Talking Teaching

October 26, 2013

doing citizen science

This is something I wrote for my ‘other’ blog, but I thought I’d post it here as well as the whole ‘citizen science’ thing has considerable value for school-level education, and I thought some of you would probably have some valuable insights into/comments on the subject.

The other day I was asked for some advice on setting up a ‘citizen science’ program. The people asking were looking at developing outreach: giving talks, helping with local science-y initiatives, setting up websites, & so on. I responded that it all sounded good, and it was great that they were looking at ways of communicating about the science they were doing, but that it didn’t really sound like my understanding of the term ‘citizen science’. (I hasten to add that I’m not an expert: I do a lot of science communication, but this is not the same thing at all.)

The idea of citizen science has been around for quite some time – there are papers on the subject dating to the 90s – but in New Zealand I would hope it’s developing a higher profile in the scientific community with the advent of the NZ Science Challenges & their requirement to get ‘the public’ more engaged with the science that we’re doing in this country.

And under the citizen science model this requires some serious thinking about the logistics, because one thing it’s not, is scientists telling laypeople what they’ve been doing. Instead, it sees school children, their whanau, members of various community groups, all getting involved in an organised and coordinated way with the actual research: making observations, collecting data, discussing the results, looking at how to apply them in their area. This is a lot more complex in terms of organisation than arranging to give a talk or write a pop-science article (or a blog!).

Jonathan SIlvertown defines a citizen scientist as “a volunteer who collects and/or processes data as part of a scientific enquiry” (2008: 467), and notes that such projects are becoming particularly common in ecology and environmental science. (And it’s not a new initative: Bonney et al (2009) point out that US lighthouse keepers got involved in collecting data on bird strikes back in the 1880s. Perhaps we could regard Charles Darwin as a citizen scientist, particularly at the beginning of his career – he certainly wasn’t doing it as part of a paying job!) He goes on to say that “[t]oday, most citizen scientists work with professional counterparts on projects that have been specifically designed or adapted to give amateurs a role, either for the educational benefit of the volunteers or for the benefit of the project. The best examples benefit both” (2008: 467). This makes it clear that planning to involve citizen scientists in a given project has to part of the initial project development; it can’t really be an add-on at the end. While many of the projects Silvertown lists are essentially surveys and censuses, Bonney et al (2009) provide a model for doing citizen science to answer particular scientific questions in a way that also enhances science literacy and engagement with the subject.

Bonney & his colleagues work at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which over the years has seen the results of many ‘citizen-science’ projects published in a range of journals. At the same time they’ve noted increases in scientific literacy and engagement with science among many of their lay participants. These are very positive outcomes, and they’ve put together a model for setting up such initiatives and assessing their success. Commenting that “e have found that proj- ects whose developers follow this model can simultaneously fulfil their goals of recruitment, research, conservation, and education “, Bonney & his team list the following steps/stages in setting up & running a successful citizen-science project:

1. Choose a scientific question – it will probably be one that stretches across a relatively long period of time, or a large geographic area.

2. Form a scientist/educator/technologist/evaluator team – this must include individuals from multiple disciplines – the scientist to develop the question, methodology & analysis tools; the educator to field-test methods with the participants, develop support materials, etc; and so on.

3. Develop, test, and refine protocols, data forms, and educational support materials: it’s essential that participants receive clear protocols for collecting their data (using clear simple forms) & that they receive help in understanding those protocols and passing their data on to the researchers.

4. Recruit participants. How this is done is going to depend on whether the project is open to all or is intended for a particular cohort eg school students.

5. Train participants, so that they gain confidence in their ability to collect and submit data, & know they’ll be supported as and when necessary.

6. Accept, edit, and display data. “Whether a project employs paper or electronic data forms, all of the information must be accepted, edited, and made available for analysis, not only by professional scientists but also by the public. Indeed, allowing and encouraging participants to manipulate and study project data is one of the most educational features of citizen science.” [my emphasisi]

7. Analyse and interpret data. This can be tricky due to the often‘coarse’ nature of the data-sets collected by participants,  & made more so if there are (for example) errors due to species mis-identification or misunderstanding of protocols.

