Talking Teaching

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.

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 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 1, 2012

how do kids learn about dna?

My significant other is forever telling me that Facebook is a total time-waster. Sometimes I do tend to agree – but also, one can Find Out Stuff! Like the study I’ve just heard about via Science Alert, on how children get information about genetics and DNA – things we might regard as being in the ‘too hard’ basket & so best left for senior high school students to grapple with. That grappling begins in year 11, when one of the NCEA Level 1 Science standards asks that students be able to “demonstrate understanding of biological ideas relating to genetic variation”.

Is that too late? Jenny Donovan and Grady Venville suggest that it is, arguing that with the rapid growth of knowledge in and applications of molecular biology,

[citizens] of the future will be called upon to make more decisions, from personal to political, regarding the impact of genetics on society. ‘Designer babies'; gene therapy; genetic modification; cloning, and the potential access to and use of personal genetic information are all complex and multifactorial issues. All raise ethical and scientific dilemmas.

They give the example of jury trials, where jurors may hear quite complex information about DNA and be asked to consider this in coming to a verdict, and note that people may have acquired a range of misconceptions around DNA from sources such as the popular program CSI and its various spin-offs.

Children, for example, have a lot of opportunity to hear about genes, DNA, & their uses well before we start formally teaching these concepts at school. Donovan and Venville already knew (from their own previous research) that by the end of their primary schooling many students were already developing misconceptions about genetics; for example, the idea that ‘genes and DNA are two totally separate entities.’ This time, they wanted to examine the impact of the mass media on children’s conceptions (& misconceptions) around this subject. The misconceptions part is particularly important because misconceptions, once formed, can be extremely persistent – affecting learning into the tertiary years.

Using a combination of interviews and questionnaires about media use, the researchers found that their subjects (children aged 10-12) spent around 5 hours a day using various media (TV, radio, print media, movies, & the internet), with most of that being watching television. This included crime shows, and the children felt that they gained most of their ‘knowledge’ of genetics from TV. Donovan & Venville chose to question children from this age group because, with falling numbers of Australian students taking science subjects in upper secondary school, ‘exposure to genetics may be their sole opportunity to develop scientific literacy in this field’ – where ‘scientific literacy’ encompasses literacy both within and about science.

So, what did they find out?

Most children (89%) knew [about] DNA, 60% knew [about] genes, and more was known about uses of DNA outside the body such as crime solving or resolving family relationships than about its biological nature or function. Half believed DNA is only in blood and body parts used for forensics.

Very few – only 6% – knew that DNA and genes were structurally related. Around 50% of the children surveyed felt that DNA & genes are found in only some tissues & organs. (I was half expecting them to say that DNA is found only in genetically-modified organisms – with GMOs in and out of the news, it’s odd that this didn’t come up.) And 80% of them felt that TV was ‘the most frequent source of information about genetics (with teachers confirming that the subject hadn’t been taught at school). As a result of these findings, Donovan & Venville argue very strongly that instruction in genetics should take place much earlier in students’ time in school, noting that other researchers suggest that

giving students opportunities to revisit science ideas and build deeper understanding over time, enables them to grasp and apply concepts that typically are not fully understood until several years later… [and that] students need to be exposed to background knowledge from early ages in order for them to make sense of what they absorb from the world around them.

So, if kids are going to watch programs like NCIS, CSI, and Bones on a regular basis, then maybe early teaching around genetics concepts could use

lively discussions around what they have seen and heard about genetics in the mass media [as this] may ultimately help children to make informed decisions in their future lives.

An interesting suggestion – and one which reinforces yet again how important proper resourcing and support of science teaching are, if we are to develop real literacy in and about science.

J.Donovan & G.Venville (2012) Blood and bones: the influence of the mass media on Australian primary school children’s understandings of genes and DNA. Science & Education (published online 23 June 2012, doi: 10.1007/s11191-012-9491-3

August 21, 2012

academic olympics fail to gain government support

This is a guest post – I’m running it on behalf of my friend & colleague Dr Angela Sharples.  Angela is the current chair of OlympiaNZ (the umbrella organisation for the various NZ Olympiad committees) and leads NZ International Biology Olympiad. She received the Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Award in 2011. I completely agree with her comments; like her, this is an issue I have very strong feelings about & I believe her comments deserve a wider audience. (Cross-posting from SciblogsNZ.)

