Teaching technical topics using Semantic Waves

This article is inspired by a blog by Professor Paul Curzon from Queen Mary University of London.

Paul is a noted author and expert on the teaching of Computer Science and his recent post on Semantic Waves deserves an audience beyond this subject. Any teacher who needs to get students to master subject-specific terminology (jargon!) and use this to provide a foundation for more complex concepts would benefit.

The idea is to introduce the abstract concept and then unpack this using examples, diagrams and metaphors that link to concrete things or everyday life. Repacking then needs active support for students to link those everyday meanings directly back to the technical concepts and language to develop a fuller understanding of the technical meanings.

Paul describes some risks to the approach, including “flatlining high” where the explanations remain at an expert level and don’t unpack and “flatlining low” where the explanations are too rooted in everyday language and never link to the higher order technical concept.

Probably the most common mistake that I have seen teachers make when observing lessons is what Paul calls the “Down Escalator” where the teacher takes students down the semantic wave, but never back up. New concepts are introduced before links are made from the concrete and understandable level, losing the impact of the explanation or metaphor provided for the first concept.

Reading Paul’s ideas reminded me of a version of James Nottingham’s Learning Challenge/Pit where the semantic wave and explanations are the mechanism to lift the students out of the cognitive struggle in the ‘pit’ and increase student self-efficacy, confidence and recall.

Paul concludes with the following advice:

  • Make sure your explanations follow a semantic wave in structure
  • Plan learning activities to also follow this structure
  • Make sure you do not flatline – working completely in technical language or completely with everyday versions, never linking to the abstract concepts and terminology
  • Make sure you do not leave students in the trough – leaving them with the examples without making them repack the ideas to see exactly how they relate to the technical words and concepts.

I would hope that the semantic wave structure would have obvious applicability in other STEM subjects but potentially in any subject where domain-specific vocabulary needs to be linked to existing knowledge and understanding. Isn’t that simply the principle of learning?

Note that these ideas are simply an attempt to bring the scholarly work of others to a wider audience. Paul’s original blog has the citation to Karl Maton which I have reproduced below for clarity and further information can be found on the legitimation code theory webpages 

K. Maton. 2013. Making semantic waves: a key to cumulative knowledge-building.  Linguistics and Education 24, 8-22 (2013).

About The Author

Fergal Moane

Deputy Headteacher

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