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Why biology's lifeblood is draining away

Modern teaching methods risk snuffing out biology's vital spark, writes Virginia Purchon

Ten years ago, teaching A-level biology in a north London comprehensive, I had enough autonomy within the syllabus to follow my own interests, do plenty of practical work using live (and dead) organisms, and take the students on a residential field course. They were examined with short answer and long essay papers, teacher assessment and a practical exam. I believe they enjoyed their lessons. I enjoyed teaching them.

Isn't biology teaching still like that - apart from more stringent safety and animal welfare measures? Don't 1997 exam results show rising standards?

Apparently not. Inspectors, examiners, teacher trainers, INSET providers and experienced teachers meeting at the Nuffield Curriculum Projects Centre recently concluded that A-level biology falls down in three crucial areas - teaching style, practical work and assessment. These need redressing if the UK is to produce high-calibre young biologists and a biologically literate public for the next century.

Take teaching style - at GCSE, teachers try to present biology in a lively, interesting manner. At A-level though, in the face of heavy syllabus pressure to produce results, lessons can become didactic and uninspiring with opportunities for learning giving way to "being taught". To become more stimulating in the classroom and switch their students on to the subject, young teachers need back-up, resources and increased autonomy.

The quality and quantity of practical work is another worry. Teachers lack resources. Old, broken equipment is not replaced and modern gadgets are deemed too expensive. Opportunities to carry out real experiments requiring genuine scientific thinking are limited. Other investigations suffer from lack of progression, and fail to give students a proper overview.

For a science based on the study of living things, A-level biology nowadays is short on contact with live (or even dead) material, in school and in the field. It lacks a whole-organism approach. Modular courses fragment the subject further. And few students these days have the opportunity to attend a residential field course, with its exposure to a different habitat and chance of concentrated study.

Assessment drives teaching and learning styles. Present examination formats show students have an inadequate understanding of concepts and an inability to communicate ideas, while mark schemes force examiners to give credit for poor answers. And why do practical coursework and individual investigations count so little towards the final mark? Communication in science - to other scientists and the public - is vital, so a radical rethink of assessment styles is needed.

other, more philosophical worries arise about subject identity at GCSE. Previously, biology was an amalgam of botany and zoology, but new fields of biotechnology, cell biology and modern genetics mean students need an overview of the subject that makes sense. Syllabus content is less of a problem than the fundamental approach to teaching, learning and examining.

Sadly, with the demise of the old approach emphasis on biodiversity has gone too. With species loss of such concern, to biologists internationally, and on the political agenda since 1992 where is A-level biodiversity education now?

Biological organisations must demand action from the Government and its agencies, while new syllabuses and examinations are still in the melting pot.

Virginia Purchon is secretary of Action for Biology in Education, which is running sessions on biodiversity initiatives for schools at the Association for Science Education's annual meeting at Liverpool University this weekend

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