Talking Teaching

October 13, 2012

why kids should grade teachers

Next week my first-year biology students will be doing an appraisal of this semester’s paper, & of those academic staff involved in teaching it. They’re asked about the perceived difficulty of the paper, the amount of work they’re expected to do for it, whether they’ve been intellectually stimulated, the amount of feedback they receive on their work, how approachable staff are, & much else besides. (The feedback one was always my worst scoring attribute – until I asked the students what they thought ‘feedback’ met. It turned out that they felt this described one-to-one verbal communication. We had a discussion about all the other ways in which staff can give feedback – & the scores went up.) The results are always extremely useful, as not only to we find out what’s working, but we also discover what’s not (or at least, what the students perceive as not working) & so may need further attention.

Anyway, my friend Annette has just drawn my attention to a lengthy post in The Atlantic, by Amanda Ridley. It made fascinating reading.

In towns around the country this past school year, a quarter-million students took a special survey designed to capture what they thought of their teachers and their classroom culture. Unlike the vast majority of surveys in human history, this one had been carefully field-tested. That research had shown something remarkable: if you asked kids the right questions, they could identify, with uncanny accuracy, their most – and least – effective teachers.

Ridley, reporting for the Atlantic, was able to follow a 4-month pilot project that was run in 6 schools in the District of Colombia. She notes that about half the states in the US use student test data to evaluate how teachers are doing.

Now, this approach is fraught with difficulty. It doesn’t tell you why children aren’t learning something, for example (or why they do, which is just as interesting). And it puts huge pressure on teachers to ‘teach to the test’ (although Ridley says that in fact “most [American] teachers still do not teach the subjects or grade levels covered by mandatory standardized tests”). It ignores the fact that student learning success can be influenced by a wide range of factors, some of which are outside the schools’ control. (And it makes me wonder how I’d have done, back when I was teaching a high school ‘home room’ class in Palmerston North. Those students made a fair bit of progress, and we all learned a lot, but they would likely not have done too well on a standardised test of academic learning, applied across the board in the way that National Standards are now.)

So, the survey. It grew out of a project on effective teaching funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which found that the top 5 questions – in terms of correlation with student learning – were

  1. Students in this class treat the teacher with respect.
  2. My classmates behave the way my teacher wants them to.
  3. Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time.
  4. In this class, we learn a lot almost every day.
  5. In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes.

and the version used with high school students in the survey Ridley writes about contained 127 questions. That sounds an awful lot, to me, but apparently most kids soldiered on & answered them all. Nor did they simply choose the same answer for each & every question, or try to skew the results:

Students who don’t read the questions might give the same response to every item. But when Ferguson [one of the researchers] recently examined 199,000 surveys, he found that less than one-half of 1 percent of students did so in the first 10 questions. Kids, he believes, find the questions interesting, so they tend to pay attention. And the ‘right’ answer is not always apparent, so even kids who want to skew the results would not necessarily know how to do it.

OK – kids (asked the right questions) can indicate is a good, effective teacher. What use is made of these results, in the US? The researchers say that they shouldn’t be given too much weighting, in assessing teachers – 20-30% – & only after multiple runs through the instrument, though at present few schools actually use them that way. This is important – no appraisal system should rely on just one tool.

That’s only part of it, of course, because the results are sent through to teachers themselves, just as I get appraisal results back each semester. So the potential’s there for the survey results to provide the basis of considerable reflective learning, given the desire to do so, & time to do it in. Yet only 1/3 of teachers involved in this project even looked at them.

This is a problem in the NZ tertiary system too, & I know it’s something that staff in our own Teaching Development Unit grapple with. Is it the way the results are presented? Would it be useful to be given a summary with key findings highlighted? Do we need a guide in how to interpret them? Do people avoid possibly being upset by the personal comments that can creep into responses (something that can be avoided/minimised by explaining in advance the value of constructive criticism – and by being seen to pay attention to what students have to say)?

Overall, this is an interesting study & one whose results may well inform our own continuing debate on how best to identify excellent teaching practice. What we need to avoid is wholesale duplication and implementation in our own school system without first considering what such surveys can & can’t tell us, and how they may be incorporated as one part of a reliable, transparent system of professional development and goal-setting. And that, of course, is going to require discussion with and support from all parties concerned – not implementation from above.

