Talking Teaching

September 22, 2010

a cultural divide

One of the things that I find profoundly irritating is hearing tertiary teaching staff decrying the efforts of their colleagues in the secondary education system. [Edit: here I must add that it’s not something I hear all the time – but I do hear it.] (And yes, sometimes I respond & make myself rather unpopular.) Comments along the lines of “teachers teach [insert topic name here] really badly; the kids come into my classes & they don’t know anything.” Or “secondary teachers do a really bad job of preparing students to study [my subject] at university.” As well as being patronising, these comments are generally just plain wrong, & they reflect a real lack of understanding of the current nature of science teaching in our secondary schools and of the science curriculum itself.

When really pushed, I have asked my colleagues to take a step back & truly reflect on what they’re saying. Do they really think that teachers don’t know anything about the subjects that they’re teaching? Because – what does that say about what’s going on in their own classes? After all, science teachers (in any disciplinary area) will have a science degree – at the very least a BSc, increasingly an MSc, & sometimes the person at the front of the classroom will hold a PhD. And they obtained those qualifications in university lecture theatres and laboratories.

What’s more, our education system has moved on from the ‘old days’ (the days that many lecturers perhaps are harking back to) when most students in 7th form (year 13) classes were going to go on to university. The way it was when I was a secondary student. Then, it could truly be said that students were essentially being primed for university study. But these days, many more students stay on for that final year at school, and they have many more future study options to look forward to. Schools have to support them all in their learning & so it’s simply not realistic to teach a class as if everyone in it was going on to take that subject at uni. It’s far more important to see them gain a thorough understanding of what [insert subject here] is all about AND the skills needed to take their learning to a new level when they move on to another institution, plus the general scientific literacy that’s needed in today’s world.

What of the content? Looking at specifically at biology, it’s huge. I’ve had a number of conversations with teachers & also people in NZQA, about what could & couldn’t be omitted – there is a lot of ‘front-loading’ as new discoveries are made & new techniques developed, but alas! it’s rare that anything falls off the back to compensate. What we need – urgently, in my opinion – is a discussion around just what is ‘core’ knowledge in biology, as that might help to thin things out a bit. So, maybe students don’t need to learn the details of how every latest biotech technique works, but should be able to apply critical thinking skills to issues surrounding the technique’s application?

Such scientific literacy is, of course, the focus of the new curriculum. Have a look at it, & you’ll see ‘the nature of science’ (NOS) at the top of every page. In developing their understanding about science, for example, students will “learn about science as a knowledge system: the features of scientific knowledge and the processes by which it is developed; and learn about the ways in which the work of scientists interacts with society.” They’ll also investigate, “[carrying] out science investigations using a variety of approaches: classifying and identifying, pattern seeking, exploring, investigating models, fair testing, making things, or developing systems”; they’ll communicate, “[developing] knowledge of the vocabulary, numeric and symbol systems, and conventions of science and use this knowledge to communicate about their own & others’ ideas”; and they’ll participate and contribute, “[bringing] a scientific perspective to decisions and actions as appropriate”. It’s expected that the nature of science will underpin any & all learning activities that students carry out, with the intention that when they leave school they’ll have those skills and that knowledge that I mentioned above.

Related to this is the fact that at the moment the existing NCEA Achievement Standards are being ‘re-aligned’ with the new curriculum. For instance, in many cases particular topics have been shifted around between years eg the genetics material currently in year 13 has been moved, in the curriculum document, to year 12. This means not only that the ASs have to be re-jigged to account for that, but also that the nature of what’s taught has to be re-examined. Year 12 students may not be at the point where they can grasp some of the concepts entailed in the current assessment standards in genetics, for example.

Now of course all this has implications for the universities. From 2014 the students coming through to the tertiary sector from year 13 will have been taught using the new curriculum & assessed using the new set of standards. They will almost certainly have been exposed to less ‘content’ and can be expected to have developed more process skills. (And I don’t envy secondary teachers who must grapple with how to achieve this.) Lecturers assuming that this crop of students will have been taught the same material as all previous intakes will be sadly mistaken. And because of the way they’ve been learning (& how they’ve been assessed) these students may very well have different expectations of how they’ll be learning, & demonstrating that learning, at university.

And these are all things that university lecturers must recognise, and adapt to, if we’re to continue to successfully bridge our students from secondary school and into their tertiary studies.


