Talking Teaching

April 27, 2011

vision and change: biology education for all students

And here’s the second instalment. I know we have a number of readers from the US tertiary sector – it would be really interesting to hear your perspectives on the AAAS document!

That’s the title of the first chapter in the AAAS’s Vision and change report. It should cause tertiary biology educators to pause & think – because not all of the students sitting in our first-year classes are biology majors or, indeed, science majors. In my own Faculty around 1/6 of those students will be taking my papers out of interest or because they’re required for a degree program from another part of the University. So, while there is an obvious need to prepare the biology/science majors for further study in the subject, just what do we want those ‘others’ to take away from their semester of biology classes? As the report’s authors say, 

entry-level biology courses serve as the first and perhaps only chance to introduce [these non-science] students to scientific enquiry, the use of evidence, and the core biological concepts that will help them make informed decisions about the many biology-related problems they are bound to encounter in their daily lives. 

And further:

Biology [lecturers], therefore, have a unique opportunity and responsibility to ensure that all undergraduates taking their courses gain a basic understanding of science as a way to learn about the natural world. 

This is something that my own department discussed last week. The question we posed ourselves was, how do we ensure that this happens, within and across papers? Otherwise the risk is that we all assume that it’s happening, or that students are getting ‘it’ in some other paper, and that may result in turning out students who know a lot of science concepts and processes, but have somehow missed out on the knowledge of what science actually is, accompanied by some degree of scientific literacy in the broadest sense. And if we’re not careful that ‘other’ group – the students who aren’t enrolled in a science degree – are the most likely to miss out on that knowledge, while at the same time they’re the group who are perhaps most in need of gaining it during that semester or two of biology classes. (Or chemistry, or earth sciences, or physics…)

So what should we be doing with our students to ensure that they all (in the words of the AAAS report) “graduate with a well-defined level of functional biological literacy and critical-thinking skills”? (And, maybe, turning them on to science? After all, students who took part in the AAAS study commented that biology classes taken by non-majors can act as “a gateway to get more students interested in science.”)

One part of the answer lies in deciding what ‘content’ is essential – finding a balance between the demands from other paper convenors to make sure students have the knowledge they view as prerequisite for their own papers, and the sort of depth of coverage that helps students gain conceptual understanding. This is something I’ve advocated for the secondary senior biology curriculum, where new ideas and appications tend to be front-loaded without anything ever falling off the back to make room, and it’s just as relevant at the university level. But do we have agreement on just what constitutes ‘core’ concepts and competencies in biology?

The AAAS authors conclude that there are in fact five core concepts – beginning with a knowledge of evolution:

  • Evolution: the diversity of life evolved over time by processes of mutation, selection, and genetic change.
  • Structure & function: basic units of structure define the function of all living things.
  • Information flow, exchange, & storage: the growth & behaviour of organisms are activated through the expression of genetic information in context.
  • Pathways and transformations of energy & matter: biological systems grow and change by processes based upon chemical transformation pathways and are governed by the laws of thermodynamics.
  • Systems: living systems are interconnected and interacting. 

Do you agree with this list? It would all sound rather familiar to anyone who’s had a good look at the Living World strand of the 2007 Science curriculum, & I think most uni-level educators would agree that they teach these concepts in some shape or form in many of their papers, although we do need to look at the level of integration there. But how, and to what depth?

Of equal importance is the need to develop a set of core competencies:

  • Ability to apply the process of science: biology is evidence-based and grounded in the formal processes of observation, experimentation, and hypothesis testing.
  • Ability to use quantitative reasoning: biology relies on applications of quantitative analysis and mathematical reasoning.
  • Ability to use modelling and simulation: biology focuses on the study of complex systems.
  • Ability to tap into the interdisciplinary nature of science: biology is an interdisciplinary science.
  • Ability to communicate and collaborate with other disciplines: biology is a collaborative scientific discipline.
  • Ability to understand the relationship between science and society: biology is conducted in a societal context. 

Again, much of this sounds very like the 2007 Science curriculum, with its emphasis on the nature of science as the overarching, integrative strand that sits above the various science subjects, & in fact the paper also provides a matrix showing how these various competencies might be demonstrated, in the same way that the curriculum uses matrices relating to the nature of science. In the university system I suspect that we haven’t begun thinking about curriculum in the same way until quite recently, which means that in some ways we’ve a lot of ground to make up. But we’re getting there – talking about how to embed numeracy & literacy skills across all that we teach, for example; how to give students opportunities to practice & demonstrate those skills; and how to assess their learning. We’re all agreed that it’s highly desirable for students intending to major in biology to have a reasonably high level of maths background, preferably with statistics. But in practice that doesn’t seem to happen as often as we’d like, and then of course there are those students who aren’t science majors & may not have maths at all. The same’s true for the suite of skills relating to writing scientific essays or lab reports, & of course there are the all-important skills related to thinking critically about scientific issues. So all that has to be worked into our classes, with each cohort building those skills from year to year as they progress through their degree.

