One of the things that I find profoundly irritating is hearing tertiary teaching staff decrying the efforts of their colleagues in the secondary education system. [Edit: here I must add that it’s not something I hear regularly – but I do hear it.] (And yes, sometimes I respond & make myself rather unpopular.) Comments along the lines of "teachers teach [insert topic name here] really badly; the kids come into my classes & they don’t know anything." Or "secondary teachers do a really bad job of preparing students to study [my subject] at university." As well as being patronising, these comments are generally just plain wrong, & they reflect a real lack of understanding of the current nature of science teaching in our secondary schools and of the science curriculum itself.
When really pushed, I have asked my colleagues to take a step back & truly reflect on what they’re saying. Do they really think that teachers don’t know anything about the subjects that they’re teaching? Because – what does that say about what’s going on in their own classes? After all, science teachers (in any disciplinary area) will have a science degree – at the very least a BSc, increasingly an MSc, & sometimes the person at the front of the classroom will hold a PhD. And they obtained those qualifications in university lecture theatres and laboratories.
What’s more, our education system has moved on from the ‘old days’ (the days that many lecturers perhaps are harking back to) when most students in 7th form (year 13) classes were going to go on to university. The way it was when I was a secondary student. Then, it could truly be said that students were essentially being primed for university study. But these days, many more students stay on for that final year at school, and they have many more future study options to look forward to. Schools have to support them all in their learning & so it’s simply not realistic to teach a class as if everyone in it was going on to take that subject at uni. It’s far more important to see them gain a thorough understanding of what [insert subject here] is all about AND the skills needed to take their learning to a new level when they move on to another institution, plus the general scientific literacy that’s needed in today’s world.
What of the content? Looking at specifically at biology, it’s huge. I’ve had a number of conversations with teachers & also people in NZQA, about what could & couldn’t be omitted – there is a lot of ‘front-loading’ as new discoveries are made & new techniques developed, but alas! it’s rare that anything falls off the back to compensate. What we need – urgently, in my opinion – is a discussion around just what is ‘core’ knowledge in biology, as that might help to thin things out a bit. So, maybe students don’t need to learn the details of how every latest biotech technique works, but should be able to apply critical thinking skills to issues surrounding the technique’s application?
Such scientific literacy is, of course, the focus of the new curriculum. Have a look at it, & you’ll see ‘the nature of science’ (NOS) at the top of every page. In developing their understanding about science, for example, students will "learn about science as a knowledge system: the features of scientific knowledge and the processes by which it is developed; and learn about the ways in which the work of scientists interacts with society." They’ll also investigate, "[carrying] out science investigations using a variety of approaches: classifying and identifying, pattern seeking, exploring, investigating models, fair testing, making things, or developing systems"; they’ll communicate, "[developing] knowledge of the vocabulary, numeric and symbol systems, and conventions of science and use this knowledge to communicate about their own & others’ ideas"; and they’ll participate and contribute, "[bringing] a scientific perspective to decisions and actions as appropriate". It’s expected that the nature of science will underpin any & all learning activities that students carry out, with the intention that when they leave school they’ll have those skills and that knowledge that I mentioned above.
Related to this is the fact that at the moment the existing NCEA Achievement Standards are being ‘re-aligned’ with the new curriculum. For instance, in many cases particular topics have been shifted around between years eg the genetics material currently in year 13 has been moved, in the curriculum document, to year 12. This means not only that the ASs have to be re-jigged to account for that, but also that the nature of what’s taught has to be re-examined. Year 12 students may not be at the point where they can grasp some of the concepts entailed in the current assessment standards in genetics, for example.
Now of course all this has implications for the universities. From 2014 the students coming through to the tertiary sector from year 13 will have been taught using the new curriculum & assessed using the new set of standards. They will almost certainly have been exposed to less ‘content’ and can be expected to have developed more process skills. (And I don’t envy secondary teachers who must grapple with how to achieve this.) Lecturers assuming that this crop of students will have been taught the same material as all previous intakes will be sadly mistaken. And because of the way they’ve been learning (& how they’ve been assessed) these students may very well have different expectations of how they’ll be learning, & demonstrating that learning, at university.
And these are all things that university lecturers must recognise, and adapt to, if we’re to continue to successfully bridge our students from secondary school and into their tertiary studies.