8. Disseminate results. While this will involve scientific publications, it’s also important – & essential – that the results and their interpretation & application are also communicated with the citizen scientists who helped to generate them.

9. Measure outcomes. These will be both scientific and educational. The former are fairly straightforward to quantify: number of papers published, conference presentations given, or students successfully completing theses, for example. The educational outcomes may be harder to define, but Bonney et al suggest assessing things like the length of time people were involved with the project; how often they accessed web sites associated with the project; whether their understanding of the science content improved over the duration of the research; whether their understanding of the nature of science was enhanced; positive changes in attitudes towards science; better science-related skills; the number of participants stating increased interest in a career in science.

Doing all this will of necessity require education or social science research techniques, so there’s someone else to add to the team. Yes, there are costs, in dollar terms but also in terms of the time taken to set up a rigorous project with benefits for all involved. But there is potential for those benefits to be significant.

R.Bonney, C.B.Cooper, J.Dickinson, S.Kelling, T.Phillips, K.V.Rosenberg & J.Shirk (2009) Citizen science: a developing tool for expanding science knowledge and scientific literacy. Bioscience 59(11):977-984

J.Silvertown (2008) A new dawn for citizen science. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24(9): 467-471

September 23, 2013

teach creationism, undermine science

This is something I originally wrote for my ‘other’ blog.

Every now & then I’ve had someone say to me that there’s no harm in children hearing about ‘other ways of knowing’ about the world during their time at school, so why am I worried about creationism being delivered in the classroom? 

Well, first up, my concerns – & those of most of my colleagues – centre less on whether teaching creationism/intelligent design is bringing religion into the science classroom1, & more on how well such teaching prepares students for understanding and participating in biology in the 21st century. For example, if a school can make statements like this:

It is important that children and adults are clear that there is one universal truth. There can only be one truthful explanation for origins that means that all other explanations are wrong. Truth is truth. Biblical truth, scientific truth, mathematical truth, and historical truth are in harmony2.

and go on to list the “commonly accepted science we believe in”, then their students are not gaining any real understanding of the nature of science. And the statements regarding the science curriculum that I’ve linked to above indicate that it’s not just biology with which the school community has an issue. Physics, geology, cosmology: all have significant sections listed under “commonly accepted ‘science’ we do not believe in”3. (Did you notice the quote marks around that second mention of science?)

Science isn’t a belief system, & while people are entitled to their own opinions they are not entitled to their own facts. Any school science curriculum that picks & chooses what is taught on the basis of belief is delivering (to quote my friend David Winter) “a pathetic caricature of actual science, … undermin[ing] science as a method for understanding the world and leav[ing] the kids that learned it very poorly prepared to do biology in the 21st century.” Or indeed, to engage with pretty much any science, in terms of understanding how science is done and its relevance to our daily lives. And if we’re not concerned about that lack of science literacy, well, we should be.

 

although I do think this is a problem too.

2 with the subtext that the first ‘truth’ takes precedence.

Taken to its extreme, the belief system promoted in teaching creationism as science can result in statements such as this:

We believe Earth and its ecosystems – created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence – are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing…

…We deny that Earth and its ecosystems are the fragile and unstable products of chance, and particularly that Earth’s climate system is vulnerable to dangerous alteration because of miniscule changes in atmospheric chemistry.

This does not look like a recipe for good environmental management to me.

 

September 20, 2013

charter schools can teach creationism after all

I first wrote about charter schools just over a year ago. At the time I was commenting on statements that such schools would be able to employ as teachers people who lacked teaching qualifications, wondering how that could sit with the Minister’s statements around achieving quality teaching practice. But I also noted concerns that charter (oops, ‘partnership’) schools could set their own curricula, as this would have the potential to expand the number of schools teaching creationism in their ‘science’ classes.

Well, now the list of the first 5 charter schools has been published: two of those schools is described (in the linked article) as intending to “emphasise Christian values in its teaching.” By itself that =/= creationism in the classroom – but yesterday Radio New Zealand’s Checkpoint program (17 September 2013) reported that the school’s offerings will probably include just that.