August 22, 2012

charter schools (from letters to the editor)

Usually when I choose to base a post on the ‘letters’ section of a newspaper, it’s because something that someone’s written has rather got my goat. This time – this time, it’s because I agree with the sentiments & feel they warrant a wider audience & further analysis.

The Government wants to introduce charter schools, apparently, to solve issues of under achievement. It points to students failing to achieve NCEA Level 2 as justification for this policy. In fact, if the Government actually bothered to look at NCEA data, it would see that pass rates have been rising over the past decade, something achieved without charter schools.

And in fact, the NZ Herald ran a story on this in early 2011.

Studies clearly show that the most effective way to assist schools to lift achievement levels is employing trained teachers and providing quality professional development. Charter schools can employ untrained teachers and the Government has cut funding for much of the professional development it offered.

As I’ve said previously, it’s hard to see how using untrained teachers is going to improve teacher quality.

New Zealand has a very good education system. In countries with poorer education systems than ours, with greater academic under achievement, charter schools have failed to make any significant improvement to under achievement. So, if the Government wants to make a dent in education under achievement, why import policies that have failed overseas. Failure simply replicates failure.

The evidence on success (or otherwise) of charter schools is mixed. In some US states, for example, they seem to have a marked positive effect on learning outcomes for their students. In others, not so much. We’re told that in NZ, charter – sorry, ‘partnership’ – schools will be run following best overseas practice; it would be useful to hear more about what that will entail, sooner rather than later.

In that last post, I also expressed concern about the potential for charter schools – which, let us remember, will be state-funded – to include subjects such as creationism in their curricula. A ‘Stuff’ piece by Kelsey Fletcher expands on this, describing the intention of one group keen to run a charter school to use the ‘In God’s Word’ philosophy (something that would somehow still be able to be ‘marked’ against the Cambridge curriculum – presumably only if the evolutionary underpinnings of the biology curriculum component are ignored). Associate Education Minister, John Banks, tells us we don’t need to worry (the following is from the ‘Stuff’ item):

John Banks said the ministry had received a lot of correspondence, including complaints about public funding of faith-based education. He would not comment on the trust’s charter plans. “There’s no proposed partnership to consider, because we haven’t received any formal applications, and none have been called for,” Banks said. “The first schools open in 2014, and expressions of interest will be called for next year.”

I would feel more sanguine about this whole process if the nature of charter schools, and what they can and cannot offer in their curriculum, was set out clearly well in advance. Finding out after the event is not an appropriate option.


August 21, 2012

academic olympics fail to gain government support

This is a guest post – I’m running it on behalf of my friend & colleague Dr Angela Sharples.  Angela is the current chair of OlympiaNZ (the umbrella organisation for the various NZ Olympiad committees) and leads NZ International Biology Olympiad. She received the Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Award in 2011. I completely agree with her comments; like her, this is an issue I have very strong feelings about & I believe her comments deserve a wider audience. (Cross-posting from SciblogsNZ.)

At a time when we celebrate all things sporting we should reflect on our attitudes towards success in all forms of endeavour in New Zealand. The Olympics showcase the world’s best in sporting endeavour and we rightly look up to these elite athletes and admire the effort and dedication it took for each and every one of these athletes to reach the top of their field. The personal attributes required for them to even participate at the Olympics are transferable to all areas of performance in life and so we celebrate these athletes, admire them and aspire to like them. They are role models that encourage younger athletes from primary school to university level to participate in the sport of their choice and to dream that with hard work and dedication they too may reach Olympic level.

The government recognises this social benefit of elite sports and funds it accordingly, through SPARC and the high performance programmes. They have their eye on the long term benefits that participation in sport at the elite level provides to the wider New Zealand community. The government also recognises that New Zealand must foster innovation through a responsive, high performance education system if New Zealand is to remain globally competitive in a rapidly changing world.  Unfortunately, whilst the government has
published any number of reports on the importance of Science and innovation in New Zealand we see very little action on establishing and supporting programmes which foster such excellence.

