Making science meaningful

Ardra Balachandran

“I strongly believe that the only way to encourage innovation is to give it to the young. The young have a great advantage in that they are ignorant. Because I think ignorance in science is very important.”

These are the words of Professor Sydney Brenner, the celebrated South African biologist who shared the 2002 Nobel Prize in Medicine with two other scientists, “for their discoveries concerning genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death”. Have we thought of ignorance as the greatest starting point for learning science? As teachers who get to mould young minds from a clean slate, how far does that instil a sense of responsibility in us? These may be the questions with which we should begin to ponder how we do science in schools.

Start with the syllabus
While we all agree that rote learning does not suffice students of today’s world, what acts as the biggest hindrance on our way out is the vastness of the syllabus that has to be delivered.

Jayan N. teaches chemistry to grades 11 and 12 at SN Trust Higher Secondary School in Cherthala, a Kerala state-aided institution. He is also an active member of the Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad, a people’s science movement with ‘science for social revolution’ as its motto. He believes that the current syllabus is too vast and outdated (the NCERT syllabus is more than 15 years old). He says, “Science, by definition, should look into the future, and we should not be forcing students to learn history of science that has no bearing on their understanding of modern science.” He specifies that atomic models and several other ‘legacy-of-chemistry’ topics, are unnecessary. He adds that he cannot see the point in teaching something as hard as Schrödinger’ wave equation at the +2 phase. “We often scold children when they talk like adults and ask them to come down to children’s level, right? But when it comes to learning, we expect them to be like adults. That is unfair.” He says such concepts are difficult to transact and should be reserved for appropriate academic programmes later.

Sharing the opinion that the current CBSE syllabus is musty, Janet Flexy, a chemistry teacher at Marello Public School in Vypin, Ernakulam, says, “There are some additions here and there to what I had learned back in my student days. Otherwise, there isn’t much change and it definitely isn’t enough to address the needs of today’s children.”

Lakshmi Mohan, the principal of a young institution called Paadashaala English Medium School in Peringottukurishi, Palakkad, lived for a long time in Switzerland before she moved to Kerala. She says the most significant difference between science education in both countries is the syllabus itself. “Our syllabus is so crammed and we are always in a race to finish topics. In the Swiss system, there is less emphasis on how many topics are covered. How the lessons are taught and how children soak them in are more important.”

Choice seems to be important for Sreya Sreejith, who is in class 9 at Arya Central School in Thiruvananthapuram. She says: “Why can’t we have a system in which students can choose from a range of topics and learn in detail only about them? That is better than having a vast syllabus.”

Building strong basics
While there are constraints with regard to the syllabus, there are schools that try to take science outside textbooks and classrooms, and make it more interesting. Institutions that have enough resources are experimenting with teaching methods and models, particularly in lower classes, where there is less pressure regarding topics to cover. One such example is the take on Enquiry Based Learning (EBL) that the NPS group of institutions has executed for classes 1-5. Sonu Rajesh, the coordinator for primary school section at a National Public School in Bengaluru, and a teacher of biology in grades 6, 7 and 8, delineates the 5E instructional model they follow:
1) Engage – Get the child’s attention towards a particular topic by giving them clues. Elicit prior knowledge / stimulate interest with the help of hook questions, puzzles, etc.
2) Explore – Once they know the topic, help them carry out hands-on investigation and explore the concept further. For example, if the topic is vertebrates and invertebrates, show them X-rays of various animals and prod them to think why the image is like that, leading them to think about who has backbones.
3) Explain – Help them develop the knowledge of concepts by throwing more light through keywords and scientific explanation.
4) Elaborate – Give library books or questions and ask them to discuss in groups. Teachers act as a scaffold here; students apply their learning to new situations.
5) Evaluate – Give them worksheets based on what we want them to have learned. A lot of research happens at the students’ end at this stage too and they get to reflect on what they have learned. This step can be used for formative assessment as well.

Every class has 5-6 groups of five students each and every group has an envoy. During steps 2 and 4 particularly, these envoys go around and watch what the other groups are doing, and thus best practices are shared. There is also a gallery where all groups pin their work for everyone else to see and learn. Additionally, each student maintains his/her own journal to note down learnings. Sonu adds, “At this point, there are two EBL lessons per term along with two ABL (Activity Based Learning) lessons for classes 1-5. It is not integrated with other subjects although that is in the pipeline.”

