Wednesday 23 February 2011

Microteaches #1: February Half-Term

Bloody typical. I spend all this time putting together a post on GCSE Biology teaching specifications, and they all go and change it! Well, actually I did know about this, but at the time, and until the end of this academic year, there will be students examined under the old specification. The good news for you and me is that the specifications have not changed very much at all - I'll get up a revised post sometime soon. Anyway, here are some mini-bits that don't quite make up a full blog post, for your reading pleasure.

Mike Keesey has launched Phylopic, a resource with silhouette images for anyone who might need them in their phylogenies. It's wonderful to see these, and I hope many more people contribute. Best of all, from my perspective, is that they are on a clear rather than white background, so I can put them into my teaching slides without having to edit the backgrounds out. Not every organism is so easily converted to silhouette though (amoebas and bacteria...):


In reference to last week's highlight of AQA GCSE Fail, there have been some follow-ups. My post hit the Bad Science forum, probably as a result of being included on Ed Yong's Missing Links post. I've since seen that the New Humanist picked up on this, and managed to extract from AQA confirmation that future exams will not contain anything on creationism or intelligent design. I should bloody well hope so.

But AQA aren't off the hook yet: the bar-stewards discovered a marking error in some of their A-Level exams on 17 September 2010, but didn't think to notify Ofqual or UCAS until 30 September 2010. UCAS Clearing ended on 20 September 2010. Over 600 scripts were incorrectly marked, for GCSE, AS and A2, and this resulted in 13 A2 students not being able to get their first choice of university due to missing the grades (which they subsequently received), and not being able to do anything about it because UCAS didn't know until 10 days after places were no longer available for the 2010-2011 year.

In more palaeontological news, there is a new species of sauropod dinosaur, Brontomerus mcintoshi[*]. Now that we have "Thunder Thighs", I wonder if there'll be any more dinosaurs springing up with the other cruel nicknames I had as a child... They're currently getting a good deal of publicity, although as Dave Hone predicts, there'll no doubt be a load of inaccurate references to Brontosaurus.

Currently not getting any publicity at the moment is a paper linking sex, climate change and dinosaur extinction[*]. You'd think the redtops would be all over this like a rash. I have only skimmed the paper so far, but I am intrigued by a possible issue regarding genetic sex determination (GSD) and temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD). For this to be a plausible mechanism, I would presume it would have to be shown that most, if not all, GSD species survived (not simply birds and mammals), and that most, if not all, TSD species died at the end of the Cretaceous. Rising global temperatures could have a rather major effect on TSD species, but one wonders if perhaps parthenogenesis as demonstrated in a number of reptiles could have countered this in the past.

Right, students - consider this your homework (in addition to the rest of it) - go read Silber's paper and come back and report on your views of its plausibility.

Finally, this has been amusing and appalling the kids in equal measure this week:

Following the theme I shall be attending the NHM After Hours event this Friday, visiting the Sexual Nature exhibit and the Let's Talk About Sex talk. I'm contemplating taking the AS Biologists to the Sexual Nature exhibit, so I'm off to scout it out to see if the little buggers are mature enough to deal with the contents...

[*]Silber, Sherman J. 2011. Human male infertility, the Y chromosome, and dinosaur extinction. Middle East Fertility Society Journal, [In Press], Corrected Proof, Available online 17 February 2011, ISSN 1110-5690, DOI: 10.1016/j.mefs.2011.01.001
[*]Taylor, Michael P., Mathew J. Wedel and Richard L. Cifelli. 2011. Brontomerus mcintoshi, a new sauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Cedar Mountain Formation, Utah, USA. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 56(1):75-98. doi: 10.4202/app.2010.0073

Monday 21 February 2011

Is That A Triceratops On Your Junk Or Are You Just Pleased To See Me?

A little light relief after all the deep academic navel-gazing, I think...

Thanks to my friend Owen, I am now aware of the existence of these swimming trunks:


Come on guys - buy these and wear them in the hot tub on the first night of SVP. It will make a change from the dino-themed ties and t-shirts.

I dare you.

Saturday 19 February 2011

There But For The Grace Of The Flying Spaghetti Monster

It was only a matter of time. Another teacher, in the US this time, Natalie Munroe has been suspended, having posted some rather unsavoury comments about her students on her blog. This follows hot on the heels of the sacking in the UK of Katharine Birbalsingh. Those of us in educational roles are likely to find ourselves under increased scrutiny, as we are coming under attack more frequently with the educational reforms hitting the UK. The only thing the tabloid newspapers seem to love more than a disgraced politician is a disgraced teacher.

My lab yesterday morning, after a ritual massacrebloodstain analysis practical

The comments she makes are pretty damning - there is a cache available. However, I had been more sympathetic to Ms Munroe before reading what she'd actually said. I feel more for the students who have commented on the cached blog post - I cannot say I would have been thrilled at being called a "complete and utter jerk" by my teacher! Who would?

There are some students in the world who are undoubtedly little shits, who do not want to be in school, who do not respect what their teachers are trying to do and who have no interest in learning. I wouldn't tell you if I had any of these students. Bitching about students is what the staffroom is for, and there's a reason it has a lock on the door.