Just last week, the New Zealand International Biology Olympiad withdrew from hosting the International Biology Olympiad here in New Zealand in July 2014. This prestigious international event challenges and inspires the brightest young secondary school students from 60 countries (and the number of member countries continues to grow) to deepen their understanding of biology and promotes a career in science. The focus is on the importance of biology for society, especially in areas such as biotech, agriculture and horticulture, environmental protection and biodiversity. These are all areas of academic endeavour crucial for New Zealand’s economic success in the future. Hosting this event in New Zealand was a chance to showcase our innovative education system and biological research to some of the world’s top academics and to inspire our own students to develop the dedication and put in the sheer hard work required to reach this highest level of academic endeavour. It is an opportunity lost!

Unlike our sporting Olympians our academic Olympians receive little support from the government and even less acknowledgement and celebration of their success. New Zealand has performed outstandingly well in the International competitions since we first competed in 2005, winning 16 Bronze medals, 7 Silver and 1 Gold Medal. These high performing students are New Zealand’s economic future and yet few in the country are even aware of their achievement.

Until we apply the same high performance strategies to our science and innovation system in New Zealand that we utilise in sports we will continue to talk about the importance of fostering excellence in science and innovation whilst we watch our competitors on the global stage outperform us. And we will continue to lose our best young minds to countries where their contribution is valued.

February 19, 2012

have universities degraded to only teaching scientific knowledge?

The title of this post is one of the search terms that people used when they came here to Talking Teaching. It caught my eye & I thought I’d use it as the basis of some musings.

We’ll assume that this question is directed at Science Faculties :-) Using ‘degraded’ suggests that a university education used to provide more than simply a knowledge base in science. (If I wanted to stir up a bit of controversy I could say – oh OK, I will say – that it’s just as well that they ‘only’ teach scientific knowledge, however that’s defined. My personal opinion is that the teaching of pseudoscience (eg homeopathy, ‘therapeutic touch’, etc) has no place in a university, & it’s a matter of some concern that such material has appeared in the curriculum eg in the US, UK & Australia. Why? Because it’s not evidence-based, & close investigation – in one case, by a 9-year-old schoolgirl – shows that it fails to meet the claims made for it. You could teach about it, in teaching critical thinking, but as a formal curriculum subject? No way.)

Anyway, back to the chase. Did universities teach more than just ‘the facts’, in the past? And is it a Bad Thing if we don’t do that now?

I’ll answer the second question first, by saying that yes, I believe it is a Bad Thing if all universities teach is scientific knowledge – if by ‘knowledge’ we mean ‘facts’ & not also a way of thinking. For a number of reasons. Students aren’t just little sponges that we can fill up with facts & expect them to recall such facts in a useful way. They come into our classes with a whole heap of prior learning experiences & a schema, or mental construct of the world, into which they slot the knowledge they’ve gained. Educators need to help students fit their new learning into that schema, something that may well involve challenging the students’ worldviews from time to time. This means that we have to have some idea of what form those schemas take, before trying to add to them.

What’s more, there’s more to science than simply ‘facts’. There’s the whole area of what science actually is, how it works, what sets it apart from other ways of viewing the world. You can’t teach that simply by presenting facts (no matter how appealingly you do this). Students need practice in thinking like a scientist, ‘doing’ science, asking & answering questions in a scientific way.  And in that sense, then I would have to say that I think universities may have ‘degraded’ – until very recently, it would probably be fair to say that the traditional way of presenting science to undergraduates, using lectures as a means of transmitting facts & cook-book labs as a means of reinforcing some of those facts, conveyed very little about what science is actually all about.  And it’s really encouraging to see papers in mainstream science journals that actively promote changing how university science teaching is done (here, here, & here, for example).

Of course, saying we’ve ‘degraded’ what we do does make the assumption that things were different in the ‘old days’. Maybe they were. After all, back in Darwin’s day (& much more recently, in the Oxbridge style of uni, anyway) teaching was done via small, intimate tutorials that built on individual reading assignments & must surely have talked about the hows & whys, as well as the whats, of the topic du jour. However, when I was at university (last century – gosh, it makes me feel old to say that!) things had changed, & they’d been different for quite a while. Universities had lost that intimacy & the traditional lecture (lecturer ‘transmitting’ knowledge from up the front, & students scrabbling to write it all down) was seen as a cost-effective method of teaching the much larger classes that lecturers faced, particularly in first year. In addition, the sheer volume of knowledge available to them had increased enormously. And when you’re under pressure to teach everything that lecturers in subsequent courses want students to know before entering ‘their’ paper, transmission teaching must have looked like the way to go. Unfortunately, by going that route, we’d generally lost track of the need to help students learn what it actually means to ‘do’ science.

