Issues in Learning Math and Science

Is ‘doing’ the best way to learn science

Let us recollect that there are only four vehicles for learning – hearing (lectures), seeing (demonstration, pictures), doing (experiments, experiences) and reading. The general belief is that ‘doing’ is the best way to learn about anything. Many within the science education community also view practical work carried out by students as the most essential feature of science education.

What’s the final word on the criticalness of ‘doing’ in learning? Unfortunately, no one can pronounce the final verdict because we do not know enough about how we learn. However, there is an interesting research on the role of ‘doing’ in learning science to study the effectiveness of ‘learning by doing’ as the primary teaching and learning strategy.

It just so happens that India is very lucky to have experimented with the ‘pedagogical* power of doing’ for nearly three decades – a rare exception to the national character of near non-existent educational research. The experiment rightly brought out the unique strengths and weaknesses of learning by doing.
*Simply put, it implies teaching and learning methods.

The Hoshangabad Experiment or the Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme (HSTP), as it was titled,introduced the ‘discovery’ approach to learning science in village schools in place of the textbook-centred ‘learning by rote’. It was a multi-lateral experiment with the best of credentials in terms of the participating organisations. The experiment was conducted in evolutionary versions for well over two decades in the classes VI -VIII of the government schools in the Hoshangabad district of the state of Madhya Pradesh.

Special set of books and simple yet extensive experimental aides were used with children. Class X board exam results were used as a proxy for measuring the learning gains of the students. However, even after years of experiment, the performance of the students in the Hoshangabad district, specifically in science, was not among the top 10 districts of the state. It was also lower than its neighbouring districts. Learning by doing did not seem to be working for the better of all the students.

No less pertinently, it was also found that the literacy growth rate in 2001 (after over 2 decades of HSTP) showed the bordering districts of Hoshangabad registering well over 20% growth whereas literacy growth rate in Hoshangabad was under 20%. Another study explored the effectiveness of practical work by analysing a sample of 25 ‘typical’ science lessons involving practical work in English secondary schools.

It was found that teachers’ focus in these lessons were predominantly on developing students’ substantive scientific information, rather than on developing understanding of scientific enquiry procedures. Practical work was generally effective in getting students to do the intended work with physical objects, but much less effective in getting them to use the intended scientific ideas to guide their actions and reflect upon the data they collected.

The authors are of the opinion that learning by doing without the larger conceptual frameworks, conversations and reading will lack effectiveness. Learning by doing is a good supplementary educational tool, just as learning by seeing and listening is; reading is the most potent learning tool. Broadly ‘activity-based learning’ often ends up as good riddance from other kinds of classwork if it tends to ignore extensive reading and conversations around the activities.

Besides, the quality of learning by doing is critically dependent on the following:

  1. Conceiving the best possible design for doing practical activities.
  2. Implementing the design of the practical activities with clearly defined expectations in terms of learning.
  3. Strategies on helping students hypothesise about the practical activities based on their prior knowledge.
  4. Having explicit strategies on how to link observations to hypotheses.
  5. Helping students generalise from accepting or rejecting hypotheses.

To summarise, practical work has a key role in the teaching of science but only when the type of practical work is carefully selected with a clear purpose in mind and it is followed up to generalisations and re-experiments. This is a very tall order, next to impossible on a larger scale.

‘Learning by doing’ must be preceded and followed by extensive reading and conversations.

1. Abrahamsa Ian & Millarb Robin (2008);’Does Practical Work Really Work?’ International Journal of science Education; Volume 30, Issue 14, 2008, pages 1945-1969.
2. Wikipedia

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