Talking Teaching

December 22, 2010

Science lessons from 8 year old children

Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket science alerted me to an article published in Biological Letters Biology Letters from the Royal Society. I will not discuss the content of the article, Ed Yong has (as usual) done a wonderful job. I would like instead to share the ‘concept’ of the article.

The article reports on some research that shows that bumble-bees use both colour and spatial relationship in their foraging behaviour. But enough about that. What is unique about this article is that the research was conducted by a group of school children. It is also unique in that it is written by a group of school children (in their language). And the icing on the cake are the figures: pencil coloured; no fancy graphic software.

This is, in my opinion, authentic teaching at its best. And authentic learning. And while we are at it, authentic publishing.

So what have I learned from this group of children? That, as they say, science is fun. And that teaching science, whatever the student age group, can be made fun and authentic and can get children motivated.

The background reads:

Although the historical context of any study is of course important, including references in this instance would be disingenuous for two reasons. First, given the way scientific data are naturally reported, the relevant information is simply inaccessible to the literate ability of 8- to 10-year-old children, and second, the true motivation for any scientific study (at least one of integrity) is one’s own curiosity, which for the children was not inspired by the scientific literature, but their own observations of the world.

I could not agree more. I love biology because I ‘played’ with biology as a child. I was fortunate enough to have a father who never answered my question with ‘I don’t know’ without following that up with ‘but lets try to find out’. As a child my father valued my questions and my curiosity, more so about things he didn’t have an answer for. And I will always be grateful to him for that. For my teachers, well, that was a different issue: rather annoying having a pupil in the class that just refused to overcome the ‘why?’ stage.

And these children have been given a great gift by being it let known that their thoughts and ideas have value. And that, once that barriers that have to do with the specific language of the scientific literature are withdrawn, their ideas and thoughts can bring about new knowledge.

These children will also grow up having learned a few fundamental things about science: How an idea is brought into shape, how scientific questions are narrowed, and the hard work and discipline that is needed to see an experiment through. Oh yes, and that no matter how good an idea may be, reviewers may still reject your grant.

None of this they could have learned from a science textbook.

The editors of the Royal Society should also be commended for not requiring that the manuscript adjust to the traditional publishing formats and allowing the authentic voice of the children to come through. This paper should become obligatory reading in science classes. If nothing else, children will recognise their own voices and curiosity in the reading, and, who knows, other groups of children with innovative teachers may teach us (adult scientists) another thing or two.

P. S. Blackawton, S. Airzee, A. Allen, S. Baker, A. Berrow, C. Blair, M. Churchill, J. Coles, R. F.-J. Cumming, L. Fraquelli, C. Hackford, A. Hinton Mellor1, M. Hutchcroft, B. Ireland, D. Jewsbury, A. Littlejohns, G. M. Littlejohns, M. Lotto, J. McKeown, A. O’Toole, H. Richards, L. Robbins-Davey, S. Roblyn, H. Rodwell-Lynn, D. Schenck, J. Springer, A. Wishy, T. Rodwell-Lynn, D. Strudwick and R. B. Lotto (2010) Blackawton bees. Biology Letters DOI:10.1098/rsbl.2010.1056

December 19, 2010

Reflection on my first year as a student

Well, not really my first year. I started school at the age of 2 and got my PhD at the age of 32, but I hadn’t been a student since (except for a course I took as a post-doc). But this year I started my Post Graduate degree in Academic Practice, and it was, well. quite educational.

What did I learn?

Heaps. Mostly, I think I now understand my students better.

My conversations with my students have always been frustrating. I too often hear about their frustration and disappointment about their relationship with their degrees and coursework.  And it seems that no matter what we do as teachers, this doesn’t seem to go away. And we as teachers, become frustrated as well.

So what was my experience as a student? Well, I would have to say, not too different from that of my students’. And this realisation was shocking to me. Because after all I consider myself a highly motivated and independent student.

What happened between signing up to the degree and the process of taking a course I was totally excited about? I became unmotivated: not about the content, but yes about the process of being a student.

