• Christian Moore Anderson

The knowledge curriculum in biology: How retrieval practice and knowledge organizers may distort it

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

During the popularity of the skills curriculum, there appeared to be some agreement across school subject areas about what skills were important as they were touted as generic and highly transferable across disciplines. Clearly, the knowledge curriculum is innately subject specific. However, recently generic-knowledge-building activities have become popular, and this may distort our attempts to build correct epistemic beliefs of biology.

How the 'cult of pedagogy' of pedagogy can distort the knowledge of the biology curriculum

One of the defining characteristics of my training years was the universality of pedagogical techniques and activities. Subject specific discussion was absent. Observations were driven by the activities of the lesson. A good activity in one subject was shared widely for its implementation in the learning of completely different disciplines. The activity took priority over the curriculum progression and therefore over subject specialism. This has been known as the 'cult of pedagogy'.

Nevertheless, the move towards a knowledge curriculum may also be in danger of this cult of pedagogy. Ryan Bate describes well in his post that the currently widely used knowledge organisers and retrieval practice may indeed by a facet of such a cult rather than the knowledge curriculum. We are in danger of distorting the knowledge curriculum if we believe that its implementation is mainly an act of developing new pedagogical activities that focus on memory recall.

Indeed Rob Coe recently mentioned that he has doubts over the success of widespread retrieval practice. While knowledge recall is vital for learning, such knowledge orientated pedagogical activities can easily be distorted by poor question development and choice of knowledge to be recalled.

As good questions may take time to develop, and the teacher's own subject expertise development is equally a time consuming endeavour, quick production of retrieval practice quizzes are likely to be detrimental to biology education. Let me explain why I think this.

Is biology a descriptive or explanatory science?

When beginning a new stage, be it Key Stage 3, 4, or 5, biology syllabi invariably begin with the essentials of cell biology. As life is fundamentally cellular, their organisation and functioning components are indeed essential knowledge for a biologist. However, are these topics descriptive or explanatory?

Once a year 7 student has learnt about cell organelles in generic animal, plant, and prokaryotic cells, learnt that multicellular organisms have specialised cells (with some examples included), and learnt that multicellular organisms are organised into cells, tissues, organs, etc, what will those students be able to explain? I would argue that most students may have enough knowledge to describe biological components plus some teleological ideas about what they are for.

Let's now add some frequent retrieval practice of the components of these biological structures, and some knowledge organisers, and we may now be developing an epistemic view that biology is a descriptive science in which biologists have encyclopedic-like knowledge of biological components and their teleological functions.

If biology is a science then one of its core aims is explanation, not to merely catalogue as naturalists once did. Biology seeks to explain the why and how of the phenomena of life.

The knowledge curriculum should be a curriculum that gives students knowledge that enables explanation, not merely knowledge alone.

This means that explanation is our goal for every topic, it is not enough to suggest that this knowledge will be needed for explanation later. It is not enough to give students a canonical repertoire of biological knowledge in the hope that they 'get it' later.

Each topic should result in students having enough knowledge to attempt an overall biological explanation of phenomena in writing. Quick, short questions fail to provide the opportunity of exploring the multitude of interactions between molecules, cells, tissues, systems, that lead to the emergence of life.

Explanatory knowledge: Designing topics around evolutionary, and systems explanations.

Explanations in biology are causal explanations and answer questions such as why and how (Potochnik, 2013), while when students only have an idea of what there is, or what something is for, then they only have descriptive knowledge.

Biological explanations can therefore be separated into two big questions in secondary education:

  • Why explanations refer to the functions of advantageous characteristics and how they became predominant in a population due to natural selection.

  • How explanations refer to developmental and physiological processes in living organisms (Kampourakis & Niebert, 2018).

The big ideas in biology: Energy & matter, Information, Organisation, and Homeostasis, can be explained via why (evolution), or how (physiological processes in biological systems, or mechanistic explanations). I have written about this here.

Image by Christian Moore Anderson & Blanca Martínez Valiente

Why explanations often appear in school curricula in the guise of what, and, why does X have Y adaption. However, in my experience how explanations are somewhat inconsistent and often overshadowed by the descriptive what, and what for.

For example, topics such as the typical cell biology units, work in isolation of the other levels of organisation in the system. They describe the cells and their organelles, they provide a lot of knowledge of components, the what, and a lot of knowledge of functions of organelles and cells, the what for.

Explanatory knowledge can only be achieved by considering their roles in processes of the whole system and how lower levels affect processes at higher levels. Hence the how in biology is an explanation of processes that occur in a system across levels of organisation, from the molecular, to the cellular, to the organismal level, to the population level, and back down again.

When pedagogical activities are added to reinforce descriptive knowledge that is isolated from its contextual system, then the knowledge curriculum becomes a purely descriptive curriculum. Ask yourself this: Of the knowledge recall pedagogical tools you have seen for biology, do they consist mainly of components and their functions?

The two big questions of biology curricula centre around evolutionary knowledge, the why, and knowledge of biological systems, the how. We need to ensure that our curricular topics, activities, and practice material reflect this so that they give students the opportunity to hold explanatory knowledge.

Of course we will need knowledge of components and functions to build the idea of the system, but these are only contextualised by the larger biological system (see this link).

Questions and pedagogical activities that practice these ideas are inherently more difficult to produce than those based on description. I advocate more discourse around the production of top quality resources for building explanatory knowledge, rather than the rapid production and dissemination of mainly descriptive-based resources in biology, in an attempt to conform with the idea of a knowledge curriculum.

Christian Moore Anderson

@CMooreAnderson (follow me on twitter)

Other posts you may enjoy:

How typical biology curricula get it wrong

What is it to 'make progress' in biology curricula?

Making systemic interactions explicit in biology lessons: diagrammatic representations

Why physics & chemistry must precede biology in Year 7: My sequence.


Potochnik, A., 2013. Biological explanation. In K. Kampourakis, ed. The philosophy of biology. London: Springer, pp.49-65.

Kampourakis, K., Niebert, K. 2018. Explanation in biology education. In K. Kampourakis, M. Reiss, ed. Teaching biology in schools: Global research, issues and trends. London: Springer, pp.236-248.

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