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 And that, once that barriers that have to do with the specific language of the scientific literature are withdrawn, their ideas and thoughts can bring about new knowledge.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.

November 27, 2010

Can negative stereotypes in learning be overcome?

This is a short one.

I just came across this post by Ed Yong in his blog ‘Not Exactly Rocket Science’ over at the Discover site. Ed is a great writer (one of my favourite science writers out there), and this post is so well written that y’all might as well head that way.

Still, I thought it might bring up some interesting conversation.

November 18, 2010

Redesigning my course

As a final assignment for my paper in the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice, we were asked to write a 3,000 word essay on a course or teaching module redesign.

I knew this assignment would come up, and started thinking about it early in the year. This allowed me to explore a few things during my first semester teaching, gather student feedback, and give my redesign a test during second semester. I also took advantage of the peer-review assignment to get some nice feedback from one of my course-mates.

One of the questions I asked myself was ‘what would my lecture look like if it was invented today?”. That is, what if I had no access to powerpoints I used in prior years. Would I use powerpoint or Prezi, or just the document camera? Would I give students printed notes or just make everything available online?

It was a great mental exercise (albeit exhausting!) so I thought a reflection on the process was worthwhile and I am happy to share here (with some corrections!).


As tertiary teachers we rarely come across the chance to redesign from scratch a course or a teaching module within a course. More often, we are assigned lectures for which we are to replace a departing faculty member, and in the process we usually inherit their class notes, their slide collection and sometimes even their exam questions. Different iterations of the course most often involve addition and subtraction of material, updates to recent discoveries, changes of images in the slides, but rarely a thoughtful process of reflection on our pedagogy, the values that we hold true, or careful thinking about ‘why’ it is we do what we do and how we go about doing it.

“These tacit beliefs about education are not purely an individual matter. They surface in the language that is used to describe educational goals, in the choice of what it is to be taught, in the design of teaching spaces, in the allocation of time within the course, in decisions about assessment.’ S Toohey, 1999

There are, in my opinion, two fundamental problems with the way in which we approach our roles as educators.

Firstly, at least in the sciences, too much emphasis is currently placed on content. Increases in student enrolment leading to larger class sizes, the increased use of of norm-referenced assessment, and the exponential increase in factual knowledge that is derived from scientific research have slowly shifted the focus of our classes to covering the ever increasing content, sometimes to the detriment of what are probably considered fundamental skills in science, that is, critical thinking, independence, collaboration, and healthy scepticism.

As a result focus in the process of learning is incrementally lost. In a recent conversation with a group of second year students they expressed how they increasingly feel that any learning outside of the boundaries of the material provided in class is both unnecessary, discouraged and detrimental. Their focus slowly becomes shifted from ‘keenly learning’ to ‘passing the exam’. This is in contrast with the views often expressed by colleagues who voice their frustration at finding it difficult to engage students in independent enquiry, and at hearing the old and dreaded question: ‘Will this be in the exam?’.

This mutual dissatisfaction cannot be blamed either on the students nor on the teachers, since they both seem to agree that learning could be a lot more fun if it was focused on, well, on learning! But despite both groups having (at least at the onset) the same objectives, somehow this becomes lost in the process of trying to get an academic degree (or pass a course). The only explanation then is, that it is the ‘way’ in which we go about teaching and learning no longer ‘works’.

The way we teach sends a clear message about that which we value about our teaching (and about our students’ learning). For the most part we lecture in rooms designed for top down instruction, we primarily use summative assessment to determine whether a student passes or fails, and we find it increasingly difficult to meet the demands of outside of the classroom activities that could provide students with formative assessment. A colleague of mine  (Pete Hall) argues that the increased use of norm-reference assessment may also create unrealistic expectations in our students: 90% will fail at being in the top 10%, and inevitably 10% of the students will be in the bottom 10%, no matter how well or badly a group may have met given learning criteria.

It is therefore not surprising that students would equate achievement with exam passes.

Secondly, we seem to have lost sight that teaching and learning is a form of communication, and we as teachers do not seem to be able to overcome the barriers of communication that result from the ever increasing student enrolment.

Teachers, especially those of an older generation, are accustomed to communication that requires face-to-face or at least one-to-one engagement. Students on the other hand, have embraced technology, using SMS text and on-line social network platforms to communicate with a large number of peers.

I would suggest that the barriers of communication that result from large student numbers could be overcome if teachers took advantage of the students’ ready engagement with digital communication. Discussions in the on-line student management systems, the use of social network groups, or collaborative note taking on wikis by a larger proportion of teachers could contribute to the increased communication that is needed to engage students in critical thinking and self directed learning.

Most of these problems can be traced back to the inheritance of pre-existing design. If there was value in this exercise, it primarily came from throwing away everything that I had done before and asking myself: What would this course look like if it was invented today?