In addition the prinicipal has reportedly said that the school will teach “Christian theory on the origin of the planet.”

And today we’re told (via RNZ)

The Education Minister has conceded there’s nothing to prevent two of New Zealand’s first charter schools teaching creationism alongside the national curriculum.

Two of the five publicly-funded private schools, Rise Up and South Auckland Middle School, have contracts that allow a Christian focus.

The minister, Hekia Parata, said on Tuesday that none of the five schools would teach creationism alongside or instead of evolutionary theory.

But on Thursday she told the House two of the schools will offer religious education alongside the curriculum.

Ms Parata did not specify how the two would be differentiated in the classroom.

South Auckland Middle School has told Radio New Zealand it plans to teach a number of theories about the origins of life, including intelligent design and evolution.

Point 1 (trivial, perhaps?): South Auckland Middle School needs to look into just what constitutes a theory in science. (Hint: a theory is a coherent explanation for a large body of facts. “A designer diddit” does not remotely approach that.)

Point 2 (not trivial at all): Why do people responsible for leading education in this country think it acceptable for students to learn nonscience in ‘science’ classes? After all, the Prime Minister has commented on “the importance of science to this country.” Evolution underpins all of modern biology so how, exactly, does actively misinforming students about this core concept prepare those who want to work in biology later? Nor does teaching pseudoscience sit well with the increased emphasis on ‘nature of science’ in the NZ Curriculum.

This is really, really disappointing. We already have ‘special character’ schools which teach creationism in their classrooms (see herehere and here, for example). It’s irking in the extreme that state funding will be used to support the same in the new charter schools.

August 23, 2013

what am i?

I’ve been involved in a few discussions lately, on the issue of what ‘we’ actually are. That is, are those of us who work with students in our lecture rooms, laboratories and tut classes, teachers? Is that the label we want attached to ourselves (eg in things like paper & teaching appraisal surveys)?

Disappointingly, there seems to be a fairly large body of opinion that says “no, no that’s not the right name. ‘Teachers’ is what people in schools could be described as. But we’re lecturers, not teachers.” (Someone went so far as to say that using the name ‘teacher’ would only be confusing, as students associated the term with their school experiences & didn’t expect it at university.)

Interestingly, this is not a reflection of how universities are described in the 1989 Education Act. Section 162 of the Act tells us (my emphasis in bold font) that

 universities have all the following characteristics and other tertiary institutions have 1 or more of those characteristics:

  • (i)they are primarily concerned with more advanced learning, the principal aim being to develop intellectual independence:

  • (ii)their research and teaching are closely interdependent and most of their teaching is done by people who are active in advancing knowledge:

  • (iii)they meet international standards of research and teaching:

  • (iv)they are a repository of knowledge and expertise:

  • (v)they accept a role as critic and conscience of society;

and that

  • a university is characterised by a wide diversity of teaching and research, especially at a higher level, that maintains, advances, disseminates, and assists the application of, knowledge, develops intellectual independence, and promotes community learning:

This all makes it fairly clear that the official view of what folks like me do, in our university jobs, is teaching i.e. facilitating advanced learning in our students, helping them to become independent, autonomous learners, and (while last, definitely not least!) promoting learning in the wider community. (I have to say, in Hamilton at the moment, this often feels like an uphill battle in the face of widespread misinformation about water fluoridation. But you can read more about this here, and here.)

And that’s true whether our job descriptions include the word tutor, lecturer, or professor. To me, if the word ‘teaching’ is included in the description of what universities do, then we are ‘teachers’.

Now, I suppose you could argue that I’m just being picky, but I think this is actually quite an important issue as it relates to what we perceive ourselves doing in our classrooms. That’s because if someone sees themselves as a lecturer, & not a teacher, then they could well have a mental image of what the role of ‘lecturer’ entails. And it’s a fair bet that this includes, you know, lecturing: standing in front of a class and delivering 50 minutes of information on a topic in which that person has expertise.

