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School biology – a future biology curriculum

Posted by on June 28, 2018

At the last Policy Lunchbox we welcomed Michael Reiss, professor of science education at the UCL Institute of Education, to discuss the future of the school science curriculum.

Professor Michael Reiss’ talk looked at the key components of a science curriculum and learning about biology, as well as the aspects we might consider for future reforms to the biology curriculum.

Since it was first established in 1988, the National Curriculum for England, Wales and Northern Ireland has been reviewed and reformed several times, and most recently during the 2010-2015 coalition government. However, we are now in a time of relative calm for curriculum reform, providing us with a rare opportunity to reflect on the curriculum we want for the future.

The curriculum provides a foundation of knowledge of a subject, from which students can build on to gain greater understanding of a discipline. While the curriculum is a crucial part of developing subject knowledge, it is not the only aspect of student learning.

As Michael noted, although the focus of his talk was on curriculum – practical work, assessment and pedagogy are also essential. Pedagogy relates to how a subject is taught and facilitated by a teacher, and how teaching practices enable students to learn and develop. Effective pedagogy can be particularly powerful for learning, and research by John Hattie suggests that specific classroom-based approaches can have a considerable impact on raising student achievement.

When considering what we want for a future biology curriculum, Michael mentioned the role of learning progression in the curriculum, or, in other words, the path that students follow as they learn to develop the skills, understanding and knowledge required to grasp a subject.

Considering pedagogical findings is key for curriculum development

When the National Curriculum was introduced in 1989, it did not include any underpinning statements about what it hoped students would achieve and what the purpose of learning this content would be for students. These kind of aims have been included in subsequent curriculum reviews, with emphasis on the essential knowledge that students need to understand the subject and become educated citizens.

Wynne Harlen’s work on ‘Big Ideas of Science Education’, has built on this further, and suggests that concepts and theories within the curriculum should be placed in a bigger picture that informs the development of the curriculum.

Harlen’s ‘Big Ideas’ condense key concepts in science into a few guiding principles that can be used to underpin the science education of all students, throughout their school years. They emphasize the importance of progression from primary through secondary and are designed to enable students to make links between different concepts and themes within the sciences.

Michael also highlighted the issue of including contemporary information in the biology curriculum. The biosciences encompass rapidly developing fields, which bring new technologies, concepts and theories.

As a result, it would simply not be feasible to include all recent developments within a biology curriculum, the amount of content would be overwhelming. There is a balance that needs to be struck when considering a future biology curriculum, between keeping traditional concepts and introducing recent developments in the biosciences.

The final aspect of the curriculum Michael touched on was the links between different subjects within the curriculum. There are clear links in biology to other subjects such as mathematics, history, ethics and the other sciences, which help students develop a greater understanding of the subject and provide valuable context.

The Royal Society of Biology is working with its Member Organisations and the wider bioscience community to inform its position on a coherent 5-19 curriculum framework to support future curriculum developments. To find out more about the curriculum work the Society is undertaking, please visit the website.

If you missed April’s Policy Lunchbox, we streamed it live and you can still watch it on the Biochemical Society’s Facebook page.

 Policy Lunchbox is a joint initiative between the Biochemical Society, the British Ecological Society, the Royal Society of Biology, Society for Applied Microbiology, Society of Experimental Biology and the Microbiology Society.

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