But it does come back to a statement made many times in Vision and change: less is very definitely more. Teaching fewer concepts, in more depth, allows students to build the conceptual frameworks within which to develop a thorough understanding of the subject, and opportunities to practice those various competencies, without totally overwhelming the non-scientists in the class So, while we’ve begun to look at how and where to embed opportunities to learn and practice the various competencies, we’ve still to begin that central discussion: what constitutes ‘core’ knowledge in terms of what must be learned at each step of a student’s tertiary studies.

I find it a rather exhilarating prospect.

 C.A.Brewer & D.Smith (eds) (2011) Vision and change in undergraduate biology education: a call to action. Final report of a national conference organised by the AAAS, July 15-17 2009, Washington DC. ISBN 978-0-87168-741-8

vision and change in undergraduate biology education

I seem to be thinking & writing (& talking!) about education issues a lot lately. So, what follows is the first in what will be a series of posts, over the next few days, based on a recent AAAS report entitled “Vision and change in undergraduate biology education: a call to action.” (As usual, first published over at the Bioblog.)

Last week our department began to review its biology curriculum. I have a sneaking suspicion that some folks were hoping that one day was pretty much ‘it’, but realistically we’ll be continuing the process for some time. Which is just as well, because Grant has pointed me at a document that I would have liked to have had my hands on last Wednesday: Vision and change in undergraduate biology education, from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the AAAS). (You need to sign up to view the document.)

It’s a 100-page document, & this being Easter I am torn between reading (& blogging) it, consuming the inevitable chocolate (although I have to say that Peter Gordon’s dessert risotto recipe has provided considerable competition!), & the considerable pile of undergraduate essays looming on my desk. So I will save the measured commentary for the next day or so, as otherwise my students won’t get their essays back next week, but offer a taster tonight.

The report kicks off with a 2008 quote from the US National Science Foundation that’s directly relevant to so many aspects of science literacy: my colleagues’ deliberations on our own curriculum; the new Science curriculum for primary and secondary schools; Sir Peter Gluckman’s recent report on the direction of science education in New Zealand.

Appreciating the scientific process can be even more important than knowing scientific facts. People often encounter claims that something is scientifically known. If they understand how science generates and assesses evidence bearing on these claims, they possess analytical methods and critical thinking skills that are relevant to a wide variety of facts and concepts and can be used in a wide variety of contexts.

For me, this quote highlights a key part of my own educational philosophy, & something that I think my colleagues & I should always bear in mind. Particularly because in our first-year biology classes there is always going to be a certain proportion of students who aren’t going to major in biology & in fact aren’t majoring in any science discipline. They’re doing the subject out of interest, perhaps, or because it’s required for (say) a planning degree. So, do we want them to leave our classes with a head full of facts & concepts that they may well shed soon after the final exam, or do we want them to gain the tools for analysing and interrogating the information they receive in their encounters with scientific claims? (Actually, it needn’t be – & shouldn’t be – an either/or statement as we all need some basic, key concepts on which to base that critical thinking. The devil, as always, is in the detail – how do you decide what is ‘key’ and what can usefully be added later? We certainly can’t cover it all!) And, surely, this is just as important for those who are going on to major in a science discipline, because a part of that should certainly involve learning to think like a scientist.

Unfortunately, getting to that end-point doesn’t stop with simply (haha!) identifying those things that we consider our students should know & be capable of doing, by the time they complete an undergraduate degree. It really does need us to look afresh at how we teach biology (but you could equally well substitute the name of any other discipline there) – including giving students a proper feel for what science research is like. Alongside that comes a review of what & how we assess, for assessment is a powerful driver of student learning & they quickly learn what we value (or appear to value) from the nature of assessment tasks. And all of that implies a need for professional development for staff plus some serious changes at the level of the institution: as long as research outputs are perceived as attracting more substantial rewards than teaching, who can blame people for leaning more to the research side? (As I said, assessment is a powerful driver…)

The report identifies four recommendations for bringing about the desired changes in undergraduate biology education, and devotes a chapter to each. The AAAS recommends that biology educators should:

  • integrate core concepts and competencies throughout the curriculum;
  • focus on student-centred learning;
  • promote a campus-wide commitment to change;
  • engage the biology community in the implementation of change.