And to me, this is a problem because there’s an increasing body of research now that clearly shows that this passive-student model of teaching & learning – not just lectures, but also ‘cookbook’ lab classes – is probably the least effective thing we can do, in expanding students’ knowledge & understanding of a subject. This was demonstrated very clearly by Richard Hake in his 1998 analysis of the outcomes for more than 6,500 students enrolled in a total of 62 introductory physics courses. Hake found that courses that used ‘interactive-engagement’ techniques for teaching and learning were significantly better – much better – in terms of successful learning and retention of material. Subsequently Carl Wieman and his science-education research group have built on the work of Hake and others in the physics area – have a look at the figures at the end of this 2005 paper, for example: teaching techniques that encourage passive learning by students don’t result in any real long-term learning or retention. Nor is it just physics; I’ve written previously about similar research findings from the area of biology education (e.g. Haak et al. ,2011).

‘Teacher’ to me implies the use of a much wider range of classroom techniques that encourage active student engagement and successful long-term learning. And yes, I’m a teacher, and proud of it!

 

Haak DC, HilleRisLambers J, Pitre E, & Freeman S (2011). Increased structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in introductory biology. Science , 332 (6034), 1213-6 PMID: 21636776

Hake RR (1998) Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. Am. J. Phys. 66: 64-74

Wieman C & Perkins K (2006) Transforming physics education. Physics Today Online, http://www.physicstoday.org/vol-58/iss-11/p36.shtml

August 1, 2013

does science literacy matter?

That’s the title of a post over on the Australian site, The Conversation (which I found by way of a piece on “Scientists, the media, & society” by Sir Peter Gluckman). The author of the piece, Ken Friedman, answers his question with an emphatic “yes, and here’s why”.

As he notes,

The big question is what we expect citizens in a modern industrial democracy to know & to understand

- he’s writing following the publication of a recent survey by the Australian Academy of Science that suggested that in some areas, Australians’ science knowledge could be better. (And, I hasten to add, I suspect a similar survey would garner similar results in New Zealand.)

It caught my eye because I recently had a discussion around assessment: the context was on-line assessment and whether it mattered if students could check resources as they wrote. My feeling on this one was no, not if your assessment was intended to look at skills & higher-order thinking and not simple mastery of factual content. Those attributes – which specifically relate to science literacy – are surely ones that all uni graduates should come out with, after all.

I probably need to unpack that statement a bit! I agree that students do require some (lots of?) factual knowledge in a subject, and that their knowledge should increase in breadth & depth as they progress through their program of learning. But shouldn’t they also be learning how to process that information? How to assess its validity? How to apply it in novel circumstances? After all, there’s a huge body of information – which varies greatly in quality – out there on the internet (& in more traditional places such as libraries!) and freely available to anyone who knows how to use a search engine. And it’s very clear, from following on-line discussions (on fluoridation, for example) – Facebook, science blogs, newspaper comments pages – that how people deal with that information is really important.

So, provided that I’d given students plenty of opportunity to learn & practice the relevant skills in advance, I could see opportunities for on-line assessment where it wouldn’t matter if students had books open, or webpages. Because the assessment item would provide information (in a structured way, & for a particular context) & students would be assessed, not on their knowledge, but on their ability to apply those higher-order thinking skills to the data set.**

But maybe I’m a tad too idealistic :) Feel free to drop by & let me know what you think!

** In the same way, after running the ‘design-an-organism’ classes for a couple of years now, I’ve seriously thought about asking just two questions in the final exam: ‘design’ a plant, and an animal, for a particular well-defined environment. Give plenty of background information, & let them go to it. The test would be in how well they could justify their various decisions. Hmmmm.

May 20, 2013

out of the mouths of students

First posted over at the Bioblog.