Paadashaala, led by Lakshmi, is a smaller institution and currently has classes up to 7. Teaching science with a life-oriented approach is a declared objective for them. If plants are being taught, students are taken to a place where they can experience a variety of plants. There is a lot of project work, model-making and exhibitions too. The pandemic wrecked their process of hands-on learning, but the focus on making concepts clear, with no pressure to memorize anything, is unwavering. When online classes became the norm two years ago, science teachers at Paadashaala started making vlogs, walking through gardens and pointing to objects of study, instead of standing in one place and delivering lectures. Although the current senior students who graduate into high school next academic year will have to deal with the challenges of a demanding syllabus, the strong foundation they have with experiential science learning will definitely come to their aid.

Another system we can take inspiration from is the IB curriculum. Saranya Satish, mother of Sloka Chandrra, a fifth grader at Trivandrum International School, sings praises for their method of teaching that it is highly inquiry-generating. “In an IB curriculum school, science lessons are delivered as Units of Inquiry (UOI). It induces critical thinking skills in children with teachers acting only as a guide. The method is also trans-disciplinary and enhances knowledge of all elements of life,” she notes.

Less of labs, more of life
When we think of hands-on science learning, a common image that comes to mind is probably that of a child immersed in laboratory work, either mixing multi-colour liquids or focussing on the lens of a microscope. At school level, complete dependence on laboratories for practical learning of science, Jayan says, is not ideal. One, laboratory infrastructure varies hugely among schools and it is not something teachers can fix. Two, there is so much more possibility to learn science practically from life situations. “If you ask students to find oxalic acid in common fruits, they will need to do titration. If you ask why rock salt is hygroscopic, they will figure out anions and cations. There are many such life-oriented experiments that students can do outside the laboratories,” he explains.

Bhavana Sandhya teaches science in class 7 at SCUVGHSS, Pattanakkad, a government school in the Alapuzha district of Kerala. She recalls how it was difficult to get access to labs for UP (Upper Primary) children, around the time she joined service. “Our UP school is attached to a high school and the lab keys would be with those teachers. We used to skip many experiments during those years. But now, there is a separate budget allocation for us. Last year, we got sets of wire, bulb, high power battery, mini-motor, fan, etc., to teach electric circuits. There were enough numbers to have two or three kids share one set, and this is a big deal for us,” she says. But we need to remember that Bhavana’s school is one of the larger government schools in Kerala, and this level of infrastructure and facilities may not be the story of every government school.

Connecting reproduction lessons to sex education is another great example of making science lessons come ‘alive’. If we were to move over the various levels of social conditioning among teachers, the reproduction lesson in class 8 could transform into a beautiful awakening about consent, body autonomy and empathy for students of both sexes.

Effectiveness of classes delivered outside the school, through outdoor activities or field work, is another point. Janet recalls how she took a batch of students to a mini-forest to teach a lesson on adaptation. The students couldn’t stop gushing about the experience, even on their farewell day, years later. “A change of environment rejuvenates them and helps etch the lesson in their minds,” she asserts. Another student once asked her what use are all the ‘podas’ to them. Don’t we concur we weren’t told what difference arthropoda makes to our lives? “That is the thing. Every single lesson we teach needs to be connected to life. It does not land otherwise,” she adds.

‘Vatare Shale’ is a great example of how a change in environment becomes a whiff of fresh air particularly in those settings where resources are scarce. A few months after COVID struck, these micro-intervention ‘village schools’ were implemented in rural Karnataka wherein a teacher would meet a small set of students (usually under 20) under a tree or in a temple / mosque premises in the locality. Many activities were listed out on the Department of State Educational Research and Training (DSERT) website for this, and the teachers would take them up one by one in these weekly classes focused on interactive learning. This was an alternative to the online mode of teaching since there were resource limitations pertaining to internet and devices. Savitha N. is a teacher at the Government Urdu Higher Primary School in Devadurga, one of the most backward taluks of Karnataka, and says that these classes have been a fabulous way to reach out to children while they were away from formal school. Let us also remember that hers is a school with no laboratory at all.