Now, those big classes aren’t going to go away any time soon. The funding model for universities ensures that. (Although, there’s surely room to move towards more intimate teaching methods in, say, our smaller 3rd-year classes?) But there are good arguments for encouraging the spread of new teaching methods that encourage thinking, interaction, & practicing a scientific mindset, even in large classes. Those papers I linked to show that it can be done, and done very successfully. Argument 1: there’s more to producing a scientifically-literate population than attempting to fill students full of facts (which they may well retain long enough to pass the end-of-term exam, & then forget). We need people with a scientific way of thinking about the many issues confronting them in today’s world.

And argument 2: giving students early practice at doing & thinking about science may encourage more of them to consider the option of graduate study. (In NZ, graduate students are funded at a higher rate than undergraduates, and the PBRF system rewards us for graduate completions, so there’s a good incentive for considering change right there!)

I’m sure you can think of others :-)

here be dragons

Over on SciblogsNZ we had a bit of a discussion around the issue of science & belief systems. How far should scientists, & those who communicate about science, go in ‘pushing’ against strongly-held beliefs? (These could include creationism, but also beliefs about ‘alternative therapies’ such as homeopathy & TCM.)

It is an area where care is needed, because if you ‘push’ so hard that people feel their ideas are threatened, they may become defensive & those ideas more entrenched. Neither’s a desirable outcome from science’s point of view. On the other hand, in teaching about science, from time you actually need to put students in an ‘uncomfortable’ place regarding their conceptions about the world, if they’re to examine those questions critically & perhaps reshape them in the light of the new knowledge they’ve acquired. (If that doesn’t happen, then that new knowledge is likely to be learned only superficially – quickly gained & just as quickly forgotten.)

I’d like to reproduce a comment from that thread, partly because it would be good to get a discussion going around the question of how far & how best to promote a science-based world view, & partly because the comment reminded me of the late, great Carl Sagan: I’m just re-reading his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. I enjoy the lyrical nature of much of Sagan’s writing, but I also like this book for it’s ‘baloney-detection tool kit’ – a set of useful questions & approaches to encourage & strengthen critical-thinking skills. 

Anyway, here’s the comment: 

[if we just accept a belief system], in the end we pass deeper into the land of moral equivalency (how dare you question my belief system – it’s as valid as yours!).

Here be dragons.

Dragons are best slain – no good comes from people attempting to turn them into pets, or ignoring the fact that they scorch the curtains and eat children.

What do you think about this?

December 21, 2011

the status & quality of year 11 & 12 science in australian schools

My reading assignment today was a report just out from the Australian Academy of Science(the AAS) on science in Australian secondary schools (Goodrum, Druhan & Abbs, 2011). Not what you might expect on a reading list in the week before Christmas, but I was up to speak (briefly) about it on Radio NZ & needed to have an idea what the report contained.

It’s a really thorough study of the state of senior school science across the Tasman, based on an extensive literature review, a survey of students (both those taking science, & those who aren’t) in NSW, South Australia & the Australian Capital Territory, a phone survey of senior science teachers in the same states, and a series of focus groups involving not only teachers and students but also scientists & members of the wider community. This allowed Goodrum & his colleagues to describe the ideal state of senior school science education in Australia (my marginal note at this point says ‘Wonderful! but does it/can it happen?) in terms of students & the curriculum, teaching as a profession, the resourcing of science teaching & learning, and the value of science education. They describe the last item thusly:

Science and science education are valued by the community, have high priority in the school curriculum and science teaching is perceived as exciting and valuable, contributing significantly to the development of persons and to the economic and social well-being of the nation.

And then… they identified the actual state of affairs, “by focusing on different dimensions of the school experience: the students, the curriculum, the pedagogy, the teachers and finally the resources.”

