Leveraging student voice for a new world


Marta Medved Krajnovic
and Stephen Taylor
Western Academy of Beijing


This article first appeared in the June issue of International School Leader.

At a recently hosted TEDx at Western Academy Beijing (WAB), eight students shared ideas that were informed or inspired by the coronavirus outbreak. Topics ranged from innovation in biotechnology to music production at home, to learn more about what we are as humans and how we react when faced with a global crisis.


Research is confirming that being empowered, having voice and choice, and working together increases not only engagement, motivation and learning, but also student well-being. It is not just special events that create the opportunities for student agency to drive the learning in our schools. That journey of ‘students in the centre’ started at WAB through our founding values and, over time as an International Baccalaureate continuum school, we have incorporated it into all stages of our teaching, learning and school development.


Student voice and choice in daily learning

Even our youngest learners in Elementary have choice and voice, from how they connect with a unit of inquiry to the opportunities to co-create their daily schedule. In Grade 3, students engage with a prompt, “what did I do well this week and what do I need to spend more time on”, and then based on their responses they allocate part of their schedule to focus on this area. In Middle School, our student surveys have become a continuous collaborative effort with the Middle School student council. They work with school leadership to co-create the questions and analyse the results. Questions cover teaching, social-emotional support and inclusion, and the responses inform our planning for the coming year. In the Middle and High Schools, we have a nine-day rotation in our schedule. On Day 9 students have full freedom of choice on how to build the most inspiring and helpful day for them. Choices include academic, social, physical, leadership or creative options. Students also have the opportunity to lead workshops for their peers and teachers. Another example of student agency is Grades 6–9 Maths. During these lessons, students can choose whether they want to work in groups or individually, the space they think is most conducive to learning and whether they would like self- or teacher-directed instruction.


Student voice events at WAB

TEDx is not the only event where students have the opportunity to share their voices. When planning our global conference, students have played an integral role. At the Future of Education Now (FOEN) 2019 conference at WAB, students were supported with a facilitated stream over the three days where they could join workshops and speaker sessions. The conference culminated with a student-led closing keynote where they shared their vision of the future of education.


Student voice in the design of space

As spaces at WAB are changed to better support learning and well-being, so our students have a voice in the design. For their new Middle School playground, the student council surveyed and ran focus groups with fellow students on what they would like. Their feedback resulted in a tailor-made space that is used not only for play but also as a dynamic learning environment.


“We are facing not only a public health emergency with COVID-19, but also an economic and climate emergency… I can’t vote for another five years, and neither can my friends, but my family, teachers and politicians can invite more of us into their conversations about how we envisage our world. So, before you ask us the question “what do you want to be when you grow up,” ask us the question, “what kind of world do you want to live in.” We need everyone, adults and children in this fight for a better future and the only way to do that is together.”  – Jeremy. Grade 8 TEDx speaker


“Perseverance has become almost like a ‘hello’ part of our daily conversations. But contrary to its usual connotation, our constant need to persevere has shown us that we can transform it into creativity, wellbeing, and fulfilment. With our speakers and audience spread across the globe last year, we took on the challenge to host an online event. Despite the physical distance, it brought us as an organising team closer, and showed us how we can transform our stress and fear of the unknown into a movement for empowering student voices and learning. We turned our resilience into passion, which has, in turn, become a part of our well-being.” – Katarina. Grade 12 TEDx leader.


In our High School, a Design in Service (DIS) student group has been working with the leadership team to redesign the outdoor spaces of the campus and to purchase new furniture. As part of the refurbishing of the High School, a sample classroom was set up and students and teachers tested furniture and gave feedback. Their feedback was the basis on which the final decisions were made.


Student leadership and voice in strategic planning

In 2016, in the process of creating the WAB 2017–2021 strategic plan and envisaging our innovative education strategy (later named FLOW 21), students across all school sections were already quite articulate about what kind of school experiences they would like to see. They wanted greater control over what, when and how they learned; they wanted their work to be meaningful and relevant, and they wanted passionate and engaged teachers.


