© 2017 by Emily Rose Seeber. 

  • Emily Rose Seeber

Concept cartoons for differentiation: tips and tricks


Concept cartoons are beginning to be used a lot in science teaching, and it's easy to see why. They provide a fantastic opportunity to provide a richly differentiated learning experience with a single resource (read: without the massive workload usually associated with differentiation), and this is the kind of differentiation which is encouraged by educational research.

1. To highlight misconceptions in prior learning

When we start teaching Chemistry to students in Year 9, they have had a range of educational backgrounds. We start the IGCSE course, which means teaching States of Matter in Chemistry, a topic they have all done before to a greater or lesser extent. But just because they have prior experience of the topic, that doesn't mean that even the most able, have not got a variety of misconceptions about the material, at some level.

This year we gave students this concept cartoon to assess their misconceptions. It prompted discussion even for the most able, as the statements were chosen to provide some ambiguity. This then informed the level of dialogue for the rest of the lesson, as well as providing opportunities to discuss the misconceptions at different levels with the students depending on how sophisticated their understanding was. For students who pick up the misconceptions easily....

Top tip: discuss key student misconceptions as a department so that everybody's experience is used to inform the resource design and pick up as many issues as possible.

2. To improve students' clarity and thinking

The next stage is for students to improve and develop the ideas generated by the fictional students. This might be by making corrections to the ideas on the concept cartoon, or it might be by planning how they would explain or teach the student why their suggestion is wrong. By engaging in this process, their understanding of what is actually happening deepens (explaining something to someone else always has this effect), and they work on their clarity of explanation - a critical skill if they are going to study science further on. an example I have used regularly is from a set of resources on benzene chemistry, where students need to correct the statements about the bonding in benzene by changing only a single word (woking on that clarity of thought), knowing that only two of the statements are completely right.

This could actually mean that the 'concept cartoon' takes on a slightly different format so stretch students. This example is from introducing the reactivity of Group 7 elements, following on from using a more traditional style of concept cartoon to introduce Group 1 shown below. It differentiates well because it encourages students to think about truth and reasoning separately, making it more challenging and more structured at the same time.

Top tip: limit how students respond to the ideas, for example by just changing a single word, as this increases the level of challenge.

3. To encourage students to evaluate ideas critically

If a concept cartoon is well designed, it can be used to create cognitive conflict in students, raising their levels of engagement, and motivating them to care about the answer.

The concept cartoon above is one we use when introducing Group 1 reactivity to students. Initially they are unaware of which is more reactive, lithium or sodium, and then students select the plausible and implausible explanations based on their current understanding. They deduce that Kate and Marcus both have feasible ideas, so they will need to watch the demo to work out who is right. To stretch the higher attainers, the teacher can suggest that Kate's idea is not wrong, so that students start to self-generate the A-level idea that the increased nuclear charge is insufficient to overcome the increased distance from the nucleus (and increased shielding - which we do not mention).

Top tip: make space for 'cognitive conflict', so that students cannot work out the 'truth' from their existing knowledge or the ideas from the cartoon, leaving them hungry for more science knowledge.

4. To get students working out how to test ideas with a second practical or test

One of the best concept cartoons out there is the RSC Gifted and Talented worksheet on Boiling Points. For this activity students have to suggest which ideas are plausible explanations for why a beaker of water appears to be boiling at 106 degrees. The majority of the explanations are plausible, and a couple highlight misconceptions. The really great part is that students then need to discuss in groups and come up with further practical tests they could carry out to work out which of the plausible explanations is the right one in this case. This leads to really excellent student talk in mixed attainment groups, as some of the ideas are more theoretical, and others more practical, so different students will find some easier than others.

Top tip: include multiple sensible/competing options for students to weigh up, the more convincing the better, and, again, generate plausible ideas at a department meeting.

5. To develop students' generation of plausible explanations for observations

Finally, concept cartoons can sometimes be better as an activity for students to design, rather than for us. This means that we don't pick up on such common misconceptions, but can highlight some really daft ones that are hard to predict. The students can be shown a stimulus, such as two jars each containing a mole of a substance, as a way of introducing the mole. The students can then generate plausible explanations about why someone might think A is lighter/heavier/the same mass as B (we use an example where the 'lighter' element looks bigger than the 'heavier' one). The level of plausibility of the explanations depends entirely on their depth of understanding of the student, and the conversations with the teacher are then at the threshold of the student's learning. This process simultaneously identifies, and challenges misconceptions and ideas that students have about the subject matter. Particularly when the hypotheses can be tested simply, by picking up the substances to determine their relative masses, for example.

Top tip: if this is new to students, consider having "A will be heavier than B because...", and "A will have the same mass as B because..." already printed in some speech bubbles to get students stated thinking in the right way.

Concept cartoons, if used with thought, can be a really fabulous way of creating a learning environment which is welcoming to all levels of prior attainment. They are not that intimidating (they contain cartoons!!!), and are extremely accessible at the most basic level, but also provide opportunities for more complex thought by not always giving black and white answers, or give students opportunities to respond critically and scientifically to the ideas suggested.

This means that differentiation can happen in the science classroom (remembering that even if students are in rigid sets, not all students have exactly the same levels of ability or prior attainment) without the need for extensive planning. This means not having to produce with multiple sets of resources, administer complicated lesson plans, and preventing students from feeling dismayed/demotivated by ay obvious differences in outcome, or access to 'higher thinking' task. And surely this is something we all want to achieve in our science lessons...

If you have any great ideas for concept cartoons, I'd love to hear them and include them in an updated version (full credit given).

#mixedattainment #pedagogy #science #differentiation #PCK

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