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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.