We’ve been trialling some software for on-line paper/teaching appraisals & I got my results back the other day. The appraisal form included open-ended questions where students could give extended feedback on particular issues that concerned them, & I’ve been going through it all so that I can give feedback in my turn, thus ‘closing the loop’. (This is something that I believe is absolutely essential: students need to know that we value their opinions & that, where appropriate, use them to inform what we do.) I’ve been interested to see that some of the class are definitely thinking outside the ‘box’ that represents my paper, and one comment in particular struck a chord:

One concern with the paper is individuals who were not taught certain aspects of the NCEA Level 3 curriculum. This is a major issue that has resulted from the preference of schools to not teach certain aspects of the course. There NEEDS to be consultation to standardise the NCEA curriculum as well as ensuring that the gap is bridged with communication between tertiary education providers and secondary education providers. As I understand it there is significant concern over the changed NCEA Level 3 Biology course, which now does not teach genetics in year 13. I don’t know the answer in the resolution of this issue, however it will greatly impact on future academic success as well as future funding when grades drop.

This student has hit the nail squarely on the head. Teachers reading this will be working on the following Achievement Standards with their year 12 students this year (where previously gene expression was handled in year 13): AS91157 Demonstrate understanding of genetic variation and change, and AS91159: Demonstrate understanding of gene expression. (You’ll find the Biology subject matrix here.)

And as my student says, this has the potential to cause real problems unless the university staff concerned have made it their business to be aware of these changes and to consider their impact. For the 2014 cohort of students coming in to introductory biology classes will have quite different prior learning experiences (& not just in genetics) from those we are teaching this year and taught in previous years. We cannot continue as we have done in the past.

May 13, 2013

selling services on line

Filed under: education, university — Tags: , , , — alison @ 2:05 pm

Yesterday’s Sunday Star-Times carried the headline: Chinese cheats rort NZ universities with fakes. The story begins:

An investigation has uncovered a well-organised commercial cheating service for Chinese-speaking students in New Zealand. The long-standing business uses a network of tutors, some outside New Zealand, to write original assignments ordered by Chinese-speaking students attending New Zealand universities, polytechnics and private institutions

and provides a link to an essay bought by the reporting team as part of their investigation.

Frankly, about the only thing that surprised me about the story was the fact that the organisation delivering this ‘service’, and thus helping those using it to cheat, is based in New Zealand. I mean, I’ve just had one of my regular clean-outs of the spam folder. Anything there just gets deleted; there’s so much coming in that I don’t have time to scan it just in case a genuine commenter has been dumped there. But occasionally something at the top of the queue for oblivion catches my eye, and I notice things like this:

Lately, graduates are overloaded to produce essay writing, they can find custom writing services where they are able to buy critical analysis essays.

If you are desperate, you always have a possibility to purchase high quality essay and all your problems will disappear.

Are willing to be a good student? Therefore, you should realise that good high school students buy paper and if it is fits you, you can do the same!

And the icing on the cake:

Some people have got a passion of composing academic papers, but, some of them do not know the correct way to complete research papers. Professional Custom UK Essay writing service is developed to help students who cannot write.

Frankly, the standard of English in that lot should put potential buyers off! At least some of the time they make an attempt at ‘buyer beware’ (but don’t you just know that the following would link to one of these ‘good’ sites?):

If you want to escape any troubles while ordering essays at the paper writing services, you ought to be really thorough. Buy essay services only if you have solid evidences that the people you’ll be dealing with are highly educated.

Lols aside, there’s obviously a market for this sort of stuff; it’s worth pondering why students would buy in work, and what options teaching staff have for avoiding/reducing the temptation.

One obvious motivation is the pressure to do well. Students (& often their families) do invest quite a bit of money into their education. This is particularly true for many international students whose families spend a lot to send them here & support them during their studies. (So do taxpayers, via the student loan system, so we – ie taxpayers – do need to know that we’re getting good value there, & that includes the quality of students’ work.) So fear of getting a poor mark, & perhaps having to repeat a paper, could drive the sort of behaviour that our spammers and the Auckland organisation are hoping to generate.

And unfortunately ‘custom essays’ are not going to be picked up by anti-plagiarism software (eg Turnitin) – unless the ghostwriters are stupid enough to just do a copy-&-paste! That’s not to say they can’t still be identified: an obvious clue would be a standard of English that differed significantly from that in other work submitted by a student; the relevance of the actual content would be another.

