Nuffield Advanced Biology 1965
Organisers: WH Dowdeswell and Peter Kelly (1960s), Grace Monger (1980s)
The investigative teaching approach was based on the interpretation of primary and secondary data. Data came from the students' own practical work, from excerpts extracted from the published literature, and from results of experiments carried out by the project team.
The course content was organised into four areas: ‘Maintenance of the organism’, ‘Control and co-ordination in organisms’, ‘Inheritance and development’, and ‘Organisms and the environment’.
The long life of the project owed a great deal to the imaginative assessment methods adopted by the team of examiners. Particularly valuable was the individual project, which involved about 40 hours of class time and associated research and writing up.
Roger Lock writes ‘Teaching Nuffield A-level Biology in the late 60s and early 70s was not just a revelation, it was a revolution: at a stroke the 'mug it up, spew it out' approach to examinations, which tended to make biology a bit like an extended vocabulary test for a foreign language was swept away – now you had to 'understand' biological principles and do lots of practical work. More to the point it was the students that were doing the practical work. Gone was the 'demonstration to prove that…' with the class huddled around the teacher's bench, and in was the 'hands-on', usually in groups of two, working with locusts, water fleas, fruit flies, mice, microbes, mung beans ... the list goes on. The practical work was 'minds on ' too with lots of questions about the data collected, how it might be manipulated, interpreted and its limitations.’
The course had a faithful following but made fewer concessions to the realities of classroom life than the Chemistry and Physics A-level projects. At most it attracted 13% of schools. However the course ran for 30 years, with the last exams in 2001. Nuffield Advanced Biology had a major influence on other advanced biology specifications and textbooks, and it survives in Salters-Nuffield Advanced Biology.
In the first edition, students and teachers had to create meaning and coherence from a rich and complex set of publications including laboratory guides for each main topic, a study guide and a set of topic reviews. Studies to inform the second edition showed that there was not enough explanation of biological ideas. The practical work had become too dominant and overburdened the scheme.
The revised publications featured two study guides with a substantial amount of descriptive text, supplemented by seven short practical guides.
Also on the web
Download the publications from the STEM Centre website. There is a short preface introducing the course in the 2nd edition Teachers’ guide 1.
Entry in the King's College London archive