At a time when we celebrate all things sporting we should reflect on our attitudes towards success in all forms of endeavour in New Zealand. The Olympics showcase the world’s best in sporting endeavour and we rightly look up to these elite athletes and admire the effort and dedication it took for each and every one of these athletes to reach the top of their field. The personal attributes required for them to even participate at the Olympics are transferable to all areas of performance in life and so we celebrate these athletes, admire them and aspire to like them. They are role models that encourage younger athletes from primary school to university level to participate in the sport of their choice and to dream that with hard work and dedication they too may reach Olympic level.

The government recognises this social benefit of elite sports and funds it accordingly, through SPARC and the high performance programmes. They have their eye on the long term benefits that participation in sport at the elite level provides to the wider New Zealand community. The government also recognises that New Zealand must foster innovation through a responsive, high performance education system if New Zealand is to remain globally competitive in a rapidly changing world.  Unfortunately, whilst the government has
published any number of reports on the importance of Science and innovation in New Zealand we see very little action on establishing and supporting programmes which foster such excellence.

Just last week, the New Zealand International Biology Olympiad withdrew from hosting the International Biology Olympiad here in New Zealand in July 2014. This prestigious international event challenges and inspires the brightest young secondary school students from 60 countries (and the number of member countries continues to grow) to deepen their understanding of biology and promotes a career in science. The focus is on the importance of biology for society, especially in areas such as biotech, agriculture and horticulture, environmental protection and biodiversity. These are all areas of academic endeavour crucial for New Zealand’s economic success in the future. Hosting this event in New Zealand was a chance to showcase our innovative education system and biological research to some of the world’s top academics and to inspire our own students to develop the dedication and put in the sheer hard work required to reach this highest level of academic endeavour. It is an opportunity lost!

Unlike our sporting Olympians our academic Olympians receive little support from the government and even less acknowledgement and celebration of their success. New Zealand has performed outstandingly well in the International competitions since we first competed in 2005, winning 16 Bronze medals, 7 Silver and 1 Gold Medal. These high performing students are New Zealand’s economic future and yet few in the country are even aware of their achievement.

Until we apply the same high performance strategies to our science and innovation system in New Zealand that we utilise in sports we will continue to talk about the importance of fostering excellence in science and innovation whilst we watch our competitors on the global stage outperform us. And we will continue to lose our best young minds to countries where their contribution is valued.

August 8, 2012

quality counts – except when it doesn’t

Filed under: education — Tags: , , , — alison @ 10:40 am

A few weeks ago, writing about the ‘great class size debate’ that we have been having in New Zealand, I also touched on the question of quality teaching. There’s no question – at least, there shouldn’t be – that children deserve the best possible learning experiences, and one of the requirements for that is quality teaching by excellent, expert teachers. It’s quite tricky to pin down just what defines that excellence, but at least our current system of state sector teacher training and subsequent registration goes some way to ensuring that the people teaching our youngsters have been trained in how to go about the multitude of tasks that teachers encounter every day: planning, classroom management, assessment, pastoral care & general admin, and have gained experience in said tasks…. (and that’s before we even get to the actual teaching!).

But a couple of days ago, Minister of Education Hekia Parata & Act MP John Banks announced that charter schools – oops, sorry, ‘partnership schools’ – would be able to employ at least some non-registered teachers, along with setting their own curricula & deciding on things like the length of the school day, term dates, & teacher pay rates. This is strange – to say the least! – following as it does on a recent meeting of the Ministerial Cross-Sector Forum on Raising achievement, which “discussed… improving teaching practice with a focus on priority learners.” As well that discussion, the meeting heard from the Chief Education Review Officer, who

presented the latest Education Review Office findings on how to raise the quality of practice in New Zealand Schools.

His remarks focused on three dimensions: assessment for learning; student centred learning; and responsive school level curriculum.

Minister Parata, who chairs the Forum, commented that

The Forum will continue to discuss ideas around how we can achieve quality teaching practice.

