Why we combined rocks, the rock cycle and tectonic plates in our latest unit

Trust us…we know our schist.

Jaclyn Rooney
Jul 16, 2018 · 5 min read

At Stile, we are lucky enough to get to visit and work with hundreds of schools every year. These visits allow us to build a picture of what best-practice science education looks like. We use this experience to make decisions about how we build units in Stile.

We’ve just released a brand new unit — Active Earth, that covers science understanding content descriptions across multiple year levels. E.g. Australian Curriculum:

Sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic rocks contain minerals and are formed by processes that occur within Earth over a variety of timescales (ACSSU153)

The theory of plate tectonics explains global patterns of geological activity and continental movement (ACSSU180)

Controversial, I know. But hear me out.

Here’s a few reasons why we’re excited about combining these topics:

1. When teaching rocks in isolation, students find it boring.

Whilst teaching about Rocks was personally one of my favourite topics to teach in the classroom, we know from talking to thousands of students — that it isn’t one of theirs. I some year 9’s what they thought about learning rocks the other day. Here’s what they said:

“Learning about rocks was the most boring thing I’ve ever learnt at school”

“Rocks was the worst. I don’t even remember anything we learnt.”

“I don’t even remember learning about Rocks. Did we even learn about rocks?”

We’re all about about making science relevant and interesting for kids. We want to teach them about the stuff that matters to them now, and will matter to them in the future.

When selecting a relevant and engaging context for teaching students about rocks in isolation, we had lots of great ideas:

  • Our use of rocks as natural resources

But the most compelling context that we (and our advisory board*) kept coming back to, was natural disasters.

Naturally — geological disasters such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are awe-inspiring, devastating and intriguing all in one.

An increasing scientific understanding in this area is leading to our ability to better predict and prevent these phenomena. The more we learn, the better we become at decreasing the amount of devastation they cause worldwide.

We didn’t want to write a unit about ‘rocks as resources’ simply because this is traditionally the way it is done. We want to craft a unit that will genuinely interest and engage students — we believe that teaching about rocks in the context of natural disasters is the way to do this.

2. Rocks, the rock cycle and plate tectonics are intrinsically linked.

Teaching them together provides opportunities for students to develop deeper understandings of each of these concepts.

These concept maps from the AAAS (The World’s Largest General Scientific Society) help to highlight the intricately linked web of connections between the two concepts.

There is no doubt that in order to understand plate tectonics, students must have a preliminary understanding of rock types, and the rock cycle. The same is not necessarily true in reverse for understanding rock types and the rock cycle (at the required level for a secondary school student).

An understanding of plate tectonics builds on students understanding of rock types and the rock cycle and can help to provide a deeper understanding of one of the major the driving forces behind the rock cycle, but it is not required prior understanding.

Given that the two concepts are so intrinsically linked, we believe it provides a great opportunity to develop a deep understanding of both of these concepts at the same time.

A lot of the preliminary information required is often forgotten from one year to the next. This can result in students having a shallower understanding of tectonic plates than if the concepts are taught together.

We’ve taught rocks this way before, and we’ve seen many schools teach it successfully this way as well.

Teachers who tested drafts of this unit before report that it frees up time in an already over-crowded curriculum. Most schools chose to teach the content in Year 8, freeing up time to cover the other Year 9 curriculum points in more detail.

Here are some responses from students at Gleneagles Secondary College who recently completed this unit.

“I love the videos and all of the activities”

“This unit is so much fun”

“I really like this unit because it has made me understand how all of this stuff is related to me and other people around the world”

I know that there is no “right” or “best” way to teach. The beauty of Stile is how easy it is to modify any unit to suit your needs. Here’s a tutorial on how to customise the unit to your needs.

I’m confident that regardless of how you set about teaching these concepts, your students are going to love learning about rocks.

Have a gneiss day.

Jacky Rooney
Head of Teaching and Learning
Stile Education

  • Stile’s Advisory Board are an independent team of star teachers representing the public and private sector, university lecturers in science education and the Program Director, Earth and Environmental Science Olympiad at Australian Science Innovations.

Stile Blog

We blog about education, science, shiny new tech and where…

Jaclyn Rooney

Written by

Head of Teaching and Learning, Stile Education

Stile Blog

We blog about education, science, shiny new tech and where these three meet.

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