From core to hinterland and back again

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“Will this be on the exam?” This might induce a groan in any teacher, but it isn’t a trivial concern. We do have to be wary of trying to teach students too much. We need to recognise that exam mark schemes are difficult to navigate successfully, and for students to under-achieve because we didn’t pay enough attention to what they actually *needed* to know to pass is to do them a disservice. As teachers we rightly spend a lot of time thinking about what we, and our students, need to know.

It’s a cliche for early career teachers to be told “You only need to be one page ahead of the class in the textbook” – certainly something I remember hearing in my first year and beyond. And when you’re grappling with a whole new load of content or an exam specification you’ve never covered, those words and that approach can be comforting. Not worrying about having to know everything from the off, just enough to teach each lesson as it comes. 

But it’s not an approach that should endure as we progress through our careers. Most teachers will have experienced the increasing familiarity with a course that comes as we teach it and re-teach it over time. The first year of a new curriculum (or exam specification) is always hard because you don’t really get what’s coming around the corner, you don’t fully understand all the links between topics because even though they can be signposted in advance (and good curriculum sequencing is all about this), they don’t really come alive until you’ve actually taught it. However, aside from this ‘bigger picture’ thinking, I think it’s imperative for all teachers to constantly reflect on their subject knowledge, and to consider the extent to which we all have capacity to continually develop it for ourselves.  In departmental discussions when we’re looking at resources like topic booklets we sometimes get into debate about the level of detail we need to provide and come to the conclusion that ‘they don’t need this’. I think what’s missing here is a discussion about whether we need it.

A recent post by History teacher Jonathan Grande has prompted me to think harder about what I consider the core and hinterland knowledge in my subject, Psychology, and the extent to which one is necessary for understanding of the other. As Jonathan notes, hinterland knowledge is not the spurious additional trivia that we throw out occasionally to add some colour to a topic, it’s the crucial context in which the core knowledge sits. Core knowledge means little without placing it firmly in the hinterland and it’s our job to select, carefully, the right level of hinterland knowledge to impart in order for students to make sense of what they are learning (I’ve written more about this in a Psychology context here).

A further point Jonathan makes here is how often we check for understanding but in an overly superficial way. We are, perhaps, too happy to see that students can correctly give us the right answer, and perhaps explain it using all the key terms we’ve given them, but without really probing what they actually understand about it, the underlying meaning and how it connects to other things they’ve learned. This resonated strongly with me, and made me question what I think I know about my students’ learning, my own subject knowledge, and what it really means to understand the content I’m teaching.

This year I’m teaching Biopsychology to year 12 which I’ve not delivered for a couple of years (we have shared classes and split the content). Even though I’ve taught it all plenty of times before, and could probably blag my way through it pretty well, I’ve had a few occasions recently where I’ve realised I have some gaps. In both cases, those gaps have been where I ‘know’ some specific facts about something and have never worried about really understanding those facts as my students don’t really need to get to that level of depth. I’ve looked them up in course textbooks and found myself none the wiser; there, too, they are presented simply as facts without any genuine explanation. I’m going to use a specific example here – forgive me if it’s a bit niche for any non-psychologists, or if it’s not technically accurate enough for any proper scientists out there, but I hope it makes the ideas I’m talking about more concrete. 

In Biopsychology, we cover the use of different brain scanning techniques such as PET and fMRI and students need to be able to describe, in relatively basic terms, how they work and to be able to compare them. A key distinction is that while fMRI scans give a more accurate and detailed picture of brain activity than PET scans, PET scans have an advantage in that they also allow you to scan neurotransmitter activity (eg serotonin or dopamine). This has significant applications in psychology since neurotransmitters are associated with a range of clinical disorders like schizophrenia or OCD. It’s only recently occurred to me that while I’ve been able to teach my students that “PET scans can also look at neurotransmitter levels” I’ve never expected them to be able to any more than repeat that sentence back before explaining why this is a good thing. It hadn’t occurred to me to think about the fact that neither they nor I have the faintest idea *how* PET scans do this. 

Interestingly, it’s only really with a little knowledge that it even becomes a meaningful question. If you know literally nothing about PET scans then it’s pretty much all just ‘science’ (or magic, if you prefer) so there’s no reason to question the how. If you can scan brain activity then why not neurotransmitters too? But if you have a rudimentary understanding of the general principles of PET scanning, and some knowledge about neurotransmission, then it becomes more intriguing, because you need to reconcile knowledge of one with the other. 