Five years down the road, in the midst of a global pandemic, and with the complexity, disruption and grief it has brought, we feel an even deeper urge to engage our students in interdisciplinary, transformative, creative and joyful learning that will help them better understand and navigate a complex world. However, isn’t it presumptuous to think that we are the ones who can help students understand the world around them? Maybe they are the ones who can help us understand it better and discover what we need to learn and do to help our students “find their voices to create a world as it could be, should be, might be, what we hope it will and what we hope it won’t be” (Steve Sostak, Inspire Citizens).


Guided by that thought, from being only one of the voices in our strategic planning five years ago, this time around our students are leading WAB 2021 strategic planning and engaging the whole school community – their peers, their teachers, their parents – in designing ‘Portraits of WAB Alumni’. They are change-makers that will leave WAB with a sense of agency and empathy, voice and confidence.


Giving students voice and choice can be uncomfortable as we cannot predict what student voices will raise, what choices they will make, what disruption will happen in some of the ways we approach teaching and learning. Nevertheless, at WAB we firmly believe that the synergy between student agency and our school mission, and our willingness to listen and learn together, are our best guarantee that WAB alumni are future-ready.


What do you think about the points raised in this article? We’d love to hear your feedback.



Dr Marta Medved Krajnovic is Head of School and Stephen Taylor is Director of Innovation in Learning and Teaching at Western Academy of Beijing.
Connect with them on LinkedIn: Dr Marta Medved Krajnovic and Stephen Taylor.

Talkin’ ’bout my Generation: Ageism in International Education


Sidney Rose & Michael Thompson

People try to put us d-down (talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Just because we got around (talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Things they do look awful c-c-cold (talkin’ ’bout my generation)
I didn’t die before I got old (talkin’ ’bout my generation)

This is my generation
This is my generation, baby

(With apologies to Pete Townsend).

The Who sang something like that in 1966 – when even we were just kids. It was a snipe at the “older” generation and their lack of understanding about what’s new and cool…. We reverse the lyric to take a snipe at the “younger” generation and their disregard of the wealth of experience and expertise we gained in those 55 years.

Yet, Mark Twain is said to have once said, “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” 


But in international education it obviously does… we hear of many highly experienced and highly skilled senior educators being passed over by recruiters, agencies and schools because of their date of birth.


“International schools need great educators and leaders who are skilled, experienced and have the right personality and attitude” … TES


Ok Yes… really?… So?


Summary of our leadership careers from an Age perspective

As can be seen from our respective biographies at the end of this article, we are experienced heads of international schools and consultants. We have the first-hand experience of the relative ease of finding new and appropriate positions up to about the age of 55 years. From then on, securing a new position has become more difficult annually. Sid states:

I am often head-hunted based on my profile and then the prospective employer backs out when my age is revealed. It’s happened at least a dozen times, now.

Mick has been very fortunate in that his current and previous positions valued experience but this is an anomaly to the trend.

These facts are stated to set the scene in which we outline the many and varied skills and attributes that a motivated and experienced person brings to the roles of international leadership and consultancy.


There is Ageism in international education … Why is that?

There’s a lot of talk about gender bias, racial bias and culture bias in society and at the workplace and each are important for many reasons. But perhaps one of the most hidden, biggest and most problematic types of bias we face is the bias of age: Recruiters often evaluate candidates based on age rather than experience – or expertise for that matter.

Is it just the recruiters or are they doing what they are instructed by the school owner or board?

In India, we had the experience of several teachers over the age of 60 who had considerably fewer days absent during the year than their younger colleagues but there was prejudice from the board, (locals with a forced retirement age of 58). We propose that these “golden oldies” had fewer distractions than their younger colleagues, paced themselves better and probably contributed more to the school’s development.

Some recruiters will argue that many countries do not give visas to older candidates but according to a recent survey released by The International Educator (TIE), which asked about hiring restrictions at international schools, over 65% of the 176 school heads interviewed reported that their school’s host country does not have age restrictions for issuing a work visa.


