Perceptions of science built in the science classroom


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If you went to a public place where you were surrounded by people and randomly posed the question “What is science?” or asked “Is it important to learn science?” what do you think will be the answer? In this article R Ramanujam explores this question, dwelling on how a perception of science is built up by the way people are educated in science in school. School education shapes what people believe is science and what is meant by the scientific attitude in a manner that leaves a lot to be desired, he argues. He touches upon how education needs to be looked at to address this issue.

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What the public sees as science

Some of us in Tamil Nadu Science Forum (a voluntary group committed to science communication and science education) took up an exercise in the mid-1990’s, towards understanding public attitudes to science. We would stand in crowded bus stands during peak hour, and accost people with questions like, “What is science?”, “Do you think it is important to learn science?”, “What was your experience in school?”, and even, “Given an opportunity, would you wish to learn (more) science again?” This was no research study conducted by scholars to produce an authoritative report, but genuine curiosity on our part. As science communicators, we wanted to have some first-hand experience of listening to people express their views on science. We carried this out in big cities like Chennai and Madurai, in towns like Virudhunagar and Dindukkal and in rural areas of Sivagangai and Vellore districts. When we shared our experiences among ourselves, there were some surprises, some confirmation of our own perception of people’s thinking, but we did learn a great deal from the exercise. It greatly influenced our own approach to science communication.


From the educated public, those who had completed school education, an overwhelming majority (close to 80%) identified science with the subject taught in school. There was almost a consensus that science was important, and almost half said they had liked science in school. On the other hand, less than half expressed interest in learning any science again.


In contrast, most people who had either never been to school or dropped out of school identified science with its impact on everyday life, in terms of technological progress. (Perhaps because we were standing at bus stops, a typical example was the use of bus and train, as opposed to bullock carts in the past. Another was advances in medicine.) Rather interestingly, more among this set expressed willingness to learn science, though with an apprehension of incapacity (“Where am I going to be able to learn all that?”).


While one should be cautious about drawing generalized inferences from personal experiences such as this, it is surely pertinent to ask what perception of science does school education engender in the student. Perhaps a longer dialogue on the role of science in society would elicit a more considered response on what constitutes science. However, it is important to note that science is a compulsory subject of study in the ten-year school curriculum, and the lived experience of these (long) years does have a high impact on our reaction to the term “science”.


Stepping back from this, we need to ask: how does (school) education shape the social perception of science? How does it contribute to the public understanding of science? How influential is formal education in this regard, as opposed to culture, media, politics and other social means by which the public acquires such perceptions?


I have emphasized the school here for several reasons. For one, tertiary education has very low reach in India. For another, attitudes formed in school age are known to deeply influence adult perception as well, and they can be remarkably resilient to the impact of any acquired wisdom later.


Expectations from policy

The 1968 National Policy on Education of the Indian Government was the first to suggest making mathematics and science education compulsory for ten years in school. This was confirmed by the 1986 Policy on Education as well. The latter argued for strengthening science and mathematics education, because, “all areas of development are science and technology based and for that we need experts, middle-order workers and scientifically literate citizens”. It specified how the curriculum should be designed: “Science and mathematics curriculum will be designed for the secondary level for conscious internalization of healthy work ethos. This will provide valuable manpower for economic growth as well as for ideal citizenship to live effectively in the science/technology based society“.


An interesting formulation there, and rather different from the tone one encounters in the National Curriculum Framework 2005 document. The latter says that science education should enable the learner to “acquire the skills and understand the methods and processes that lead to generation and validation of scientific knowledge“. The emphasis is on processes, i.e., experimentation, taking observations, collection of data, classification, analysis, making hypothesis, drawing inferences, and arriving at conclusions for the objective truth. It speaks of cultivating the scientific temper.


The Draft New Education Policy 2019 focuses on critical thinking as an essential aspect of science education in school. It does not spell out the processes involved, but talks about “hands on” activities that would be “fun” for the children. The DNEP talks at length about the role of technology in education, but this is delinked from science education.


How do these policy prescriptions relate to what actually happens in the science classroom? How do they relate to what the public perceives as science? Does the national education system have a clear prescription for how to translate the policy objectives into classroom experiences in such a way that education shapes the public perception of science?