And today means teaching students that spend a lot of time on-line, that are invisible in the classroom setting because of the class sizes, that want to know how well they are learning while they are learning and that want to ask questions without hearing responses like ‘You do not need to know that’.

It will be certainly interesting to reflect a year from now on those things that worked and those which didn’t.

The full essay lives here.

November 13, 2010

Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge – An Introduction

Filed under: education, science teaching — Tags: , , — kubke @ 10:13 am

This is a guest post by our colleague Michael Edmonds, originally posted in Molecular Matters on We asked if he’d let us cross-post it here as it contains some really interesting thoughts about teaching and learning :)

Early in 2009 I attended a talk by Professor Ray Land of the University of Strathclyde on the topic of “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge”, a topic that I think provides some exciting insights into how students learn and why students struggle with different subjects. I found the talk transformed the way I think about teaching and learning.

Threshold concepts is the idea that within different disciplines there are specific concepts that are so transformative in their nature that they lead to “new and previously inaccessible ways of thinking about something.” (Meyer and Land, 2006). Such concepts can be described as being:

Transformative – once fully comprehended, they can alter one’s perception of the subject, or of life in general.

Irreversible – once mastered it is difficult to return to one’s previous way of thinking.

Integrative – the new concept is integrated into one’s existing way of thinking.

Troublesome – these concepts may be counter intuitive and initially difficult to understand. They may also clash with currently held values and conflict with one’s current world view (e.g. evolution may conflict with religious values). Hence the term troublesome knowledge.

Bounded – such concepts may “demarcate subject boundaries” (Ako Aotearoa website)

So how do these concepts inform and assist us in teaching? Well, if we can identify threshold concepts in our subjects and work on ways to help students to understand them then we are better placed to help students to truly master our subjects, instead of rote learning facts in order to “pass” the exam. In my opinion the mastering of threshold concepts not only provides for much a deeper understanding of a subject but is also more likely to ignite the passion of a student for the subject.

Examples of troublesome knowledge in my subject area, chemistry, would include equilibria, the kinetic theory of matter, and atomic structure.

Professor Land also made the point that it is not always easy for educators to recognise threshold concepts, because we have already “crossed” these various thresholds of learning, sometimes with no difficulty, and once these thresholds have been crossed it can be difficult to remember how one thought before this knowledge was gained (e.g. threshold concepts are transformative, irreversible and integrative).

I would be interested in hearing from the various readers of sciblogs what concepts in their own areas of expertise they would consider to be threshold concepts.

August 15, 2010

Congratulations Alison!

Ako Aotearoa last week announced the winners of the Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards.

Among the recipients is our co-blogger Alison Campbell.

The readers of this space will not be surprised: her love for teaching, for her studensts and her insights on education she shares with us on every post. As a teacher myself I admire her commitment and insight and this blog has for me become a place where I come to find inspiration from the posts and the comments.

It is wonderful to see Alison’s  teaching excellence recognized, so here is to you Alison! Well deserved!

August 12, 2010

Who should be involved in course and curriculum design?

At the 2009 TEDxAKL event, Brenda Frisk framed her talk by first stating that

everybody has been educated, so everybody thinks they know and they understand education.

Teachers will almost inevitably gravitate to reproducing “the model of teaching that they experienced as students”. It is not unusual to hear teachers express that a given model ‘worked for me’ as a sufficient argument to justify their practice. But this attitude only perpetuates educational models designed for a very different kind of society, and very different commercial and industrial needs. It may then fall short of providing the adequate tools and flexibility needed to adapt to an ever-changing work environment.

“Science is about proving that something can be done ONCE. Commercialising it involves figuring out how to do that squillions of times, with exactly the same outcome, for as little money and as quickly as possible. VERY different skills.”

-Nat Torkington

From Marquette University photostream

A recent report by MoRST, Igniting Potential, New Zealand’s Science and Innovation Pathway, shows that the vast majority of science-related PhD graduates (over 80%) will occupy jobs outside of academia. This figure would be much larger if it were to consider all other (undergraduate and post-graduate) science-related degrees. But despite this daunting reality, I would argue, most of the staff entrusted with providing this large proportion of students with suitable qualifications and skills for their future careers in the ‘real world’ have probably had little or no experience in those work environments to draw upon when designing a course curriculum. And as Nat Torkington points out, the skills needed are quite different.

I would argue that the quality of the education received may depend on how well the design of the curriculum is aligned with the real-life demands that the graduates will eventually face. And most of them will not end up in academia.

So, when it comes to curriculum or course design, should we take into account only what faculty consider to be the core necessary body of knowledge, or should the main stakeholders (students and future employers) be invited to participate in the process?

June 8, 2010

About Paulo Freire

Filed under: education, university — Tags: , , , — kubke @ 5:51 pm

As part of the Postgraduate Certificate where I am a student, I was to give a 10 minute lecture on one theory of teaching. A list of ‘candidate’ theories were provided, and to my surprise Paulo Freire‘s ‘Pedagogy of the Opressed‘ was in the list.

