Sunday, April 01, 2007

What our Biology students are learning

I understand that some of the readers of and contributors to this blog are involved in biology education in Singapore, so I thought it might be interesting to share what biology students are learning now in schools at the A level, in light of the 'life sciences' focus that biology has taken in Singapore. What I'm describing is derived primarily from the biology H2 syllabus as available for download from the MOE website. The following are some key points about the new syllabus that are different from the former one:

1. Biology education from primary school to JC has been reorganised on the following lines: 'How life works at the systems level' for Pri 3-6, the 'physiological level' in secondary school, and 'at the cellular and molecular level' for JC students. The 'systems' level presumably refers to the highest levels of organisation (i.e. from the ecosystem to the population). Quite clearly this scheme seems founded on the premise that fields like ecology and studies of the whole organism are less complex and more easily understood and so are suitable for study by children, but not quite worth the attention of older students.

2. "The H2 syllabus is moving away from the current syllabus model that was based on a 'survey' of topics.' I.e. it is moving away from breadth of coverage to depth of coverage, and the fields that have been picked for in-depth coverage are primarily cellular and molecular.

3. The syllabus is divided into two parts: the Core and Applications syllabuses. The core topics are: (1) Cellular functions, (2) DNA and genomics, (3) Genetics of viruses and bacteria, (4) Organisation and control of prokaryotic and eukaryotic genomes, (5) Genetic basis for Variation, (6) Cellular physiology and Biochemistry, and (7) Diversity and Evolution. The applications are (1) Isolating, cloning, and sequencing DNA, and (2) applications of molecular and cell biology. Furthermore, there is the H3 paper offered by advanced students, possibly the equivalent of the former 'S' paper. However, this paper is devoted entirely to Proteomics, and comprises a mixture of structured and essay questions, where the former S paper was entirely essay-based.

4. The so-called 'cellular physiology and biochemistry' topic actually contains some non-cellular physiology subjects, viz. homeostasis, and nervous and hormonal control. The other subjects are entirely cellular, though, viz. cell signalling, signal transduction, the fluid mosaic model of membrane structure, and the like.

5. 'Diversity' is being taught with three learning outcomes: (i) to explain the binomial nomenclature and hierarchical classification, (ii) to describe the classification of species into taxonomic groups (genus, family... kingdom), and appreciate various species concepts, (iii) to explain the relationship between classification and phylogeny. In short, learning about the theory of classification without reference to any content. On the other hand, the learning outcomes for evolution are fairly conventional.

6. What is not being taught any more: plant transport and animal transport, liver and kidney, all of ecology and environment, the former option topics -- growth, development, and reproduction (imagine a whole generation of male bio students with no knowledge of the menstrual cycle...), biotechnology (much of it is subsumed into the new applications syllabus, however), biodiversity (which was a lost cause from quite a while before; few junior colleges actually taught it).

7. Practical skills are assessed using a system called SPA, which is a form of continual assessment, rather than one practical exam at the A levels. The skills are divided into four phases, A. planning, B. implementation, C. analysis, and D. evaluation. However, savvy students with a knack for seeing through learning objectives and the like can probably figure out what examiners are looking for, to give 'model answers' fairly easily. On the other hand, microscopy is no longer deemed necessary as a skill for biologists (either that or they haven't found a way to assess it yet within the SPA framework) so school microscopes in JCs all over the island are sitting unused and loveless.

The above are my observations. The following are my grouses:

1. Breadth is underrated. My vice principal (I am presently relief-teaching at my former junior college) had an anecdote to share about how breadth of education is important. Readers might remember the Asian Tsunami and how a little girl on holiday saved the life of the people at her hotel because she remembered what were the warning signs of a tsunami from her geography class. She didn't have to know this, it was just introduced for interest's sake but because of this, not only her life but that of everyone else there was saved. Now biology may not be so dramatically life-saving, but certainly breadth of knowledge adds flavour to life and may come in handy. It would certainly be embarassing to call oneself a biology student and yet have little idea about what differentiates a squid from a fish, but just try asking our A level students today. I haven't dared try myself, for fear of what I might hear.

2. If the aim of the syllabus is to prepare A level students for the modern life science economy, then the polytechnics will probably do a better job. I'm not trying to be elitist, nor am I saying that the polys are inferior to junior colleges. My hunch is based on the following points: (i) the poly courses in life sciences cover pretty much the same ground as this bio syllabus, (ii) the poly students have more hands on lab experience with the modern apparatus, while JC students are still stuck doing cucumber strip osmosis and food tests with iodine and Benedict's reagent, (iii) the JC students are not learning a concept of biology broad enough to distinguish them from the poly students. By and large the polys will probably prepare a life science student better than the JCs can.

