of those classes:

Drawing to Learn in IB Biology II SL

In Ms Copeland’s IB class, students were working on a skill that required “drawing and labelling a diagram of the digestive system” so that they could understand and create a mental model of the interconnectedness and function of the different organs in the system. Therefore, they were working on very specific drawing details that demonstrated those connections and functions.

In order to support this work, Ms Copeland asked students to look at and manipulate physical models from the different parts of the digestive system, as well as do online research about it. Students also watched a video tutorial related to this drawing skill and were prompted to consider important elements and connections in the drawing.

Essential questions:  How do the structures and functions of the digestive system allow us to function in everyday life? How would a malfunctions of the digestive system effect the rest of the body? How has evolution contributed to the human digestive system as we know it today?

IB Skill 6.1.4 Draw and label a diagram of the digestive system ( IB Guides)

A paper on Drawing-to-Learn: A Framework for Using Drawings to Promote Model-Based Reasoning in Biology from the Life Science Education Journal, explores in the detail the use of drawing sin Biology saying that ” The drawing of visual representations is important for learners and scientists alike, such as the drawing of models to enable visual model-based reasoning.”

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Predict and Test in IB Physics I HL

In Mr. Clark’s IB class, students were given the following problem where they had to answer a question by working through a mathematical equation:

“A ball and a cylinder each of mass M and radius R roll down an incline without slipping. Are the two objects moving the same speed at the bottom of the incline ( height h)? Find the linear velocity of each to support your answers.”

After working on this scenario using math, students moved to a lab station where they were asked to predict what would happen to different cylinders as they were released from an inclined plane. The real experiment prompted many comments and discussion around the idea of conservation of energy, which was the new concept being introduced to the student through this activity.

Essential question: How does mathematics describe the motion of objects around us?

IB Syllabus:  “Motion: Nature of Science – Theories: Many phenomena can be fundamentally understood through application of the theory of conservation of energy. Over time, scientists have utilized this theory both to explain natural phenomena and, more importantly, to predict the outcome of previously unknown interactions. The concept of energy has evolved as a result of recognition of the relationship between mass and energy.”

In this article about Teaching and Learning Using Practical Work, from the Nuffield Foundation, experiments are described as having different types of impact on student learning, including motivation and grasp of scientific knowledge / method. They also point out the importance of the design of practical work, which includes stimulating student thinking beforehand:

  • “the learning objectives are clear, and relatively few in number for any given task;”
  • “the task design highlights the main objectives and keeps ‘noise’ to the minimum;”
  • “a strategy is used to stimulate the students’ thinking beforehand, so that the practical task is answering a question the student is already thinking about.”

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Physical Models and Simulation in Integrated Science II

Mr. Martin’s Integrated Science II class was working on a Pre-Lab related to Climate Change. The students were building green house gas molecules, and studying the effects of greenhouse gases on the earth’s average temperature. So students also explored a computer-simulation showing how photons of visible light and infrared radiation are absorbed or transmitted by different types of molecules that can be found in the earth’s atmosphere.

Essential questions:  How does the behaviour of gases affect your everyday life? How is the macroscopic world explained by the atomic/particle view?

MC Standard 9 Understands the sources and properties of energy: Understands the relationship between heat and temperature (heat energy consists of the random motion and vibrations of atoms, molecules, and ions; the higher the temperature, the greater the atomic or molecular motion)

The importance of physical models is science learning is pointed out in this excerpt from this book on Learning with Understanding in the Chemistry Classroom: “particulate representations help students visualize the particle nature of matter” and “Students who manipulate physical models construct more understanding between the models and underlying chemistry concepts “. 

Regarding the use of  Computer Simulations in Science Education, this Slideshare estates their benefits as : “learn in a  relatively realistic problem-solving context, practice task performance without stress, systematically explore both realist and hypothetical situations, change the time-scale of the events, interact with simplified versions of  the process or system being simulated”. 

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Compare and Contrast in Integrated Science I

In Mr Edwards’ Integrated Science I class, students were doing a Pre-Lab activity related to communicable diseases where they had to compare virus and bacteria. In order to do this, students were doing research and filling out a compare/contrast chart from Catch the Fever: Integrated Curriculum Unit on Communicable Diseases.

Questions: from Educhange:   How do antibiotics, vaccines, and antivirals compare?

McRel Standard 5 Understands the function and structure of cells and organisms: Knows that disease in organisms can be caused by intrinsic failures of the system or infection by other organisms. 

McRel Standard 11. Understands the nature of scientific knowledge:  Knows that all scientific ideas are tentative and subject to change and improvement in principle, but for most core ideas in science, there is much experimental and observational confirmation.

In the article by ASCD Why Compare and Contrast? , this type of teaching strategy is explored in detail and supported by research: “You may be wondering why we want to look so closely at comparative thinking. What makes it so special? The answer lies in the research of renowned educators Robert Marzano, Debra Pickering, and Jane Pollock (2001). … More recently, Marzano’s research in The Art and Science of Teaching (2007) reconfirmed that asking students to identify similarities and differences through comparative analysis leads to eye-opening gains in student achievement.”

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Now, how can you “Amplify” these learning experiences?

In the blog post “Amplificando a Aprendizagem” ( use Google Translate!) , I started to explore and explain the idea of amplification of a learning experience.  In the hashtag #amplifiEDU you will also be able to explore many angles related to the idea of amplifying education. So how can you do that for these four different strategies?

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 8.11.21 AMIn all those strategies, students had some form of visual experience either through drawing, concrete or virtual manipulation, physical experimentation or graphic organisation. All of those experiences are perfect for documentation and online sharing. That can be done by taking pictures or videorecording with a cellphone, or screencasting over a picture or document.

It is important to notice that what students should share is “not only”  the image of the visual experience, but also their thinking about the experience. This is the reason why the essential questions and standards have been highlighted above, because those represent the learning goals that support student thinking in those experiences.

But why would you share? Because that allows learning from and discussion about many different approaches and forms of understanding. The sharing becomes a catalyst for higher order discussion about the underlying concepts and big picture connections.

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 8.55.25 AMBut would it not be the same if students rotated in class sharing and discussing? It would be similar and of course that can be done. The choice of online sharing implies extending the discussion beyond the time available in class and also reaching out to other types of feedback and discussion. Imagine sharing drawings of the digestive system in a very simple way to allow Elementary school kids to understand, and allowing them to ask questions. Or reaching out to another school where students conducted experiments around related concepts and can now share their thinking and discuss big picture conceptual understanding, adding real life examples in their communities.


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Another level of amplification can also be added by reaching out to farther away communities that can contribute with their unique perspectives. This is a powerful choice if, for example, part of the compare and contrast involving virus and bacteria, include local community outbreak experiences: reaching out to Sierra Leone medical workers dealing with Ebola, local doctors studying the Zica virus, or contacting medical workers who have experienced outbreaks of bacterial meningitis  in Brazil.

Therefore, amplification is a choice that has many levels that can reach different and deeper layers of understanding in context. Have fun exploring this idea!

This is a partial crosspost from Graded Teaching & Learning,  with the addition of the #ampliEDU approach.



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