Talking Teaching

June 22, 2020

thoughts on the proposed changes to NCEA

This post was first published on the Bioblog.

Many readers will probably have read this RNZ article (or heard the related interview), or seen calls for consultation on the Ministry of Education’s suggested changes to the number of subjects – and achievement standards – on offer to year 11 students.
I’ve been following (& participating, where I can) all this with colleagues and friends, and thought I’d share some of my thoughts here. But before I get onto that, I’ll point out that there’s been a fair bit of consultation even before we got to the point where these materials have gone out, in their turn, for feedback. That process began in 2018 and resulted in a “change package“. This was published in May 2019, and I really recommend reading it carefully as it provides the rationale for the latest 2 rounds of consultation (about the draft L1 Science standards & their supporting material, and about the number of individual subjects that should be offered to year 11 students.
In the interests of full disclosure, I’m a member of the Subject Expert Group (SEG) that is working on the draft L1 Science achievement standards.
So, the SEG members were tasked by the Ministry with developing four Science achievement standards (ASs), but that decision on the number of standards was based on a lot of feedback from a wide range of sector & interest groups, which signalled very clearly a need to reduce the complexity of NCEA & reduce the number of standards¹.
I’ll admit that one of my concerns regarding these two recent consultation rounds is the overlap between requests for feedback about the initial drafts of the Science material, and the announcement of consultation on the number of subjects on offer. I think it’s meant that people have conflated the two.
But – none of this is set in stone; it’s all draft material. Feel strongly about it? Then follow the appropriate links above, and be heard. And – read all the relevant materials before you comment.
One of the things I’ve heard quite often about the Science ASs is that the actual subject material is “hidden”. To some degree this might be due to people reading the headlines, and the ASs, and not also going through the supporting material: the learning matrix (which clearly identifies content) or the Teaching, Learning & Assessment Guide (TLAG for short). But from my perspective, the content material for biology, physics, chemistry, and earth & space science remains the same, and provides an essential context for delivering concepts and competencies relating to the Nature of Science strand in the National Curriculum document (NZC). Hopefully the next round of consultation documents will see the inclusion of some examples of teaching and assessment plans that show what this would look like in practice.
Thus, I think there does need to be an element of trust that teachers will continue to deliver content, & in fact – speaking personally – I would hope there will be a clear statement at some point about the need to cover content. However, I also think it’s important to remember that at the moment there are 31 standards available to schools delivering a year 11 Science program (which is almost all of them) and thus there is no guarantee of consistency now about what content students may or may not have covered.
I’ve heard a lot of concern about the need for professional learning development (PLD) opportunities for teachers. It’s a concern that I know is shared by all of us on the SEG, and it’s one that we’ve communicated to the Ministry. This is a shift in direction; it will entail a significant amount of work by classroom teachers; and there absolutely needs to be a substantial amount of PLD available well before implementation of any confirmed changes to the NCEA. (Not least, for science teachers, because the year 11 changes will probably flow down – to year 9 & 10 classrooms – and may have some impact ‘upwards’ as well.
But – & it’s a very big ‘but’ – I think that it would be easy to lose sight of the fact that the proposed standards are very much aligned to the NZC in placing  the nature of science front & centre (its delivery to date, if present, has been largely implicit).  As I wrote in my previous post,

Back in 2007 New Zealand implemented a new national curriculum. One of the features of the science component of that document is the overarching importance of students gaining an understanding of the nature of science (the “unifying strand” of the curriculum). In that context, it expects that:

students learn what science is and how scientists work. They develop the skills, attitudes, and values to build a foundation for understanding the world. They come to appreciate that while scientific knowledge is durable, it is also constantly re-evaluated in the light of new evidence. They learn how scientists carry out investigations, and they come to see science as a socially valuable knowledge system. They learn how science ideas are communicated and to make links between scientific knowledge and everyday decisions and actions.

And the document specifically adds that these outcomes are pursued through the following major contexts (the various science ‘subjects’) in which scientific knowledge has developed and continues to develop.

 

Given that currently about 60% of students in year 11 science don’t go on to further study in any of the sciences, I’d argue that while a scientifically-literate society does need some knowledge of science, it also requires a solid understanding of the nature of science itself.

 

 

¹ In my personal opinion, the inclusion of additional specific subject standards at year 11 would pretty much destroy the kaupapa of the SEG’s work, in that we would not see students gaining that key, core understanding of NoS. The nature of the 4 ASs currently out there for feedback was not determined randomly, but as the result of a fair bit of thought and discussion by the SEG members.

why do students need to learn about the nature of science?

