In the 2006 summer issue of the Journal of Biological Education, senior science lecturer Jenny Lewis published “Bringing the real world into the biology curriculum.” Lewis and her team conducted a two-year long study in England monitoring the impact of a new Advanced Level Biology curriculum on the pedagogical practices of both novice and seasoned instructors. The study tracked eight teachers from three contrasting schools (combinations of public/private/small/medium/large) as they implemented changes to the curriculum and charted the challenges they encountered. I felt that many of the study’s observations and conclusions would likely apply to the university setting and addressed struggles across the sciences, included more “specialized” fields.
Biology classes in England (and the US, I would argue) typically focus on factual rather than conceptual knowledge, which has led to a culture of “teaching for the test.” To counter this trend, a new advanced biology curriculum has been introduced in England. This curriculum relies on contemporary real word problems as points of departure for teaching diverse topics, emphasizes the experimental process over factual knowledge, and expects students to actively engage in their own learning, develop critical thinking, and reflect on their own progress. For example, the syllabus of traditional courses would organize content by broad subject areas and processes (i.e., “genes and genetic engineering”), whereas the new course would organize content around real world problems (i.e., a murder mystery, which incorporates principles from immunology, microbiology, genetics, physiology, etc). The new curriculum also incorporates social and ethical issues at the expense of more traditional content.
To monitor progress, Lewis et al. interviewed students and teachers at various stages over the two year period and attended and videotaped classes. Importantly, the researchers established a “baseline” of experience, attitude, normal teaching style, and plan of action (Table 1) for each instructor. Lewis et al. divided their subsequent field observations into six categories: selection of content, use of discussion, active learning, practical work, use of computer-based technology, and selection of activities.
Overall, the researchers found:
1. Instructors struggled to define scope, especially more senior staff who felt transmitting certain facts was absolutely “required.”
2. Discussions, when used, were often limited to factual knowledge rather than controversial or ethical topics. Instructors expressed concerns about moderating open-ended discussions about issues without “right” answers.
3. Not all instructors understood what “active learning” really meant. Some interpreted active learning to mean “students work alone.” Those instructors with a firmer grasp admitted that it was hard relinquish control over the classroom.
4. The use of computer-based technology varied, often depending on the proficiency and eagerness of the instructor. IT-based classrooms also appeared more difficult to manage than traditional classrooms due to the physical layout (students backs to the instructor; no eye contact).
5. Students sometimes resisted being agents of their own learning, and would shout “Just tell us the answer!”
Lewis et al. noted that instructors had to “temporarily regress to the (uncomfortable) position of learner.” These moments required instructors to critically review their knowledge base. Perhaps the most important conclusion of the study was that enthusiasm for change is not enough. Lewis et al. emphasized the importance of extensive professional support and training workshops. The instructors in this study attended workshops, participated in an online interactive forum, and received online resources with ready-made activities. Further materials could include examples of “good practice,” materials to teach across the curriculum (i.e., placing topics within an interdisciplinary context), techniques to troubleshoot challenges in new classroom environments, and specific ways to support student learning.