INTRODUCTION

What is it about Science which makes it an unattractive choice for many students today? While STEM aims to draw more students into learning science so as to produce more mathematicians, engineers and scientists, fewer students are seeing Science as an attractive option today. Science curricula and science education policies need to be aligned with the intent of drawing more students into learning and enjoying the subject better.

How can such a change be initiated?

THE NEED

Despite many laudable initiatives to design curricula that connect scientific concepts to the learner’s own context, Science is often learnt as a truckload of facts – to be received by a passive learner – with some experimentation and activities thrown in to make it ‘learning by doing’.

However, until the subject causes an alteration in the thinking of the learner, Science has not really been learnt.

All action stems from thought: so if the learning of Science is to effect a sustained change in behaviour, the teaching of the subject must aim to impact the process of thinking…for unless we do this, it is unlikely that Science will develop problem-solving skills and enhance critical thinking.

In standard science textbooks, the scientific method is, at best, dealt with in a single chapter. Scientists and their discoveries are often made out to be flashes of genius, and rarely, if at all, is their thought process described. Not surprisingly, therefore, seldom is the value of thinking scientifically recognised.

If policy makers, curriculum designers and textbook writers regarded the process of making discoveries in science to be of greater value than the content of the discoveries, we would be well on our way to placing scientific thinking centre stage. We would then have Science curricula that lay greater emphasis on how discoveries were made, rather than focusing mainly on the outcome of scientific discoveries.

Such an approach will be reflected in the curricular objectives, the design and content of the curricular material, the pedagogy that it invites and the mode of evaluation that it demands.

There will be a shift from a content-rich, teacher-driven approach, to one that hones thinking skills in students, through their actual participation in the process of discovery and invention. Thus, instead of demanding transaction of seemingly abstract content, this approach will invite a teacher to:

  • employ storytelling (of an actual scientific discovery) as its entry point,
  • highlight the thought process of the scientist concerned,
  • intersperse the lesson with questions for discussion,
  • lace it with related activities and relevant puzzles.

Storytelling is a sure shot way of luring students into any lesson, and more so if the story is purportedly true. As the lesson unfolds and periodically draws the student in – through questions, suggested activities and puzzles – hardly any student can adopt the stance of a passive receiver.

Further, it will lend itself to the development of scientific skills like:

  • Observation
  • Enquiry
  • Thinking
  • Analysis
  • Verification of Hypotheses
  • Problem Solving

METHODOLOGY:

Two exemplars are presented below: one in some detail, and another as an outline.

STORY Long ago, in Europe, people believed that diseases were airborne. So nobody thought it necessary to wash their hands before/after touching sick people – not even doctors.

In 1847, IGNAZ SEMMELWEIS, a doctor from Hungary changed this belief.

He is often called the FATHER OF INFECTION CONTROL.

LOOK He found that babies were delivered in a hospital by:

(A) Medical students/doctors.

(B) Midwives from the village.

When he LOOKED CLOSER, he noted:

  • When midwives (B) delivered the babies, the mothers were healthier.

 

 

 

 

  • When medical students/physicians (A) delivered the babies, there were more sick/dying mothers.

 

ASK                This puzzled the doctor, who asked:

WHY were more mothers dying if medical students delivered babies and staying healthy if midwives delivered them?

Now, he LOOKED even closer.

He saw that the medical students and physicians were coming to deliver babies after dissecting corpses.

He also saw that the midwives were not doing any such thing.

GUESS           So he made this guess:

Could it be that the medical students/physicians had picked up some infection in their hands from the corpses? And that they transferred this

to the mothers – who then died?

 

DO/VERIFY     So he asked the medical students/physicians to wash their hands well, before delivering the babies.

He FOUND that now, there were an equal number of healthy mothers in both A and B.

 

CONCLUDE   So he CONCLUDED: infection is carried by touch.

He told everyone that they should wash their hands thoroughly to prevent spreading infection.

However, many people retained the commonly held belief that infection is carried through the foul air – not by touch.

The Hospital Manager argued that the decreased number of deaths was due to the new ventilation system which allowed cleaner air to

circulate.

VERIFY           THINK: If you were Semmelweis, how would you prove that you were right?

The teacher can present the following steps to scaffold the verification process:

Step 1: Count the number of healthy mothers in a hospital without new ventilation, and doctors who don’t wash their hands before treating patients.

Step 2: Count the number of healthy mothers in the same hospital with new ventilation with

(a) doctors who don’t wash their hands and

(b) doctors who wash their hands before treating patients.

What would you find if Semmelweis was right/wrong?

Now to build upon this story and nurture the same skills, Teacher can suggest the following to students:

DO                       

  • Note the acts that you perform each day simply out of habit,
  • Observe if these are common habits
  • Examine the belief that each habit is based on
  • Gather evidence for each such belief
  • If you cannot gather evidence, suggest ways of testing each belief

Think about the following (Teacher can include some examples for each of these):

  • What are the beliefs that you hold for which you can gather proof?
  • What are the beliefs you hold, for which you have no proof?
  • What are the things you believe in simply because everyone does?