It wasn’t the teachers. They were good teachers. The class setting was adequate: we were a group of 12 students having moderated discussions. It wasn’t that the assignments were not ‘appropriate’. Then what?

I think that I can pin it down to the lack of formative assessment. While the teachers went to a lot of trouble giving me feedback on my work, the feedback was so specific to the assignment at hand that I did not find it useful to apply to other work. And what happened as a result of that really surprised me: I started thinking ‘what does the teacher want’.

Once I handed in an assignment, that was it. I got my mark and I ‘felt’ any interest in my learning on that topic ended at that point. So that prevented me from exploring unusual approaches to my assignments, prevented me from trying to be innovative, prevented me from raising what might be considered controversial points of view. Because after all, my progress was defined by that one mark: I was not given an opportunity to learn from my mistakes.

But wait, isn’t that how we learn?

I started exploring teaching in my own way, but none of that went into my assignments much. I didn’t feel there was much room for that.

For my last assignment I decided to do ‘what I thought was right’. And here is where I ran into trouble. We were asked to ‘redesign’ a course module – 3,000 words essay. I designed the lecture notes that I would give the students, I built a wiki environment for the class and then I realised: I still have to write a 3,000 word essay. Because the assignment wasn’t ‘a 3,000 word essay or equivalent’. It was a ‘3,000 word essay’.

Well, there goes creativity down the drain.

So what could we not do? We could not do a video on the assignment showing how the class would be done (that would have been interesting). We could not do a Prezi or conceptual map (that could have  been cool). We could not do what I did. I still had to write that wretched essay. And my question then is:

Did I sign up for the course to learn how to write essays or to learn how to teach?

And that is where it clicked: I am not being assessed on what I learned about teaching. I am not being offered a space to have a dialog about my teaching. Those 3,000 words are not about my teaching: they are about my thoughts about teaching. And that does not necessarily translate to the classroom setting.

So back to my students: I now see where we are failing. We are not being flexible enough to allow them to relate to the content in ways that will ‘engage’ them with the content. We tell them what is the ‘right’ way to engage with the content. We do not, for the most part, create spaces for learning. We create systems of delivery and assessment.

So that is what I learned. I am a student: I have become disengaged.

So I now have a whole summer to think about what I need to do to create learning spaces where my students (or at least the ones who are interested enough) can explore different ways of relating to the content and thinking about their learning.

Wish me luck.

December 13, 2010

the interface between secondary & tertiary teaching

This is a piece I originally wrote for the ‘other’ blog, but on reflection I thought I’d share it here as well. While it’s written from the NZ perspective, there are issues here that are probably universal & it would be interesting to hear from overseas readers about how they/their institutions deal with these things :)

I’ve just [ie at the beginning of December] spent a couple of wonderful days at the inaugural First-Year Biology Educators’ Colloquium, hosted by Otago University’s Phil Bishop at the Orokonui Ecosanctuary, near Dunedin. There were some absolutely inspirational speakers there & I came away with some ideas that I’d like to adapt for my own teaching. And I gave a talk myself (well, led a discussion, really), on the interface between secondary & tertiary biology teaching & why we need to be aware of it.

I’ve probably banged on about this before, but I believe that all first-year teaching staff should be aware of the secondary school curriculum in the area in which they teach. Why? – because an understanding of students’ prior learning experiences can only improve our ability to bridge them into their tertiary study. If we just sit back & assume that prior learning is going to remain the same for each new cohort of students, then we’re in for a big surprise. Let alone their expectations of how they’re going to be taught & assessed.

In 2014 we’re going to get a different cohort through the doors. These will be students who’ve been taught under the new (2007) national curriculum, and who’ve been assessed using new Achievement Standards that have been written to better reflect that curriculum.  (Personally I think there’s still way too much content in there, but that’s just my opinion – although it’s an idea that did attract a fair bit of discussion at the colloquium.) What that means, for example, is that lecturers can’t assume that students studied genetics in year 13 – because this new group won’t have done. The new draft standards see genetics (including concepts like control of gene expression) moved back into year 12.

