Lessons in problem solving

Panamalai R Guruprasad

Sometimes we make incorrect judgments about people because of wrong assumptions and expectations. When we expect something and don’t get it, we find it difficult to accept and as a result, direct our anger at people who don’t have anything to do with these expectations. This happens to many of us in our homes, workplaces or elsewhere and causes psychological and sociological problems affecting individuals and communities. We can help our children in averting such problems later on in their lives, if we teach science more carefully than we are currently doing.

One of the most important aims of teaching Science is to inculcate a scientific attitude in children so that children can approach real-life problems with ease and try to work out solutions. Any research on good practices in the field of education will show that children who develop a scientific attitude during their student years approach any situation or process objectively and make decisions carefully by considering all possibilities and develop into good members of the community. An important ingredient of scientific attitude is the willingness to accept the `unexpected’. It is important that we train our children to have an open mind. How can we achieve this? This article gives one solution.

It was the year 1990. Although I was a Physics teacher, I had to teach middle school biology (as part of the integrated science course), due to a shortage of qualified science teachers in Botswana, at that time. (I remember Zabine Feezer, a colleague, needing my assistance when she had to teach Ohm’s law or my requiring her help when teaching the Nitrogen Cycle. In fact, that was the first time that I realized what `team teaching’ was all about, although I had studied it during my B.Ed course years before). Although I found it a bit difficult to teach biology for the first time in a classroom, I could easily overcome the pressure, by going back to the high school textbooks I had used in my school days, trying out the textbook activities myself and referring to contemporary material. Besides, thanks to the British Council Library, I could borrow very good curricular videos and sci-fi films such as `Fantastic Voyage’ for use in my classroom.

I developed almost all science activities in such a manner that they included the skill of `predicting’. My students identified this as an important skill that would help them become scientists who make hypotheses or effective people who can approach problems in real life situations in a pragmatic manner.

Once I had to teach “Transportation of Water in Plants” to my middle school science students. I developed my lesson material to include a hands-on activity written like a worksheet as follows:

  1. Take a transparent plastic cup or container (plastic is better than glass as the latter can cause injury if it breaks).
  2. Pour some water and mix some food coloring to it.
  3. Dip a leafy stalk of spinach into the water.
  4. Leave it for about 4 hours.
  5. Soon after dipping the stalk into the water, study the following statements and put a √ mark to show your choice:
    • At the end of 4 hours, there will not be any change in the color of the stalk or the leaves.
    • At the end of 4 hours, there will be a change in the color of the stalk or the leaves.
  6. At the end of 4 hours, observe the stalk and leaves of the plant.
  7. What do you observe?
  8. Take the stalk out and cut it across. Observe the cross-section of the stalk.
  9. What do you observe?
  10. Explain the reason.

Emotional problems in children can be prevented if schools use textbooks that enable teachers to develop pedagogically sound classroom processes that will train children to think in the right direction. This means that textbooks should be written accordingly. I place emphasis on textbooks here, because in countries like India, almost all classroom processes are based on what textbooks say. Teachers very seldom have the time to make children think beyond the textbooks (for reasons such as substitution work and administrative responsibilities). Besides, they are under pressure to `cover’ the `portions’ by the most influential stakeholders in the system: parents, school managements and examinations boards. In India, textbook contents are written in accordance with syllabus frameworks prescribed by government agencies and by private agencies such as The Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations. Well-defined syllabi and carefully developed textbooks can prevent a cascade of problems.

But, as our syllabi do not adequately emphasize precise skills, the lessons in our textbooks reflect this deficiency clearly. (For example see box, pg.15).

As a professional who has worked in textbook publishing in the private sector, I have found the same situation there as well. There are exceptions in both cases, but they are very marginal.

Science activities that include the `prediction’ component encourage children to be pragmatic in problem solving approaches and train them to be creative individuals who can accept the unexpected, and are flexible enough to adapt themselves as good members of the community. Textbook publishers have an important role to play in this direction. Well-developed textbooks can do well in the global playing field.

“Research on student learning indicates that a cycle of prediction, observation and then explanation promotes student learning” – Tobin K, Tippins T J and Gallard A J: Handbook of Research in School Teaching and Learning: Macmillan, New York: 1994.

What does the stem do?

solvingIn India, the central government and state governments run their own schools. It is mandatory for government schools to use textbooks developed by their respective government agencies. National Council of Educational Research and Training develops textbooks for use in central schools all over the country (and abroad) and The Tamilnadu Textbook Corporation, a Unit of the state government of Tamilnadu, develops textbooks for use in government schools in Tamilnadu. Similarly there are agencies associated with each state government to bring out textbooks for use in their schools.

Transportation of water in plants is taught in grade 6 in central schools. What follows is an excerpt from the grade 6 NCERT textbook (http://www.ncert.nic.in/textbooks/testing/Index.htm).

“We would require a glass, water, red ink, a herb, and a blade for this activity. Pour water to fill one-third of the glass. Add a few drops of red ink to the water. Cut the base of the stem of the herb and put it in the glass as shown in the figure.

Observe it the next day. Do any of the parts of the herb appear to have red colour? If yes, how do you think the colour reached there? You can cut the stem across and look for the red colour inside the stem.

From this activity we see that water moves up the stem. In other words, stem conducts water. Just like the red ink, minerals dissolved in water also move up in the stem, along with the water”.

The same concept is taught in grade 4 in the Tamilnadu government schools. As the textbook contents are available only in Tamil and other regional languages, they could not be excerpted for this article. However, you may view the contents at
http://www.textbooksonline.tn.nic.in/Books/04/Std04-ESSc-TM.pdf. In neither lesson is there an option for children to `predict’.

The author is currently a freelance writer and has formerly been the Technical Advisor to the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, Government of Cambodia. He can be reached at panamalairguruprasad@gmail.com.