Death of scientific temper

EducationWorld November 2019 | Anniversary Essay

Death of scientific temperAbsence of any experimental component in science teaching is common even among private schools. This is teaching science without encouraging any interest in the subject.

Those who wonder why Jawaharlal Nehru’s dream of scientific temper becoming a popular social value hasn’t come true, should examine science teaching in our schools. A friend’s niece who has now joined a coaching institute full-time, told me how she was taught science in her school, certified as an institution of excellence by the state government.

In the month of November last year, she said, all students were told to buy a ‘practicals’ notebook and bring it to class the following Monday when the science teacher would tell them how to ‘write’ practicals. One Monday morning, the teacher asked them to copy the description of each of the first ten practicals from a textbook. For homework, the teacher directed students to make sketches of each practical. When all this was ready, the teacher signed each page, certifying that the practicals had been completed. A week later, an inspector visited the school and appended his signature below the teacher’s.

This entire ritual was repeated in February, a month before the board exam. The students were then told to memorise three ‘most important’ practicals. Armed with their duly completed and signed practical notebooks, the children appeared for the practical exam. A school peon went around leaving a chit with each student, while the external examiner chatted with the teacher. The chit gave students a choice of one of the memorised practicals. The students wrote it down with the correct numerical and other details. Everyone got high marks, and the school retained its label of excellence with more than half the students qualifying for entry into the district’s best coaching institute.

This story is perhaps alarmist, but it reflects the reality of a substantial proportion of secondary schools in the Hindi heartland states of India. The absence of any real experimental component in science teaching-learning is common even among fees-levying private schools. This is teaching science without encouraging any interest in the subject. The focus of teachers across the system is on exam success. That is what they are directed, and often compelled, to do. Exams in all subjects, including science, test students’ capability to reproduce correct answers, which requires cramming and drill. In most schools, the prescribed textbook is replaced by exam guides which offer clear cut and short answers of the exact length that the board’s model answers stipulate.

This dismal picture is indicative of how far the education system has been compromised by fraudulent practices. At the top of every distortion and neglect that the school system has suffered, there is the overwhelming reality of coaching institutes. The demand they meet is mainly in science and mathematics, and their pedagogy is squarely drill-focused. Their teachers invest relentless effort to prepare students for success in competitive entrance tests of the IITs and medical colleges. Cultivating a scientific temper is the least of their concerns. This scenario has become normative during the past four decades. Young people who grew up in this academic environment are now adult citizens, occupying important positions in different professions. If the contemporary socio-political ethos seems saturated with mindless, unquestioning mass behaviour, poor quality education in general and uninspiring science education in particular, have a lot to do with it.

Science is one subject of the curriculum where the rich resource of children’s natural curiosity is already available to teachers. Children want to know why flowers bloom; why ants come out in large numbers during the rains and where they go later; where does the housefly spend the night, and so on. The science curriculum offers limitless opportunity for teachers to connect knowledge with local environments and thereby cultivate the capability of reflective inquiry. What stops our teachers from using the science class to explore and discover?

Anyone who has spent a few months in an Indian school — no matter what category — knows the answer.

Conventions of pedagogy, daily management of school life and the examination system are formidable obstacles preventing teachers from exercising their intellectual autonomy. Millions of teachers have never experienced it, nor has their training prepared them to use their imagination. They are constantly under pressure to stick to the textbook and finish the syllabus — if possible, more than once, so that children are ready for exams.

A few schools have broken free of this drudgery. The teachers of some schools I have visited tell me that the autonomy they enjoy is the outcome of enlightened principals and managements who can make the distinction between science and technology. This capability is very rare today. Governments and private school managements are willing to invest vast amounts of money in digital technology, smart boards, CCTV networks and the like. But they become anxious if you ask them to let every child and the science teacher set their own calendar and timetables to pursue ideas and enquiries.

(Dr. Krishna Kumar is the former director of NCERT and former professor of education at Delhi University)

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