Talking Teaching

April 15, 2010

thinking about curriculum

While I was down in Wellington last week, at the training camp for New Zealand’s International Biology Olympiad squad, I had a number of interesting discussions with the other teachers involved. One of them centred on curriculum.

2010 sees the implementation of the new NZ Curriculum – across the board, not just in the sciences, but I’ll base what follows on science as that’s the area where I’ve been involved. The Science section of the curriculum is rather different from the ‘old’ (1993) document in that it places the ‘nature of science’ right at the top of what students should be learning about. Previously this was in a separate ‘strand’ & easy to leave out if you were under pressure to deliver on the ‘content’ strands. So its position now is a Good Thing.

And this is where things can potentially get difficult (& the difficulties aren’t restricted to the secondary sector!). When you look at the Biology (Living World) section of the curriculum, there’s a considerable amount of content there, & similarly the explanatory notes for the relevant Achievement Standards suggest there’s a lot of material to get through. What’s more, that material gets added to each time something new comes up (some new biotechnology technique, for example) but things don’t drop off the back to make room for it. There’s also a certain amount of expectation from the universities that specific material will be taught in year 13 to prepare students for their university studies, never mind that many year 13 students don’t have uni as their final destination.

So there’s more & more ‘stuff’ to get through in the same fixed amount of time, & on top of that teachers now have to show, when writing their year’s study programs, how they’re going to implement the requirement to teach ‘nature of science’ on top of it all. The teachers I was talking with agreed that some form of content review was overdue.

They’re not helped in their task by the fact that the new curriculum document contains no examples of how students might be learning, & teachers assessing that learning, in the various disciplines – something that’s provided in the ‘old’ document. This doesn’t mean that teachers have to do it this way, but guidance is always helpful, especially when you’re dealing with major change. Yes, there are some associated resources available on-line, but that’s not quite the same thing.

We face a similar problem in the tertiary sector. First-year biology, for example, is expected to give students the content knowledge they need to go on to second-year & beyond. But this assumes that all our first-years are going on to major in biology, & while that would be nice :-) it’s not realistic – many students take it as an ‘interest’ paper or as a supporting subject, but they don’t intend to do the major.  So – what do we want those students to take from their 100-level bio papers? The ‘big ideas’ of biology? Some key concepts? An appreciation of the relevance of biology (& by extension science) to their everyday lives? The desire to continue learning about the sciences even if in an informal way? Knowledge of what science is, how it’s done, why it’s so different from ‘other ways of knowing’ about the world? (All of which are equally important to intending biologists.) And of course, there’s also the need to bridge students into the quite different learning environment of a university, & to ensure that we bridge the gap between what they learned in school and what we assume that they learned in school.

 In other words, those of us teaching in university science classrooms also need to be considering curriculum in its totality, & not simply the content that we teach.

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