It’s not exactly clear how allowing charter schools to use some unspecified proportion of non-registered teachers will achieve this. Concepts and practices related to assessment for learning and student-centred learning are best acquired before arrival in the classroom, not on a learn-as-you-go-when-you get-there basis. (Yes, state schools can already employ non-registered staff, under a ‘limited authority to teach’ provision, but that’s temporary and for a limited period.)

Some real contradictions here…

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The freedom of charter schools to set their own curriculum also concerns me somewhat. We already have ‘special character’ schools which teach creationism in their classrooms, for example (see herehere, andhere, for starters). It is rather irking to gain the impression that state funding could support the same in charter schools – and to date I’ve heard nothing to say this will not be possible.

July 2, 2012

more on active learning in the biology classroom

At the moment I’m up in Auckland at Scicon (the national secondary science teachers’ conference. There’ve been some great presentations, including a lovely on on bioluminescence by fellow sciblogger Siouxsie Wiles (did you know that our very own NZ glow worms mate for hours & then die of exhaustion? Or that 4500 people die oftuberculosis every day? Yes, there really is a link to bioluminescence there.). I gave mine this morning & could then focus on enjoying everything else that’s going on.

My talk was about the ‘flip teaching’ idea that I wasintroduced to by Kevin Gould, &  which I’ve written about previously. Actually it wasn’t really a talk, as I simply gave a bit of background & a summary of some of the recent research, & then asked participants to do the activity themselves. At which point everyone got involved & the chatter started – & it was hard to get them to stop at the end! But we managed a show-&-tell & some great discussion before our time was up.

One of the things people really picked up on was something I really hadn’t thought much about: using it to underpin development of students’ writing skills. That’s in addition to conceptualising, discussing & drawing their organism: there are also things like annotating that diagram,  & writing descriptive paragraphs about the various ideas they’ve used. Really integrated learning!

And there’s also the issue of creativity – exercises like this are an excellent way to show students that science can be creative, & that this creative side is an important part of ‘doing’. science :-)

June 10, 2012

the great class-size debate

Here in New Zealand, the compulsory education sector has recently received a lot of media & political attention (see here & here, for example), culminating in the reversal of a Ministerial decision to change pupil-teacher ratios in our primary, intermediate & secondary schools. Part of the money ‘saved’ by this move was to have gone towards improving teacher quality, a praiseworthy goal but one that so far lacks any clear mechanisms to support it (apart from a Ministry of Education statement that “[r]aising the quality of teaching will be helped by attracting higher quality applicants, raising the entry criteria for becoming a teacher and improving the quality of programmes of learning in ITE [Initial Teacher Education].”

Like most educators I know, I was concerned at the now-reversed proposal, for a number of reasons.

First up: the cuts in teacher numbers would have impacted hardest on intermediate schools with technology units – units offering technology classes both to their own students & in many cases to students from smaller ‘client’ schools. These classes give students the opportunity for a range of hands-on experiences – including science-based experiences – that they’d otherwise miss out on. At a time when primary schools have been reproached because many pupils miss out on quality learning in science, it did seem strange to put intermediate schools into a similar position by incorporating technology staffing for students in years 7 & 8 (the ‘intermediate’ years in NZ) into the curriculum staffing rations for years 2-10, with the end result that some schools stood to lose several teachers in this important learning area.

Secondly, part of the rationale for raising pupil-teacher ratios at all – and I recognise that for many schools there would probably have been little change – seems to have been the idea that class size doesn’t matter; that ‘teacher quality’ (however it’s defined) is more important. However, it’s clear from meta-analyses carried out by Prof John Hattie (then at the University of Auckland) that smaller classes do see appreciable changes in “[a]chievement, attitude, teacher morale and student satisfaction” – in classes of 10-15 students, with little effect when class sizes change from around 40 to 20. This was the case across all subjects & levels of student ability, in both primary & secondary schools. And it’s likely that one of the key factors involved in these improvements is time: the fact that in smaller classes teachers have the opportunity to spend more time with each individual student, providing feedback & reinforcement on a one-to-one basis.

