Sunday, 24 July 2016

SciCon 2016 Musings part 2 - Catch 22's

More thoughts on Scicon (The biennial conference for science educators) before I completely forget them! Warning, this is a bit of a ramble :)

As well as presenting a workshop at the conference (which I talked about in the last post), I had the interesting experience of being asked to take part in a panel that was looking to discuss 'Where to with NCEA?'. The panel was mostly made up with representatives from MOE, NZQA and the tertiary sector - in both a research and teaching sense. These types of panels haven't happened at SciCon before, although traditionally there is always a strong representation from both secondary and tertiary at the conference.

The panel experience was interesting in itself, but more valuable to me were the conversations and subsequent realisations that occurred to me afterwards. There's nothing like sitting on a stage and saying potentially provocative statements to a supportive audience (and possibly not so supportive fellow panelists!) that provides instant conversation starters for the remaining days of the conference. All those conversations - mostly started by other people, but a couple instigated by myself, were overwhelmingly positive and provided me with a completely different viewpoint to the blanket assumptions I had made about the tertiary sector.

Below, these are my thoughts on the interface and associated relationship tensions that exist between secondary and tertiary education (from a science point of view anyway!)... this may be a bit of a ramble!

My assumptions:

Having spent 11 years being an undergrad and then postgrad student at University, and having tutored first year Biology and Medical Sciences for a number of years, I felt like I had a reasonably good idea about the differences in pedagogy between secondary, undergraduate and postgraduate. However, my experiences are tainted with the fact that I came through school, along with my cohort, under the old 'School C'/'Bursary' system, and so have no first-hand experience of learning through NCEA as a student. Most of my Uni student years finished in 2005, with just my teaching diploma and postgrad teaching certificate since. This means that my impression of how undergrad is taught in particular is likely to be outdated (in some circumstances!). The other aspect skewing my thinking is that most of the interaction between secondary and tertiary seems to come from tertiary decreeing that certain Achievement Standards are required for particular programmes, such as Engineering and Health Sciences. The mainstream media also seems to be constantly bagging NCEA for being a substandard qualification, apparently without actual evidence, and this sometimes appears to be joined to the impression that tertiary has. (I seem to remember when NCEA was introduced, that entrance to specialised, competitive courses changing from first year entry based on Bursary results, to after a first year course as the Universities didn't seem to have a clear grasp of the NCEA qualification, and couldn't make sense of the more complicated grades, and wanted to trust their own examination-based system to select these second year students - again, this is my impression and may not be completely accurate!)

My overall impression of tertiary was therefore that there was some mistrust of the quality of NCEA, and some specialised programmes wanted to make sure that content knowledge was still there, by requiring specific AS by students (carried out in external examinations). My Uni experience also made me remember undergrad teaching as being primarily lecture-based, with very little interaction between lecturer and students. In science, this was also backed up with practical labs, but still quite a unidirectional way of teaching as opposed to inquiry (and these are the labs I tutored later on).

Conversations and Realisations:

Talking to some tertiary educators, it is apparent that there are some changes taking place in undergrad science teaching, in small pockets at least. Moves towards group work, increased interactivity between lecturers and students, and leanings towards inquiry-type learning. I suspect, however, that the vast majority of undergrad teaching at most universities is still lecture-based, as this is what is familiar and comfortable, and change in tertiary comes very slowly. (This article is an interesting read - disclaimer - NZ Herald; disclaimer - paid content in NZ Herald!) 

A really interesting observation that was recounted to me (and was also voiced during the panel, but somehow came across in a misconstrued fashion) was that first year science students are entering university with a dearth of self-management skills. These students as a large cohort (and as a generalisation, compared to first year science students from a decade or more ago) have tendencies towards only caring about 'is this on the test/exam?', they don't know how to manage their own time, they are not self-motivated and don't seem to care about their learning, simply getting dragged through their courses with as much hand-holding as possible. This is completely my interpretation of the comments made to me, so possibly I'm exaggerating them! 

The realisation this lead to was that secondary and tertiary are stuck in this catch-22 situation. For some students who wish to gain entry to specialised courses, the restriction of Achievement Standards that are desired means that in most schools, the entire year's science curriculum is tailored towards these (even though not all students will be aiming for those Uni courses). The pressure on schools to produce a high level of attainment for their students (not just for courses, but also in this competitive schooling environment we find ourselves in - another topic completely!), means that teachers are 'teaching to the test'. Rather than teaching science at level 7 or 8 of the NZ curriculum, and assessing from this, achievement standards are taught as the goal - all the focus is on grades and trying to support students to do exactly what is required by each standard. While this has allowed students to achieve at higher and higher rates, what it means is that there is a fair amount of 'spoon-feeding' going on. 

The result of this is the catch-22: secondary schools are trying to deliver what tertiary has apparently asked for (in some circumstances) - students with high grades in specific achievement standards. However, many of these students lack the self-motivation and self-management skills that tertiary also desires, and is now noticing that this is causing problems for students as they enter a different learning environment, where no-one will be there to hold their hands and guide them through. For me personally, this situation provides reassurance and insight that what we are doing at HPSS is a pathway that could prevent some of these problems. By students taking more responsibility for their own learning, and by teaching the science curriculum (out of which achievement standards happen to fall), I believe that we are not only allowing students the opportunity to develop these personal dispositions that will let them succeed in both a university environment, but also in life in general; but also that we are supporting them to achieve just as successfully in the specified achievement standards. By providing personal pathways, not all students have to sit all the same standards, and the students that require certain pathways can follow these without having to tailor an entire year's course around them.

Moving forward:

On a larger scale, I wonder how we can improve the communication between secondary and tertiary? Because that's what I think it all comes down to - opening up communication lines, actually talking to each other about what we are doing, and what we want from each other. What do Universities want more - specific grades from specific Achievement standards, or skills that support student self-learning and self-motivation - because currently, it's incredibly challenging for most schools to deliver both. (Ideally we can change the way we teach both secondary and tertiary, but that's a longer-term goal!)

That said, we all need to be positive, proactive and constructive, rather than bagging what the other sector is doing. I have some contacts and connections I am keen to follow up with, to see if we can start doing this on a small scale and build from there! Because surely we all want the same thing? Lifelong learners who can add value to our society, and help to attack the massive problems our world is facing and desperately needs solutions for. Is education not more powerful when we are all on the same page?

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