Impact of science on our lives

At this juncture, we should also ask what impact science has had on Indian lives in these early years of the 21st century. A large section of the Indian population, perhaps a majority, in rural areas, lead lives that are largely untouched by modern science and technology. The mobile phone has penetrated deep into Indian society, but the Internet and smart phones are yet an urban and semi-urban phenomenon. Otherwise, the bus and the tractor, the medical centre and the agriculture “extension centre”, constitute their access to modernity. At personal levels, the school is the only arena that provides a formal entry into the world of science for these people. Even their view of science as the provider of modern technology and progress is limited by the few benefits that technology brings to their everyday reality.


For the urban educated sections as well as for the upwardly mobile sections from small town India, science is principally associated with school for a good reason. Their major expectation from the education system as a guarantor of secure employment, with the potential for affluence, leads them to view science education in an instrumental fashion. Thus the predilection for entry into engineering and medicine at the undergraduate level, and a resultant pressure on performance in science (and mathematics) examinations at school level. This also results in undisguised contempt for the humanities and social sciences as “useless” among the Indian middle class. (Commerce is considered “useful” but definitely holds second place, presumably for those who cannot make it to the exalted professions.)


In recent times, an added dimension has entered this perceptual realm, one that is visible especially in southern India: that of the globalised metropolitan self. The big boom in the Information Technology (IT) sector and IT-enabled services has led many youngsters to perceive themselves as a part of the global elite, living urban metropolitan lives influenced by global norms. For these sections, and those who aspire to them, science education is a route to a specific form of modernity, one that liberates from agonising everyday Indian reality while yet providing comfortable lives by Indian standards. Once again, science education is seen as instrumental in social aspiration.


At social levels, in the realm of cultural behaviour, science has had remarkably little impact. For most people, the tenacious hold of a range of superstitions on (private and public) belief systems is not even challenged by any understanding of science. The social impact on private lives remains compartmentalised, accommodating contradictions, rather than addressing conflict in belief. There is hardly any public atmosphere of debate that posits these, or attempt to seek cultural routes to a synthesis. Recent discussions in social media in the context of the Annular Solar Eclipse (December 26, 2019) is a case in point. While there is visible interest in eclipse viewing and support for the underlying science, a vast section of the population that includes the formally educated elite continues to believe that one should not be out and about during the eclipse, lest “harmful rays” cause damage. The embargo on eating during the eclipse or the advice to pregnant women to avoid “harm due to the eclipse” is considered normal social behaviour, co-existing with compulsory science education in schools.


At political levels, the impact is even less. In general, we have little expectation of evidence based governance or policy making, and any democratic role one might expect science to play in informing public engagement with policy remains unaddressed and unfulfilled. The major questions of developmental alternatives and sustainable environment, where science can be expected to play a leading role, are decided in committee rooms where political and economic imperatives rule. There is indeed no political mechanism by which science can play such a democratic role. There are many cases in point: the public reaction to Coastal Regulation Zones, or to the Gadgil committee report on the Western Ghats, or to Genetically Modified crops, to nuclear energy, to Sterlite Copper, to hydraulic fracturing projects, to the Sethusamudram project, …, to name only a few. These quickly degenerate into shrill support or avid protest amidst general apathy, with little reasoned debate in the public realm based on sound science.


Interestingly, the one notable impact science, especially science education, has had among the educated sections is on attitudes to the environment. We will discuss this later, but this influence on perception does have political import.


Science in the science classroom

Having lamented on the lack of any major impact science education has had in India, we now return to why this is so. To address this question, we need to enter the science classroom.


Here is a class where Newton’s laws of gravitation are being taught. What does that mean? Typically the statement of Newton’s laws is explained, and the children (eventually) learn these statements “by heart”. In a good school, we can expect illustrations from everyday life that show these laws in action, so to speak. During examinations, children are mostly asked to state these laws. Children are unused to studying a life situation and seeking explanation for phenomena based on these laws.


Later on, equations are introduced and then the formal game takes over: getting the units right, doing the substitutions well, seeing what is given and what is asked, and solving equations.


What about the questions that are never asked by the students nor raised by the teachers, or the textbooks? Why are these called laws? How do we know they are true? What is the realm of their applicability? The book talks of balls rolling down inclined planes, but do Newton’s laws apply to living beings? (When a dog is at rest, it seems to change its state of rest and run away without any external force being applied, does this not violate Newton’s first law?) How did Newton find these laws? What did people believe about these matters before Newton?


What I am referring to here is not the absence of such philosophical explorations in class, but to the absence of any discussion at all in the science classroom. A culture of silence is death in a science classroom. Without an atmosphere of debate, there is little hope of inculcating the spirit of scientific inquiry, the scientific temper. If questioning does not become a habit in science class, it is unreasonable to expect any questioning of deeply ingrained cultural practices.


