Science is basically an exploration of that which is not known, or put more flamboyantly, the unknown, in the material world. It is a process by which the scientist looks for stable patterns. By means of the scientific methodology, people set out to 'control' these patterns to suit creative needs and to create new patterns. These stable patterns can also be referred to as 'machines' since they repeat their actions and cannot change their fundamental structure except through external means. (In this article the word 'machine' will be used in this broad conceptual sense.) Scientists tend to focus almost entirely on the objectivity of these patterns rather than the quirky, subjective emotional leanings and eccentricities that helped discover or create these machines in the first place. As a science teacher, I would like to bring up a few issues regarding the learning of science in the classroom which pertain to working with the varied emotions that the students go through.

This article is not meant to summarize or contradict the opinions of experts. It could, instead, be regarded as a sharing of a personal exploration in science education. It is aimed at both the general reader and those who have the interesting task of teaching young children science.

Lost in the numbers

To think 'in terms of numbers', as so many successful stockbrokers, bankers, physicists, chemists and others do, seems to be truly amazing. Here, I am not trying to get at the meaning of numbers. Rather, to understand how one uses numbers to classify complex processes, that is, that is, to gather data and then to make predictions based on patterns that one can identify.

At the heart of introducing numbers into science is how units are defined and used. To start with, let us look at some basic quantities like length, time and mass. These quantities cannot be defined precisely. In order to work with them, names are given, which are formally called units, such as metre, second and kilogram (whose short forms are m, s and kg). Assuming that one knows what one metre is, many metres is denoted by multiplying some given number by the unit. For example, four metres is denoted by 4×m = 4 m by the shorthand notation present in algebra. Similarly 10 s or 9.8 kg denotes 10 seconds and 9.8 kilograms, respectively.

After agreeing on a procedure to label numbers, one now applies all the mathematical operations on them. For example, if one multiplies 3 m by 4 m, one has 3 m×4 m = 12 m2. The numbers multiply to give 12 and the units multiply to give m2. Now m2, though derived, is a unique name and has to have a suitable meaning if it is to be used. In this case we know that it denotes area which is just the freedom to move in two independent ways. But other units like the square root of m (√m) or the cube of s (s3) have no discernible meaning and are not commonly used.

Another operation is that of division. When one divides two similarly labelled numbers, say 12 m by 6 m, one gets a result that has no name, since the units cancel. It is just a number that is 2 in this case. This leads us to another property of labelled numbers, that of comparison: not how much more but how many times more (a logarithmic comparison). For small ratios it is easy to picture and work with but for larger ratios it is surprisingly difficult. Mathematically, 1011 is just a number and does not pose a conundrum, but as the ratio of two distances or masses, it is unfathomable since no daily experience deals with comparisons so fantastically large. We think linearly, not logarithmically.

Now we come to names derived from combining different units. Speed is a commonly used quantity and is defined as the ratio of distance covered divided by the time taken. The name of this quantity is usually given as m/s. Again, though derived, it still has a separate identity and denotes the idea of change in the form of going from one place to another. Another commonly used quantity is acceleration which is defined as the rate of change of speed with respect to time and is the basis, for example, for distinguishing sports cars from ordinary ones and in defining force. This has the name m/s2 which is quite a mouthful because there does not seem to be an obvious way of picturing it using just the images we have of distance and time. Using the unit for mass, we have other more realistic quantities like force, pressure and energy which have the units kgm/s2, kg/s2m and kgm2/s2 which all have distinct identities. It is hard to come to terms with these quantities except through daily experience and to correlate these experiences with the units these quantities have is harder still. It isn't really obvious to children (or many adults, for that matter) how distance or time or mass can matter in the definition of energy or force. It can be bewildering to hear that the same quantity, denoted by a plethora of symbols different from those used to denote the units, can itself have different units, for example, cm/s and mi/h in the case of speed.