  1. […] follows is a re-post of something I originally wrote for my ‘other’ blog over on Talking […]

    Pingback by a cultural divide | BioBlog — September 22, 2010 @ 4:53 pm

  2. It is nice to hear that NZ has such high standards for their secondary teachers. Where I live in the US (requirements vary from place to place), secondary school teachers are supposed to have 18 hours in a subject to teach it, but can get by on only 6, which equates to only two courses. Elementary teachers are not required to have any science training at all beyond the basic requirements of any college degree. Because of the backlash by a very vocal minority, most teachers avoid mentioning anything about evolution in their classes (despite the fact that our standards require them to), so the biology classes are seriously skewed in my opinion.

    I am currently designing a paleobiology class for my university and I must admit it is very tough to figure out what to include and what not to include. Most classes give a little theoretical information and a laundry list of critters. It seems to me that most classes are lacking in the conceptual department in favor of simple identification. I want to give them both, but I also don’t want to so overload the students that they are overwhelmed, which I could easily do. part of the class is to teach evolutionary concepts as the course is for geology majors mostly and they simply won’t have been exposed to even many of the basic concepts. That is such a huge subject in and of itself that I am really struggling to figure out just what I need to discuss.

    On top of this, I really want to incorporate good teaching strategies, so that I am not just getting up in front of the class spewing out information as fast as I can go and I am giving them other ways of interacting with the material other than just my lecturing. I can easily see why so many teachers just fall back to the old straight lecture technique based on a few chapters in the book of choice and a couple of tests. As a teaching method, that sucks in multiple ways, but it is comparatively easy. I want to give the students a class worth the money they are spending, though, which means not taking the easy way. Sadly, most of the students themselves only want the easy course and don’t really care about getting their money’s worth as it isn’t their money. They just want the grade.

    This is my first experience designing an entire course from the ground up. I am getting a new appreciation for why there are so few stellar teachers that go above and beyond the standard methods and I admire the ones that do all the more. I think people who have never had this experience have a really hard time conceiving of just what it entails to be a quality teacher, which is one of the core difficulties getting people to understand the issues. So many people think teaching is easy and doesn’t actually take much time, which could be true if one isn’t attempting to be a good teacher, but the good ones spend so much more time and their own money than most people realize. Even doing the standard method is a seriously time consuming process, especially the first couple of times. Not many people have the time to be an outstanding teacher.

    Comment by jdmimic — September 23, 2010 @ 2:16 am

    • Yes, our secondary education system is good like that – you have to have at least a bachelor’s degree in your ‘main’ subject. Specialist science teachers usually end up teaching ‘general science’ in addition to the physics/bio/chem, so they’ve got to have a reasonably good all-round knowledge of science overall. Primary teachers, on the other hand, don’t get a lot of science even if they focus on it during their training. What particularly bothers me about this is that our government has instituted ‘National Standards’ that focus on literacy & numeracy, & at the same time there’s been a marked reduction in the amount of specialist subject support available to classroom teachers in primary schools. There’s a real danger, I think, that teachers will focus on the standards & things like science (& other subjects) may well go on the back burner. I’d love to be proved wrong…

      Other teaching strategies around evolution… When we redesigned our 2nd-year evolution course (it’s called Evolution & Diversity of Life I was really keen for it to be more than just lecturing. Especially because the literature shows that this isn’t really going to change students’ existing conceptions; they really need to be actively involved in finding stuff out. In the end I went for a mix of traditional (dissection, observation etc) & non-traditional labs – in the latter we had the students playing games, doing role-plays & so on. Seemed to be successful going by their comments & they really enjoyed it.

      You’re right, though, it does take a heap of time to do all this. The senior tutor I work with (who is worth her weight in gold & then some!) has spent a huge amount of extra time in making our first-year biology labs a lot more interactive. The cell bio labs, in particular, used to be very dull, with a lot of time spent on learning various lab techniques. Now the students still have to learn these, but it’s done in the context of solving a murder mystery. (Mine, as it turns out. Cue heaps of jokes from the kids about me looking pretty good – for a dead person!)

      Comment by alison — September 26, 2010 @ 8:51 pm

  3. […] which is underpinned by a focus on the nature of science itself. You might remember that I wrote a bit about this in an earlier post. Part of that requires that students “learn about science as a knowledge system: the features of […]

    Pingback by engagement techniques for teaching evolution « Talking Teaching — October 3, 2010 @ 9:43 pm

  4. […] which is underpinned by a focus on the nature of science itself. You might remember that I wrote a bit about this in an earlier post. Part of that requires that students “learn about science as a knowledge system: the features of […]

    Pingback by engagement techniques for teaching evolution | BioBlog — October 4, 2010 @ 8:47 am

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