3. The A levels should be the basis of a general education. The structure of the new A level system as a whole reflects this belief, in that students are required to have one 'contrasting' subject to their other subjects, i.e. a student taking arts subjects must offer one science subject, and vice versa. The biology syllabus in particular, though, is hardly in this spirit. By focussing intently on one area of biology, the new syllabus (i) turns off students who took up biology because of an interest in plants and animals, (ii) prevents them from gaining a broad vision of biology as a unified subject, in which they can put whatever they subsequently learn in university into context, (iii) privileges certain kinds of biology over others. With regards the last point I know that the money is in life sciences, but the privilege I refer to is intellectual privilege. All aspects of biology are equal contributors to our integrative knowledge of it.

4. Overspecialisation in the molecular (or in any subfield of biology for that matter) is ultimately self-defeating. I say this because new discoveries are most frequently made on the basis of integrating knowledge from various disciplines. What is the use of knowing so much detail about plant hormones and signalling in plant cells if one doesn't have any knowledge of plant anatomy and physiology to apply it in? Research questions in molecular biology are also generated from observations at the higher levels of organisation, an important example being the study of genetic diseases, which are physiological and phenotypical manifestations of malfunctions at the genetic level. A biologist with little appreciation for whole-animal physiology, for instance, would have difficulty appreciating pleiotropy and associated concepts.

4. Teachers are told that they should 'relate information on the cellular and molecular level to the systems level.' It is a difficult thing to do. It is an imaginative and courageous teacher who can dredge up a student's long-lost knowledge of the water cycle and pond ecosystem from his primary school days and make a link from there to the molecular and cell biology that he is learning at the moment. It is so much easier not to bother because does the teacher really think it will come out in the exam?

5. Another learning aim of the syllabus is to 'stimulate interest in and care for the local and global environment, and understand the need for conservation.' I don't quite see how the syllabus achieves this.

6. The sciences are treated unfairly in curricular reform, vis-a-vis the arts and humanities. I say this because science education is overhauled with an economic imperative in mind, while the same is not done for arts and humanities subjects like Literature, Music, and Art. We don't see topics like 'Music for the Popular Market' and 'Art of Manga and Anime' being introduced to keep up with new and upcoming trends which seem quite profitable. The reason why Literature isn't discarded as being entirely unimportant to keeping our country's economy purring is because if the syllabus-makers did so, they would be branded as philistines and made a laughing stock. But they are doing something analogous to the sciences and nothing is being said about it. Biology has suffered the most because its coverage, out of all the sciences, is the most broad and modular in nature, so it seems easy to pick and choose only what is the flavour of the day and ignore the rest. In this I think the philosophical biologists have not put enough effort into making a sufficiently persuasive and public case for the integrative unity of biology.

What can be done about this:

1. Partition. Acknowledge that biology is too broad and vast to cover in one syllabus, and petition the MOE to offer two biology syllabuses: one cellular and molecular, the other organismal and integrative.

2. Send indignant letters to the MOE.

3. Continue grassroots efforts to get students interested in biodiversity, ecology, and the like, so that they might consider continuing biology in the university and taking these modules up.

4. Take over the geography syllabus and use physical geography as an avenue to get more coverage of ecology and environmental science in schools.

More suggestions are welcome.

People in the universities need to take the lead in making biology more balanced. Bear this in mind: the students coming out of our junior colleges with their new A levels will be the students going to the universities. Imagine trying to explain something as basic as plant transport, xylem and phloem to a lecture hall of clueless undergrads. Imagine setting an elegant demonstration of fungi growth in the presence of antibiotics only to have students ask if fungi are plants or bacteria. Imagine students who can handle micropipettes but not microscopes (and who blow out all the lamps and crash their 100X lenses into coverslips). Imagine having to explain the four-chambered heart and double circulation to clueless medical undergrads (who would have taken biology to find out it was of little immediate use). Just imagine...


Sivasothi said...

This IS useful, thanks! Linked by Habitatnews

Anand said...

I second what Siva says. This is excellently written & argued, Brandon - you should send this itself in to MOE as important feedback on the present system, or at least bring it up to your JC powers-that-be.

Btw, wonder if you know that before the current Life Science focus in NUS, from the early-to-mid 90s (perhaps staring earlier, I'm not sure - Siva can confirm here), bio subjects from Year 2 (you had to take 2 out of 3) were IOB [Integrative & Organismal Biology], DSB [Developmental & Systems? Biology] & CMB [obvious] Sounds a lot like what you suggested in point 1, isn't it? :) Think those curriculum planners really understood some things ......

Lee said...

I do bear the same sentiments. Biology unlike other disciplines is holistic and integrative and shouldn't be taught in a reductionist way like other science discipline.
Its sad that the new syllabus does not allow student to reconcile the various levels of organisation to experience the overall whole picture.

assirahc said...

