Writing Biology Mastery Textbooks

This post covers:

  1. Why biology is more than just facts;
  2. Why I write my own ‘textbooks’;
  3. How I write my own Biology ‘mastery’ textbooks – in 6 steps;
  4. An example of one of my textbooks.

1. Why Biology is more than just facts

“Biology is just lots of facts.”

I hate this statement – one I often hear to contrast Chemistry and Physcis, which are seen as more conceptual disciplines.

Firstly, all subjects are filled with lots of facts. Without facts, what do you actually learn in a subject? Secondly, facts sit in relation to one another to form concepts, theories and explanations. Not only do complex ideas emerge from the links between facts, but so does an exciting lens through which our view of life transforms, evoking marvel at ‘endless forms most beautiful’ in the case of Biology.

Critics of Biology that claim its study is of mere facts are missing the transformative lens of conceptual understanding that is vital to relate those facts together. Perhaps this arises because as teachers we don’t make these themes tangible enough? This is why making links, making themes explicit and exposing underlying principles is essential to good Biology teaching. Using mastery textbooks is an excellent potential way to achieve this.

2. Why I write my own textbooks

Olivia Dyer has criticised published textbooks for not being knowledge-rich enough and failing to engage pupils beyond the scope of exam specifications. She argues it is best for schools to write their own. Rosalind Walker & Adam Boxer have blogged about their takes on writing Physics and Chemistry mastery textbooks respectively. Here, I give my take on writing Biology ‘mastery textbooks’.

To summarise briefly, biology textbooks:

  1. Begin each lesson with a recap quiz of content covered in earlier lessons from the current topic & content from previous topics (interleaving retrieval practice aids memory).
  2. Present new content as academically written texts, which are read together as a class. The teacher clarifies and extends explanations, and asks quick questions to check for understanding.
  3. Contain LOTS of comprehension questions (more than published textbooks).

In my classes, these are the predominant format of lessons. There are other lesson types, in which pupils engage in further deliberate practice, practical lessons (always after theory) and mini-quiz/test lessons.

Notice the absence of ‘activities’: no powerpoints, no carousel or market-place activities, no card sorts. Abandoning these have transformed my teaching and learning in three ways: my planning impact, my pupils’ learning and my department:

  1. All my planing time goes into writing, sequencing & thinking about content. My effort-to-impact ratio is exceptionally high. In contrast, I can’t explain how much time I used to waste deciding on an activity, creating a time-intensive resource with lots of impact-less images and writing and then printing and cutting resources. Kerfuffle – goodbye.
  2. Pupils think about content only – not complicated activity instructions – and do so receiving all content; no information is withheld for another pupil to badly exhange information as would occur in market-place type activities from my past. If memory is the residue of thought, I want my pupils thinking about science only. Furthermore, most work is done independently by pupils, giving them the time to think about the content on their own and not letting some else do the thinking!
  3. We can centralise resources in my department and teachers can easily use each other’s lessons without spending ages figuring out what activity has been planned. This saves duplication of effort & allows teachers to genuinely plan – usefully – for their classes. They plan their questions, their explanations & dual-coding they’ll use.

3. How I Write Biology Mastery Textbooks

Since I am thinking only about content, not activities, all of my efforts go into thinking about:

  • Ordering content
  • Prior knowledge
  • Themes/underlying principles to focus on
  • How to link current learning to previous content
  • Best questions to ask
  • Tier two vocabulary to focus on
  • Considerations of ensuring pupil remember what they learn

I’ll use the example of KS3 respiratory system to illustrate my thought procces.

Step 1: map out all the core content you wish pupils to remember in a unit. For respiratory system it was: anatomy of the respiratory system, functions of each structure and of the system as a whole, ventilation, gas exchange, asthma & effects of smoking on the respiratory system.

I split each chunk of knowledge into lessons, and made a knowledge organiser with new key words and definitions.

Step 2: consider what previous knowledge this links to and include recap for this content. For the respiratory system, this includes: organisation (cells to organ systems); diffusion (process that explains gas exchange); circulation (process which takes the oxygen away in the blood); aerobic respiration (chemical reaction which requires oxygen and is the reason we breathe in the first place); digestion (the process used to obtain the other reactant of respiration – glucose).

The reason I branch out this far links to step three.

Step 3: decide on the theme(s)/underlying principle(s) that will be continually revisited in the unit. For me, fitting the obtaining of oxygen into the bigger picture of providing the reactant for aerobic respiration was the main idea I wanted pupils to understand. Therefore, the underlying principle was that organ systems work together to achieve the goal of survival. The relationships between the facts they already knew and the ones they would acquire in this unit was vital to this unit.

A second underlying theme of any Biology unit that explores biological structures is the structure-function relationship. I refer to this throughout the teaching of all biological structures from cells and tissues to organ systems. All biological structures have a particular morph because that helps it to perform its function. It gets even more exciting when we come to evolution because the idea extends to the fact that the structure-function relationship is adaptative! But, I digress. Weave this theme in and refer to it constantly!

Step 4: Decide the best sequence of knowledge to build understanding. What should you review first? How can you build on this prior knowledge to build understanding of the new topic. Remember, new information is added to existing schema. It can help to draw a flow chart to link all the knowledge you want to build up. For me, I started with drawing this before writing writing any lessons at all:

Concept map respiratory system

I can’t stress how useful this was. So, now, when I started writing my first lessons, I chose the order:

  1. Overview of the big picture: we need oxygen from breathing to enter our blood stream by diffusion, and glucose from digestion. The circulatory system ensures both are delivered to every cell into which they diffuse. Aerobic respiration occurs in the mitochondria to release energy for the cell to perform its function.
  2. Lesson recapping digestion.
  3. Lesson recapping diffusion.
  4. Lesson recapping mitochondria and respiration & then linking all together explicitly using the diagram above.
  5. THEN I go into the respiratory system anatomy. I foreground the two functions: ventilation and gas exchange.
  6. Ventilation
  7. Gas exchange
  8. Exercise + effects on breathing & heart rate
  9. Smoking & asthma

Step 5: List potential misconceptions & plan to avoid them arising in the first place. For this unit, the biggest one is confusing breathing (ventilation) with cellular respiration. There is also the confusion of breathing in air vs just oxygen.