For Hattie has found that

the most powerful single moderator that enhances achievement is feedback. The simplest prescription for improving education must be “dollops of feedback” — providing information how and why the child understands and misunderstands, and what directions the student must take to improve

where ‘feedback’ includes things like “reinforcement, corrective feedback, remediation and feedback, diagnosis feedback, and mastery learning” (based on that feedback). And giving that sort of feedback takes time, & quite a lot of it.

Funnily enough, just about every year when the paper & teacher appraisal results for my papers come in, my lowest score is for the statement “this teacher regularly provides me with feedback about my progress”. Now, I suppose you could say that in a class of ~200**, the opportunities for me to provide this are limited, but in fact students get feedback in class via things like pop quizzes; on Moodle – for example, through ‘common errors’ feedback almost as soon as essays are submitted; in writing, on test papers & written assignments; & face-to-face. Last year I asked the class about this – it turned out, to my surprise, that most of this was not recognised as ‘feedback': many of them saw only verbal, face-to-face responses as feedback! This was a timely reminder that teachers and their students don’t necessarily have a common understanding around common classroom terminology.

And thirdly – well, the proposed changes did rather seem to be putting the cart before the horse, in that we seemed to be lacking a common, public, understanding on just what constitutes teacher quality, let alone how we should measure it. (For our national Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards, the latter is done on the basis of portfolios submitted by those nominated for an award: a daunting task where there are some dozens of portfolios. I can’t imagine doing anyone the same for the 52000+ teachers in our compulsory education sector!) Despite all the heat around issues such as class sizes & performance pay, what we haven’t had is just that public discussion around what constitutes an excellent, expert teacher. There are studies (again, including work by John Hattie) that identify the attributes of such teachers. What we seem to lack is any agreement on how to apply these studies to the classroom in order to identify & esteem those experts – or any substantive discussion*** on how to encourage and support our very many other experienced teachers to join their ranks.

**The NZ Herald has covered the whole story in some depth. One of the silliest comments I’ve seen was in response to an op-ed piece by Dita di Boni, when F Max remarked that

And amazingly kids can go from a class of 30ish to a university lecture of 300+ learning far more difficult concepts. So why is the teacher ratio argument ignored at uni? Apparently our universities are in crisis and everyone must be failing. Or maybe it’s less about numbers and more about quality, something most of our teachers greatly lack.

Apart from impugning the professionalism of our classroom teachers, & ignoring the fact that the students in university classes are different in many ways from those in a primary or secondary classroom, F Max seems unaware that uni lecturers like me don’t just stand up in front of a class & lecture at them. Tutorial classes of 10-30 students give much better opportunities for feedback & one-on-one instruction – opportunities that many classroom teachers may only dream of.

*** Perhaps this is something that individual Ako Aotearoa Academy members might be interested in contributing to?

May 3, 2012

the ero on primary school science: ‘should do better’

Filed under: education, science teaching — Tags: , , — alison @ 5:53 pm

The Education Review Office’s report on primary school science is all over the news today: here at Yahoo, for example. You’ll find the original paper, Science in the New Zealand Curriculum: Years 5 to 8on the ERO website. It does not fill me with joy and the following quotes from the report’s Overview should show why:

Effective practice in science teaching and learning in Years 5 to 8 was evident in less than a third of the 100 schools [surveyed for the report]. The wide variability of practices between highly effective and ineffective practices was found across all school types.

And

Few principals and teachers demonstrated an understanding of how they could integrate the National Standards in reading, writing and mathematics into their science programmes. In the less effective schools principals saw science learning as a low priority. They struggled to maintain a balance between effective literacy and numeracy teaching, and providing sufficient time for teaching other curriculum areas, but particularly science.

And

Knowledge-based programmes were evident rather than interactive thinking, talking, and experimenting approaches… Student involvement in experimental work was variable.