So, what’s the issue then?

We argue that organizations and schools can and should, employ older educators as leaders, teachers or consultants and give them meaningful, important jobs.

The myth propagated by the retirement industry is that people over the age of 65 should retire. Despite the billions of dollars spent convincing us that our “golden years” should involve more travel, golf, sitting around the pool or pottering around the garden. Research however shows that people who stop working and retire may suffer from depression, heart attacks, and a general malaise of not having as much purpose in their lives. Many people, particularly those who have enjoyed long, and meaningful careers like to work. In the wise words of Stephen Hawkins…: “Work gives you meaning and purpose, and life is empty without it.” It represents an opportunity to give value to others and the community, and it gives you something to do with your intellectual and physical energy.

Why would we want to retire if we love our work and can still contribute?

Many very experienced educators, school leaders and international education consultants and advisors find it more and more difficult to get work in their older years.  Virtually impossible actually. Why is that?

The average life expectancy in many developing countries is about 60 years and so it is difficult, perhaps even seen as biased and prejudiced if the country allows older internationals to work there.

If you are older, you are likely to be considered less capable, less able to adapt, or less willing to roll up your sleeves and do something new than your younger peers. They say we cannot use Technology but recent evidence during the current global pandemic has shown that the experienced leader has the ability to adapt and often lead schools when forced to work from a different time zone.


There is an assumption “oldies” are slowing down, are not flexible in their thinking and their health may deteriorate rapidly.

It can be expensive for medical insurance for older candidates and it might be assumed that there is a danger of a “lame duck” not fulfilling the contract?

Many international schools express concern over health issues for the older candidate and the associated costs of insuring them: “Health and health insurance are big issues. Disability coverage is not allowed over 60 and health insurance skyrockets,” reports one school. Another school in Africa, agrees, “I think that an older candidate must demonstrate physical fitness…I really feel that that is the main issue. A fit, active (coaching?) older candidate would have a good chance.

What could be worse than a much-loved, grandfather type leader, dying whilst working for the school?

But the facts are that we are living longer. The average longevity of human life increases each year. Life expectancy was around 50 at the beginning of the 20thCentury in the West. It is now 79 years – many of us are healthy and are in good shape and last much longer, and by the end of the century, it should reach 100!

International schools can appoint cheaper alternatives – and more often than not do.


What do we silver-haired “Golden Oldies”, have to offer?

Many of us are still fit and healthy. Many of us are fitter than our 45–50-year-old colleagues actually.

We, along with many other international education dinosaurs, have a wealth of experience, expertise and wisdom – gained from years in schools. We have the ability and expertise to train senior management and boards, based on acquired experience and expertise.

Adaptability: we have already “been there” and adapted to different circumstances, cultures and scenarios several times in our careers.  International schools vary dramatically, in location, size, student intake, staffing, curriculum, philosophy, and more. The best international teachers are willing and eager to adapt and embrace new circumstances and unexpected challenges.

In one specific area, age can benefit the school; the older educator will probably have a grown-up family that is not in need of subsidised tuition places in the school, annual home leave, larger accommodation, medical insurance etc. because they would not accompany him to the post. These savings, let alone the lack of “distractions” will allow the senior educator to focus most of his /her time and energy on the development of the school and more than offset the increased medical insurance of the educator.

With changes caused by the global pandemic, many older educators have displayed their ability to adapt and are abreast of recent changes in education. Many of us have been using technology since the 1980s and we are lifelong learners.

In order to be employable, we would suggest:

An annual review including a medical to confirm that we are still physically able to perform the tasks needed as head of school or consultant.  We always need a medical to get a visa for each country – and have always passed with flying colours.


What do we golden oldies have to offer in School Leadership/ Consultancy?

In addition to all the examples listed above, there should be no restriction on this as;

-health and fitness are not so important, the experienced educator will work within his/her capability and pace her /himself. Mick comments that “As a 26 years old newbie Head, I was constantly running around trying to fix everything myself, whereas the older, more empowering me as Head is far more efficient, effective and successful”.