I know that a couple of my A2 students have found this blog - it does not take a lot of googling. They were pleased at my glowing report of the Great Nando's Birthday Party (and I'm still waiting for the YouTube video, incidentally). Have I been back and made sure I haven't said anything unkind about my kids today? You betcha. Is there the possibility that one of you might read through and pick up on something I missed? Probably - and I'd hope you'd tell me. Do the students know that they are referred to collectively as "little buggers", "little sods" and if I'm annoyed with them "little darlings"? Of course.

There are real problems in schools and colleges with behaviour - hell, you only have to nip on to the TES Behaviour Forum to see some appalling situations. Surely the vibrancy of the TES forum and the increase in numbers of blogs means teachers are in need of support, of a sounding block, and sometimes a need to rant outwith the staffroom door. Maybe the teachers being disciplined for voicing their frustrations should count as a warning shot for the senior managers blamed for the poor behaviour management in schools.

I should add that I have few behavioural problems and that our college's policy on behaviour is pretty effective. The college also has a reasonably liberal policy on online activities as long as we do not bring it into disrepute or identify students.

Until then, if you're going to call your student a "sneaky, complaining, jerkoff", do it in an anonymous, untraceable manner...

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Fearsome Beast

Not many people have the level of insight into the life of a leopard gecko, but Paul and I are lucky. Jabba has frequently shared his innermost thoughts with us, including his enjoyment of nature documentaries, his preference for waxworms over superworms, and his serious allergy to being bathed.

Yesterday he told us that his absolute hero was "Supercroc", Sarcosuchus imperator, and that he had been practising his best impersonation. Compare this image:

With Supercroc's pose in this painting. What a clever boy he is! As you can imagine we were very scared indeed, given that it appeared that a massive reptile several hundred times the size of our tiny gecko had materialised in our living room that evening.

Alternatively, he could just be yawning...

Tuesday 15 February 2011

GCSE Postscript

Earlier this year I did a series of posts on "making your research suitable for outreach", where I featured the specifications for GCSE, AS, A2 and Scottish biology qualifications. It seemed to go down well, although not perhaps among the people it was actually intended to help (stunned silence from the VP community), but it highlighted some of the inadequacies of the syllabus and the way certain exam boards accommodate non-scientific views. CCEA is one of the worst, probably down to a worrying trend in creationism within Northern Ireland. I identified, within the GCSE post, an issue that meant AQA students would be expected to discuss Lamarckism.

Turns out, that was just the tip of the iceberg. Check this out, featured on Why Evolution Is True: British GCSE Biology: Exam Evolution Fail. Thanks to @sc_k via @edyong209.

Unfortunately, this is a real exam paper, issued in June 2009. I have two private tutees who study the AQA specification, and I'm afraid I must have missed a trick here, because it never occurred to me that I was supposed to be teaching them about creationism and intelligent design. Presumably I must go back and immediately fill this massive gap in their learning.

Except that this is not science. Now from a historical point of view, it is interesting to consider Lamarckism as a flawed theory - it is especially useful when one of my basketball-playing students asks me if he trains hard and increases the proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibres in his body, will his children be better basketball players. My A2 students can make jokes about Lamarckism - they have a good understanding of its place in science and in the history of science.

A GCSE student does not have the same maturity of thought (sorry kids) to recognise the differences.

Firstly, the problem with this is that "theory" when discussed in science should mean the following, as stated by Merriam-Webster:
a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena
Creationism and intelligent design are neither plausible nor scientifically acceptable, and this question simply does not test whether the students know this or not. What possible reason could there be for teaching these two ridiculous fairytales in a GCSE science course (which, for most students, will be the highest level of science training they ever receive) other than to demonstrate that they are not scientific?

Yet this is very definitely not the case. The relevant sections of the AQA specification state:
  • to identify the differences between Darwin's theory of evolution and conflicting theories
  • to suggest reasons for the different theories
Nowhere does the specification say that teachers should discuss a scientific and unscientific principle - just that they should identify differences between the conflicting theories. Well, the question certainly tests that at least. There is a depressingly large margin for creationist science teachers to play with, and you only have to log on to the TES forum to see how many creationists are teaching science, and especially biology and physics. There are organisations playing to this very comfortable margin, and there are creationist materials making their way into schools.

What to do? Well, I try to sidestep the idea that I need to give any time to creationism and intelligent design in my lessons, and just teach the damn theory of evolution. But I have an advantage - I have an MA from Cambridge in Natural Sciences, an MRes from Imperial in Biosystematics, and a wealth of information, contacts and resources from my short-lived career in palaeontology. I have the tools that I need (admittedly in many cases I need to learn how to use them effectively, but isn't that the case with all new pieces of kit?). So what happens to the students whose teachers are not biology specialists and who see some dire creationist book appear as a "free gift" to the school and think it's a wonderful resource?

Or worse, what about all those kids being taught GCSE and A-level biology by creationists?
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