To Boldly go in a Different Direction

Changing Direction during the lesson...

I was teaching an introductory lesson on protein synthesis and the effects of mutations on proteins to my Year 10s at the end of the year. They were a lively class who often struggle to see the relevance of some of the Biology that we cover to their lives. They are a noisy bunch who find ways to ask lots of irrelevant questions to try and throw me off course or to test my mettle.

However, in this lesson, as we were modelling the process and showing how the changes to the triplet codon cause a change to the amino acid sequence which cause the mutation and how this can link to genetic diseases and cancer, using plasticine and other various bits and bobs. One of my quietest students piped up with what was one of those lesson altering questions:

“Why are governments spending so much money exploring space when so many people are still dying from cancer and the money for research has to be raised from charity donations?”

This was one of those teacher moments – one of those questions where I didn’t have an answer, but could simply have given a glib response so that I could get through the content, moving forward getting to the end of what I had planned to keep to my timeline, or I could also have done what the DfE states in their guidance (section below).

This is what I did. I threw out the plan, stopped the lesson and let it follow its own direction with just a little guidance.

I started by asking the class about what science exploration they knew was happening at the moment? They mainly talked about NASA’s Curiosity Rover Mars mission, New Horizons mission to Pluto, the International Space Station. I then asked them about the cancer research that was being conducted. Breast cancer was high on the list, then prostate cancer was mentioned with embarrassed laughter when I talked about testicular cancer is a major issue because of its sensitive nature, plus many others such as lung, throat, linking to their topics on smoking.

A quick straw poll was done as to who thought the money should be spent on space exploration verse cancer research.

I then divided the class by gender. The boys wanted to go into to space and the girls wanted to research so to mix it up, I gave the boys the task of researching about cancer spending, for example, the success rates of drugs, and asked them to put together an argument for why spending was to be directed to them, while the girls had the task of arguing for space. After the initial groaning, the iPads were distributed, roles assigned and the research began, they only had about 20 minutes as the end of the lesson was approaching and time was of the essence. The class was abuzz with arguments, disagreements, topic changes, points of order and that was just within the groups.

Finally, time was up and speakers were appointed for each side and the presentations/debate began. We had about 15 minutes to do this in, which was not really long enough, as the discussion that ensued between the groups was one of the deepest I had from this particular group all year.

Arguments from both sides were robust, scientific, heartfelt and passionate. The girls main debated points were that maybe in space a cure for cancer could be found without contamination or gravity, experiments could be conducted in conditions we couldn’t think of. They talked about our need for adventure and, to quote a popular TV show, “to go where no man has gone before”. They argued that the pursuit of knowledge is [figuratively] part of our DNA, and we strive to answer questions and to push our boundaries.

The boys used the same arguments for finding a cure for cancer being equally demanding and challenging. They related it to a gaming mission and never giving up on saving the world.

I could have done with another two hours to continue the debate, as no definitive conclusion had been drawn, but all I know is that the lesson definitely met the brief of the DfE and hopefully those pupils will come back to science lessons knowing that there is a purpose to what we learn and that sometimes we can throw out the book.

Martin Illingworth @Martinillingwor, in his book “Think before you teach” ( challenges you to question why and how you want to teach. In chapter 19 he talks about the ‘aesthetic moment’, which he describes as creating a ‘buzz’ in the classroom which will activate long term memories that stay with your students. Having read his book, I felt that this lesson was one of those moments and I had the confidence to take my lesson to the next level by creating the ‘aesthetic moment’ where the students were talking about the lesson as they tumbled out of the door along the corridor.

So when an opportunity presents itself, don’t be scared. Go for it, because this is what learning truly looks like. It’s messy, noisy and doesn’t always follow a plan, but, my gosh, it was great and the buzz in the class took them “to infinity and beyond”.

The full version of this article was originally published in the November 2015 Edition of our UKEdMagazine

Karen Duxbury-Watkinson is a teacher of science, pedagogy leader & director of literacy at Dawlish Community College. She is a regular contributor to TeachMeets and is part of the @WomensEd group. She is an active member on Twitter at @KDWScience, member of ASE and her blog can be found at She is passionate about teaching and learning and a curious researcher.

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