Science Education and Textbooks

What are the worst possible ways of approaching the textbooks for teaching science? In his book Science Teaching: The Role of History and Philosophy of Science pedagogue Michael Matthews quotes (p. 51) Kenealy in this matter. Many of the textbooks of science would fall in this categorisation. The emphasis lays squarely on the content part, and that too memorized testing of it.

Kenealy characterizes the worst science texts as ones which “attempt to spraypaint their readers with an enormous amount of ‘scientific facts,’ and then test the readers’ memory recall.” He goes on to observe that:

Reading such a book is much like confronting a psychology experiment which is testing recall of a random list of nonsense words. In fact, the experience is often worse than that, because the book is a presentation that purports to make sense, but is missing so many key elements needed to understand how human beings could ever reason to such bizarre things, that the reader often blames herself or himself and feels “stupid,” and that science is only for special people who can think “that way” … such books and courses have lost a sense of coherence, a sense of plot, a sense of building to a climax, a sense of resolution. (Kenealy 1989, p. 215)

What kind of pedagogical imagination and theories will lead to the textbooks which have a complete emphasis on the “facts of science”? This pedagogical imagination also intimately linked to the kind of assessments that we will be using to test the “learning”. Now if we are satisfied by assessing our children by their ability to recall definitions and facts and derivations and being able to reproduce them in writing (handwriting) in a limited time then this is the kind of syllabus that we will end up with. Is it a wonder if students are found to be full of misconceptions or don’t even have basic ideas about science, its nature and methods being correct? What is surprising, at least for me, that even in such a situation learning still happens! Students still get some ideas right if not all.

A curriculum which does not see a point in assessing concepts has no right to lament at students not being able to understand them or lacking conceptual understanding. As Position Paper on Teaching of Science in NCF 2005 remarks

‘What is not assessed at the Board examination is never taught’

So, if the assessment is not at a conceptual level why should the students ever spend their time on understanding concepts? What good will it bring them in a system where a single mark can decide your future?

 

Examinations: Students, Teachers and the System

We think of exams as simple troublesome exchanges with students:

Glance at some of the uses of examinations:

  • Measure students' knowledge of facts, principles, definitions, 
    experimental methods, etc
  • Measure students' understanding of the field studied
  • Show students what they have learnt
  • Show teacher what students have learnt
  • Provide students with landmarks in their studies
  • Provide students with landmarks in their studies and check 
    their progress
  • Make comparisons among students, or among teachers, 
    or among schools
  • Act as prognostic test to direct students to careers
  • Act as diagnostic test for placing students in fast 
    or slow programs
  • Act as an incentive to encourage study
  • Encourage study by promoting competition among students
  • Certify necessary level for later jobs
  • Certify a general educational background for later jobs
  • Act as test of general intelligence for jobs
  • Award's, scholarships, prizes etc.

There is no need to read all that list; I post it only as a warning against trying to do too many different things at once. These many uses are the variables in examining business, and unless we separate the variables, or at least think about separating them, our business will continue to suffer from confusion and damage.

There are two more aspects of great importance well known but seldom mentioned. First the effect of examination on teachers and their teaching –

coercive if imposed from the outside; guiding if adopted sensibly. That is how to change a whole teaching program to new aims and methods – institute new examinations. It can affect a teacher strongly.

It can also be the way to wreck a new program – keep the old exams, or try to correlate students’ progress with success in old exams.

Second: tremendous effect on students.

Examinations tell them our real aims, at least so they believe. If we stress clear understanding and aim at growing knowledge of physics, we may completely sabotage our teaching by a final examination that asks for numbers to be put in memorized formulas. However loud our sermons, however intriguing the experiments, students will be judged by that exam – and so will next years students who hear about it.

From:

Examinations: Powerful Agents for Good or Ill in Teaching | Eric M. Rogers | Am. J. Phys. 37, 954 (1969)

Though here the real power players the bureaucrats and (highly) qualified PhDs in education or otherwise who decide what is to be taught and how it is evaluated in the classroom. They are “coercive” as Rogers points out and teachers, the meek dictators (after Krishna Kumar), are the point of contact with the students and have to face the heat from all the sides. They are more like foot soldiers most of whom have no idea of what they are doing, why they are doing; while generals in their cozy rooms, are planning how to strike the enemy (is the enemy the students or their lack of (interest in ) education, I still wonder).  In other words most of them don’t have an birds-eye-view of system that they are a focal part of.

Or as Morris Kline puts it:

A couple of years of desperate but fruitless efforts caused Peter to sit back and think. He had projected himself and his own values and he had failed. He was not reaching his students. The liberal arts students saw no value in mathematics. The mathematics majors pursued mathematics because, like Peter, they were pleased to get correct answers to problems. But there was no genuine interest in the subject. Those students who would use mathematics in some profession or career insisted on being shown immediately how the material could be useful to them. A mere assurance that they would need it did not suffice. And so Peter began to wonder whether the subject matter prescribed in the syllabi was really suitable. Perhaps, unintentionally, he was wasting his students’ time.

Peter decided to investigate the value of the material he had been asked to teach. His first recourse was to check with his colleagues, who had taught from five to twenty-five or more years. But they knew no more than Peter about what physical scientists, social scientists, engineers, and high school and elementary school teachers really ought to learn. Like himself, they merely followed syllabi – and no one knew who had written the syllabi.

Peter’s next recourse was to examine the textbooks in the field. Surely professors in other institutions had overcome the problems he faced. His first glance through publishers’ catalogues cheered him. He saw titles such as Mathematics for Liberal Arts, Mathematics for Biologists, Calculus for Social Scientists, and Applied Mathematics for Engineers. He eagerly secured copies. But the texts proved to be a crushing disappointment. Only the authors’ and publishers names seemed to differentiate them. The contents were about the same, whether the authors in their prefaces or the publishers in their advertising literature professed to address liberal arts students, prospective engineers, students of business, or prospective teachers. Motivation and use of the mathematics were entirely ignored. It was evident that these authors had no idea of what anyone did with mathematics.

From: A Critique Of Undergrduate Education. (Commonly Known As: Why The Professor Can’t Teach?) | Morris Kline

Both of the works are about 50 years old, but they still reflect the educational system as of now.

Cram, don’t think

The message from 15 years of education in my country – first at a top-notch school and then at one of the best known colleges in India – was:

Facts are more important than thought and imagination; that it’s more important to know the answers than think critically; that exams are more important than knowledge itself. Some may say that in college the majority of us chose the convenient way out and they are right.Our system of education, even at the undergraduate level, does not encourage us – in fact, gives us every opportunity not to think independently, critically, creatively or analytically.

via The Hindu