I must say that I think we are well ahead of the Australian state of play in terms of the curriculum document as discussed in the AAS report: Yes, the NZ curriculum is probably still too content-heavy, but at least the clear understanding and expectation is that senior school science should do much more than simply prepare a relatively small cohort of students for university. (This is something that I believe the universities need to be much more aware of, as otherwise we will continue to have a disjunction between lecturer expectations and the actual prior learning experiences of our new first-year students.) Also, the NZ Science curriculum explicitly requires that students be given the opportunity to learn about the nature of science; it’s not all about content knowledge. However, the AAS survey found that both students and teachers in the Australian school system believed that

Year 11 and 12 science is constructed to prepare students for university study. This university preparation perspective has resulted in an overcrowded content-laden curriculum. WIth the amount of content to be covered there is little room for flexibility from either the teacher or student.

Goodrum & his colleagues also found that most senior science teaching** in the schools they surveyed is done using the transmission model (teacher talks or writes on the board – or uses powerpoint – & students simply write it all down); that teacher demonstrations are common; and that practical sessions tend to be of the ‘cook-book’ variety where the outcomes are already known and the students are simply following a pre-determined method. Where there isopportunity for more inquiry-based learning in labs, teachers reported that these really sucked through the time & that this in turn led schools using open-ended student projects to advise students not to take all three sciences as the demands on their time would be too great.

So what did they find when they looked at levels of participation in senior science: the proportion of students in each year’s cohort who were enrolled in science subjects in their final 2 years of secondary school? The news was not good, and it’s news that’s obviously generating a lot of concern: looking at the proportion of students enrolled in each discipline in each year, they found that

[s]ince 1991, the percentage of students enrolled in Biology, Chemistry and Physics has been gradually falling. For Biology the fall has been from 35.9% in 1991 to 24.7% 2007, for Chemistry 23.3% in 1991 to 18.0% in 2007, and for Physics 20.9% in 1991 to 14.6% in 2007. While the fall has slowed there is no indication that it has stopped.

(The proportion taking Psychology, on the other hand, has almost doubled – from 4.9% in 1991 to 9.2% in 2006. Geology – this in a country where mineral resources are so significant to the economy – has remained at a fairly constant 1% throughout the study period.)

And looking at total science enrolments in Year 12:

there has been a dramatic fall in the percentage of students studying science in Year 12 from a height of 94.1% in 1992 to a low of 51.4% in 2010

with a particularly large drop-off in the period 2001-2002. The researchers weren’t able to identify any reason for this in terms of policy changes. Part of the decline may be linked to how students perceive science in schools – something that probably needs to be addressed in junior schools, because

Some non-science students report that if science was more ‘interesting and relevant to their lives’ then they would consider enrolling in it… Many, however, think so poorly of their experience and achievements in junior secondary science** that they won’t consider senior science under any circumstances.

This is a real pity, as the community members surveyed clearly felt that all students need to study science throughout their schooling – it shouldn’t be just for those who need it for their careers. They felt that science in schools

should be relevant… and demonstrate how science understanding and process impacts daily life.

Which is great – but I did wonder if those sentiments are shared by the wider school community as a whole (parents, teachers, students, the works). Schools do seem to be under pressure to broaden their curriculum, which places time constraints on teachers in the various subjects, & at least some of that pressure comes from the communities in which the schools are situated.

So how do the Australian data stack up compared to senior science education in New Zealand? I gathered from my radio host that the PM’s Chief Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, will be soon releasing a report on just this issue. Watch this space.

** The researchers make the point that this is different from the teaching methods used in junior (our years 9-11) science classes, and suggest that “[p]erhaps this more enlightened approach in the junior years should influence how science is taught in Years 11 & 12.” (Some students obviously gained a different impression…)

D.Goodrum, A.Druhan & J.Abbs (2011) The Status and Quality of Year 11 and 12 Science in Australian Schools. A report prepared for the Office of the Chief Scientist.

December 20, 2011

using pseudoscience to teach science

The following post is an article that I originally wrote for the New Zealand Science Teacher journal (the official journal of the New Zealand Association of Science Educators), and is reproduced here (& also on my ‘other’ blog) by kind permission of the editor.

