A lesson in progress in a classroom at Central Model School, Barrackpore, West Bengal, June 2020. Photo: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri
- Some 42% of a survey’s respondents – all teachers – said that the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t changed the focus of science education.
- More than half of the teachers from India were optimistic that the current curriculum for science could meet students’ present and future needs.
- However, pedagogy, teaching resources and trained teachers who understand the nature of science are lacking in India.
New Delhi: Science education for children should focus on instilling practical skills through experiments in the classroom, update the current curricula and reexamine the exam system, a global survey of science teachers recommends.
The teachers’ other key recommendations include reducing the amount of content to allow for more in-depth learning and establishing a greater connection between the science being taught in the classroom and what is happening in the world outside.
“Current teaching can be too theoretical, which does not help learners to understand the role that science plays in everyday life,” the survey report says.
Oxford University Press and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) surveyed 398 teachers from 22 countries, including India, and leading experts in science education on science education, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and issues teachers think their practice will need to prepare children for in the future. It aims to understand what knowledge and skills children will need to have to address the scientific challenges that will face humankind in the next 25 years.
The pandemic has brought the role of science in our lives into sharp focus, and the report responds to this. “Whether it’s involved data literacy to interpret the statistics, or epidemiological modelling to anticipate what’s coming next, we all had to educate ourselves and come to terms with new realities,” the report reads.
Some 42% of the survey’s respondents agree that the pandemic hasn’t changed the focus of science education. However, 67% agreed the way science is taught has changed because of the pandemic, particularly with there now being fewer opportunities to conduct practical lessons and experiments.
When asked what the core purpose of science education should be, 66% of the teachers surveyed agreed that it is to help learners become scientifically literate – by equipping students with the knowledge and competencies they need to make wise decisions and take positive action; to develop the skills and knowledge for problem-solving; to ensure students can understand, be excited by and be happy in the world around them; and inspire a curiosity to explore.
This said, fewer than half the teachers (46%) agreed that the existing systems of science education around the world prepare their students well enough for the futures they’re likely to face – while only 31% said the curricula are up to date.
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The respondents from India (74 of 398), however, had a brighter outlook. More than half of the teachers from the country were optimistic that the current curriculum for science could meet students’ present as well as future needs. Some 15% of respondents even ‘strongly’ agreed that the curriculum adequately prepared students for challenges they would face in the world – compared to, say, 6% in Hong Kong and 5% in the UK.
More significantly, an overwhelming 80% of respondents agreed that the science curricula in schools will help students become scientifically literate and active citizens, versus 59% in the UK and 67% in Hong Kong.
The survey also addressed the different ‘biggest challenges’ that students might face and for which science education should prepare them. The leading answer – with the agreement of a quarter of the respondents – was climate change.
For teachers, key recommendations include changes in the way science is taught – from instilling practical skills through experiments in the classroom and teaching some concepts in depth instead of more concepts but shallow.
“Current teaching can be too theoretical, which does not help learners to understand the role that science plays in everyday life,” the report reads. There is a need to “establish a greater connection between the science that is being taught in the classroom and what is happening in the world outside.”
The survey also recommends that teachers reexamine the examination system. At present, the respondents said, student assessment is too focused on information, to the detriment of evaluating students’ ability to apply what they have learnt to real-world problems.
Indian science education
Experts engaged in science education in India said that in the absence of disaggregated data, it is hard to generalise the quality of science education – or indeed any education – in India. “It is excellent in parts and dismal in others,” Usha Raman, a professor at the department of communication at the University of Hyderabad, told The Wire Science.
“The centralised vision of science education as articulated in national policies and translated into syllabi and textbooks can’t be argued with, but the structures within which these ideas are delivered restricts the amount of innovation that can actually happen in the classroom,” she added.
Raman cited the example of National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT) textbooks that “are admirable in terms of how they offer ways to think about and study science, but we’ve seen that teachers never really have the space to implement those ideas fully, as their classroom time is taken up with coaching students to fulfill exam requirements.”
And while there are examples of inspired science teaching, these remain exceptions. “By and large, it’s a particular kind of student – either extremely curious and persistent, or advantaged in terms of socio-economic and cultural capital – that manages to retain a real interest in science as a field of knowledge,” according to Raman.
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted science education – as it has impacted everything else – by limiting students’ access to the tactile, material and individualised aspects of teaching and learning. But for a small minority, it has opened up a world of online possibilities. “I’m afraid that this would have kept many children from acquiring the tools to think with, and the space for exploration, that is only available in a school setting or at least in a setting where domestic constraints do not overwhelm,” Raman said.
At the same time, the pandemic has also brought scientific concepts and ideas into sharp relief – and in some instances has even imposed a cost on people who don’t understand them, in a good way or bad. It has forced people to talk about communicable diseases, healthcare data, preventive medicine and the complexities of vaccine development.
“Now, everyone with the most basic access to media knows terms like spike protein and herd immunity,” Raman said. And some teachers have used this opportunity to encourage students to connect the science they learn with the everyday.
Of course, the pandemic hasn’t been selective in its exposition. As Raman put it, “it has also, in pockets, increased the level of suspicion around institutional science and its nexus with big business and profit-making corporations.”
For now, pedagogy, resources and trained teachers who understand the nature of science are lacking, Rohit Dhankar, a professor and director of academic development at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, said.
Science education is not simply about scientific skills. “It is an issue of development of rational autonomy and capabilities to act according to one’s judgment,” Dhankar said. Science should also contribute to the development of independent and critical thinking, and the ability to identify and shed superstitions.
And this is why he sees lost school time during the pandemic as a net loss, unmitigated by the ‘e-learning’ alternatives. “Whatever little opportunity for peer discussion and experimentation was available to students” is gone. Learning “has become poorer, … completely rote-based, directly from textbooks and net-based notes.”
T.V. Padma is a freelance science journalist.