Science: Pedagogy

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Pedagogy of Science

There are several aspects to teaching science - bringing about an appreciation and understanding of the world around us, developing a scientific method of approaching problems and developing solutions (this scientific method will be discussed more in detail later) and build skills that will allow the learners to build their knowledge. Obviously this means more than just the transfer of the body of knowledge. How these objectives will be met will also vary depending upon the context of the learner.

Given below are some articles that describe these various aspects in greater detail.

Articles by teachers

Yet Another Confession of a Science Teacher

N. J. Krishnan

I am sure all of us have had occasions when we have felt a sense of dissatisfaction; days when we wonder why we are doing what we are doing, days when we wonder whether it is any use at all, whether teachers have anything to do with the learning of the child. Maybe, we wonder, there is no point in what we do; maybe one is better off doing something else. Fortunately, for me at least, this does not happen often.

Rereading Colin Foster’s article, ‘Confessions of a Science Teacher’ in Volume 10 of the Journal of Krishnamurti Schools recently, I could instantly identify with much of what he had to say — the lack of engagement, the feeling that even students who were engaged did not see the point of it. Colin Foster raises three issues (he calls them the ‘hidden curriculum’) that he suggests are implicit in the teaching of science — particularly when this teaching is designed to terminate in an examination. I summarise them into three aphoristic phrases: ‘science is content’, ‘science is eternal truth’ and lastly, ‘science is non-contextual’. There are three closely interconnected attitudesat work here. The underlying assumption is that what you think about can beseparated from how you think. There is then the immediate corollary that ourthought is not conditioned by our beliefs.

Anyone who has any idea of the history and development of science would immediately see how muddleheaded this is. That science is essentially a creative process rooted in the culture where it grows, is evident to most people doing science.

If science is content and is immutable then by definition it is eternal, true and non-contextual. By similar processes of immaculate logic we can start with any one of these aphorisms and arrive inescapably at the other two. The fallacy of this circular argument is precisely that it is circular and it is not the logic that is at fault so much as the premise.

Curricula tend to ignore this, and the student as well as the teacher are caught in a trap that appears inevitable and false at the same time. The strait-jacket that the curriculum appears to place on the teacher — and the student — makes exploration of these assumptions seem impossible. The student no longer engages with the subject; and looks at the subject, at best, as a stepping stone to a career where this engagement has no role to play.

It is only in the last few years that I have been working with younger children, formally and informally, and I find to my dismay that this disillusionment with the learning process and the separation of the learning at school from the ‘real world’ appears even earlier. It is clear that the curriculum and its constraints do cause a speeding up of this separation but the infection sets in much earlier. What is it that makes children believe that they cannot do science, that it is too difficult? I think the issue here is not just the subject and its content but how it is to be done and the demands made on the child. I believe there are multiple issues here. Is mathematics necessary for understanding school science?

The first strand is the belief that mathematics — its grammar and its syntax — is difficult and the sciences, in particular physics, are inextricably linked with mathematics. Even we teachers see this as being true. When I started teaching I would insist that mathematics must be taken as a subject if one wished to do physics even though most examination boards do not require it, and a number of children wanting to do medicine do not see the point of learning mathematics as they do not require it later. I still think we must do it, but not quite for the reason I believed in then. I used to insist then that physics is taught in the language of mathematics. I am not so sure now.

Physics is a way of looking at the universe and trying to understand it. What does this mean? One could go on and on but essentially, it means to observe, abstract meaning and generalise from limited observation, to predict cause and effect, validate such induced meaning and build on a series of such meanings. When we start to do physics we start from certain axioms and move on from there (the existence of space, time and matter are taken as self-evident properties — we do not spell it out consciously but this is implicit in that the learning of physics starts with measurements of these quantities). At every step, we observe the real world and try to make sense of it by abstracting only those aspects that we see as significant and ignoring others, either to simplify or to extract some meaning. In doing this we try and define aspects of our observations as convenient tools for later use.

Mathematics is a valuable tool in this exercise but it is quite possible to understand significant aspects of physics with very basic mathematics. I must add that there are sections in physics where our normal language quite fails us and the only way in which we can comprehend it is by using the tools that mathematics provides. However these are aspects which do not normally impinge on our day-to-day living.

The invaluable learning that anyone acquires in appreciating this process is not the facts or the models, but a way of thinking. It leaves one with a respect for rigour and a sense that everything must be explained within the parameters and axioms we use. We cannot ignore paradoxes by saying that these are ‘exceptions to the rule’. If an explanation cannot explain what we see, or if there are exceptions to the rule, we must assume that our explanations are wrong or are not general enough. How does school science connect with the real world?

The second strand relates to the cry we have heard from so many children, ‘I cannot understand it. I cannot relate it to what I see. As it is taught it has no relevance to the real world. I do not have to use it to deal with the real world.’ This is a very real problem. How do we relate the idealised, nonrealistic content of physics with the real world? When I say that every object continues to move with uniform motion I am saying something that seems obviously untrue. When I say that things fall with the same acceleration, it is not what we observe if we drop a stone and a piece of paper. If physics is an explanation of cause and effect, some of the causes are not clear — gravitation, electromagnetic force and so on. How do we explain to the child that our explanations are idealised and we need to see them as approximations in understanding the real world? How do we show that physics is useful? I think these are real issues that need to be addressed. Is there a way by which the child can recognise that doing science is a creative process that is aesthetically as satisfying as any of the arts? Can we show that it is rooted in the culture and history that we are a part of, that the ideas of model building and the approximations we learn here are relevant to so many other things, that the rigour of thinking that is acquired here is invaluable everywhere?