Preetha Nair is the mother of 7th grader Abhimaan who attends NPS in Indira Nagar, Bengaluru. She thinks it would be fruitful to have EBL implemented for higher classes too. “The science topics Abhimaan learns are fundamental. I don’t see need to cut out any portions. But they need to be delivered differently, with the applicability quotient chalked out more,” she says. She also recommends that more hands-on learning hours are added to the calendar by cutting short on assessment. “There are just too many exams happening right now,” she opines.

Janet asks a pertinent question in this context. “We teach students about the need for forest conservation through lessons in textbooks. Do we only want them to reproduce the ‘right answers’ for exams or do we want them to become aware citizens? What is our learning objective?” When they learn lessons such that they become empowered to share them with others and make them aware too, isn’t that when education achieves its true goals?

Connect it to careers
If Janet were to revamp the science syllabus, she says ‘career education’ would be an important addition: “Students do not move beyond doctors and engineers when asked about their ambitions, because we do not tell them enough about the other options. It is our responsibility to connect every science lesson to real life situations and also elucidate how each of those lessons can become beneficial in various professions, even the non-science work avenues. Connect every class to how it can be made into a career and children are sure to get hooked.”

COVID has stolen her opportunities to see science in action and Rajasree Rajesh is not happy. She is a class 7 student of Thycattussery MDUPS, a government-aided school in Kerala, and loved the visit to a Milma production unit to see pasteurization and other dairy processes in action. She also enjoyed the field trip to the agricultural and veterinary university in Mannuthy. Apart from experiencing the applications of science, such visits also help children see the different avenues that are available to them professionally.

As a teacher who deals with students in two crucial years – the time during which most students make decisions about career paths – Jayan too believes that science lessons have to make sense from that perspective. He observes: “You teach thermodynamics in +2 and then they go for engineering only to find a huge gap. What is the point of making them mug up organic chemistry instead of teaching them how to arrive at solutions?” He sees benefit in making his students think about “why am I learning chemistry?” for an entire month before they deep-dive into +2 chemistry lessons.

For a country with more than 50 per cent of its population under the age of 25, our biggest asset is human resources. But brain drain is a real challenge; students flock out of the country because the possibilities to study and work are immense outside. “If we start delivering science lessons connecting each one of them to life application and career options, this will change,” Janet predicts confidently. Savitha’s school held a competition and made children prepare ‘teaching-learning material’ wherein they had to explain the teaching aid they had made. She says it was a great opportunity for the teachers to see through the children’s eyes what and how they would like to learn.

Ask Virat Soumya, who is in class 6 at St. Thomas School, Thiruvananthapuram, what he wants to learn more in science at school, and he says: “space, rockets and satellites”. Krishna S. Biju, class 9 student at Arya Central School, wants astronomy to be included and also wishes for practical sessions to accompany every lesson. These are the aspirations we are catering to.

The language conflict
Curiosity is inherent to children and that is conducive for developing an interest in science. But science is still not necessarily the favourite subject for a lot of children. Why is that?

In a multi-cultural, multi-linguistic country as ours, the language in which we deliver science lessons is also a matter of importance. As a biology graduate who now teaches English in grade 7, Lakshmi says: “It is a must that science is taught to children in a language they understand. If it has to be taught in English, then first make sure that they know English well. Science will be easier and more fun, this way,” she asserts. English is not the first language for most of our students, and this is a point that we often overlook in the mad rush to finish portions as English and science lessons go on simultaneously. This was the motivation for the Pallikoodam School in Kottayam, Kerala, ranked 4th in Co-ed Day-cum-Boarding School category in the Education World India School Rankings (EWISR) survey (2020-21) to adopt Malayalam as their medium of instruction up to class II, back in 1999. This ensures that students do not face a language conflict while learning basics.

Spending time and energy on changing how science lessons are delivered in lower classes may sound tedious to some of us, at least. But the effort starts to show results as science trifurcates in higher classes, with the load of syllabus swinging into action. A strong base in lower classes is a must for high school teachers to build on. While this is true for any learning, it is particularly so for science. Therefore, this shift has a tremendous positive impact on how children receive science lessons at all levels.

