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