Biology and its recontextualisation in the school curriculum : a comparative analysis of post-apartheid South African life sciences curricula.
This study explored the way biological knowledge is transformed when it moves from its disciplinary form to a high school biology curriculum, and how this occurred in successive versions of the life sciences curriculum implemented in post-apartheid South Africa. Bernstein’s (1996, 1999) conceptualisation of biology as an hierarchical knowledge structure, the recontextualisation of knowledge, and the implications for social justice formed the theoretical framework to the study, as did Aikenhead’s (2006) distinction between traditional and humanistic approaches to science education, and Schmidt, Wang and McKnight’s (2005) concept of curriculum coherence. Firstly, I attempted to elicit core concepts and conceptual organisation in biology from the writings of the distinguished biologist Ernst Mayr, two foundational biology textbooks, and interviews with two professors of biology. Seven concepts emerged: the cell, inheritance, evolution, interaction, regulation, energy flow and diversity, which I arranged in a hierarchy according to Mayr’s “three big questions”, “what?”, “how?” and “why?”. The theory of evolution was highlighted as the key integrating principle of the discipline. Secondly, I considered biology in the school curriculum by means of a literature review and synthesis of the changing goals of a school science education. Five broad categories of objectives were derived: knowledge, skills, applications, attitudes and values , and science as a human enterprise. Aikenhead’s (2006) terminology captured the shifts in emphases of these objectives over time.Thirdly, I analysed the stated objectives and content specifications of the three most recent versions of the South African life sciences curricula – the Interim Core Syllabus (ICS), the National Curriculum Statement (NCS) and the new NCS. The NCS represented a dramatic swing away from the traditional approach of the ICS, while the new NCS reverts to a more traditional approach, though with more humanistic content than in the ICS. Both the ICS and t he NCS were found to be deficient in one of the three key conceptual areas of biology. The conceptual progression of the material is strongest in the new NCS, and weakest in the original NCS. The conclusion was drawn that, of the different curricula, the new NCS has the greatest potential to induct South African learners into the hierarchical structure of biology, and represents a positive contribution to the goal of transforming education in South Africa.