This post was first published on the Bioblog.

You’re probably aware that the Achievement Standards used to assess senior school students’ learning are being reviewed. Science is one of the ‘pilot’ subjects in this process, where a ‘Subject Expert Group’ has developed 4 draft Science standards¹ (a significant step away from the current 30+, and a response to advice from several high-level advisory groups). These drafts have been out for consultation, and are all intended to develop and assess students’ understanding of the nature of science, with subject content providing the contexts for this learning. (That is, the subject content has definitely not disappeared.)

Why is this important?

Back in 2007 New Zealand implemented a new national curriculum. One of the features of the science component of that document is the overarching importance of students gaining an understanding of the nature of science (the “unifying strand” of the curriculum). In that context, it expects that:

students learn what science is and how scientists work. They develop the skills, attitudes, and values to build a foundation for understanding the world. They come to appreciate that while scientific knowledge is durable, it is also constantly re-evaluated in the light of new evidence. They learn how scientists carry out investigations, and they come to see science as a socially valuable knowledge system. They learn how science ideas are communicated and to make links between scientific knowledge and everyday decisions and actions.

And the document specifically adds that these outcomes are pursued through the following major contexts in which scientific knowledge has developed and continues to develop.

The development of that list recognised that the country’s future prosperity depends on students continuing to study science and entering science-related careers. This is because – as the late Sir Paul Callaghan observed –‘rich’ countries depend on high-end science and technology, and NZ needs to invest far more heavily in these fields to maintain and enhance its standard of living. That is, we need more scientists, scientifically-literate politicians, and a community that understands what science is done and why it’s relevant to everyday life.

But in practice, since then we’ve probably focused more on subject content than on explicitly teaching what science is, how it works, why it is such a powerful tool for understanding the world around it, and that it is a human/social endeavour. (I’m sure it’s implicit in many programs, but things like this aren’t universally picked up by osmosis: practice reinforces learning.)

Does this matter?

Well, yes it does. Knowledge of content is important, but I’d argue that it is far from being enough. Around 60% of year 11 (NCEA L1) students won’t go on to take science subjects at year 12 or 13. They need – all students need – more than content to be science-literate (as this recent PISA document makes clear). To that end, the NZ Curriculum document asked that in addition to content knowledge, students gain the ability to critically evaluate science ideas and processes; to communicate about science; and to recognise that science is a human endeavour² (people develop our scientific knowledge and that their ideas change over time).

And having the knowledge, understandings, and competencies that should be delivered by a teaching & learning program assessed using these standards, students should then be able to critically engage with the various science-based & science-informed issues that they’ll encounter, now & in the future. (And to deal with claims such as “well, science got it wrong in the past, so it can’t be trusted now”; and “science is always changing its mind”, both of which are hallmarks of those arguing against established scientific knowledge.)

That’s what the draft standards are intended to deliver, together with the acquisition of content knowledge. And I think that’s a very good thing.

 

¹ disclosure: I am a member of this group.

² The concept that science is a human endeavour is explicit in the title of one of the draft standards.

December 2, 2018

teachers’ reactions to this year’s year 13 bio exam

Today I’ve been hearing from some very unhappy teachers. As in, teachers who are upset to the point of tears on behalf of their students. Excellent, very experienced teachers. The reason for their unhappiness? This year’s NCEA Level 3 (year 13) biology exam, sat by their students just a few days ago.

And at this point I should emphasise that the teachers’ concerns were focussed towards the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, and not the individual examiner(s) who, after all, prepare these documents with advice and guidance from NZQA staff. Their concerns were focused on the system.

Now, it’s several years since I was an examiner at this level, and I know that the nature of the exam has changed. And of course the teachers themselves are well aware of what’s been expected in the past; they’re just taken aback by the nature of this year’s papers**.

Thing is, I was also involved in developing Scholarship-level exams and to me, while for some questions there’s quite a bit of resource material to get through in this year’s L3 exam, the amount of writing required of students seems an awful lot for level 3. The question-books for the exam (you’ll find them here) contain multiple blank pages for students to write their answers: the implicit message is that a lot of writing is needed. There are 3 questions like this in a book, so three essay-type answers for students hoping to achieve an excellence for the paper.

This may not sound like much – but the actual exam covers 3 separate achievement standards. So a student who’d prepared for all three (and most schools encourage this) would find themselves faced with writing up to 9 (yes, nine) extended answers over the space of three hours. (For comparison, a Schol Bio candidate would write just 3 essays in the same time frame.) In other words, the demands of this exam are such that it would quite likely preclude students from doing justice to all three papers.