I’ll be coming back to these over the next few days – otherwise this post would balloon out to unreadable proportions! What I’ve read so far has really struck a chord & there is so much that I could say on each of those points. Please do join in, as it would be really great to get a conversation going around the findings of the report: one that is definitely not restricted to biolology educators :-)

C.A.Brewer & D.Smith (eds) (2011) Vision and change in undergraduate biology education: a call to action. Final report of a national conference organised by the AAAS, July 15-17 2009, Washington DC. ISBN 978-0-87168-741-8

April 5, 2011

looking ahead: new zealand science education for the 21st century

This is a cross-post of something I’ve just written for the Bioblog. A bit of background for overseas readers: NZ is currently implementing a new national curriculum (in all subjects, not just science), something that will be complete in a couple of years as the students who entered their year 11 studies last year pass through the system. However, there have been on-going concerns about the nature & direction of science education in this country that prompted some recent consultations and the release of the document that’s the focus of this particular blog.

Last October I wrote about Inspired by Science, a document commissioned by the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor with the aim of “[encouraging’ debate on how better to engage students with science”. The paper had a particular focus on science education in primary and secondary schools and also asked  “whether there is an increasing mismatch between science education of today and the demands of the 21st century.”

Today saw the launch of Sir Peter Gluckman’s report Looking ahead: science education for the 21st century, a document that builds on Inspired by Science and a second report (Engaging young New Zealanders with science, which I’ll talk about in a subsequent post) to identify

the challenges and opportunities for enhancing science education for the benefits of the whole of New Zealand society and our national productivity.

In his covering letter to the Prime Minister, Sir Peter comments that

the changing nature of science and the changing role of science in society create potential major challenges for all advanced societies in the coming decades

and New Zealand is no exception.

So, what does he see as the challenges, and opportunities that we face, and his

So, what does he see as the challenges, and opportunities that we face, and the ways that we can remaster our science education system to meet them?

One of the key challenges is the need to motivate today’s young people to study science at a time when science and innovation lie at the heart of economic growth, and of our solutions to such disparate challenges as climate change, problems associated with an aging population, or environmental degradation. (Sir Peter refers twice to the need for us to be a ‘smart’ nation but I’m not entirely sure what he means by that.) He makes the very important point that

science education is not just for those who see their careers involving science but is an essential component of core knowledge that every member of our society requires.

I believe that this point applies as much to the universities as it does to the compulsory education sector: not all those taking my first-year biology paper, for example, intend to major in biology or in any science, so I & my colleagues do need to think hard about what knowledge & competencies we want those particular students to gain.

Going by some of the on-line commentary I’ve seen, it’s probably safe to say that not everyone would necessarily agree on the issue of science being a core knowledge area for everyone, and therein lies a major difficulty for those involved in teaching and communicating about science. We all need some level of understanding about contemporary scientific issues – we can’t just leave it to ‘the gummint’  to deal with them – but how do we change what appears to be a fairly pervasive ‘anti-science’ attitude in some sectors? Such change needs to be achieved alongside any changes in how (or what) science is taught in our schools, and I was rather disappointed not to see some recognition of this in this report.

One of the underlying problems here may be that the nature of science has moved on, but not peoples’ perceptions of it. In the report released today, Sir Peter characterises science as

a process by which complex systems are studied and modelled and knowledge is exprressed in terms of increased probability and reduced uncertainty, but never in terms of absolutes.

Yet we seem to seek certainty, and more often than I would like, I’ve seen complaints about scientists’ inability to provide that. This is something that may underlie some people’s readiness to accept confident (& horribly wrong!) pronouncements on a range of issues, easily found on the internet via ‘google university’. Thus a key role for modern education lies in giving students the skills to sort out what’s reliable and what’s not – but we should remember that this is not the sole preserve of science education – development of critical thinking skills should span the entire curriculum.

But back to the nature and purposes of the science curriculum in our schools. While in secondary schools its traditional role has been to prepare students for tertiary study in the sciences, in fact only a minority of school students take this path – a worryingly small minority, if we are to be dependent on scientific & technological innovation. There are other objectives for science education at this level & indeed throughout the curriculum, characterised by Sir Peter as ‘citizen-focused objectives’, in which all children need to have:

  • a practical knowledge at some level of how things work;
  • some knowledge of how the scientific process operates and have some level of scientific literacy
  • enough knowledge of scientific thinking as part of their development of general intellectual skills so that they are able to distinguish reliable information from less reliable information.

The tricky bit is going to be working out how to deliver all this, not least because we probably need a different pedagogical approach for the ‘professional’ vs the ‘citizen-focused’ objectives. Because of this, Sir Peter suggests that we’re looking at the need for fairly radical changes in the science curriculum, possibly to the extent of offering separate curricula for the two sets of objectives. This could well be viewed as a somewhat alarming prospect by teachers currently grappling with the implementation of a curriculum that was introduced only 4 years ago – and a curriculum endorsed by the second of the two consultative reports (Engaging young New Zealanders with Science).Indeed, the authors of Engaging comment that they

recognise the need to support the current ongoing work of implementation of the revised curriculum, and for implementation of measures from this paper to take account of the impact of this curriculum change

– something that’s not mentioned in the main report. 