And while the form & function of plants & animals remain in year 12, they’ve been combined, in the draft standards, into one standard that asks students to [demonstrate] understanding of adaptions of plants or animals to their way of life. (As someone who teaches a bit of botany, the ‘or’ bothers me a bit as it makes me wonder if even fewer students will be exposed to the planty side of things.) Plus the current requirement for students to [research] the interaction between humans and an aspect of biology is replaced by [analyse] the biological validity of information presented to the public. This particular one drew quite a bit of discussion, actually, as my first-year colleagues felt that their students could struggle with it…

Meanwhile the draft L3 standards include one on homeostasis ([demonstrate understanding of how animals maintain a stable internal environment), and the ‘biotech’ standard may become [demonstrate] understanding of human manipulation of genetic transfer and its biological implications.

Plus, as I said earlier, students who’ve come through the NCEA system tend to have quite different experiences of assessment compared to university practices: more formative assessment, more scaffolding into the question. And they’ll probably have been exposed to more opportunities for inquiry-based learning – rather different from the transmission model still common in lecture theatres & labs. This is something that we ignore at our peril, given the government’s increasing focus on measuring – & rewarding – the outcomes of teaching in a similar way to the existing performance-based research funding regime.

There was quite a bit of discussion around things like assessment, & also the nature of the NCEA itself. Towards the end, someone asked, what’s the government & the NZQA doing to make sure that universities are aware of all this? My answer was that it’s actually essential for teaching staff, particularly at first year, to familiarise themselves with what’s going on, not least because that way they’re likely to get a better handle on the system and its implications for their future students.

And along with that, to remember that the job of the year 13 teacher is not to prepare students for university. Not any more – only a minority of year 13 students will go on to study at university (although many may well go on to study in other tertiary education institutions). The difficult job those teachers face is to provide a diverse bunch of students with the skills they need for life beyond the classroom. And developing closer links between secondary & tertiary teachers, with enhanced mutual understandings of curriculum issues, would go a long way towards making that job a little easier, for all concerned.

Experimenting with Experimenting

Filed under: education, science teaching — Tags: , — Marcus Wilson @ 1:35 pm

This is a copy of a post on my blog PhysicsStop

Last week I was at the Australian Institute of Physics congress, in Melbourne.

One of my talks concerned a piece of work I’d done with my second year experimental physics class this year. Before going to Melbourne, I gave the talk a trial run at the University of Waikato’s ‘celebrating teaching’ day. It provoked a few comments then, and a few more in Melbourne, so I thought I’d give a summary of it here.

I’ve been teaching experimental physics more or less for the whole time I’ve been at the university (my divine punishment for navigating my own undergraduate studies on the basis of finding the path with the least amount of practical work in it). I’ve noticed that few students do any planning before the lab. Some will turn up at the lab without even knowing what experiment they will be trying to do. So this year I’ve tried to turn this around.

The great thing about the theory of tertiary education is that it says that when there is a problem, the solution is often easy. And that is to pay attention to what you are assessing. “If you want to change student learning …. change the assessment” ( G. Brown, J. Bull and M. Pendlebury. Assessing Student Learning in Higher Education.   Routledge, London, New York (1997). )  The issue was, I think, that I was never actually getting the students to plan anything. They learn that they can get good marks without doing any preparation beforehand, because the instructions for the lab are pretty well provided to them.

So this year I’ve forced them to prepare for a couple of experiments, by removing the instructions. Instead, I gave them the task they had to do, and  let them get on with working out how it should be done, using what equipment, etc. Since we use some moderately complicated lab equipment, I chose to ‘pair-up’ experiments – one week to introduce them to the equipment, the next to give them an experiment to do (without instructions) that used that equipment. That way, learning to drive the equipment did not become a distraction.

For the most part (around three quarters) students overcame initial hesitations (horror?) and tackled this very well. Most enjoyed it, and thought the approach was beneficial. However, the other quarter really didn’t like it. Appraisal forms, a focus group, and casual conversations in the lab with the students tell me this.

