the interface between secondary & tertiary teaching

By Alison Campbell 02/12/2010

I’ve just spent a couple of wonderful days at the inaugural First-Year Biology Educators’ Colloquium, hosted by Otago University’s Phil Bishop at the Orokonui Ecosanctuary, near Dunedin. There were some absolutely inspirational speakers there & I came away with some ideas that I’d like to adapt for my own teaching. And I gave a talk myself (well, led a discussion, really), on the interface between secondary & tertiary biology teaching & why we need to be aware of it.

I’ve probably banged on about this before, but I believe that all first-year teaching staff should be aware of the secondary school curriculum in the area in which they teach. Why? – because an understanding of students’ prior learning experiences can only improve our ability to bridge them into their tertiary study. If we just sit back & assume that prior learning is going to remain the same for each new cohort of students, then we’re in for a big surprise. Let alone their expectations of how they’re going to be taught & assessed.

In 2014 we’re going to get a different cohort through the doors. These will be students who’ve been taught under the new (2007) national curriculum, and who’ve been assessed using new Achievement Standards that have been written to better reflect that curriculum.  (Personally I think there’s still way too much content in there, but that’s just my opinion – although it’s an idea that did attract a fair bit of discussion at the colloquium.) What that means, for example, is that lecturers can’t assume that students studied genetics in year 13 – because this new group won’t have done. The new draft standards see genetics (including concepts like control of gene expression) moved back into year 12.

And while the form & function of plants & animals remain in year 12, they’ve been combined, in the draft standards, into one standard that asks students to [demonstrate] understanding of adaptions of plants or animals to their way of life. (As someone who teaches a bit of botany, the ‘or’ bothers me a bit as it makes me wonder if even fewer students will be exposed to the planty side of things.) Plus the current requirement for students to [research] the interaction between humans and an aspect of biology is replaced by [analyse] the biological validity of information presented to the public. This particular one drew quite a bit of discussion, actually, as my first-year colleagues felt that their students could struggle with it…

Meanwhile the draft L3 standards include one on homeostasis ([demonstrate understanding of how animals maintain a stable internal environment), and the ‘biotech’ standard may become [demonstrate] understanding of human manipulation of genetic transfer and its biological implications.

Plus, as I said earlier, students who’ve come through the NCEA system tend to have quite different experiences of assessment compared to university practices: more formative assessment, more scaffolding into the question. And they’ll probably have been exposed to more opportunities for inquiry-based learning – rather different from the transmission model still common in lecture theatres & labs. This is something that we ignore at our peril, given the government’s increasing focus on measuring – & rewarding – the outcomes of teaching in a similar way to the existing performance-based research funding regime.

There was quite a bit of discussion around things like assessment, & also the nature of the NCEA itself. Towards the end, someone asked, what’s the government & the NZQA doing to make sure that universities are aware of all this? My answer was that it’s actually essential for teaching staff, particularly at first year, to familiarise themselves with what’s going on, not least because that way they’re likely to get a better handle on the system and its implications for their future students.

And along with that, to remember that the job of the year 13 teacher is not to prepare students for university. Not any more – only a minority of year 13 students will go on to study at university (although many may well go on to study in other tertiary education institutions). The difficult job those teachers face is to provide a diverse bunch of students with the skills they need for life beyond the classroom. And developing closer links between secondary & tertiary teachers, with enhanced mutual understandings of curriculum issues, would go a long way towards making that job a little easier, for all concerned.

0 Responses to “the interface between secondary & tertiary teaching”

  • Good post, I’ve way too many thoughts. Complicated by the fact I don’t teach… (leaving me not in the best position to comment) Sounds a little like neither player “owns” the ball – ?

  • You are probably right, I think. The universities still tend to view the job of year 13 teachers as being to prepare students for uni (& I do still hear people complaining that the schools aren’t doing that). That’s why I think it’s so important to set up some sort of relationship across this interface. Yes it will take time & effort but the pay-offs for us & for our students will be significant.

  • This may be a silly thing to ask, but how do we get a clear, concise set of learning objectives or curriculum objectives for every subject? The NCEA/NZQA website is hopelessly confusing. I was recently trying to find a concise curriculum for Level 3 Mathematics with Calculus, to see which concepts are covered (needed a reminder, even though I only left school 6 years ago!). Here is the link I got to:

    There are tons and tons of documents available, but all I wanted was a simple summary of the concepts that are included in the normal Level 3 Calculus course. Are these kinds of summaries available for the average person to access? I work at a university, and am interested in teaching undergraduates, and if I’m to familiarise myself with the high school curriculum I need to be able to find that information easily.

    Also, I did NCEA. Anyone finished school before me didn’t. It must be even harder for those academics, who may be quite unfamiliar with the NCEA system, to find the curriculum info when there’s all sorts of jargon about achievement/unit standards.

  • Hi Tamsin – not a silly thing to ask at all :) I find the NZQA website difficult myself, for things I haven’t bookmarked. I don’t know that you’d find the ‘old’ curriculum (ie the 1997 one) on the NZQA site at all but it’d probably be somewhere on the Ministry site or on TKI (the ‘resource’ site for teachers which is also – frankly – a pain to navigate!). The ‘new’ curriculum is available through the QA – you should find a link to it in one of my earlier posts on curriculum. However, as you’ve found, that shouldn’t be confused with the Standads – the problem is, of course, that these become the de facto curriculum, so looking at them will give a good idea of what’s being taught in the classroom. And the draft ‘new’ standards, which are being rolled out progressively from next year on, will indicate what will be focused on from that point on. But anyway, when I’m back on my own computer with all my bookmarks I’ll find the links you need & post them here :)

    BTW I agree with you that most academics won’t be familiar with the NCEA system & so will find it hard to get the info that they need. But I’d have to say that many simply don’t seem all that interested in finding out – when I ran a workshop on the nature of NCEA & its implications for the universities, 3-4 years ago, of a Faculty staff of 90+ only 6 people turned up :(

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