These suggested changes also beg the question: how do we decide which route a student should take? Are we looking at streaming, and on what basis? Is a student’s access to one route or the other going to be the same regardless of where they live in the country? (This last question is particularly relevant to the suggestion that students could obtain ‘hands-on’ science learning experiences at museums & science centres: leaving aside the question of available resources, such institutions are not found in every population centre.)

These aren’t really questions that should be decided at the primary school level. But teachers there do face a particular set of problems as they work to support and enhance their students’ interest in & enthusiasm for understanding the world around them. There’s a comment in this report that

[a] well prepared primary school teacher will integrate excitement about the natural world and scientific forms of thinking into literacy and numeracy teaching, and into general educational processes. The challenge is how to provide primary teachers with the skills to do so.

To which I would add: and the support. Remember, current government policies relating to the National Standards in literacy and numeracy have seen the loss of funding for specialist science advisors to primary schools, something that can only hinder teachers wishing to integrate “scientific forms of thnking” into their classroom curriculum. It will be very interesing indeed to see how these conflicting issues are resolved. Further, we should also review the amount of exposure to science that trainee primary school teachers currently receive. It’s not really enough to expect a ‘champion’ for science in each school to lead the way (and I am cynical enough to suspect that in reality this champion would end up ‘doing it all’) – we really do need a shift towards all primary teachers having more confidence and ability in science. That will require not only changes to teacher-training curricula, but also provision of sufficient resources and support to classroom teachers, including on-going professional development – something for which schools are woefully under-funded. Money, again.

For the majority of secondary students, their formal exposure to science education will end with their schooling, while a minority will go on to further study in the sciences. However, all of those students need some exposure to the ‘citizen-focused’ learning outcomes. Sir Peter suggests that these two sets of objectives – professional and citizen-focused – may diverge to the extent that they have completely separate curricula. (The latter may well include some level of ‘life skills education’ – not least because a fascination with the ways their bodies work may be an excellent hook to draw young people into a life-long interest in science. It might also help to put a lot of ‘health-woo’ sellers out of business!) However, this does raise significant questions relating to equity of access, and funding. If students are to gain hands-on science experiences in science centres & museums, for example, then how do we ensure equal access to such resources? As I said earlier, not all towns have well-equipped science centres, for example, and without consideration to the funding & resourcing of such places we run the risk of the level of students’ hands-on experiences being predicated upon their geographical location.

There’s also the need to attract good science teachers (although really the status of teaching per se needs to be raised :-) )And the need to offer these teachers continual opportunities for professional development (currently limited & poorly funded), maybe including sabbaticals from the classroom and hands-on exposure to new technologies. And the need to make science careers sufficiently attractive to our students – after all, there’s little point in telling them how much we need more scientists if they perceive things differently. We also need to look at ways to turn around the current tendency for many of our best & brightest science students to chose medicine & other health-related programs over training in the ‘other’ sciences. whether for reasons of income, status, or because as a group of Biology Olympiad students told me, they simply ‘want to help people’. This suggests that science as a career has multiple image problems in the eyes of these students.

All this calls for changes in funding – and at a time of when we are looking at austere budgets for the next few years at least, how much will be available for implementing even some of the report’s recommendations? It also calls for changes to the way we view & fund our research scientists. Sir Peter calls for a much stronger relationship between schools and the science community, so that schools and teachers can work alongside practising scientists. (This seems to go a lot further than, say, the Science Learning Hub.) Yet at the moment scientists’ jobs depend on research outputs, and this includes those in the university sector. In order to implement Sir Peter’s recommendations we need to look at a change in how science is valued and funded by those who provide the funds. And this must happen – without their institutions’ express & explicit support, few scientists have the time to commit to increased involvement with science teaching in schools. (Yes, of course the internet can allow for schools to access knowledge & ideas outside their immediate communities, but it can’t completely compensate for a lack of physical infrastructure & face-to-face contact with actual working scientists.)

Finally, from my perspective as a university science educator, this report has some significant implications for my sector. If even some of the changes recommended in Looking ahead are implemented, it is not going to be a case of business as usual for university science teaching. The nature of students’ experience and knowledge is going to change significantly and we will need to adapt our practices accordingly. Not to ‘dumb down’ – never that! but to teach differently. And we need to start coming to terms now with the need for such change.

P.Gluckman (2011) Looking Ahead: Science Education for the Twenty-First Century. A report from the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor. ISBN 978-0-477-10337-4 (pdf)

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