I gave my talk and there was a fair bit of discussion afterwards. The audience (mostly filled with secondary teachers and tertiary teachers with a strong interest in education) thought that the way that these experiments were assessed needed very careful thought to get the most out of the students. Was I assessing the ‘planning’ task itself (and how?), the end results of the planning, or something else. I thought I was assessing ‘planning’, as well as how well the student carried out and documented  the experiment after the planning, but possibly it was not transparent enough to some of the students.  That’s worth working on for next year. 

Also, was I concerned that students might get their experiment ‘planned’ by someone else? E.g. consult another student in the group that had done this experiment in a previous week. Personally, this doesn’t bother me – in fact, I would encourage such consultation as it shows students are taking the task seriously. If a student finds it easier to learn from other students rather than from me, I have no problem with that. If the end result is that he or she learns (and I mean ‘learn’ not ‘parrot’) what I wish them to learn (which is more than just facts) then I have no problem with whatever route they take.

I was encouraged by a final comment by a lecturer who had done a similar thing with a large first-year class (in contrast to my small second-year class) and found very similar results – generally successful and well-liked by students, but with a significant minority that had strong views the other way.

December 1, 2010

what is the traditional way of teaching intro biology

I took the title for this post from the search terms someone used to come to Talking Teaching. It’s an interesting question, not least because I’ve just spent a couple of days with some absolutely inspirational teachers at the ‘First-Year Biology Educators’ Colloquium (#1)’, hosted by Otago University’s Phil Bishop at the Orokonui Ecosanctuary.

(And what a wonderful venue that was. Left to myself I’d probably have spent at least one whole day just wandering through the Sanctuary’s paths. It’s enclosed by a predator-proof fence & there’s a wealth of birdlife around. Unfortunately the one walk I did fit in was fairly quick, before sessions started for the day – but even then I saw bellbirds & tuis, native wood pigeon and a tomtit , & heard riflemen & what I think was a brown creeper. Plus we found some green hooded orchids! But the wealth of great talks on offer drew me away – the Significant Other & I will just have to go back there some other time.)

Anyway, back to the topic. There certainly wasn’t a lot of ‘traditional’ biology teaching on show!

To me, traditional biology teaching at the tertiary level is probably pretty much the same as any other tertiary teaching that involves the ‘traditional’ model of a university education. That is, it’s teacher-centred, top-down, transmission teaching. The model for conveying information to students involves the usual uni lecture format: lecturer down the front, serried ranks of students in a tiered lecture theatre. The lecturer talks, illustrating their presentation with slides, OHPs, scribbled formulae on the blackboard, maybe a powerpoint show with a lot of information on each slide. (Yes, I know I’m describing a stereotype, but I suspect it’s one that’s still found in real life.) The students frantically scribble notes or, if they’re lucky, the course will have a study guide with lecture notes in it, so they might be able to listen & just make an occasional annotation. Questions during the lecture aren’t really encouraged, although they might be able to catch the lecturer after the event or maybe during office hours. All this is augmented by lab classes where students essentially follow a ‘cookbook’-style lab manual, practising techniques & usually performing experiments to ‘answer’ questions to which the teaching staff already know the answer. And maybe there’ll be some tutorials as well.

Now, that was the way I was taught biology, & I guess you could argue that this method works because I turned out to be an OK biologist :) But the problem is that today’s students have been exposed to a much wider range of teaching & learning methods at school. Plus they have a much greater variety of prior educational experiences. So the odds are good that the ‘traditional’ method won’t work particularly well for many of them. But the things I heard about at the colloquium certainly would: using clickers to answer multichoice questions  (as used during ‘ask the audience’ in Who wants to be a millionaire!) as a way to keep students alert & involved in lectures (plus providing instant feedback to the lecturer on how well students understand that particular bit of material; taping lectures ahead of time & having students watch them before class, so that the actual ‘lecture’ can be a discussion of the material covered; using carefully-designed multichoice questions as part of a range of assessment items; looking at whether recorded or video-linked lectures offer a qualitatively different experience, from the students’ point of view…

Frankly I think this stuff leaves ‘traditional’ teaching methods in the cold :)

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