– the only negative might be the perception of a: closed mind: but this would be eliminated by the consultant’s bid for the job. We are wise enough to know and understand our limitations.

-vast experience, network, knowledge of education, cultures etc.

– several “golden oldies” have shown their experience by leading schools as Interim Heads,  from afar during this pandemic; jobs that less experienced people could not do with the same level of competence.

There should really be no negatives as consultants are;

-paid by results, the short term usually. Sid’s school set-up projects have always been short-term to do the nitty-gritty work and use connections and network.

-none of the benefits that a head requires. Pension scheme, dependents etc.

It really is a win-win situation for the school and the consultant as the consultancy business is, realistically, “survival of the fittest’ as many of us have turned to consultancy as a way of giving back to the educational world that we have loved.

The “only” problem is they don’t want what we offer!!!! Ageism is rife!

The International Educator, a leading resource for teachers looking for jobs at overseas schools, has recently mandated that schools indicate if there is an age requirement when filling out their job posting form on their website.


What we have to do is point out the benefits to the schools of employing capable people who have a lifetime of experience. The most important job in the U.S. – and perhaps the world goes, often, to people who would generally be considered “too old” to be productive in most employment.  Joe Biden is 78 and deemed fit to run a country with the world’s largest economy and 328 million people. Many other national leaders are ancient; they are expected to use their wisdom, not their athleticism!


You can’t have 40 years of experience in a 30-year-old body! Or even a 50-year-old.


Besides the value and competence older employees can bring to an educational organization, there is the issue of cognitive diversity. Few things of value have ever been accomplished by individuals working alone. The vast majority of our advancements — whether in science, business, arts, or sports, or education— are the result of coordinated human activity, – people working together as a cohesive unit. The best way to maximise team output is to increase cognitive diversity which is significantly more likely to occur if you can get people of different ages, experiences and expertise working together. We, older heads have” been there and done it all” before, so don’t need credit for leading. Our aim is to develop the skills of the middle managers to be able to take over.

Career systems, pay systems, and recruitment and assessment systems are designed against hiring older people. Many companies believe older people are “overpaid” and can be “replaced with younger workers” who can do the job just as well. People like Mark Zuckerberg and others publicly say that “younger people are smarter.” We have an entire media and publishing industry that glorifies youth.

We must acknowledge that there is a limit for paying for an experience; the educational system which pays people more because they have done the job longer is not generally accepted by board members from industry. Oldies should be prepared to accept a salary similar to, for example, a 55-year-old.

Scientific evidence shows: For most people, raw mental horsepower declines after the age of 30, but knowledge and expertise — the main predictors of job performance — keep increasing even beyond the age of 80. There is also much evidence to assume that traits like drive and curiosity are catalysts for new skill acquisition, even during later life. When it comes to learning new things, there is no age limit, and the more intellectually engaged people remain as they age, the more they will contribute.


We should encourage schools and recruiters not to discriminate by age – or in any other way. This includes tackling implicit biases, which is an illegal practice. Many of us — no matter our age — do not have enough money to retire (even if we wanted to). This said people of every age are motivated to work and have a right to do so. If employers can create an inclusive, fair, and meaningful experience for older employees, as well as younger ones, the company becomes more innovative, engaging, – and profitable – and it benefits society at large.




What do you think about the points raised in this article? We’d love to hear your feedback.





Sidney Rose was born in Cheshire, England and studied at Manchester University.  He began teaching in 1974 in a Community College in Cambridge, followed by a Head of Department position in Hertfordshire before he was contracted by the UK Ministry of Defense to the British Services School in Hong Kong in 1980. Forty years in international education later in many countries, cultures and settings (Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai, Sweden, Qatar, India, China and Vietnam and well as consultancies in many other countries) as a school leader and international education consultant and advisor, he finds himself “on-the-shelf” and considered past-the-sell-by date.


