Science Teaching

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It is a commonplace observation that people with little formal schooling are often quite adept at finding practical "hands on" solutions to the problems of everyday life. In the rich countries, the educated live and consume in an artificial environment of technologies too complex to be understood, much less controlled, by individuals. For most, experience with natural phenomenon and basic technical systems is very limited. Thus it is not at all surprising that relatively unschooled villagers in developing countries often demonstrate technical inventiveness and environmental understanding which astonish rich visitors. Farmers, for example, make complex decisions about which crops to plant and when, based on their knowledge of the soil and ecological interactions.

Most village-level technical innovation comes from trial and error and observations, often over many seasons. Village technology evolves as a result. But unsupported by systematic knowledge of natural science, the rate of village technology development is much slower than it could be.

Unfortunately, the science taught in schools in developing countries does not contribute to useful innovations in village technologies.

Science studies should equip young people with an understanding of how to apply the basic principles of physics and biology to address a common problem (whether it be poor grain storage or a broken pump). Related skills: how to systematically control and vary a set of experimental trials, and how to carefully observe and record the results are equally important. But educational methods and curricula that are based on repetition and memorization, or inherited from a colonial past, usually mean that science teaching in the South concentrates on phenomena that are beyond the students' everyday experience, with little or no practical value.

Science education (and education in general) is, in fact, too often part of a sorting process through which a fortunate few may escape the rural areas and qualify for an urban job in government. Science teachers, themselves the products of such a system, do not expect the community to demand that they teach a practical curriculum relevant to local conditions. These teachers are, in any case, ill-equipped to do so; in most cases science is simply one of a number of subjects the teacher is covering each day.

As the science material taught is abstract and has little to do with local conditions, so it is natural that science teaching equipment for demonstrations is composed of what is by local standards expensive and exotic apparatus. The lucky teacher who succeeds in obtaining such apparatus from the education ministry is faced with two alternatives: to use it to demonstrate what are likely to be seen as peculiar and rather magical events, more a property of the equipment than the real world, or lock it away in a closet to prevent damage to something so valuable. In either case it is rarely (if ever) used by the students themselves, who never get a chance to get excited about science and carry out their own simple experiments.