In another class, the subject matter is the boiling point of water. Every child learns that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius. A teacher might discuss the term Celsius, perhaps. Another might talk of altitudes changing the boiling point. But in how many classrooms can we expect an experiment whereby students use a laboratory thermometer to actually boil water and record the temperature at which it boils? If they did so, what is the likelihood of their getting 100? If they did not get 100, would they raise the question of what then the textbook means by stating 100 as a fact? How is this difference negotiated?


Once again, the point is not to expect children to ask such questions necessarily, but to remark that science thrives in the negotiations stated above, it lives in these discussions. Most importantly, such experimentation emphasises the process of science, rather than its product. Lack of experimental culture robs science education of its very soul, leaving only the skeletal structure of facts for children to perceive.


The third blow to science education comes from rigid written question answer modes of assessment. The tyranny of the textbook ensures that all answers come from this fount of wisdom, and rote memorisation of textbook material is the only way to perform well in examinations. Process understanding of science stays well outside tests and exams, working with hands remains entirely outside school.


All this also means that science education has little relation to technology. Children do not perceive technology as based on sound scientific principles, harnessing conversion of energy by work. A child learning that air has weight has no opportunity to learn that it is indeed this principle that lets huge trucks be held up by small tires filled with nothing but air.


Added to all these is the problem of inadequate teacher preparation: they have little experience of doing science themselves, coming out of this very system, never having negotiated these difficulties. A college degree does not guarantee a healthy predisposition towards experimentation or any ability to carry on a classroom discussion, or provide access to material outside the school textbook. When the teacher does not interrogate the textbook, the tyranny of the textbook is perpetuated.


Environment: a case study


In 2003, the Supreme Court made environmental education mandatory in 28 states in order to fulfil the fundamental duties of citizens to “protect and improve the natural environment” as set out in the Indian Constitution. By now, all states have environmental education in their curriculum. Indeed, there is no subject called science at primary school, it is named environmental studies. Much of this curriculum relates to the endangerment of India’s forests and wildlife, and in recent years, threats to biodiversity are discussed as well. Thus in the last two decades, a new generation of youngsters have come of age, schooled in the basic principles of environment conservation.


Interestingly, these curricula build a narrative around saving trees, the damage done by plastic, etc that point to the realm of individual action. National and international treaties on environment conservation are also included, that offer an impression of socio-political action. The use of fossil fuels is discussed, both in terms of non-renewability and global warming. But all these are stated as facts, with little explanation of how they were arrived at. Moreover, rarely do school curricula address the question of just why the environment continues to be degraded, when all this knowledge is available in society. While some facts are memorised without discussion and critical engagement , there is little hope of experimental verification, or projects that children may take up in their physical environment exploring these very issues in their own neighbourhood. All this results in an un-situated environmentalism, often leading to a romantic picture of “saving the earth”, without questioning one’s own lifestyle, socio-economic causes, corporate greed, governmental inaction (or corruption), and other such causes. Indeed, for a student who has never engaged with physical material and soil, has built artifacts or made things grow, attitudes to environment conservation would also be bookish.


We see such romantic environmentalism turn into anti-science and anti-technology attitudes, while tacitly accepting corporate raids on natural resources with the complicity of those in power. There are many cases in point, a particularly tragic one being the opposition to the India-based Neutrino Observatory. On the other hand, the country badly needs sustained political activism on environment, based on sound scientific understanding of our natural resources, for participation and influencing developmental debates.


The way forward

In many ways, whatever we have discussed also suggests the way forward as well. The priorities of science education need to change in the following ways:

* We need to change our classrooms to focus on the processes of science and critical discussion, rather than dole out facts.

* Experimentation must occupy a central place in science pedagogy.

* Every student must acquire facility in working with wood, metal and soil, make things with their hands.

* An understanding of technology should be integrated into science education.

* Assessment should move away from testing memory to encourage process of science.

* Teachers must be provided with a vast range of educational resources.


These are necessary, if we want to build a scientifically literate society that uses science as a tool of democracy, and for bringing a billion people out of poverty.


They are also within the realm of possibility: we lack not in ideas or ability or resources, but only in direction.


R Ramanujam is a Professor at the Insitute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. He can be reached at The views expressed are personal.


This article is a part of the Confluence series on Perceiving and Reacting to Science. The other articles in the series can be found here.

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