Michael Thompson was born in Nottingham, U.K. and studied at Leeds University. He started teaching in Oxfordshire and was head of a co-educational secondary boarding school in Zambia at the age of 26. He then moved on to a career in international education with leadership positions in Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas. Michael has served as an accreditation team leader and was a member of the Education Steering Committee that produced the Government of India’s 5 Years Plan, 2012-2017. After establishing his consultancy, he returned to international school headship in Belgium and now Jamaica.


Image By Jean-Luc – originally posted to Flickr as The WHO, CC BY-SA 2.0

The benefits of teaching primary school children about DNA

Dr Mandy Hartley
Founder of The Little Story Telling Company


The benefits of teaching primary school children about DNA


The purpose of this article is to give teachers a tool kit of simple props and cross-curricular activities to help children learn about DNA in a fun, engaging and memorable way.


Why learn about DNA?

Working with DNA is of huge importance in the modern world. It enables us to identify why people get ill, develop gene-targeted drugs, eradicate diseases like malaria, create crops to feed the world, answer questions about the past, catch criminals and learn more about life on earth. In recent times DNA has been fundamental in developing vaccines against deadly viruses such as Corona which threaten our very existence.


There is a podcast being released shortly called “The DNA Detectives” (available on all major platforms) where some of the different uses of DNA described above will be discussed. Scientists involved in the fields of medicine, malaria research, forensic science, archaeology and the Coronavirus will be interviewed by children to find out what their work involves. This is a great way for children to gain science capital.


It is a huge advantage for children to learn about DNA. If children have a solid understanding of the basic concepts of a topic it provides a fantastic platform which through progressive learning can be built on. As their cognitive faculties develop it makes it simpler for children to understand more complicated extensions later on. A child who has learnt the basics of DNA at primary school is likely to find it easier to understand topics like transcription and translation at secondary school.


Learning about DNA enables children to make sense of topics such as “Evolution and Inheritance”. How can you understand evolution if you don’t know about the vehicle driving it? How can you understand variation if you don’t know the cause? Teaching children about evolution without reference to DNA could inadvertently support the development of potential misconceptions which are hard to correct.

In learning about DNA children are learning to work scientifically, to make hypotheses and test them, recognise patterns, practice hands-on science and relate the work they are doing to the real world. This topic is fantastic in terms of science capital with plenty of opportunities to look at subjects in more detail from a multitude of sources including museums, books, scientific articles, podcasts and talking to scientists.


The Hook

Every new topic needs a good hook to get children engaged and interested. Equipped with the right book, teachers have the ammunition to hook a class on a topic, get them on board and motivated to learn. This topic can then be brought to life through a story.

The “DNA Detectives” series of books are perfect for this topic (“The DNA Detectives – To Catch a Thief”, “The DNA Detectives – The Smuggler’s Daughter” and “The DNA Detectives – The Stone Age Mystery)


They provide an exciting, page-turning story where DNA is used to solve a crime. Having an exciting fictional text is likely to engage more readers than a non-fiction text on this topic. It also presents the subject in a relatable way. Most importantly, the story reinforces what is being learnt in the classroom.

So, where do we start? The first step is to find out “What is DNA?”


What is DNA?

Teaching children about DNA builds on their previous knowledge of living things and parts of the body. The most successful approach is to put simple ideas in place first and build on them in an order that is logical to children. This helps children understand more complicated concepts later on. The first thing they want to know is “What is DNA?”

Lego is something children can relate to and provides a fantastic analogy for learning about DNA. Show the children a Lego kit and ask what they need to make the model. The answer is “instructions”. Humans and all living things are just like Lego. They need a set of instructions to build them and make them work. These instructions are their “DNA” which is short for “Deoxyribonucleic Acid”.

Discuss what things are in their instructions. Start with an example “hair colour, lungs, brain etc”. Ask them to stick out their tongues. Can they roll their tongues? Are their ear lobes attached to their heads or free to dangle? Do they like Brussel sprouts? All these things are contained in their instructions, their DNA. This is a great opportunity to encourage children to write their own set of instructions. Get them to have a look in a mirror and then write ten instructions to make them e.g. To make Anna you will need; one set of brown eyes, freckles etc.

