The “cutting edge” lecture for schools: help or hindrance?

Like many colleagues, I quite often give talks for sixth form groups about recent developments within my subject specialism. There are plenty of good reasons for doing so: sharing enthusiasm for your discipline; encouraging prospective students to go to university (ideally your University); bring students, and their teachers, up to date on the latest developments in the field.

However, it is in regard of the last of these points that I’ve had increasing concern. These worries are prompted by my experience marking past papers completed by my son during his recent round of exam revision. In science subjects in particular the markschemes are very prescriptive and inflexible, they don’t seem to allow for a candidate to expand upon the expected points. There is no room for crediting knowledge over and above faithful regurgitation of the core content. That would be bad enough, but my bigger concern is that introducing the students to knowledge which more up to date than the specifications might actually lead them to give a rich and factually correct response penalised because it disagrees with the anticipated answer.

What content might fall into this trap? The most obvious examples would be developments in stem cell biology, especially innovations associated with induced pluripotent stem cells. Granted this work has now led to a Nobel Prize, but I expect many markers will not have kept pace with the field. Similarly, other areas of genetics may have moved faster than the “official” A level line.

I will continue to give lectures for schools, the benefits definitely outweigh the risks, but I do carry this gnawing worry. Maybe an examiner out there can put my mind at ease about this (maybe not).

In praise of Psychology (as an A level)

Do you like Green Eggs and Ham?

Do you like Green Eggs and Ham?

I don’t think this warrant’s a spoiler alert, but if you don’t know the punchline of Green Eggs and Ham, you may want to skip to the next paragraph. In Dr Seuss’s classic book, the central protagonist is pestered by Sam-I-Am to try the eponymous delicacy. The man declines, insisting that he does not like green eggs and ham. When, however, he is finally persuaded to give it a try he find that, contrary to expectation, he is actually rather partial to this culinary concoction.

It seems to me that there are a good few people around who have a Green Eggs and Ham approach to A level Psychology. The Russell Group universities do not consider it in their list of “facilitating” (i.e. those it considers worthy-of-study) A level subjects*. Similarly, the snooty attitude of my elder son’s previous school in not offering Psychology was one of the main factors in the decision for him to move for his sixth form studies.

AS level psychology includes thorough evaluation of key studies

AS level psychology includes thorough evaluation of key studies

My suspicion, however, is that a significant proportion of those shunning Psychology have never actually looked into the content of the course. If they had done so, they might have been in for a pleasant surprise. Over the last few days, whilst helping the aforementioned sprog with his revision, I have been reminded of just how good the content of the AS level is (at least for the OCR specifications, I can’t speak for the course offered by the other boards).

The course is built around analysis of 15 classic studies. There are good descriptions of what has been done and why. However the feature for me that really makes the content valuable is the emphasis on evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of each study. The lessons about the importance of reliability and validity of data would be good grounding for students wanting to do a degree in any of the sciences. The discussion of ethical issues and, where applicable, what the investigators did to mitigate against them is also applicable for anyone intending to conduct research at any level.

On the basis of some of the manuscripts I’ve reviewed over the years, I couldn’t help feeling as well that there are a number of university-level teachers setting out for the first time to do pedagogic research who might usefully pick up on some of the do’s and dont’s of experimental design onto which this course sheds some light.

So, in short, I have had a Green Eggs and Ham conversion regarding A level Psychology and, with apologies to Dr Seuss, I say to  “the Russell Group” and others who dismiss it out of hand, “Try it, try it and you may. Try it and you may I say”. Oh, and if you really didn’t know the ending of GE&H… sorry.

*If you are interested the facilitating subjects are: Maths and further maths; Physics; Biology; Chemistry; History; Geography; Modern and classical languages; English Literature.