So – I was saddened by the report, & I wasn’t exactly surprised either. I’ve written previously (here, for example) about the problems and challenges faced by primary school teachers wanting to enhance their students’ understanding of & engagement with science. Back in 2010, Bull et al presented data showing that the average NZ primary school student spends 45 hours a year studying science (it was 66 hours in 2002), with only 6 other countries of those surveyed spending less time on the subject.  The other worrying point was that the number of students reporting that they never did experiments increased between 1999 & 2007. At the time I commented that it could simply have been that the students didn’t always recognise when they were involved in science activities, but also that at least some primary teachers might lack confidence in teaching science & so omitted it from any integrated lessons. And indeed, the 2010 ERO report cited by Bull & her colleagues found that

most primary teachers did not have a science background and that low levels of science knowledge and science teaching expertise contributed to the variation in quality of science teaching across schools… [and] that many teachers had not learned about science in their pre-service teacher training.

Nor am I surprised that schools & teachers struggle to balance the literacy & numeracy requirements of National Standards with encouraging students to a deeper understanding of science. After all, it’s not that long ago since schools lost the services of school science advisers, who’d been tasked with supporting science education and teachers’ professional development in this area. That loss makes it rather ironic that this latest ERO report recommends that the Ministry should look at ways to provide such support and ongoing professional development in areas including:

  • integrating literacy and numeracy into science teaching and learning
  • considering the place of National Standards for achievement in reading, writing and mathematics across all learning areas, including science
  • developing an approach to inquiry based learning that maintains the integrity of different learning areas, including science.

A ‘back to the future’ prescription, in a way. And, if we accept that science and technology and engineering and mathematics are crucial to our future, it’s a prescription that needs to be met. Students who have positive, engaging experiences of those subjects at primary school might just be more likely to want to continue their engagement at higher levels. Including going on to study at university level. In light of today’s statement by the Tertiary Education Minister, Stephen Joyce, that the Government intends to “rebalance tertiary education toward science, technology, engineering and maths”, then all science educators (primary through tertiary) need to look at how to support teachers and students in developing that engagement.

And in that same light: next week is NZASE National Primary Science Week, set up to offer both engaging activities for primary students and free professional development opportunities for their teachers. There’s a lot going on in the regions, and they’re a brilliant opportunity for scientists in the universities, research institutions, and industries to help deliver the support that our colleagues in the primary schools desperately need. So, a question for my colleagues: what can you do to support this event, if not this year, then next? It could just make a difference, in your own classroom or workplace, in the future!

A.Bull, J.Gilbert, H.Barwick, R.Hipkins & R.Baker (2010) Inspired by science: a paper commissioned by the Royal Society and the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER), August 2010

Education Review Office (2012) Science in the New Zealand Curriculum: Years 5 to 8.

March 26, 2012

‘scientists anonymous’ write to me about ‘programming of life’

Filed under: education, science teaching — Tags: , , , — alison @ 2:25 pm

In some ways this is quite a way off from what I usually write for this particular blog (it’s from my Bioblog). I’ve republished it here because it’s something that I do want to get out to science educators – especially biology educators – as widely as I can.

I’ve written about the group who call themselves ‘Scientists Anonymous (NZ)’ before, in the context of determining the reliability of sources. At the time, I commented that I would have a little more confidence about the information this group was putting out there if the people involved were actually identified – as it is, they are simply asking us to accept an argument from (anonymous) authoriry. (I was rather surprised to actually receive a response to that post, albeit its authors remained anonymous.) Anyway, this popped up in my inbox the other day, and was subsequently sent to me by several colleagues in secondary schools:

TO: Faculty Head of Science / Head of Biology Department

Please find a link to the critically acclaimed resource (http://programmingoflife.com/watch-the-video) dealing with the nature of science across disciplines/strands.

Interesting to see an attempt to link it into the current NZ Science curriculum with its focus on teaching the nature of science.

 PROGRAMMING OF LIFE

  • The reality of computer hardware and software in life
  • The probabilities of a self-replicating cell and a properly folded protein
  • Low probability and operational impossibility
  • The need for choice contingency of functional information

Freely share this resource with the teaching staff in your faculty/department.

Yours sincerely

Scientists Anonymous (NZ)

So, I have been to the website. I intend to watch the video tonight (from a comfy chair), but the website itself raises enough concerns, so I’ll look at some of them briefly here. And I’ll also comment – if they really are ‘doing science’, then it’s not going to be enough to simply produce a list of ‘examples’ of the supposed work of a design entity (because that’s what all the computing imagery is intended to convey) & say, see, evolution’s wrong. That would be an example of a false dichotomy, & not scientific at all. They also need to provide an explanation of how their version of reality might come to be.