Even then, we are only able to imagine what these quantities are and what they can do on a relatively small scale of magnitude. To imagine processes that are indescribably small or immeasurably large, or whose properties are obtained by dividing indescribably small quantities to give an imaginable result (which calculus does), we need to learn to abstract. The language of mathematics affords us a way to do this. Our ability to gather data, process it and make conclusions is strictly defined through the medium of named numbers which can be quite abstract.

Limitations of the deductive process

To design a working model from scratch takes time. The process usually involves building from an already existing web of ideas and products, learning from successes and failures, till the idea in the mind of the conceiver is realized. However, such a learning process is possible only by those who are 'emotionally mature'. In other words, those who are capable of bearing the emotional highs and lows brought on by dealing with the competitive forces and varied vested interests that accompany such learning. In a classroom with young children, many of the skills required to engage in scientific creativity need to be slowly introduced. It appears that they can go through the joy and pain of learning rigour and discipline only over a significantly long period of time. Even the really clever ones need sufficient time, contrary to expectations.

Among the approaches used in teaching this rigour is the deductive process. In this approach, we first list out everything we believe is useful in resolving a given problem. We would call these our variables. Then we combine these quantities, much like we do when cooking, to produce the desired solution. Its usefulness can be seen in the fantastic technological explosion happening around us in the form of gadgets. But while the deductive process is useful in factory scale production of any known solution or product, it cannot guarantee insights into as yet unsolved problems, nor can it be the basis for ingenuity. So it is important to look beyond the deductive approach if science classes are to be interesting and productive.

Emotions and their role in the classroom

Emotions of all kinds play a role in a child's development. Even negative feelings and tendencies of various kinds assume importance, though it is by no means clear how they promote growth. To help the child give expression to all of his/her emotions, without fixing onto the behavioral pattern assumed by such tendencies, appears to help foster creativity and the need to think. How can we do this in the context of science education? Some issues like inattention, interaction with others, discipline and so on will be touched upon in the following paragraphs.

Inattention in students is a common sight. To ask students to be attentive, the teacher needs to set an example in spite of his/her emotional state of mind. Put another way, a certain degree of multi-tasking is required where one keeps track of many things at once without being overwhelmed by any one predominant thing. Attention is also subjective. Why would that be so? If it were objective, like objects in the room, mathematical formulae or machines, it could always be externally imposed by following a fixed set of procedures. If one is attentive, either the student (or teacher) makes a note of something new or accepts that s/he is seeing something already seen before. But having a predetermined idea in the mind switches the mind off the external or internal object of curiosity and we have a confused state which could be called inattention. A child's lack of attention may be brought to notice with a scolding, frequent reminders, or by pointing out the presence of something risky. However, being subjective, attention has to be approached anew each time.

Sometimes, imposing a simple set of rules seems to help. Action-oriented ones such as “Don't throw things” and “Don't talk loudly” appear most helpful since they are easy to keep track of and remember. But existential rules such as “Don't be depressed” and “You must be attentive” are not of much use. They are usually impossible for children to decipher because their emphasis depends on the particular mood of the imposer! It is fair to assume that no one, especially children, can see the source of their feelings. There is also considerable uncertainty as to how feelings change. If the class environment is such that tasks can be done in an atmosphere of changing feelings, there is a certain degree of health in which attention and learning can happen. This process is seldom 'happy', but after learning happens, the maturity it brings is quite visible and is something to be cherished. It is also, I feel, not in our hands to speed it up by imposing anything for that specific purpose. It is like an immature person conceiving of his/her own maturity as an attainable goal. The contradiction is that if that can be done, s/he must already be mature.