I'm a H2 biology student in JC. It is true that it is ridiculous that while we learn so much at the cellular level, basic things like how the body works is not taught. However, menstrual cycle IS learnt in sec sch, and we do use the microscope in SPA (cross section of leaf in my experience.

-ebi- said...

studying biology in singapore is very sad business. i went the jc route because i wanted to study more biology in terms of animals and biodiversity. now in uni doing life sciences, i am absolutely crushed to find out that out of the 11 compulsory modules in year 1 and 2, only 1 module is not about cellular or molecular. sigh.

Warren said...

"1. Partition. Acknowledge that biology is too broad and vast to cover in one syllabus, and petition the MOE to offer two biology syllabuses: one cellular and molecular, the other organismal and integrative."

I just took my A-level Biology exam a few days ago.

I really think this is a great idea. It would be like the old A-levels day, where there is C-Maths and F-maths. Now that would be breath as well as depth.(btw, Maths had been merged/reduced into a single subject under the new syllabus)

Currently, students who do well in the JC 1 exams, can take up H3 biology courses covering biodiversity and ecosystem in greater depth at NUS. Unfortunately, very few (at least in my college), can qualify for it.

Warren said...

in reply to Brandon's comment here:
Hi Brandon

Me personally, i like microbiology/cell biology. I was also very fortunate that in my secondary school(and later JC1), i was chosen to participate in research programme in that field.

So at least for me, i do find H2 biology interesting. (most of classmates don't however)

Our batch was the "transition of syllabus" batch. We barely touched on molecular biology in secondary school, and many of my us found it hard to adapt to the new focus in H2 biology. (it was better for me, due to my research exposure, but i do empathise with my classmates)

I fully agree that system biology and ecology is important, and the lack of coverage in the current H2 biology could be a liability. The syllabus assumes we had covered sufficiently in sec/pri school. Nevertheless, i think keeping in touch and expanding existing knowledge is important.

SPA was the greatest complain me and my classmates had. Because, each assessment is important, the college had no choice but to chose experiments we can do well in, over anything else. We end up memorising standard answers 99% of the time.

Also, our teachers explained that experiments can be expensive and tedious to prepare. As Junior College, funds are limited.

Until funds specially are set aside for "Poly/Uni level" experiments, and until they would be duly recognised for assesment, it may be hard to move beyond osmosis experiments. (at least for the mainstream students). Research and H3 students had more opportunities and exposure.

In conclusion, it may not be that the syllabus is too skewed. But that, opportunities for an expansive biology education are too few and far in between. Not many people can qualify for H3 subjects. The idea of SPA may need to be revised.

The situation may be better for the the next few batches, since they are under the new syllabus since secondary school (unlike us whom are the transition batch)

Sivasothi said...

Thanks for your comments, Warren!

zq said...


I totally agree with what you said about the effects of focusing intently on one area of bioloty, in taht it "turns off students who took up biology because of an interest in plants and animals" and "privileges certain kinds of biology over others".

I took up biology because of interests in animals and human physiology. Halfway through year 1 I was feeling disgusted by what I have to learn. Control to eukryotic and prokaryotic gene expression? I can't see any future benefit for me to know about all the molecular details about how a histone acetyltransferase increases the affinity of RNA polymerase for DNA.

If the bio department had told us clearly and exactly what we were gonna learn before we chose subject combination, I would definitely have chosen something more interesting to me.

I used to consider biology as one of the possible areas to major in in uni, now it's a big no no. The only thing about biology I'm hoping now is for the boring-to-the-death h2 biology course to be over and then I'll feel super relieved for I won't have to touch biology ANY MORE. NOT A BIT IN MY ENTIRE LIFE THAT'S TO COME.

Weiqing said...

I took Biology in secondary school but not in JC, so I might not be an accurate gauge for this but, just saying -

Your concern may be exaggerated. Have you considered that secondary school kids may already have mastered physiological and ecological bio?

All the examples you've listed there - the menstrual cycle, the difference between a squid and a fish, what species a fungus is, basic plant transport, how a heart functions, operating a microscope - I may be presumptuous here but I've pretty much mastered knowledge of that scope/depth by secondary four.

The premise of your argument takes the assumption that secondary school students are not taught physiological biology on a complex level - but they are.

While your view is fundamentally valid, maybe take a closer look at what is taught than just at the syllabus? You may be underestimating the vigor of Singapore's education requirements and the abilities of students here.

But anyway, interesting read.

Anonymous said...

H2 Bio sure is daunting, especially when i don't have Bio background! But organized Bio animations like
Mcgraw hill Biology animations, and sure helps me. Hope it helps fellow students too