The use of familiar visual props like Lego enables children to understand the concepts and repeating new scientific vocabulary in-class discussion helps these words become familiar and memorable. The new vocabulary is also explained in each of the books in “The DNA Detectives” series. Reading this alongside the lesson helps to reinforce learning.

If children want to find out more, they can read an interesting story of how the structure of DNA was discovered and the controversial story as to whether they stole key information from Rosalind Franklin to complete their data. This is also covered in “The DNA Detectives – The Stone Age Mystery” (this book has a series of weblinks and as well as science, is a great accompaniment to teaching the history of the Stone Age). This is perfect for building on science capital.





Now they know what DNA is, children are naturally curious to discover where DNA is found and how big it is?


Where do we find DNA? How big is DNA?


DNA is found in the body in a special bag called a “cell” which protects it from damage. In the middle of the cell is the “nucleus” which contains the DNA and is surrounded by a jelly-like substance called “cytoplasm”. Around the outside of the cell is the “cell membrane” which holds everything in place and lets chemicals in and out. Showing a labelled picture of a cell, or a model of a cell and getting the children to repeat the specialist vocabulary helps children remember these terms and understand the concept of a cell.

Models of cells can be made from gel/air-filled packaging or bubble wrap. Large hamster balls can also be used either with a smaller hamster ball inside (the nucleus) containing 23 pairs of chromosomes made of twisted rope or a small hamster ball with a clear Christmas bauble inside (the nucleus) filled with white string.


A game of operation is a fun way to get children thinking about where cells are in our bodies. Get them to point to a different body part and make the patient’s nose glow. Ask “what parts of the body are here and are they made of cells?” The children will get the idea that everything on the inside and outside of the body is made of cells and inside the cells is the nucleus which is full of DNA. The only cell in the body which doesn’t have DNA is the red blood cell because it doesn’t have a nucleus.

Get the children to guess how many cells there are in the body. The answer is 37 trillion. You can think of it as 37 trillion seconds which is equivalent to 1, 167, 202 years. Use increasingly smaller items such as raisins, coffee granules, sugar and sand. Ask if DNA is smaller than each item? DNA is so small you need a microscope to see it. You can show children pictures of microscopic cells from different parts of the body.

This learning can also be reinforced by reading “The DNA Detectives” books. They all discuss what cells are and how cells in our body are used by Scene of Crime Officers to collect evidence from Crime Scenes. This also helps children relate what they are learning to the real world as well as repeating the new vocabulary in a different context. You could recreate some of the crime scenes from the stories and get the children to think about where the cells would be as they collect their DNA evidence to catch a thief!

Get the children to draw a cell or make cell cookies. Junk modelling is a great way to get children thinking about what cells look like. Clear containers such as salad/dip/fruit containers with a lid (humous, strawberries etc), clear water bottles or take away boxes. Use cake case containers for the nucleus with white wool inside or small clear pots, spice bottles, tic tac containers, cocktail stick holders etc. Put white wool inside the nucleus for the DNA. Get children to label the cell membrane, cytoplasm, nucleus and DNA.

So now the children understand what DNA is, where it is found and how big it is (For a demonstration of presenting all these ideas we have discussed so far you can click on this video www.youtube.com/watch?v=W7t1pVVjQr4). To really build on what they have learnt and to create a mental image of DNA in their minds the next step is to see DNA for themselves.


What does DNA look like?

Turn your class into a laboratory and get the children to extract DNA from different fruit e.g., strawberries and bananas. Their challenge is to become real scientists and determine which fruit contains the most DNA. Using scientific enquiry this hands-on experiment will consolidate learning from previous activities. The multi-sensory aspects will appeal to different types of learners making the activity engaging and memorable. This is also a fantastic opportunity to enhance science capital and encourage our next generation of scientists!

