4th law of mastery


In the previous lesson, we discussed how students use their existing understanding of concepts to build new ones. Now we focus on what we can do to help them make sense of new concepts and connect them to their existing ones. This is the biggest stage in the 5As - Acquire.

The 4th law of mastery guides us to think less about presenting material and more about the learning challenge from the students’ point of view.


For many reasons, typical science teaching involves a lot of 'telling'. In this view, it is assumed that all we have to do to get students to understand is break ideas down into small chunks, show students clear examples, and then give them lots of practice. I'm betting that your experiences of teaching have persuaded you that this isn't a very reliable approach. As science communicator Ben Goldacre likes to say ‘I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that’. What is a better way to help students weave ideas together into a strong mental framework?

It's easy to forget that acquire scientific concepts is not a simple matter of taking in new information. It involves thinking! Here are two activities to shed more light on this: one on simpler descriptive categories, and one on harder, theoretical ideas. Try them on your colleagues too!

What is a Mellinark?

Try the activity on page 5 of your Workbook.

Download the workbook

While you’re doing it, pay attention to your reasoning process. You will find that even for a simple descriptive concept like Mellinark, you had to use quite a lot of thinking - not rote memorisation. What you probably did was something like this:

1. Look at the examples
2. Use induction to generate an idea (hypothesis) about what features define the Mellinark category
3. Test your idea against the non-Mellinark examples
4. Use deduction to work out if each answer is a member of the Mellinark category.

The thinking you used is essentially scientific reasoning: hypothesis testing, induction and deduction. If this is true for simpler, descriptive concepts that primary schools students might learn, what about the more abstract theoretical ideas in secondary science?

How does Magic Paper work?

You can try this activity if you have access to carbonless paper. It is a 3-layer paper and you need to figure out how it works. The activity is on page 5 of your Workbook. Again, pay attention to your reasoning process.

This time you had to go beyond what’s observable and come up with a mechanism, ie a theoretical model of how the Magic Paper works. Then you had to make predictions based on your model and test them. All the while keeping the model in your head so you could compare each result with it. That's quite a cognitive demand! Secondary science is full of theoretical concepts like this, like atoms and electric current and ecosystems. So it's no wonder that students get overwhelmed and fail to grasp concepts properly. In fact, we know that only a modest % of students fully reach the 'formal operations' stage, as Piaget described it, needed to process theoretical concepts.

What conclusions can you draw from this?

1. If we want students to understand theories, we should focus activities on the process of mental construction - model building.
2. If students' scientific reasoning processes are a limiting factor in whether they will understand, then we should be these alongside the content, right from the beginning of secondary school.

There is a teaching model that does both of these: model-based inquiry.


First, let's agree on what it isn't, because inquiry is a catch-all notion that is often misunderstood.

1. Don't equate inquiry to discovery learning - no sensible science educator would let students try to figure out everything themselves.
2. Dismiss the idea that inquiry is about doing lots of practical work, as it's more about minds-on than hands-on.
3. Forget theory-free investigations like finding out which is the strongest plastic bag, because that's not how scientists work.

Model-based inquiry is designed to mimic the kind of thinking and acting that scientists engage in. Scientists pose questions, based on observations of phenomena. The come up with hypotheses and models and devise experiments to test these. They compare the results with the models and improve the models so they get better at explaining what happens in the real world. Scientists often have different ideas. They have to argue for their interpretation, using evidence and reasoning.

Research suggests that this is the most effective kind of inquiry help understanding? Furtak and colleagues (2012) sliced and diced the various factors, and found that the most effective part of inquiry was the conceptual part: focussing on moving prior knowledge to more sophisticated understandings by ‘engaging students in generating, developing and justifying explanations’.

Model-based inquiry sounds complicated so for our Acquire stage we developed a simple 3-part breakdown: Engage, Explore, Explain. Let's describe this with an example from the materials we've written for the 5-year curriculum.

The inquiry activity is shown on pages 6-10 of the workbook. The concept is feeding relationships and here is the understanding we want students to learn:

Food webs link together several food chains and show how energy is transferred between organisms

As it's model-based inquiry, it's not about teachers explaining how food webs work, it's about students doing the model-building. So we've written the objective for the Acquire stage accordingly:

Construct a visual model to show the feeding relationships in an ecosystem.

Engage Inquiries start with an interesting phenomenon or problem – something not immediately explainable but that requires further investigation. This is not always easy. In this case, we found a suitable mystery: killer whales are being threatened by the production of fish oil from krill. How is this possible when the whales don't eat krill?. The Engage phase gets students interested, and focusses the question for investigation (you might want to use a video about whales).

Explore The explore is a modest inquiry - a ‘micro inquiry’. It is highly structured to make sure students can do it, but at the same time it makes students think through how to represent feeding relationships visually. Doing this will give them the experience they need to make sense of a ready-made food web.

Explain Now is the ' time for telling' - to introduce scientific terms, and the idea that a food web is a model. Its purpose is to simplify explanation and prediction, not necessarily to show all the feeding relationships. Equally important, students can use the new concept to answer the Engage question - why removing krill can harm whales. This creates an opportunity to explicitly teach the reasoning process of argumentation - backing up a claim with evidence. The activity scaffolds the process with a writing frame if ... then ... so.


To consolidate your understanding of Acquire, try one of these two activities.

1. Audit an Acquire activity in your current scheme of work to see how well it meets the principles we'vee discussed. Use the template on page 7 of the workbook.

2. Be creative and redesign the Acquire stage for one concept in your current scheme using Engage, Explore, Explain. Use the sheet on page 8 of the workbook.

When you've finished, why not post a message on Twist in this thread.

Questions? You can message me directly on Twist.

Ready to move on? Time for the 5th law of mastery.