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The end of an era? I hope so

October 27, 2012

I teach senior high school level biology and chemistry and over the past year I have changed the way I deliver, and the way students “acquire” content in my course. I have shared my journey and ideas with other colleagues along the way. Many have been receptive, and others…well…

Working in a department it is important to work as a team rather than against one another.  It is great to bounce ideas off of each other but some days it feels as if I am constantly fighting an uphill battle where I defend one argument and then another takes it’s place.  Even still, I feel comfortable moving in the direction I am, until university is mentioned.

The thinking goes something like this:  “Students in senior science courses are headed to postsecondary. They need to know the INFORMATION before going to university or they will not be successful. We at high school need to make sure we cover the CONTENT otherwise these students will be at a disadvantage and it will be MY fault.”

Is this in fact accurate? Is this what universities’ want?

I’ve never asked them…until now.

I sent emails to professors from UBC, U of A, and SFU asking them what their biology/ science departments are doing in terms of classroom format (lecture, etc), educational trends and expectations of students coming out of high school. I included in my email a description of a flipped classroom and how I am trying to move away from content acquisition and towards skill based, process oriented, and collaborative learning. I mentioned that I was hoping to get some insight into what the instructors were doing and to help get my students ready for the next level.

I had no idea what to expect or whether to expect any replies at all. I was blown away, excited and amazed at the responses I received. Below are summaries from 3 university professors.

Dr. Samuels
Head of Botany at UBC

Her suggestions on how to best prepare students for their post-secondary education:

  • “Encourage all activities that promote active learning in high school [such as skill based, process oriented, and collaborative learning.]
  • Develop…”habit of examining their own thinking will have a more successful transition to university.”
  • “Apply what they have learned in novel contexts.”

Dr. Jonathan Schaeffer
Dean, Faculty of Science, University of Alberta

Upcoming changes he mentions for the university :

  • We have been experimenting with flipped courses. Come September 2013 we will be expanding our number of flipped courses, at least two of which will be in Biology. If all goes well, then we will continue to move in this direction.

Dr. Lam
Biological Sciences at SFU

Upcoming changes he mentions for the university (Note the second one!!) :

    • “More inquiry-based and critical-thinking-heavy exercises. “
    • “Experiment with a flipped classroom design (like the one you mentioned) for the lectures.”
    • “Away from content acquisition and move towards skill-based, process-oriented, and collaborative learning.”
    • “Shift the focus away from knowing content and towards the useful skills and conceptual understanding that we want students to have when they graduate.”

His suggestions on how to best prepare students for their post-secondary education:

    • Break the habit of memorizing things instead of understanding them. The more you can shift their focus towards understanding concepts with the goal of being able to use them as tools to solve novel problems, the better.”
    • Build their confidence in their ability to figure things out for themselves. Give them challenges and problems that they don’t think they can solve, refuse to give them hints or answers, and teach them to ask themselves the right questions and to test the validity of their educated guesses until they start to understand the problem and stumble their way towards a valid solution. “

These suggestions from university educators tell me that a big change is on the horizon at the university level. They also indicate to me that change can starts at the high school level.

We, who teach high school students, can no longer hang on to the illusion that if we focus on content  we are “getting them ready for university”.  Push for change in your classroom, in your department, and in your school.

The change is coming…will you be part of the new era of education?

“I think, increasingly, anything you learn is going to become obsolete within a decade and

so the most important kind of learning is about how to learn.”

                               Lawrence Summers- Former President of Harvard

For more on this topic I suggest reading the following articles from the Globe and Mail:

Classroom of 2020: The future is very different than you think

Why university students need a well-rounded education

Scott Harkness
Thanks to Carolyn Durley (@okmbio) for helping me write/ edit this blog!

5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 27, 2012 10:50 pm

    Great post Scott. It is encouraging to hear that universities are working from a similar understanding of what best practice looks like in the classroom.

  2. November 2, 2012 12:34 am

    You are certaintly onto something here, Scott. I know that whenever I have asked CURRENT university students to share their experiences, it is obvious that the landscape is shifting at the post-secondary level. There is more collaboaration, opportunities to show understanding in various ways and the windows through which to access knowledge are widenening. Unfortunately, it is moving slow overall and not budging in others. So many of us speak of university from our own experiences…the problem being that I am a little dated. Grad of 1994 – woohoo! Keep up the fight.


  3. January 20, 2013 5:39 am

    At the beginning of your post I was thinking in my head “so, why don’t you ask a university prof?” YAY! Could you please share this with the parents of your students? It will probably go a long way in garnering support for your teaching methods. Your admin would probably be interested to hear this as well.

    • January 22, 2013 6:34 am

      Hi Tami,
      I’ve shared the messages with all my students but sharing with parents would be a great idea as well. Thanks for the suggestion. So far, parents, for the most part have been very supportive of the flip method but I think more credible rationale from universities would help. I have shared this with my admin. I’m lucky to have great administrators who support innovative teaching methods but, again, it is always nice to have some evidence to support my teaching goals. I have received more advice lately from other university profs so i will need to edit this blog soon. Thanks for your comments!


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