The methodology for extracting DNA from fruit using simple equipment and chemicals is shown in the following video clip. There is also an explanation of what is happening to the cells and what the different chemicals do; www.youtube.com/watch?v=W7t1pVVjQr4 (watch from 16.30 minutes)


You will need:

  1. Safety glasses
  2. Two clear glasses/cups
  3. Ziploc bag/plastic bag which you can seal at the top
  4. Banana (you can use other fruit as long as it is easy to mash up)
  5. Blunt knife and teaspoon
  6. Plate/chopping board
  7. Measuring jug
  8. Either a colander/sieve/tea strainer
  9. Either a coffee filter/dishcloth/paper towel
  10. Black paper/card/black t-shirt/black jumper
  11. Vodka/surgical spirit/rubbing alcohol (keep in the freezer)
  12. 4 teaspoons salt
  13. 2 teaspoons washing up liquid
  14. Warm water
  15. Skewer (optional)

A great tip is to use a black card under the beakers when precipitating the DNA as it will make it easier for the children to see the DNA appearing.

Worldwide scientists are extracting DNA every day. They may use smaller tubes and slightly different chemicals than in this experiment but the process is the same. They could be extracting human, animal or plant DNA. Ask the children to brainstorm what kind of things scientists use DNA for e.g. forensics, archaeology, to study animals, to see if someone has a disease, to help farmers get better crops etc. If children can see how working with DNA affects their lives it makes it relevant to them.

Get the children working collaboratively, sharing ideas to hypothesise which fruits have the most DNA and why. Which fruit is squashier making it easier to break down the cells and extract DNA? How can we make it a fair test? i.e. use the same amount of fruit or chemicals. How will we measure how much DNA there is? What will DNA from different fruits look like?

Get the children to use technology to communicate, record and compare the results e.g. iPad, videos, photos. Observation skills will be important to make valid conclusions. The results are another opportunity for discussion and to develop a deeper understanding. Which fruit had more DNA? Why were some groups more successful than others at getting DNA? Do cell walls in some fruit break down more easily? Did the groups do anything differently that could have affected their yield of DNA?

Reading helps to reinforce what the children have just learnt. In “The DNA Detectives – To Catch a Thief” and “The DNA Detectives – The Stone Age Mystery” the children break into their Mum’s laboratory and extract DNA from their evidence. In “The Stone Age Mystery” there is the added excitement of seeing how DNA is extracted from ancient bones. This links into how scientists can use DNA to answer questions about the past.

There is a great website where children can go online and extract DNA in a virtual laboratory. It gives them a glimpse of what working in a real laboratory is like;


A lovely activity to do with the children is to put a picture of a DNA Helix on the white board. Get the children to draw it on black paper with chalk. They could even draw a DNA helix on the playground with chalk. This activity really gets them to examine the spiral shape of the DNA helix. There are some other fantastic activities like writing a poem about DNA, making a DNA helix out of sweets, an origami helix and DNA bracelets at the following site; www.yourgenome.org/activities/dna-discovery-pack and www.yourgenome.org/activities/sequence-bracelets.


By completing these activities, the information is repeated in different ways so it can be reinforced, remembered and understood. When you talk about DNA children will now be able to visualise what it looks like and understand what it is. This is key in enabling them to understand the next stage of the conceptual framework and how we get variation.


Introducing the concept of variation


A great way to introduce this concept is to get the children to observe variation in their own features. Which features are inherited from their parents and which are not? How many different types of hair, eye colour etc are there in the class? The weblink below explains how to facilitate this in the classroom.


Get children to think about what makes variation happen? What makes one person’s hair blond and another brown? The answer is DNA which you inherit from both your parents.

It is small, random changes in the DNA, “mutations” that give us our variation and there is a great way to demonstrate this! What makes this a fantastic demonstration is that it is something that children can relate to and also links to real-world science.

Start with the discovery of a bone, skull or skeleton in the classroom. The class is going to use DNA to discover what this ancient person would have looked like!

Our alphabet has 26 letters. DNA is like the alphabet but it has just four letters A, C, G and T and they form a pattern or sequence which make up the instructions. To find out what our mystery person looked like we are going to look at their DNA (genes) for hair, eye and skin colour and compare it to DNA from known reference samples.