Bhavana talks about the other side of this language coin, that is, the difficulty in expressing ideas in a language that one is not comfortable with. Hers is a large government school with one division in Malayalam medium and the rest in English, for class 7. It is quite common that teachers use a combination of English and Malayalam to teach even in English medium divisions. This way, students understand the concepts much better. But even when they are clear on concepts, they find it hard to answer questions in English, a language they are not comfortable with. She says that Malayalam medium students can express better and score better too, because of this reason. “In my career of 18 years as a science teacher, this is the biggest challenge I have faced. Parents flock their children to English medium classes thinking that is what they need. They don’t realize that learning in our own language is extremely beneficial. While we do everything possible to make concepts clear to the students, most English medium students are not able to reflect that in examinations because of poor vocabulary and grammar skills,” she laments.

She narrates an incident to explain this point further. Last year, a big group of students left an ICSE school nearby and joined her school. All of them have superior English skills compared to the students who have studied in her school from smaller classes, and most of them, barring one or two, are doing great in science. Bhavana believes that language is the single most important factor at play here.

Riding the digital wave
The shift COVID brought for students, in terms of access to internet, is phenomenal. Even those parents who wouldn’t give their children devices before the virus (to restrict screen-time or due to lack of resources) were forced to make them available. The pandemic legitimized students’ need to spend time on phones and laptops and this further opened up their worlds. With every information available at their fingertips now, teachers should consciously try to match up and deliver.

Discussions about the pros and cons of social media are always rife, but there is no contesting the fact that they are organic platforms for fruitful activities when it comes to education. In Janet’s school, there are ‘Science WhatsApp Groups’ for classes 8, 9 and 10 where teachers and students are members. What started as doubt-clarification spaces for exams are now buzzing with articles and videos followed by meaningful discussions about the ideas covered in those.

‘Flipped classrooms’ is another interesting idea in action at Janet’s school. Teachers share in advance, images/videos/articles about the topic they are going to introduce in class the next day. While children still don’t know what exactly the topic is, the material gets them thinking and the ground gets set. Janet says this is definitely more effective than simply beginning a topic in class. The significance of this can be fully understood only if we get the context that Vypin, the place where her school is located, is a coastal area. Most students are from a low-income background with minimal parental intervention in study-support. There are several resource and infrastructure related challenges, but they are still making the best out of what they have.

Bhavana too concurs that with better IT facilities at school, teachers can do a much better job in how they deliver science lessons. They are yet to get ‘smart classrooms’ in their school, where videos and images can be shown to children as part of the lesson.

New world, new role
Science teaching, as well as learning, has become much easier and more interesting now, compared to the times when the current teachers were students. Back then, the one diagram associated with every lesson, that the teacher drew on the blackboard or was printed in the textbook, is all that students got to see. Half of the things, they had to imagine in their heads. But for students of today, nothing is abstract. Sonu says, “When I taught reproduction in class 8, I explained every part elaborately using a PPT and followed it up with a video.” She also observes that children today are more open. They are quick to ask questions like “how are twins born then?” soon after fertilization is explained.

Lakshmi concurs: “In our times, we just had teachers and library books to depend upon. There were definitely gaps in the knowledge acquired and there was no way to fill them. The variety of resources available now, particularly visual ones, is massive, and leaves no room for gaps for the interested learner.”

In this new world of visual choices, teachers have a new role to play – that of a facilitator. Janet says: “Paid online learning platforms are mushrooming now to exploit the middle-class aspiration to give children the best education possible. In this race, parents run behind content that is already on internet for free and end up paying money. If teachers in schools step up their game and guide children through the immensity of free content that is available online, there is no need for any paid platform.”

Jayan is also of the opinion that a teacher only needs to ‘switch on the light’. What the students need to see, they will choose to see. “For example, who wants to listen to many old tales about periodic table development? Casually mention one when you introduce the periodic table, may be. The students who want to go deep in will explore by themselves. We are here if they have questions about how to do that,” he says.

While every student might not pursue science professionally, we certainly want every student to develop a scientific temper that helps them evolve into rationally thinking individuals capable of making sound life decisions. If we, as teachers, get this fundamental ‘why’ of science right, students will get science right too. With that, we are enhancing their odds of getting life right as well, by enabling them to welcome new light and new knowledge throughout life’s phases.

The author is a communication professional based in Kochi, Kerala. She is mostly on stage as an MC, and at other times, she writes on her favourite topics – gender, education, food and entertainment. She can be reached at [email protected].

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