BUT… my students are going to university!

Have you ever played broken telephone? Someone starts a message and the message is whispered around the group until out it comes on the other end all garbled and funny?

One of the messages I have “heard” over the course of my career is: “Part of your job is to prepare your students for university. This includes making sure they KNOW the content (every detail!) AND are really good at the game of school.”

No one has of course ever said this aloud or in writing, but the implication has always been out THERE, deeply embedded in the culture of science departments I have worked in.

But what if this message is no longer valid? What if in fact universities were changing too? Would this not be a great reason for us the secondary level to examine and maybe renovate our practices?

Scott Harkness, former student teacher extraordinaire who is now teaching both Biology and Chemistry at Pen High in Penticton B.C., had this very clever and insightful thought “Why not find out WHAT uni prof’s actually want?”

Below is his post on what he found out:

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 course 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 indicate to me that change can start 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

5 thoughts on “BUT… my students are going to university!

  1. This was very informative, and confirmed a couple of things we have heard from college teachers here in Quebec. They told us that students need to learn how to take notes, synthesize, work in teams, and “take responsibility for their learning”. They mentioned that kids who rely on being spoon-fed the information fare the worst.

    I also enjoyed the comments within the comments within the blog… I felt like I was deep in The Matrix.

    And I especially liked the picture of Sisyphus rolling that rock up the hill one more time. He is one of my all-time heros.

    Thanks for the insight!


  2. Hi Carolyn

    Just saw this post. VERY interesting!! Thank you for sharing. I think this will prove useful when explaining flipped classrooms, blended learning etc…to skeptical parents and other teachers. What an excellent yet simple idea – ask the universities!

  3. I was a TA in Humanities at SFU from Fall 2006 to Winter 2008, and a TA at the Open University of Hong Kong from Fall 2010 until Summer 2012. I can confirm what was reported to you, minus the info about flipped classrooms. Of course, this was Humanities, but critical thinking as well as collaborative skills were valued by the teaching staff, much more so than rote memorization and mastery of content.

    • Great to hear and thanks for the comment. How to we get this message out there and infiltrate to the mindset that is still out there and hangs on to the old model of getting students ready for university? This is the big challenge!

      • Well, I’m a student teacher in HS right now. I see some changes. My fellow student teachers in primary see a lot more, so slowly, I think, the culture itself is changing, but it needs to from the ground up, so to speak. At least that’s what I’m seeing here in British Columbia.

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