Primary Science Education in India- An Outlook (Part I)

Written by  //  August 29, 2010  //  Science & Technology  //  4 Comments

That a robust science education framework at all levels goes a long way in determining the scientific health of a nation, is a point that needs no harping on. One of the primary drivers for India’s success as a technology hub was the early establishment of centers of excellence like the IITs. Recently, there have been similar efforts to boost basic science education by establishment of IISERs and setting up of prestigious scholarship programs for higher science education like the Kishore Vaigyanik Protsahan Yojna (KVPY) and  INSPIRE. The broader policy towards school science education however remains confused at best. Since the effectiveness of institutes for higher education is strongly contingent on an academically sound science training in schools, it is important to assess the state of school science education in the country.  In a series of blog posts I will try to discuss the issues involved and hopefully trigger a discussion on practical policy changes for school science education.

For the first three posts I shall restrict discussion to primary science education (up to the 7th grade). The broad problems at this level that come to mind are:

1.  The style of introducing science/math at the primary level.

2. The glaring divide in quality of science education in urban vs. rural schools.

3. The acute shortage of competent teachers and the vicious loop of bad education spawning bad teachers.

I shall devote a separate post to each problem. At the outset I stress that these problems are rather “secondary” as compared to the more fundamental problems of access and quality of education in India (for an ongoing discussion see here). Nevertheless a parallel dialogue on these issues is important because some of them are more tractable (for instance, designing a good syllabus is a lot easier than solving problems of access).

1. “Chloroform to a child’s reasoning faculties”: Do current approaches of introducing mathematics and science to children make sense?

Understanding mathematics and eventually the scientific method marks a significant cognitive leap in the intellectual evolution of any child. Specifically this entails making systematic  judgments, reaching conclusions about unfamiliar situations using an economy of concepts (as opposed to a more intuitive reasoning seen in younger children). Needless to say the cognitive skills procured thus are valuable for success in all disciplines.

The traditional scientific education however works to facilitate just the opposite. In a typical Indian school one is considered good at math if (s)he can memorize multiplication tables up to 20 and can do “division sums” quickly. These “sums” are done (in most cases at least) in a totally mechanical way, oblivious to principles that underlie them. Unsurprisingly, as the children enter middle-school “word problems” begin to be dreaded!

This problem is fairly pandemic and an English school superintendent, Louis Benezet offered a seemingly radical solution to this problem: abolish all formal mathematical education till the 6th grade. Instead, Benezet advocated learning mathematics in context. Students were encouraged to read widely, give talks on incidents they witnessed and places they visited. Mathematical ideas were then learnt in context (the notion of ascending numbers as unique, convenient markers of a page and not something to be memorized for an exam, being a trivial example).  Benezet also demonstrated that students under this regime grasped formal arithmetic much quicker and better when they were eventually introduced to it (see this paper and references therein).

Not surprisingly, Benezet’s suggestion was ignored by the educational orthodoxy of his day and this very important experiment in science education was mostly forgotten. Some later studies however highlighted Benezet’s concern that traditional training in formal mathematics is “chloroform to a child’s reasoning abilities”. A particularly amusing account is reported by Reusser: When asked “There are 26 sheep and 10 goats on a ship. How old is the

captain?”, 76 out of 97 second-grade students `solved’ it by adding the two numbers. More disturbingly it was observed that the fraction of students answering similar non-sensical questions increased with the year of schooling!

When I first heard of Benezet, my reaction was one of glib skepticism to all “new-age” educational reforms floating around. On second thoughts however, his ideas seem to make perfect sense- abstraction is best learnt in context so it is natural to teach mathematics in a manner students relate to. Science (or the mutation of which is taught in our schools) is best taught in a manner where the student relates to phenomena. These posit unique challenges to designing courses, especially in the Indian context but they can be easily addressed. For instance, a syllabus which has an intensive story-telling component coupled with mathematical problems drawn from the stories would go a long way in changing the stereotype of mathematics as a dull formidable discipline to a relevant, entertaining and a deeply beautiful one.

Needless to say there are several practical problems to implementing such a reform. The most obvious hurdle that comes to mind is the lack of teachers who can effectively implement a syllabus that requires intensive engagement amongst children and one that can often be open-ended. But more on that later.

4 Comments on "Primary Science Education in India- An Outlook (Part I)"

  1. Akshat Rathi September 7, 2010 at 4:04 am · Reply

    Thanks for the post Abhilash. This topic is of particular interest to me because I am interested in understanding how does formal education induce critical thinking. Of course, as a scientist, I am biased towards Maths & Science being the subjects that offer the most in terms of learning how to think. However, I may be wrong.

    Like you, I was surprised to read Benezet’s findings. Thanks for the interesting read. Look forward to the next posts.

    • Abhilash September 7, 2010 at 1:16 pm · Reply

      Hi Akshat,
         Thanks for your comments. Like you, I believe that Math and Science provide a strong foundation in analytical thinking. However, the issue I tried to highlight in the post was: Does traditional mathematics education *really* improve analytical thinking? Studies like the ones discussed in the post seem to indicate it doesn’t.

      There is a fairly rich history and literature associated with this. Edward Thorndike originally proposed in his 1922 book `The Psychology of Arithmetic’ that the best way of learning principles of mathematics was by “drill and practice”. This had a deep influence on instructional approaches in America. What is followed in most Indian schools today is in sync with Thorndike’s ideas.

      Later Psychologists like Max Wertheimer have argued against this approach emphasizing that the “correlate stimuli and response and then reinforce it” oversimplifies the learning process. In particular Wertheimer cautioned that mastering certain procedures by rote is unlikely to improve responses to unforseen situations. He reported a (now famous) experiment where a group of “able” arithmetic students when asked to do the sum (857+857+857+857)/4, prudently set about doing a laborious addition-division routine!

      Given these ideas one can ask: What is the most efficient way of teaching mathematics so that it improves analytical skills? I don’t think there is an easy answer here but Benezet’s ideas seem intriguing at the very least.

      • Akshat Rathi September 7, 2010 at 10:32 pm · Reply

        The problem with these ideas is that it is not easy to implement them. If implementation is possible it takes years to be able conclusively say that a particular method works better than the other. In the light of that, what do you think is the best strategy to implement one of these methods?

        • premraj September 14, 2010 at 12:20 pm · Reply

          Hello sir,
          Needless to say your article is centered around a matter of serious concern.

          In the present scenario the methods of mathematical teaching are ailing.
          A similar situation is there among the isc students. delicate concepts like limits, continuity and differentiability are taught in terms of formulae. students are not encouraged to delve deep into the origin of this concepts and their proofs.
          fie on those so called iit jee coaching institutes.
          more over mathematics olympiads are being recognised as co corricular activities.

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