We live in a time when science features large in our lives, probably more so than ever before. It is  important that people have at least some understanding of how science works, not least so that they can make informed decisions when aspects of science impinge on them. Yet pseudoscience seems to be on the increase. While some argue that we simply ignore it, I suggest we use pseudoscience to help teach the nature of science (and I recommend Jane Young’s excellent book, The uncertainty of it all: understanding the nature of science,(2010) as a resource).

The New Zealand Curriculum (MoE, 2007) makes it clear that there’s more to studying science than simply accumulating facts: Science is a way of investigating, understanding, and explaining our natural, physical world and the wider Universe. It involves generating and testing ideas, gathering evidence – including by making observations, carrying out investigations and modeling, and communicating and debating with others – in order to develop scientific knowledge, understanding and explanations (p28). In other words, studying science also involves learning about the nature of science: that it is a process as much as, or more than, a set of facts. Pseudoscience offers a lens through which to approach this.

1. Check the information
Students should be encouraged to think about the validity and reliability of particular statements. They should learn about the process of peer review. They should ask: has a particular claim been peer reviewed; who reviewed it; where was it published? There is a big difference between information that’s been tested and reviewed, and information (or misinformation) that simply represents a particular point of view and is promoted via the popular press (and Internet).

‘Cold fusion’ is a good example. Cold fusion was a claim that nuclear fusion could be achieved in the laboratory at room temperatures. The claim was trumpeted to the world via a press release, but was subsequently debunked because other researchers tried, and failed, to duplicate its findings.

Thus checking the source of the information is vital. There is a hierarchy of journals, with publications such as Science considered prestigious, and publications such as Medical Hypotheses considered less so. The key distinction between these journals is the peer review process. For example, papers submitted to Science are subject to stringent peer review processes (and many don’t make the grade), while Medical Hypotheses seems to accept submissions uncritically, with minimal review.

By considering the source of information students can begin to develop the sort of critical thinking skills that they need to make sense of the cornucopia of information on the Internet. When viewing a particular Internet site they should ask (and answer!) questions about the source of the information: has it been subject to peer review (you could argue that the Internet is an excellent ‘venue’ for peer review, but all too often it’s simply self-referential), does it fit into our existing scientific knowledge, and do we need to know anything else about the data or its source?

2. Analyse the information
The following example is excellent for a discussion around both evolution and experimental design, in addition to the nature of science. There is an online article entitled Darwin at the drugstore: testing the biological fitness of antibiotic-resistant bacteria (Gillen & Anderson, 2008) where the researchers tested the concept that a mutation conferring antibiotic resistance rendered the bacteria less ‘fit’. Note: There is an energy cost to bacteria in producing any protein, but whether this renders them less fit – in the Darwinian sense – is entirely dependent on context.

The researchers used two populations of the bacterium Serratia marcescens: an ampicillin-resistant lab-grown strain, which produces white colonies, and a pink, non-resistant (‘wild-type’) population obtained from pond water. ‘Fitness’ was defined as ‘growth rate and colony “robustness” in minimal media.’ After 12 hours’ incubation the two populations showed no difference in growth on normal lab media (though there were differences between 4 and 6 hours) but the wild-type strain did better on minimal media. It is difficult to know whether the difference was of any statistical significance as the paper’s graphs lack error bars and there are no tables showing the results of statistical comparisons. Nonetheless, the authors describe the differences in growth as ‘significant’.

The authors concluded that antibiotic resistance did not enhance the fitness of Serratia marcescens: wild-type [S.marcescens] has a significant fitness advantage over the mutant strains due to its growth rate and colony size. Therefore, it can be argued that ampicillin resistance mutations reduce the growth rate and therefore the general biological fitness of S.marcescens. This study concurs with Anderson (2005) that while mutations providing antibiotic resistance may be beneficial in certain, specific, environments, they often come at the expense of pre-existing function, and thus do not provide a mechanism for macroevolution (Gillen & Anderson, 2008).

Let us now apply some critical thinking to this paper. Your students will be familiar with the concept of a fair test, so they will probably recognise fairly quickly that such a test was not performed in this case because the researchers were not comparing ‘apples with apples’. When one strain of the test organism is lab-bred and not only antibiotic-resistant but forms different coloured colonies from the pond-dwelling wild-type, there are a lot of different variables involved, not just the one whose effects are supposedly being examined.