Its blurb describes the video as follows:

Programming of Life is a 45-minute documentary created to engage our scientific community in order to encourage forward thinking. It looks into scientific theories “scientifically”. It examines the heavy weight [sic] theory of origins, the chemical and biological theory of evolution, and asks the extremely difficult questions in order to reveal undirected natural process for what it is – a hindrance to true science.

The words ‘undirected natural process’ immediately suggest that this is a resource intended to promote a creationist world-view. I would also ask: if the documentary is created to ‘engage our scientific community’, then why did Scientists Anonymous send it to secondary school teachers in biology and not to universities & CRIs across the country? The blurb goes on:

This video and the book it was inspired by (Programming of Life) is about science and it is our hope that it will be evaluated based on scientific principals [sic] and not philosophical beliefs.

Unfortunate, then, that they wear their own philosophical beliefs so clearly: ‘undirected natural process’ as a ‘hindrance to true science’.

As well as linking to the trailer for the video, & the full video itself, the Programming for Life website also presents a bunch of ‘tasters’. One of these is the now rather hoary example of the bacterial flagellum (irreducible complextiy, anyone?) The website describes ‘the’** flagellum thusly:

The bacterial flagellum is a motor-propeller organelle, “a microscopic rotary engine that contains parts known from human technology such as a rotor, a stator, a propellor, a u-joint and an engine yet it functions at a level of complexity that dwarfs any motor that we could produce today. Some scientists view the bacterial flagellum as one of the best known examples of an irreducibly complex system. This is a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts manufactured from over 40 proteins that contribute to basic function, where the removal of any one of those parts causes the entire system to fail.

** As noted on my link for this example, there is no such thing as “the” bacterial flagellum as the sole means of bacterial locomotion: different prokaryotes get around in different ways. Nor is the flagellum a case of design; its evolutionary history has been quite well explained. The lack of quote closure (& of citation) is in the original.

 Mitochondria have their own executable DNA programs built in to accomplish their tasks.

Well, yes, & no. Several key mitochondrial genes are actually found in the cell’s nucleus – something that allows the cell to control some aspects of mitochondrial functioning (& incidentally prevents the mitochondria from leaving!). There’s a good review article here. That the number of nuclear-based mitochondrial genes differs between taxa is a good argument for evolution; for design – not so much.

Much like the firewall software on your computer the membrane contains protein gate keepers allowing only those components into the cell that belong and rejects all other components. The membrane is thinner than a spider’s web and must function precisely or the cell will die.

Well, d’oh – except when it doesn’t. Viruses, and poisons that interrupt cellular metabolism, get in just fine. They really are pushing the boundary with this computer metaphor.

The human eye is presented as an amazingly complex ‘machine’ – yet we have a good explanation for how that complexity evolved. And more telling (but omitted from this presentation): the eye’s structure isn’t perfect – it’s a good demonstration of how evolution works with what’s available,but hardly an argument for the wonders of directed design. The same can be said for the human skeleton, which is also in the taster selection, along with the nucleus, DNA, & ribosomes (which come with more, lots more, of the computer software imagery).

As I said earlier, if this video is not simply another example of the use of false dichotomy to ‘disprove’ a point of view with which its authors disagree, it had better provide more than metaphor. That is, I’ll be looking for a strong, evidence-based, cohesive, mechanism by which these various complex features sprang into being. Otherwise, we’re not really talking ‘nature of science’ at all.

_______________________________________________________________________________

I was going to stop there (for now) but then I noticed the ‘Investigate the facts’ heading. It links to a list of various papers & articles that supposedly support the ‘design’ hypothesis. Richard Dawkins’ name caught my eye – he’s there for writing that

Human DNA is like a computer program, but far, far more advanced than any software we’ve ever created.

I had a couple of thoughts; a) metaphor is a wonderful thing, & b) Dawkins is a biologist & science communicator, but not necessarily big on programming. (If I am inadvertently doing him a disservice, I apologise!). Someone else had the same thoughts.

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