But there are ways of reducing incentives to be dishonest around assessment. For example, teachers can review their use of ‘high stakes’ assessment items: single essays or reports that are worth a large proportion of the final grade (& so can offer some incentive to cheat in order to gain a higher mark). ‘End-loading’ assessment, so that it’s all due at the end of semester, is not going to help here either.

Another tool would be to have students generate work in class. Now obviously that won’t work if you want a lengthy report, but what about: getting them to do the relevant research but asking for them to write an abstract, or a summary of their findings, in-class, & having it peer-marked (using your marking scheme) or doing that task yourself? The students still gain practice in useful skills & – hopefully – your workload is somewhat reduced. If students get more involved in the writing process from the start, & are supported in learning the various skills involved, they might be more confident in their own abilities & feel less need to cheat on the assignment.

Recommended reading**:

J.C.Bean (2001) Engaging Ideas: the professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. Jossey-Bass (Wiley). ISBN 978-0-787-90203-2

** actually, make that highly recommended!

May 2, 2013

science challenges & science education

The National Science Challenges have been announced – and have already received a lot of attention (including on Sciblogs, with posts by my colleagues GrantSiouxsie, and John - who also points at where the money’s going). What I’d like to address here is the comment by the Panel that it

was concerned by the lack of significant proposals in educational research

I have to admit that my first response to that was, well d’oh! Because, well, the public discussion was around national science challenges, I suspect that for many (most?) submitters the focus was to come up with a science-based proposal. After all (& please note bulging cheek ensconcing my tongue at this point), isn’t science education something that schools & other seats of learning ‘do’, rather than requiring science research? Hopefully not many scientists really think that way, & it’s great to see the additional Challenge, “Science & New Zealand Society” with its two goals (the first a science goal, while the second is societal):

To ensure the science capacities and literacy of New Zealand society so as to promote engagement between S[cience] & T[echnology] and New Zealand society, in turn enhancing the role played by science in advancing the national interest.

To allow New Zealand society to make best use of its human and technological capacities to address the risks and Challenges ahead. This requires the better use of scientific knowledge in policy formation at all levels of national and local government, in the private sector and in society as a whole.

 

Both are relevant to what follows here.

Let’s look more closely at the question of science literacy/appreciation/education for citizenship. The chair of the Panel, Sir Peter Gluckman, has previously made it clear that we need to do much more in engaging young people with science, to the extent of developing a science curriculum that focuses far more on science literacy than on accumulation of science knowledge. But what constitutes science literacy? This is something I’ve written about previously, & my fellow Scibloggers and I discussed it between ourselves more recently. So I was interested to find a set of nine science literacy ‘themes’ listed and expanded upon in a recent paper (Bartholomew & Osborne, 2004):

scientific methods and critical testing

science & certainty

diversity of scientific thinking

hypothesis and prediction

historical development of scientific knowledge

creativity

science and questioning

analysis and interpretation of data

cooperation and collaboration in the development of scientific knowledge

And while we might not agree on the relative order of these themes, or the completeness of the list, but they do give us something to go on with. (I’m going to talk about the formal education system for the moment – but I’m perfectly well aware that there’s much more than that to public engagement with science! Let’s just treat this as a starting point for discussion.)

Now, I’d like to think that the current NZ Science curriculum gives a good basis for developing these skills & attributes in all students Right Now, regardless of whether or not they intend to go on to study science at tertiary level. And let’s face it, most won’t, so we surely have to work on engagement with and understanding of what science is about, for all students. in fact, that’s a tension I struggle with myself: a proportion of my first-year biology students are taking the subject purely for interest, & in some cases haven’t studied the subject before. I want them to come away with an appreciation of the wonder and worth of the subject in their lives, as much as I want them to accumulate biological knowledge. It’s a tricky balancing act.

Anyway, while I might like to think that about the curriculum document, in reality I suspect that it doesn’t yet deliver. And that’s something that’s unpacked further by Bartholomew & Osborne, who note that there are a number of factors that affect teachers’ “ability to teach effectivelyabout science”.

One of those factors is the teachers’ own understanding of what science is all about, as opposed to their body of content knowledge. NB Please note, at this point, that this is not a criticism of teachers and the demanding work that they do; it’s a question of whether the training and experiences we offer our teachers prepare them well for this particular aspect of teaching science.

