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...