There is a curious effect which is readily seen when something abstract, like a topic in science or math, is sought to be understood. This is the phenomenon of children (and adults) using jargon in a meaningless way and mixing up concepts. It is commonly referred to as 'talking nonsense'. When a new idea is being established by enquiry and dialogue, it possibly needs older, fixed notions to reassemble themselves to see this new pattern that is being introduced. During this 'reassembling' process, ideas are held in a jumbled state till the new pattern is seen and things become stable once more. In the 'confused' state, where no right or wrong or definite can be seen, anything the student says or does reflects that state, that is, it looks meaningless. Interrupting this stage of growth in an individual by exposing them to strong emotions like a show of contempt or anger, or by showering unnecessary praise, seems to fix that state in place for longer than is necessary. Too much information also, introduced too quickly, produces an enduring state of confusion and can be likened to mental indigestion, if such a phrase can be used. This state of confusion can readily lead to restlessness, boredom and excess excitement. So, especially in a science classroom, patience and alertness are required since equipment can be quite easily damaged during such periods. Very rarely is it a deliberate act. Generally, it seems that everyone except the child concerned is aware of the value of costly equipment! One possible way of mitigating the damage is by repeating operating instructions and certain basic safety features, communicating calmly and firmly. Using cheap and expendable equipment can also help build a good measure of trust during such times since the teacher is less worried about its loss.

What about interaction with others, acknowledging the contribution made to one's learning from other sources, the issue of rewards and incentives, how much credit to give and what one does in the face of unreasonableness? All of these issues are reflected in the external world of adult interactions, and even in the classroom the experience is that not facing up to these issues leads to much chaos and loss of creativity. In only a very few creativity thrives in the cesspool of continuing conflict and constant seeking for rewards. In such circumstances, scientific creativity appears to lose its cooperative and inclusive outlook.

Just as in the case of attention, there can be no fixed procedure to bring order out of chaos, since the chaos itself is mostly subjective. However, that does not mean that there isn't a way out. Though it is difficult, the teacher must not convey any contradiction. For example, asking for attention or peace or reasonableness when one is irritated or scattered would qualify as a contradiction. Similarly, praise or criticism may produce lasting psychological comparisons among students rather than encourage them to modify their approaches. Since the focus of the class is really learning, it is essential that the teacher be a safe haven. Children do respond positively to a consistent approach that helps them work with their feelings.

Finally let us look at the issue of discipline. It is easiest to impose a set of rules upon a student if one is convinced that one will learn to play better, or if there are exciting possibilities and opportunities. Does understanding the rules and rigour of the scientific method, which offers great possibilities and excitement, exclude a sense of being cooperative and being a part of a group, which are so integral to learning? They might, since possessing products and skills, both material and psychological, do give a sense of not just independence, but independence from others. The latter feeling is possibly the knottiest to untangle and is full of interesting emotional possibilities, chief among them being power play and influencing others to act against their natural instincts. This is undesirable since it may go against the goal of creativity, emotional reliability and adaptability to changing circumstances. So how can we talk of a disciplined approach to learning science? It is really quite a conundrum and it possibly needs an emotional leap into the unknown for each individual to discipline himself/herself.

What do we do with our products?

When we create specific products like pumps, motors, or electronic goods for specific needs, we are, in effect, materializing a set of ideas by using suitable technical knowledge. However, once a particular set of ideas has materialized into a specific product, it is not easy either to undo them (if we can, we can call it degradable) or to carry them forward to do something else. This issue has its counterpart in our attitudes too. In the classroom, once a 'successful' experiment is conducted or an insight is gained into a particular issue, it brings a sense of elation that can either be used to explore new vistas or to glorify what has happened before. The latter is the inability to be fluid enough to make our own 'known' ideas be degradable in order for exploration to take place. Perhaps this is why children are easier to teach since they don't have a history of preconceived ideas and can look at things afresh. Paradoxically, it seems that when one has studied a lot about a subject, that is, learnt about most of the creative ideas put forth by many people, it is possible to think afresh. So the question is, given the scientific process, how does one communicate a flavor of the subject, together with adequate technical knowledge and discipline, that brings alive the subject and makes it possible for others to do something creative? If we could shed light on this, I suppose we would never be short of exciting, purposeful things to do.

One has also observed that once a difficult task is accomplished, the mind needs a rest in order to assimilate what has been accomplished. Such a rest can take the form of taking a break or taking a backseat and letting others do the difficult tasks. Unless our classes give and promote such freedom for students, within time-limits and with watching over, we run the risk of being unable to access the strength provided by maturity born through learning. We will instead inherit a hundred disparate ideas, accomplishments and products, few of which are integrated.