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.