Well, that was quite a surprise.

I had first come across Paulo Freire’s orginal book about over twenty years ago, when I read it in the context of literacy programmes in Latin America. I would not have, then and now, predicted that his ideas would ever make it to a rather mainstream reading list. So, of course, I thought it would be fun to read him once again.

I don’t think I was aware how much I had internalised Freire, and how much of the way that I think about teaching is inspired by that original reading. It was indeed an interesting excercise. Especially because this time around I read his book while thinking how (or if) his ideas could be put in place in tertiary education given the real life limitations of the current tertiary system (like the large size of the classes).

In any case, this lecture also gave me the opportunity to give Prezi a go. First time user, but I love what can be done with it.

Freire’s philosophy is perhaps better defined for what it is not (it is not what he calls banking education). What it is, to me, is what is in this presentation. This presentation also has some thoughts about how I think his ideas could be applied to the current educational system.

It may make for a nice debate, so I thought why let all the work go to waste, right?

Well, here it is:

April 5, 2010

On the perils of becoming a dinosaur

As a student I always complained about the ‘dinosaur teachers’: those that had lost touch with the students and with the teaching material. Those whose attitude seemed to scream: ‘I cannot be bothered any more’.

Patricia Cranton says, in the context of why someone teaches:

“Another person may have defined himself as a teacher through having a vision of the role of teaching in society but may now, after many disillusioning years of practice, maintain his perspective of himself as a teacher because it is a social expectation or obligation from which he feels he cannot escape. “

And that seems to sum up what a dinosaur teacher is. Teaching is neither foreign nor new to me, I have been teaching one way or another since 1982, and most of the women in my family were teachers of one sort or another.Yet I am not a teacher. I never received any formal training in teaching, and whatever I learned to do or to avoid, I did through trial and error. I am a scientist. I know how to do science. I received formal training, and though I (somehow) know how to navigate that world, it does not instantly qualify me as a good science teacher.

So after all these years, it was time for me to ask: have I become a dinosaur teacher? And if I have, can I do soemething about it?

I am now facing the challenge of replacing Colin Quilter in his teaching at the Medical School. These are not small shoes to fill, and it is a huge challenge. First, I am going back to teaching first and second year, which I have not done in a long time and which I consider much more difficult to do than higher level courses. It is not only the language but the size of the class. How do you engage with over a thousand students, especially when some are in an overflow room, which I cannot see? Colin was, to say the least, beloved by his students. If you do not believe me you can become a fan of a page called ‘Shrine to Colin Quilter’ on Facebook, or read his feature profile in Ako Aotearoa Academy of Tertiary Teaching Excellence. And facing a class knowing that the students expect a ‘Colin’ experience can be nothing less than terrifying.

But since I face fear as a scientist, I have decided to take a degree in education. For the next two years, I will become a student in tertiary education: I will sit in class, I will do homework and assignments, I will be assessed while I try to learn how to become a better teacher. I am not sure what to expect from the programme, but one thing is for certain: I will be in my student’s shoes again, shoes I vacated many years ago. And the programme, one way or another will make me sit down and think about issues around teaching in a more formal way. And that cannot be a bad thing.

Patricia Cranton (2001) Becoming an Authentic Teacher in Higher Education. Krieger Publishing Company, Malabar, Florida.

April 4, 2010

Back to school, and into Talking Teaching

Filed under: education, university — Tags: , , , — kubke @ 3:07 pm

Back to school indeed, this time as a student. How long has it been?

The last time that I sat in class as a student, there was no internet, no guitar hero, and no DVDs. (Having said that, it was really not that far ago!).

So what made me go back to school?

I waslucky to get tickets to go to TEDxAKL last year, where I heard Brenda Frisk for the first time. One phrase she said got stuck in my mind:

“Everyone has been educated so they think they understand education”

I was a ‘student’ for a total of 30 years (started at the age of 2 and graduated with my PhD at the age of 32). I have been teaching in tertiary education since 1988, and before that I had worked as a kindergarten, primary and secondary school teacher. So it comes to not surprise that Brenda’s statement resonated with me so much: I do not know a life outside of the education sector.

But do I understand education?

Well, there was one way of finding that out: Go back to school; I have now enrolled for a Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice.

As part of the course, we are asked to keep a ‘teaching journal’, and this is how, after chatting with Alison and Marcus, this blog came to be. Unfortunately, this blog was also born as I headed towards what was to become one of the hardest teaching challenges I have ever had. So, between writing the blog and keeping my job, I chose the latter.

But I am here now, and I hope that this space will allow me to ponder about all things education that cross my mind as I navigate both being a student and a teacher and those experiences or readings that challenge my views about education.

Like Alison and Marcus, I also hope this space will be one of discussion and learning.
So that is me. For now.

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