To help understand this, a very quick primer on both: 

  • PET scans involve injection of a radioactive ‘tracer’ into the blood. As blood flows around the brain (since more active areas of the brain need more oxygen hence increased blood flow) the tracer it is carrying decays, giving off radiation. The PET scanner measures this radiation emission and uses it to identify areas of high or low activity in different regions of the brain.
  • Neurotransmission is the way in which signals are passed from one neuron to another, via chemicals called neurotransmitters which are released into the synapse, the gap between two neurons.

Knowing both pieces of information, at this level of detail, poses a problem (or at least did for me), as how a PET scanner works (showing relative blood flow in the brain) doesn’t seem to fit with what happens during neurotransmission (chemicals released between neurons). So how on earth can a PET scan show neurotransmitter activity? That’s not what it does! 

I’m experiencing what Piaget, who was the first to describe the development of schemas in Psychology, refers to as disequilibrium as the information does not fit with my existing schema. In order to deal with this, I need to either create a new schema, or adapt my existing one (what Piaget called accommodation). In this instance, after a bit of research (thank you to the amazingly knowledgeable and patient biology teachers on Twitter!) I was able to learn more about how PET scanners work, and therefore updated my existing schema with new knowledge (on an incredibly simplistic level, it depends on the type of tracer you use; previously I didn’t even know there were different types of tracer).

This new knowledge not only meant that I had expanded my existing schema, but also created new connections with other schemas ie my knowledge of neurotransmission (I also expanded this knowledge slightly as a result). Previously these had both been subsets of my general ‘Biopsychology’ schema, but essentially they were mostly compartmentalised from each other, and were kind of floating around separately. Now they are tethered to each other, in way that has ultimately changed my overall understanding of Biopsychology. Wow! 

Ok, I’ve learned something new and enjoyed some fairly geeky discussions with experts. Unashamedly, I love this sort of thing. I worry that my departmental colleagues sometimes sigh and roll their eyes when I bounce into a meeting saying “I’ve just found out something really interesting…” But, ultimately, so what? Does this make a difference to my teaching or my students? Does it actually help me to have this deeper understanding, or is it just for fun? I think it is important, for a few reasons:

Firstly, there are always students who ask interesting questions. Right now I have a particularly wonderful class who are really enjoying learning about Psychology (sometimes a bit too enthusiastically) and frequently challenge me with their questions. While I have absolutely no problem with saying “I don’t know” to students, I do like to be able to answer as many questions as possible. Partly this comes down to credibility – I want them to have solid faith in me as the expert in the room, but also because telling them to go look it up for themselves is often unlikely to lead them to a helpful answer. When I googled “How do PET scans measure neurotransmitter activity” I had to wade through a whole range of technical explanations which I struggled to understand, and I already have sound basic knowledge. I needed to ask some science teachers because I knew they would know how to explain it to me at an appropriate level. My students need, and deserve, someone to explain it to them at the right level too.

Secondly, expanding the horizons of my knowledge has, for reasons I’m still trying to pin down precisely, strengthened my core knowledge. I feel much more confident explaining the basics because I don’t feel like I’m at the frontiers of my own knowledge, aware that a gentle nudge will send me into uncharted territory. I’m not simply imparting a collection of loosely related strands of knowledge, but drawing together the threads from a complex web of concepts which, weaved together effectively, provide real meaning. Moving further into the hinterland, and back again, has helped consolidate the core.

Third, deepening my knowledge has reshaped the connections within and between schemas, and has helped me to consider further what we mean when we talk about the differences between experts and novices. In teaching we often refer to the ‘curse of knowledge’ or ‘expert-induced blindness’ which is the idea that it is hard for experts to remember or understand what it’s like not to know as much as they do, and therefore struggle to teach concepts to novices in a way that they can understand. Being an expert teacher is about being able to bridge that gap. Going through that change in my own understanding highlighted to me how my schemas were structured (disparately) before and how I was able to make the leap to a more sophisticated understanding. Similarly, then, I need to consider those basic and fragmented schemas that my students hold, to probe them carefully to find out what it is that they actually know and understand. To find ways to promote those connections within and between their schemas, and promote that deeper level of understanding.

So it’s not enough to simply be one page ahead of the class (even if sometimes this is simply a necessity of survival). We need to know what the core is and how this sits within the hinterland. We need to be confident to delve further into that hinterland, knowing that it will ultimately lead to a better understanding of the core.

2 thoughts on “From core to hinterland and back again

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