Depending on the age of the students, Teacher can decide whether or not to add the rest of the story; viz. Semmelweis had a very tough time convincing the hospital management that he was right. The need for a scientist to possess the ability to convincingly argue his/her case can be convincingly brought out here. It is a sad fact of history that Semmelweis lost his job and finally died in an asylum, and his discovery was not valued until several years after his death.

Example 2 (for Grades VI to VIII): Until William Harvey2 discovered (in the 17th century), how blood circulates in the human body, people believed a 2nd-century thinker, Galen, who had stated that blood is continuously produced in the body.  It is astounding that for almost fifteen centuries, no one had considered questioning Galen about a basic paradox: where does the constantly produced blood go? It took a bold mind like Harvey’s to question such a long-held belief. Harvey’s story2 dramatically conveys the power of systematic enquiry. In the next section, a framework is outlined for curricular material as well as the teacher to scaffold the process of identifying those questions which helped unfurl important steps in the discovery of blood circulation.

EXPERIENCE OF THIS METHODOLOGY:

A fair question to ask is whether such pedagogy has been tried. Along with a team, this educator designed (and field tested) some digital material along these lines. Children of Grades IV to VI enjoyed this approach and participated in the lesson with interest. They loved the story and asked for many more stories. Using a suitably altered mode of evaluation – in alignment with the focus on process skills – it was found that students enjoyed thinking through the puzzles, whether or not they succeeded in solving them entirely. Teachers noted that this was an enjoyable experience for their students and listed some skills that it could help develop in their students.

The main obstacle, however, was in the perception of teachers that this did not align with the existing curriculum or textbook. Teachers (understandably) saw this more as an (interesting) experiment rather than as an invitation to alter their pedagogy – those who did find the pedagogy compelling cited existing norms as the impediment to changing their approach.

The lesson learned by this educator, therefore, was that until policy makers, curriculum designers and textbook writers get convinced of the value of this approach, merely showcasing it to teachers will not change things any.

IMPLICATIONS:

What are the implications of this suggested approach for various stakeholders? The table below is an attempt to outline these:

Curricular Objective

Curricular material

Teacher’s approach

Evaluation Method

To develop the skill of enquiry

Story of Semmelweis/ William Harvey’s discovery

Description of scientist’s thought process with emphasis on pertinent questions asked

Examination of possible reasons why nobody dared question the belief that –

Infection is carried by foul air alone,

or

that blood is continuously produced in the liver

Teacher will sustain a child’s curiosity and sense of wonder at the world around by facilitating the following-

Ø  Formulating clear and sharp questions

Ø  Identifying closed and open-ended questions

Ø  Peeling off layers by asking deeper and deeper questions, so as to gradually probe into what is observed

Ø  Visualising what must have been asked prior to the availability of existing knowledge, so that this knowledge became available

Ø  Appreciating the criticality of asking questions, rather than knowing the answers, in the process of scientific thinking

Nudging students to identify:

·       Key questions asked by the scientist in the story

·       Absence of which question(s) could have prevented this discovery

·       Questions which people hesitate to ask today

Giving a puzzling situation to the student and challenging him/her to understand it.

By setting a situation where asking the right questions is the doorway to understanding it, the clarity, relevance and depth of questions posed by the learner will be evaluated.

To bring home the importance of sharp observation; reasoning and deductive skills by –

Ø  Identifying logical fallacies in a flow of reasoning or an argument

Ø  Eliminating inconsistencies and false conclusions purely by using reason and experience

Ø  Making logically consistent inferences and also multiple interpretations wherever possible – going from a narrow set of interpretations to a wider set, thus throwing open previously closed doors

Story of William Harvey noticing the rhythmic heartbeat of frogs and spurting out of blood

Asking: Why does the blood flowing out of frogs spurt out in the same rhythm as that at which the heart beats?

Asking where excess blood goes if indeed blood is continuously being produced in the liver.

Showing which observation clinched the conclusion that arteries carry blood away from the heart and veins take it to the heart

Drawing the attention of students to conclusions that are/are not based on  evidence

Emphasising the absence of experimental observation in Galen’s theory of blood flow in the human body

Examining with students the number of present-day beliefs that are not based on objective observations, by –

Ø  Observing using all senses (move from the gross to the subtle)

Ø  Acquiring sustained attention/persistence

Ø  Presenting observations

·       in simple language,

·       through diagrams,

·       using graphs,

·       by drawing tables,

·       by making simple measurements (length, weight, volume, etc.).

Presenting contexts that differ in minute details and challenging students to spot these differences (these could even be news reports from different newspapers of the same event)

Demanding the identification of assumptions and untested beliefs in a given situation

Giving puzzles of water flow in interconnected pipes and getting students to

·       identify the direction of flow, the point of blockage, one-way valves, etc.

·       Arrive at clearly articulated conclusions

·       Suggest ways of testing above conclusions

DISCUSSION:

It would be interesting to hear from readers of this blog about their views on this approach to teaching science. It would be useful to explore the sort of demands that such an approach would make on:
• Curriculum design
• Textbook writing
• Teacher development
• Student engagement
• Education policy
In conclusion, it would be worthwhile to hear from readers of better ways of teaching science as a way of thinking.

References:

  1. http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/halsall/science/sciencesbook.asp
  2. http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/1628harvey-blood.asp