So, here are some of the teachers’ concerns (I’m quoting with their permission):

  • for an ‘excellence’ response, a student had to demonstrate high-order analysis & evaluation skills, in an answer generated in just 20 minutes (less, really, because of the requirement to read the question & plan an answer first). This is a big ask.
  • students who were slower writers, or who had lower (but still OK) literacy levels would struggle to complete in a way that still allowed them to demonstrate their knowledge about biology and so gain an ‘achieved’. [And let’s remember that there’s a lot more to knowledge than simply being able to write a bunch of definitions.]
  • “all my students felt let down by this examination. All their hard work, dedication, and love for the subject were lost in those 3 hours.”
  • “I have seen a fair few of my students this week and they are so demoralised! Many are gutted they tried to do all 3 papers [because they] couldn’t do them justice- am gutted for them!”
  • “A Facebook comment stated, “OK, I will play their game and only do two externals next year”. What is happening to the integrity of our subject when the assessment is driving the whole course structure of Biology in schools throughout the country?”
  • “We are losing students because the subject is deemed too difficult. A colleague informed me that her daughter would not be taking Biology next year because it was too hard so she is taking Physics and Chemistry instead.”

Yes, this is anecdotal. But if these comments reflect a widespread reality, then science education in this country will be the loser.

 

** I was rather concerned about a particular question, too – but that’s best left to another post, on my ‘other’ blog.

November 28, 2017

what’s feedback – and do unversities do it well?

This is something that I’ve also posted on my ‘other’ blog, based on a most excellent article that a colleague has just sent me.

I’ve just received a reminder that I need to set up the paper & teaching appraisal for my summer school paper. This is a series of items that students can answer on a 1-5 scale (depending on how much or how little they agree with each statement), plus opportunities to give open-ended responses to a few questions. These last are the ones where I might want to find out how the students think I might improve my teaching, or the aspects of the paper that they did & didn’t like.

Among the first set of items is usually a stem along the lines of “this teacher provides useful feedback on my work”, where responses would range from ‘always’ (1) to ‘never’ (5). It’s the one where I get my lowest scores – and this is despite the fact that I provide general feedback to the class, written individual feedback on essays etc (& when I was teaching first-year, the opportunity to get feedback on drafts), and verbal feedback when the opportunity is there. Digging into that a bit, it appeared that most students only saw the written feedback as feedback at all, and since a substantial minority didn’t collect their essays afterwards, then they felt they weren’t getting feedback. Bit of a catch-22, and one that perhaps marking & giving feedback on line might ameliorate? I hope so.

But you can understand why students might not participate in an appraisal of the paper and the teaching in it: if they feel that the teachers aren’t providing them with feedback, why bother? And – just as important – if we don’t close the loop & tell students how we use their feedback, then why would they bother?

So, are universities good at providing feedback to students? I don’t agree, and I think quite a few students would say no – and according to this excellent article in the Conversation, academic researchers, Australia’s 2015 Graduate Course Experience survey, and the Australian government’s “Feedback for Learning” project agree with them. For example:

The 2015 Graduate Course Experience surveyed over 93,000 students within four months of their graduation. It reported that while close to three quarters of graduates felt the feedback they received was helpful, 16.3% could not decide if the feedback was helpful, while a further 9.7% found the feedback unhelpful. Clearly something is wrong when a quarter of our graduates indicate feedback is not working.

The findings from the Feedback for Learning survey of more than 4,000 students are particularly interesting – & saddening. Of all those surveyed, 37% said that the feedback is discouraging. Thirty-seven percent!!! There were few instances where students felt that they’d received the opportunity to benefit from any formative feedback they received. 15% of all respondents found the feedback upsetting – but this rose for international students, students with poor English skills (these first two are not necessarily one & the same) or a learning disability. And a majority of both staff & students felt that the feedback is impersonal.

You can see why I found the article saddening. But why is there such a problem? Perhaps, suggests the Conversation, it’s partly (largely?) because in many cases both academics and students don’t really understand what ‘feedback’ really is.

For example, many academics and students assume that feedback is a one-way flow of information, which happens after assessment submission and is isolated from any other event. In addition, academics and students often feel that the role of feedback is merely to justify the grade. A further misunderstanding is that feedback is something that is done by academics and given to students. These beliefs are deeply held in academic culture.

Luckily there are things that we can do about it. The article describes four things that educators should bear in mind that would significantly improve both the quality of feedback that we provide, and the nature of students’ learning experiences arising from that feedback. I strongly recommend reading those recommendations – and acting on them.

Blog at WordPress.com.