Step 6: Start writing lessons… at last! Here, I’ve changed my mind since actually teaching so I will write what I would do in hindsight.

6a. Begin with recap questions from previous units. These are random questions solely to help pupils with retrieval practice of old content – not necessary relevant to current topic. Then do recap questions from current unit (or relevant prior content if first few lessons).

6b. Then write comprehension:

  • Use academic language – pitch high. Since you are doing whole class reading, you – the expert – are helping pupils access a text they wouldn’t be able to independently. By doing so, you are improving their vocabulary, exposing them to model scientific writing & setting high expectations. A good yard-stick is: is this pitched slightly higher than the published textbook I might use instead?
  • Explain everything clearly, with spelt out examples to illustrate abstract ideas. E.g. when I refer to cells requiring energy to carry out their function: ‘e.g. muscle cells use energy to contract to help us move. Similarly, oxygen & glucose must be delivered to the cells in our brain so that respiration can occur to release energy for our brain cells to help us think.”

6c. After a few paragraphs, usually when there is a natural break and a new subheading is required, add some comprehension questions.

  • Begin each question with a command word, instead of ‘what/why/how.’
  • Keep it succinct and start with relatively simple comprehension questions.
  • Have only one or two more challenging questions – remember, this activity is designed to get pupils to think about and engage directly with the new content. Challenge and application will come at a later date, when they have remembered this content.

6d. Application

Later in the unit, build in lessons that are more comprehensive and require knowledge from different lessons, after pupils have had sufficient retrieval practice and know most of the core knowledge you set out. Examples of application questions:

  • Linking multiple facts together
  • Sequencing facts in an order e.g. process or concept development as a flow chart
  • Converting information into a diagram or table
  • Explaining whether given statements are correct or not.
  • Comparing structures/funcitons
  • Consolidation – good for homework: consolidate texts into revision notes, and self-quiz on notes.

Mastery over time comes from having had multiple opportunities to retrieve knowledge, make links between knowledge & consolidate. As knowledge is committed to memory, and schemas are built, the understanding of the facts, the concepts and an appreciation of the beauty of the subject will emerge. It takes time! I won’t come instantly as memory isn’t permanent instantly.

4. An example of my textbook – co-authored by my amazing Head of Science, Owen Hawkins

I have uploaded my Respiratory System Booklet here… but it is work in progress. Some of my thinking described above came after I taught it! Some of the lessons are not as described above.

Please comment with feedback / thoughts on this post / the booklet – my thinking is still evolving & I welcome your thoughts.

20 thoughts on “Writing Biology Mastery Textbooks

  1. I’ve taught from Pritesh’s materials: I took the GCSE respiratory booklet and gave it without modification to Year 7s.

    Two things jumped out at both me and them. One, the language is unapologetic. It’s unapologetic for GCSE students (and moreso for Year 7s). Two, the careful intentionality of design is obvious. That excited both of us.

    Line numbers and page numbers are essential things to keep pupils on track and to quickly reference specific ideas.

    Our next challenge (which I mqy blog about) is about the contents of our questions. We’re, as a group, all sold on SLOP so we should turn our attention to -what- we are being SLOPpy with.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Deep! Yes I totally agree more thought needs to be given to the actual questions, and their sequencing to help pupils build memory and conceptual understanding. Both the initial comprehension questions and subsequent ‘application’ questions. This could be the topics of a future #CogSciSci forum?


      • Indeed I think it should be an area of discussion. AQA do have a document out there breaking down how they question write and Cambridge Assessment do a course on question writing.

        I’ll see if I have time to write about this.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That would be ace. Look forward to more of #GetDeepBlogging. Rosalind has also blogged a bit about types of questions. Would be good to consolidate all of these ideas.


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  3. I just discovered your site today. I’m currently getting my credential for secondary Biology and this is honestly such a breath of fresh air and new ideas. I look forward to scouring the archives. Thank you for putting this out in the world.

    Liked by 1 person

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  5. This is really good, and I can see how it will lead to deep understanding of content. Where do you include scientific investigation and skills into this? I can’t see any reference to investigations or practical work here. Is it done completely separately or interleaved with the lessons? I often have issues with students sighing when they get on to biology topics as they think it is ´dry´/ all theory and doesn’t have practicals like physics and chemistry. (Also the diagram on the front page used in the booklet has bronchiole spelled without the n…).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Cally.
      I would say demonstrations/models are very useful for an anatomy-heavy topic. I wouldn’t use practicals just to spice things up; I think the rich knowledge and understanding is sufficient engagement. If there are practicals in a biology unit that will advance understanding then I think it is valuable to use in the lessons where appropriate. But I would only get pupils to do this if it helped elucidate the concept further.


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  9. Hi – I’m quite late to the party here! – I really like the idea of the mastery textbooks, and have seen an example in another school (based on what they’d observed in your school). About how long does it take you to create one (for GCSE)? Anytime I think to do one, the task and time it will take seems too daunting! (Maybe I need to focus more on the time and effort it saves later!!)


  10. Really liked the writing and wonderful explanation for the students and that too with questions to self assess after the topics itself.
    For the diagrams that have been included alongside text, did you take help of any graphic designers/ added from free diagrams and illustrations available on internet? It will be really helpful if you answer this question for an aspiring author:)
    Thanks in advance


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