I was marking Year 12 Biology NCEA reports on the extreme environment of the deep ocean and reading about the goblin shark and the adaptations they have to survive in this dark inhospitable place when it struck me that I was correcting the grammar and punctuation in my head! I had always considered myself a teacher of biological information, but I realised I was emerging as a facilitator of students learning biological concepts for themselves and writing like scientists. I was also a teacher of search techniques, a collaborator with other professionals, namely our school librarian who knows infinitely more about referencing than I, and a facilitator for students to formulate focus questions to keep themselves on track. This came as quite a shock after so many years in the job!
Reflecting on my own path through the education system, I can recall doing very little research or peer review and having almost no opportunity to create my own ideas. It was a process of stuffing as many facts into my head (at least until that year’s exams were over) and regurgitating these gems of biology onto the exam script. The source of knowledge was clear: they stood at the head of the class with a big stick and a funny gown.
This I now realise is clearly not the case. Auntie Google has opened the world of facts to students like no other, yet that easy access creates its own problems such as the inevitable spectre of “fake news”. In terms of my classroom practice it’s the skills and knowledge to sort the informational wheat from the fanciful and sometimes entertaining pseudoscience chaff which are now essential for senior secondary and tertiary students.
The American Library Association defines information literacy (IL) as a set of abilities requiring individuals to “recognise when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information”. It is rapidly becoming clear to me through the IL spaces research and focusing on the development of my students’ writing, that although a certain base subject knowledge of specialist subjects is always going to be required of a science specialist teacher, increasingly we need an IL skillset to become an active part of our teaching; IL needs to be taught as a natural and equally important component of any science course.
It is my view that this shift in science education needs to be reflected in teacher training programmes; we need to ensure that being able to teach these skills is as developed as the ability to teach subject specialist knowledge. These essential IL skills and knowledge need to be afforded equal weight particularly as we move to more inquiry-based learning. Balancing IL skills and content knowledge will ensure that our students can be prepared to be 21st century science students who are armed with a kete of skills and abilities to research, analyse and make sense of the world and the information within it. Hopefully then they will feel confident and ready to make their own mark and share their own informed views on contemporary scientific issues facing society today and into the future.
Biology/Science teacher, Principal’s Nominee, Whanganui City College