The researchers found that a reasonable proportion of the teachers they worked with were not really confident in their own ability to teach lessons based on the ideas embedded in those themes. This was partly due to uncertainties about their own knowledge, and partly around feeling that they lacked the classroom skills to deliver such a program. Which, of course, raises issues around provision of professional development opportunities (with the associated resourcing).

Related to that is their own engagement with the subject. OK, if you’re teaching the subject as a specialist science teacher, I’m guessing that you took this role on because you enjoy the subject and want to share that. But if someone’s a primary school teacher with very limited exposure to science during their training, then the story might be very different.

And so that would be a fruitful area for research, in NZ (and at this point someone is probably going to tell me that they’re Already Doing It): what is the actual level of science literacy – using, for example, those 9 themes listed above – in NZ science teachers at all levels? And how does that translate into classroom practices? And – if the answer is, not as well as we’d like - what do we do about it?

Teachers’ ability to enhance learning about science (as opposed to of science) is also affected by factors outside their classrooms. For example, the pressure is on, at senior school level, to ensure students do as well as possible in national assessment – which, for all the changes associated with NCEA, remains largely content-based. And classroom time is limited, so it’s easy to see how there can be more focus on content & less on the other desirable attributes. As Bartholomew & Osborne comment,

developing a questioning and sceptical attitude to scientific knowledge claims in students might actually be disadvantageous.

Perhaps that also needs to change. [Pace, Schol Bio examiners!]

 

H.Bartholomew, & J.Osborne (2004) Teaching students “ideas about science”: five dimensions of effective practice. Science Education 88: 655-682 doi: 10.1002/sce.10135

October 13, 2012

why kids should grade teachers

Next week my first-year biology students will be doing an appraisal of this semester’s paper, & of those academic staff involved in teaching it. They’re asked about the perceived difficulty of the paper, the amount of work they’re expected to do for it, whether they’ve been intellectually stimulated, the amount of feedback they receive on their work, how approachable staff are, & much else besides. (The feedback one was always my worst scoring attribute – until I asked the students what they thought ‘feedback’ met. It turned out that they felt this described one-to-one verbal communication. We had a discussion about all the other ways in which staff can give feedback – & the scores went up.) The results are always extremely useful, as not only to we find out what’s working, but we also discover what’s not (or at least, what the students perceive as not working) & so may need further attention.

Anyway, my friend Annette has just drawn my attention to a lengthy post in The Atlantic, by Amanda Ridley. It made fascinating reading.

In towns around the country this past school year, a quarter-million students took a special survey designed to capture what they thought of their teachers and their classroom culture. Unlike the vast majority of surveys in human history, this one had been carefully field-tested. That research had shown something remarkable: if you asked kids the right questions, they could identify, with uncanny accuracy, their most – and least – effective teachers.

Ridley, reporting for the Atlantic, was able to follow a 4-month pilot project that was run in 6 schools in the District of Colombia. She notes that about half the states in the US use student test data to evaluate how teachers are doing.

Now, this approach is fraught with difficulty. It doesn’t tell you why children aren’t learning something, for example (or why they do, which is just as interesting). And it puts huge pressure on teachers to ‘teach to the test’ (although Ridley says that in fact “most [American] teachers still do not teach the subjects or grade levels covered by mandatory standardized tests”). It ignores the fact that student learning success can be influenced by a wide range of factors, some of which are outside the schools’ control. (And it makes me wonder how I’d have done, back when I was teaching a high school ‘home room’ class in Palmerston North. Those students made a fair bit of progress, and we all learned a lot, but they would likely not have done too well on a standardised test of academic learning, applied across the board in the way that National Standards are now.)

