Can changes to cultural visibility and responsiveness in the junior science program improve Maori student a) reading achievement and b) enjoyment, confidence and achievement in science.
I fear this will not be a "short and sharp" post but I'll include a TLDR (too long didn't read) summary at the bottom!
It's time to look at some student data! I will share the data for junior student reading and writing levels in a later post, when I look for trends in students across the board rather than focussing on science.
I would like to share some senior Biology student data and anecdotal evidence that has been in the forefront of my mind while thinking of improving the junior science program. I have felt for some years that many students arrive in Biology under-prepared.
This may be a school-wide issue due to reading levels and comprehension, but I feel there is also room to improve junior program to connect with students more and build understanding and achievement across two years.
Senior Biology 2016 (I was absent 2017):
In 2016 nine students out of 21 failed their first NCEA Level 2 Biology assessment, which is to create a biological drawing of an organism using a microscope. This involves labelling different cells or features of cells, and describing or explaining their function in the organism's life and environment. My reflection at the end of the year was this:
"Students did not enjoy being forced to remember/recall information rather than copy/transcribe it - a trend that continued throughout the year with effort for the exam."
Information that students were required to recall was not overly complex. In fact, some of the most basic Achieved-level labels contained similar information to what I was teaching Year 7 students at a school in England in 2017 - yet many of my students were unfamiliar with the basic structure of a cell. Some could not understand the difference between cell structures (e.g cell walls) and organelles (tiny organs) found inside a cell. I would love if students could arrive with a little more biological knowledge, and that is something that a change in the Y9 and 10 junior curriculum could support.
In 2016 five students of 14 (some were away on a two-week trip) failed a practical assessment, which is to design and carry out an investigation into the effect of osmosis on percentage mass change. My reflection at the end of the year was this:
"2015 students found understanding valid testing and controlled variables difficult. 2016 students also found this a little confusing, but there has been a lot of focus on valid testing and variables with the 2016 Year 11s, so hopefully next year's 12s will be more confident."
Writing hypotheses, methods, identifying variables, averaging and graphing data and writing conclusions are skills that students require across all three science disciplines. It would be useful if students arrived knowing the basic expectations of a scientific support and what variables are.
In 2016 eleven students of 18 failed an essay-like assessment where they were asked to evaluate the validity of information presented to the public. This was the assessment that had the highest fail-rate in 2016. My reflection was this:
"Students were really, really reluctant to read, and then equally reluctant to write anything about their reading. To pass this assessment students must complete all three analyses. I believe the reading and broad completion requirements hindered success."
Reading, comprehending and being able to discuss (in writing) key points from written texts were vital in this assessment. This requirement links to the Achievement Challenges 1 & 3 of Manaiakalani; relating to reading and writing. Interacting with texts (scientific or otherwise) from a young age and being able to convert understanding back into writing is a skill that would benefit our learners across all subjects.
In 2016 fourteen students failed their end of year exam, which was a Genetics exam. Only seven showed up. Of them, one gained Excellence, one gained Merit and two Achieved. The low attendance rate was a particular kick in the gut, as the exam is always a massive focus throughout the year. Having students not show up after you've invested hundreds and hundreds of hours into them is like a slap in the face. My reflection was this:
"In the 2016 Year 12 Biology class, only 2 students had previously passed the Y11 Genetics exam (one of those had arrived mid-year from AGGS). Only five of the original 22 students in the 2016 Y12 class had done ANY genetics at all in Y11 (those in 1101 during 2015).
Students from 1102 had done no biology at all since Term 3-4 in their Year 10, and during their Year 9 the Biology learning was called "Web of Life" and did not include any genetics. I am unsure what Biology was taught in their Primary schools before that. 1103 did some biology during their "Life Processes" internal but again no genetics. 1104 and 1105 also arrived with very little biological knowledge as many more achievable standards are selected from physics and chemistry."
Going back to anecdotal evidence again here (sorry, not overly scientific) but in 2016 I had to spend 2-3 weeks teaching Year 11 genetics to my Year 12s because without the basic understanding of what a gene was and what a chromosome was, it was impossible for them to wrap their brains around more complex concepts like meiosis and crossing over. Having a solid basis of learning from Year 9 and 10 (or even before) of concepts (or vocabulary) such as organism (living thing), habitat (an organism's home) or inherit (receive from parents) would make senior science so much easier - students could attack the learning of more difficult concepts without having to stop and learn the surrounding vocabulary.
I think that the room-for-improvement in senior biology results really makes the case for adjusting our junior curriculum. From student data and Biology-specific anecdotes I have identified that our junior curriculum could include improved:
- Practicing valid testing, report writing, and identifying variables.
- Reading, comprehending, analysing and practicing writing about those things.
- Learning about cells and genetics.
- Building of biological knowledge across two years rather than separate units in each year.