Here I would like to indulge myself in a piece of conceit. I would like to imagine the corpus of learning as a magnificent structure of which we have some glimpse, some understanding and that it is our responsibility to be a guide — a tourist guide, say — who hopes to interest some of the visitors into staying back and immersing themselves in understanding or being with this wonderful edifice. We can choose different strategies.

The first would be a dry as dust recitation of the facts and figures. They would all be very true and correct but can never give us a feel for the beauty. No catalogue can ever make anything real, can ever make us understand the blood and sweat and tears that went into the making, can ever get us emotionally involved.

The second strategy would involve the enthusiastic guide in waxing eloquent on his interests. He would tell the visitor everything he knows, bury her in facts and figures, overwhelm her with his emotions and exhaust her with his passions. Would it work? In a soil already prepared and waiting, maybe. It is, however, more likely to put off the person, scare rather than attract. It also has the great danger of possibly making the visitor believe that the vicarious knowledge she has acquired is true learning and understanding.

The third possibility: give the visitor space to look around; point out some of the interesting aspects, suggest the interesting lanes and by-lanes she can take to explore the edifice — preferably by herself. Give her the time and space to do so, but also provide her with the certainty that you are available when she needs you. Be with her when she needs you; let her loose when she does not. In this lies the possibility of true involvement and understanding. inShare Share This article was published in the KFI Journal, Issue 12 (Jan 2008)Italic text

What is the role of a science teacher

Ranjani Ranganathan

“Choice of subjects to teach is not entirely involuntary in this school,” joked the veteran Physics teacher. We were discussing the possibility of my moving to High School to teach Physics and Math. Let it be known that I was formally trained to teach junior school and primary school children. I was as much of a greenhorn as you could possibly find among teachers. My only credential for teaching science and math were my long forgotten transcripts from my undergraduate degree. My transcript showed that I had survived two years of serious math and science; the only visible damage was to my cumulative grade point average. But, I did not go too far with my protestation about the lack of my competence to teach Physics. And the reason was not only that the school really needed a science and math teacher. It also had to do with my desire to engage with serious science again. Not to mention the ego trip it gave me. So, my career took another turn and I became a Physics teacher. I was to teach Physics for Class 9 and 10 and Math for Class 8. As one of my friends helpfully commented, “I can’t believe they have trusted you with three high school classes and an exam class at that!” I can assure you no public speaker felt more fear than I did on my first day of class. I was armed with my notes and my interest in teaching Physics. And the sinking feeling of what will I do if they ask me a question I don’t know the answer to; which was an all too likely possibility. And that I would make a fool of myself – so much for my ego trip! But that did not happen. They asked me many questions that I could not answer well. Somehow, I did not come across as incompetent, though. So, I hear you ask, what happened? I am not sure, but I dare say all my misgivings came from an exaggerated sense of my importance. Of course, the teacher matters; but not in the way I had thought. Then what is the role of a science teacher? Well, I think the first thing to remember is that an opportunity to teach Physics means an opportunity to learn it well. And that is what I did. And I had a great time, learning Physics, without the stress of having to worry about what dent it would have on my grades. Of course, my students had to worry about all the good stuff like marks and exams. The next thing is that you need not have all the answers. I did not realize it when I started, but I think it would be quite a sad state of science teaching if you went in front of your class and said “Bring your questions on – here I am!”. At the end of one year of teaching, I still tie myself into knots on the seemingly simplest of topics before I go into a class but we have a good time in the class anyway. I think this is what happens. While I think I am confused, and in fact I am, what matters for the students is the level of engagement I have. And since I realize only too well how confusing things can be, in an almost bizarre way, I can make the class easier for them. And of course, the role of the Council in making Physics easy cannot be underestimated! Another big “Aha” for me was this. No matter what I do, some topics will remain difficult and misunderstood. The DC motor is doomed, indeed, in school. This is not an indictment of the capabilities of the children; nor is it a license for me to goof off. It is just an “as-is” statement. There are several layers of understanding; unravelling and understanding again associated with any concept. And many Physics ideas remain in the lower levels of understanding for a long time. They remain there, till the student rediscovers her interest and explores it with a greater level of maturity, possibly as a teacher. And it is important to not take it too personally if Physics is not a favourite subject for many. This insight freed me tremendously from the pressure I was subjecting myself to – no pun intended. Lest I sound like I have given up on teaching Physics in school, I must hasten to add this. How the teacher presents science in school has a direct effect on how the student views the subject later on. This is true, I am sure, of other subjects as well, but is critical for science and math. What matters is the teacher’s attitude and approach to learning and teaching. Of course, at least part of this statement is motivated by self-preservation interests. Regardless, I do think qualifications are not the only things that matter. And if I have done my job well, at least some of my students may revisit Physics later in life and grapple with concepts that they thought they had understood! So, you think I have got it all figured out? You wish. I am supposed to teach Class 11 Physics next year. It is de ja vu all over again…..