In addition, and perhaps more tellingly, the experiment did not test the fi tness of the antibiotic-resistance gene in the environment where it might convey an advantage. The two Serratia marcescens strains were not grown in media containing ampicillin! Evolutionary biology predicts that the resistant strain would be at a disadvantage in minimal media. This is due to it using energy to express a gene that provides no benefit in that environment, making it short of energy for other cellular processes. And, as I commented earlier, the data do not show any significant differences between the two bacterial strains.

Also, the authors work at Liberty University, a private faith-based institution with strong creationist leanings, and the article is an online publication in the ‘Answers in Depth’ section of the website of Answers in Genesis (a young-Earth creationist organisation). This is not a mainstream peer-reviewed science journal. This does suggest that a priori assumptions may have coloured the experimental design.

3. Verify the information
Your students should learn how to recognise ‘bogus’ science. To begin with, students should scrutinise information presented via the popular media (including websites) and ask: why is this happening? Another warning sign is the presence of conspiracy theories.

One conspiracy theory worth discussing relates to the validity of vaccination programmes: “Is vaccination really for the good of our health, or the result of a conspiracy between government and ‘big pharma’ to make us all sick so that pharmaceutical companies can make more money selling products to help us get better?”

Dr A. Kalokerinos is often quoted on anti-vaccination websites as saying: My final conclusion after forty years or more in this business is that the unofficial policy of the World Health Organisation and the unofficial policy of ‘Save the Children’s Fund and almost all those organisations is one of murder and genocide. They want to make it appear as if they are saving these kids, but in actual fact they don’t.

This quote is a good example of how conspiracy theorists often use an argument from an ‘authority’. Yet it is easy to pull together a list of names with PhD or MD after them to support an argument. Try giving your students a list of names of ‘experts’ and see if they can work out their field of expertise.

Recently, New Zealand schools received a mailout from a group called ‘Scientists Anonymous’ offering an article purporting to support ‘intelligent design’ rather than an evolutionary explanation for a feature of neuroanatomy. The article was authored by Dr Jerry Bergman.

A literature search indicates that Dr Bergman has made no recent contributions to the scientific literature in this field, but he has published a number of articles with a creationist slant. So Dr Bergman cannot really be regarded as an expert authority in this particular area. Similarly, it is well worth reviewing the credentials of many anti-vaccination ‘experts’ – the fact that someone has a PhD by itself is irrelevant; the discipline in which that degree was gained, is important. Observant students may also wonder why the originators of the mail out feel it necessary to remain anonymous.

Students need to know the difference between anecdote and data. Humans are pattern-seeking animals and we dohave a tendency to see non-existent correlations where in fact we are looking at coincidences. For example, a child may develop a fever a day after receiving a vaccination. But without knowing how many non-vaccinated children also developed a fever on that particular day, it’s not actually possible to say that there’s a causal link between the two.

Another important message to get across to students is that there are not always two equal sides to every argument, not withstanding the catchcry of “teach the controversy!” This is an area where the media, with their tendency to allot equal time to each side for the sake of ‘fairness’, are not helping. Balance is all very well, but not without due cause.

For example, apply scientific thinking to claims such as the health benefi ts of homeopathy. Homeopathy makes quite specific claims concerning health and well-being. How would you test those claims of efficacy? What are the mechanisms by which homeopathy – or indeed any other alternative health product – is supposed to have its effects? Claims that homeopathy works through mechanisms as yet unknown to science don’t address this question, but in addition, they presuppose that it does actually work.

Students will have some knowledge of the properties of matter and the effects of dilution, and senior classes may be aware of Avogadro’s number. They could apply this to the claim that homeopathic remedies become more effective at higher and higher dilutions, something that, if correct, would overturn our understanding of basic chemistry and physics. The 10:23 Campaign – in which people take ‘overdoses’ of homeopathic remedies – is a humorous way of highlighting the improbability of such claims.

If students can learn to apply these tools to questions of science and pseudoscience, they will become better equipped to find their way through the maze of conflicting information that the modern world presents, regardless of whether they go on to further study in the sciences.

A.Campbell (2011) Using pseudoscience to teach science. New Zealand Science Teacher 128: 38-39

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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