To make the DNA from your mystery person use indoor hockey balls of 4 different colours which have holes in them or soft play balls linked together with string. Use about ten balls for each gene and link them together on the same string it doesn’t matter what the sequence is.

To make the reference sequences for each gene create one DNA sequence which matches the mystery gene, the others should vary by changing one letter e.g. so if our mystery person has black hair the reference sequence should match the mystery person. The other hair colours you use e.g. ginger, blond won’t match.

Get the children to match the reference sequences with the mystery sequence. A Girl’s World or model head (insert photo 4) can be used to build up an image of what the person looks like. Wigs/wool can be used for the different hair colours, tights for skin colour and eyes made out of card.

Scientists use this technique of comparing DNA to reference sequences in real life to predict what someone looks like. However, they use computers and instead of 10 letters, each gene can be 1000’s of letters long. Instead of one gene, hair and skin colour are determined by at least 13 genes for each feature. Scientists have recently discovered that eye colour is controlled by about 50 different genes! (www.kcl.ac.uk/news/50-new-genes-eye-colour).

Scientists from the Natural History Museum have used DNA to establish what “Cheddar Man” looked like. They successfully extracted DNA from the 10,000-year-old skeleton which was discovered in Gough’s cave in Cheddar. Children will be really wowed by how the activity they have just done is actually being done by scientists in real life. Even more exciting are their findings which are incredible.



Get the children to observe and compare the patterns for the reference sequences for each colour. How are they different? These differences are called “mutations”, they happen by chance and are the cause of variation in skin, hair and eye colour.

There is a great activity that can help reinforce this learning where the children have to identify what skeletons would have looked like from their DNA


In addition, within the storyline from “The DNA Detectives – The Stone Age Mystery” the children discover an ancient skeleton. They discover how scientists find out what the skeleton looks like using DNA. It repeats what the children have learnt in the lesson and describes what DNA, chromosomes, genes, mutations and inheritance are. There are also great links where children can find out more about the work of real-life scientists.

Now children understand what DNA is and how we get variation, they will find it easier to understand the next step in the conceptual framework which is to demonstrate how mutations can lead to adaption and evolution. Following on from this activity using the example of the Peppered Moth, where a mutation led to a change in colour of the moth is a great way to introduce adaptation and evolution. There is a fantastic book you can use to tell the story called “Moth”, by Isabel Thomas.

All these stories and activities have been designed to help children have fun and engage with this topic in a memorable way. Most importantly the aim is to inspire children with a love of science and literacy. This hopefully, will encourage the next generation of much-needed scientists.


What do you think about the points raised in this article? We’d love to hear your feedback.



Mandy Hartley lives in Norfolk with her husband, two children Annabelle (13yrs) and Harry (11yrs) and black cockapoo “Milly”. She has a PhD in Genetics and worked for 15 years in various different laboratories using DNA to study subjects as diverse as populations of fish at the genetic level, detecting inherited human diseases, criminal work and paternity and relationship testing. She now runs scientific workshops and performs stories to children. She teaches children as young as 4 years old about DNA. The stories she performs are designed to be multi-sensory and to help children with their understanding and visualisation of different scientific concepts.

Mandy is in the process of recording an exciting six series podcast called “The DNA Detectives” for children. Children will learn about the different uses of DNA including medicine, archaeology, forensic science, genome sequencing, analysing the Coronavirus and research on malaria. The series will be available on all popular platforms. Mandy is also an author. She has created a series of “DNA Detectives” science-based adventure books which were also educational (“The DNA Detectives – To Catch a Thief”, “The DNA Detectives – The Smuggler’s Daughter” and “The DNA Detectives – The Stone Age Mystery”). They can be used by teachers as a cross-curricular tool for teaching science and literacy. The stories have been designed so that the reader can see how the characters in the book use DNA to solve a mystery – just like real forensic scientists! At the same time, the reader will learn all about DNA as part of the story. Mandy wants to share her love and passion for science with children and hopefully inspire some future scientists.