So, the survey. It grew out of a project on effective teaching funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which found that the top 5 questions – in terms of correlation with student learning – were

  1. Students in this class treat the teacher with respect.
  2. My classmates behave the way my teacher wants them to.
  3. Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time.
  4. In this class, we learn a lot almost every day.
  5. In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes.

and the version used with high school students in the survey Ridley writes about contained 127 questions. That sounds an awful lot, to me, but apparently most kids soldiered on & answered them all. Nor did they simply choose the same answer for each & every question, or try to skew the results:

Students who don’t read the questions might give the same response to every item. But when Ferguson [one of the researchers] recently examined 199,000 surveys, he found that less than one-half of 1 percent of students did so in the first 10 questions. Kids, he believes, find the questions interesting, so they tend to pay attention. And the ‘right’ answer is not always apparent, so even kids who want to skew the results would not necessarily know how to do it.

OK – kids (asked the right questions) can indicate is a good, effective teacher. What use is made of these results, in the US? The researchers say that they shouldn’t be given too much weighting, in assessing teachers – 20-30% – & only after multiple runs through the instrument, though at present few schools actually use them that way. This is important – no appraisal system should rely on just one tool.

That’s only part of it, of course, because the results are sent through to teachers themselves, just as I get appraisal results back each semester. So the potential’s there for the survey results to provide the basis of considerable reflective learning, given the desire to do so, & time to do it in. Yet only 1/3 of teachers involved in this project even looked at them.

This is a problem in the NZ tertiary system too, & I know it’s something that staff in our own Teaching Development Unit grapple with. Is it the way the results are presented? Would it be useful to be given a summary with key findings highlighted? Do we need a guide in how to interpret them? Do people avoid possibly being upset by the personal comments that can creep into responses (something that can be avoided/minimised by explaining in advance the value of constructive criticism – and by being seen to pay attention to what students have to say)?

Overall, this is an interesting study & one whose results may well inform our own continuing debate on how best to identify excellent teaching practice. What we need to avoid is wholesale duplication and implementation in our own school system without first considering what such surveys can & can’t tell us, and how they may be incorporated as one part of a reliable, transparent system of professional development and goal-setting. And that, of course, is going to require discussion with and support from all parties concerned - not implementation from above.

October 10, 2012

sending mixed messages

Filed under: education, university — Tags: , , — alison @ 9:48 pm

I attended a presentation today that just didn’t sound right. It was one of several about teaching and learning, & I’m afraid that if I’d been doing a formal appraisal I’d have marked it down.

Why? Well, for starters the presenter seemed a bit confused about IP & copyright. (OK, they had a fairly jokey way of presenting that could have clouded things, but still…) Students’ work is their own, it doesn’t ‘belong’ to the institution or the teacher. This means that if you’re going to make it available to subsequent classes as, say, an exemplar, then you really do need to make sure you get their written permission for this. This, of course, opens a whole new can of worms, & the wriggling is due to the power imbalance that exists in any classroom.

By which I mean that students may feel that they can’t really refuse a request such as the one I’ve mentioned. They may not actually want it to happen, but their response is always going to be tempered by the awareness that the person doing the asking is also the person doing the assessment of their performance. This shouldn’t matter – but the student may still worry about it. (This is why, when we get a paper & teaching appraisal done, the lecturers never get the original handwritten responses back until after the semester’s grades have been finalised – just in case they recognise the writing, or can in some other way identify the respondent: it protects the student.) If I was in this position, I’d be waiting to ask about using their work until after I’d finished teaching (& assessing) them. And maybe that’s what happened, but it wasn’t made clear.

The other thing that bugged me a bit was how the students were presented almost as acting as research assistants – unknowing aides, in that their projects could be mined for useful information that would inform future lectures. OK, from time to time (actually, reasonably often, & it’s one of the things I enjoy about teaching as it creates the opportunity to model how scientists think) my students will ask a question I can’t answer, or tell me about something I’ve not heard of before. In the former, I’ll find out the answer & let them know in a subsequent class (that’s how I learned about s*x determination in mosses, for example), & maybe incorporate what I’ve learned in next year’s lectures; in the latter – well, I’ll probably go & check it up. But that’s not the same as regularly ‘mining’ information to use in future classes.  Especially if the students aren’t aware that someone’s doing it, but even if they do know – well, should they be acting as unpaid research assistants? It comes back to that power imbalance thing again :(

Jokey or not, that presentation wasn’t my style.

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