R Ramanujam examines the NEP in the context of the role of Internet and Communication Technology in education and argues that one needs to be mindful of what exactly is desired before embracing technology wholesale in science education.
A child and a machine
Once when I was participating in a rural Tamil Nadu Science Forum event, interacting with children of middle school age, we had a round of each student talking of what s/he wanted to `become’ on growing up. Manikandan, a 11 year old boy, said he wanted to become a scientist. Rather pleased, I asked him what he wished to do as a scientist; he said he wanted to make an idly machine, and all the children laughed. It turned out that his mother was running a single parent family, making idlies and selling them at the bus stand. This was a natural ambition for a boy who was watching the everyday toils of his mother and helping her. Does India offer ways of realising such an ambition?
Manikandan made me think: what were the chances that he would actually get admission to an institute of technology, learn to build machines? Even if he did, would the science education received at school and the engineering curriculum build in him the needed capacity? After such education, would he even want to build an idly machine?
The shape of science education in the country and the attitude to technology in school education has had only negative answers for Manikandans. The Draft New Education Policy (DNEP) has only a little to say on science education at school and the attitude to technology expressed in it seems to foretell only further disappointment for the numerous Manikandans in the country.
The equation: Tech = ICT
In the DNEP, we find a great deal of talk extolling technology-based teaching / learning, but it seems to equate technology in school with the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). Chapter 18 of the DNEP is devoted to the use of technology in education. It classifies the use of technology into four categories: teacher preparation; classroom processes of teaching, learning and evaluation; improving access to education for disadvantaged groups; planning, administration and management of the entire education system. All this clearly pertains to the use of ICT in the education system.
Is the use of technology in school only about bringing Internet connectivity to all schools, the use of multi-media, videos and hyperlinked material, so that distant voices can beam down content, textbooks can be supplemented by the extensive knowledge available easily on the World Wide Web, assessment is made flexible, and data easily collected ? Why is it that mention of technology in education rarely refers to lathes, foundry or good old agriculture?
Rather interestingly, while policy documents and governments always refer to S&T, coupling science and technology together, such thinking remains alien to our school classrooms. Indeed, if there is one domain that calls for new curricular action in school, it is that of technology.
On the other hand, there is an increasing perception that 21st century modes of production will allow for small industries created by groups of individuals to innovate in ways that demand training in S&T. The East Asian and Western European countries have tried to integrate technology education into school science education, and the study of technology in relation to society is also given curricular stature in (some of) these systems. In Sweden, for instance, every high school has a workshop that typically includes a foundry and carpentry, and science laboratories are integrated with the workshop. The Chinese school system is currently transforming itself to such a model.
The questions we need to ask
If we are to speak of technology in education, what should be our understanding of technology? What should be the attitude to technology in the curriculum, and in teaching / learning practices? What attitude to technology is inculcated in the students?
School typically teaches the student to see technology as given, (as a potential consumer), and not anything s/he can participate in. Science education is compulsory, but has little to say about the relationship between science and technology. Social studies do not at all refer to how modern societies relate to technology. Our children do not develop a healthy and yet critical attitude to technology, one that is based on principled understanding. Technology assessment is not part of the curriculum even in the prestigious institutions of technology. All this together suggest that we are not even asking the right questions about technology in the context of education, let alone have good systemic answers.
When it comes to the use of technology for educational purposes, there are more questions to ask:
- How does technology help the educational purposes that schools seek to achieve? What forms of technology do so?
- How can technology enhance the educational experiences that can be provided to achieve these purposes?
- How can the education system contribute to the development of such technology?
- How do we ensure that these educational purposes are indeed being accomplished?
The author is not competent to provide good answers to any of these questions. What we can hope for is an articulation of some guiding principles that can help us answer these and related questions.
Technology in the science classroom
The 1986 Policy on Education asserts: all areas of development are science and technology based and for that we need experts, middle – order workers and scientifically literate citizens. It goes on to discuss how the curriculum should be designed: … 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.
The National Curriculum Framework 2005 lays emphasis on the process of science and critical inquiry. The DNEP singles out the inculcation of the scientific temper and critical thinking as the purpose of science education. It says that science education will inculcate scientific temper and encourage evidence-based thinking throughout the curriculum. Evidence-based reasoning and the scientific method will be incorporated throughout the school curriculum.
Such emphasis on the process of science and the nurturing of the scientific temper is welcome, but these could also be `umbrella terms’. In the context of our discussion, we must point out that there is no explicit attitude to technology and working with the material world articulated in such a formulation.
The science classroom is the best place to introduce technology to students. This cannot be achieved by “lessons” on X-technology or Y-technology, to be learnt as information items and memorized. In fact, along with a factual and conceptual understanding of natural phenomena, students also need fluency in working with the material world in a way that builds on experimentation, observation, prediction and critical inquiry. Technology is best learnt by doing, by active engagement with material and energy conversion. Working with metal, wood and soil is essential for building a relationship with nature that is purposeful and wise. This needs the active and simultaneous engagement of the mind, the heart and the hands.
Articulating the goals of science education to include active hands-on engagement with the material world implies according primacy to wood and metal, to leaves and stones, to life forms and crystals: not by seeing them as pictures or video animations, (or worse, reading their descriptions in books) but touching, feeling and working with them. This is essential for developing an integrated feel for science and technology.
The DNEP refers to experiential learning in many places. It promises that children have “fun” when the learning is “hands-on”; but this is very different from the deliberate engagement with material for study that we are referring to. Even at the risk of stating the obvious, let us note that experiential learning is not the same as experimentation; the latter lies at the heart of science learning. Coupled with experimentation, an emphasis on quantification is a characteristic of science. Measuring, estimating, approximating, calculating and model building are everyday processes for any form of science, and these again are habits to be inculcated in the learning child, not only for sharpening her own abilities but also towards building a society that can critically engage with issues of technology use and its impact on the environment.
Students need to perceive the rootedness of technology in science, as also the technological potential embedded in science. They need to understand and internalize the fact that technology is the conversion of material and energy in different forms by doing work, by expenditure of energy, and that this is based on sound scientific principles. Such emphasis in science classrooms could offer an important direction for the future of our children.
Apart from hands-on experience, science pedagogy itself needs to actively make connections with technology. For instance, we rarely teach Pascal’s law by pointing out that this is indeed the principle that literally enables huge trucks to be held up on mere rubber tyres pumped with air. The sheer wonder of air holding up a heavy truck is important for the learning child, and further, the tremendous opening up of possibilities in the mind is critical for planting the seeds of technological innovation. Similarly, biodegradation is a phenomenon to be understood, but it is also important to see the possibilities of composting in technological terms. This is a connection mostly missing in our science curriculum, and a careful reworking can make science learning not only immensely enjoyable to children, but also useful to them and to society.
If we could reorient science education at school placing material handling, experimentation and quantification at the centre, the potential benefits would be immense. Providing linkages for schools with technology institutions requires more re-orientation on our part than great resource investment. A visit to a bicycle shop or a motor garage has immense educational value. Agriculture and animal husbandry are practised all around, and can be seen as opportunities for “science tours”. Indeed, within a few kilometres of every school, some manufacturing or industrial processing activity does take place, and active linkages for school and science curriculum with these institutions can be made. Science laboratories can be integrated with workshop practice, as in Scandinavian schools. Even while we wait for such a possibility to become a reality for our children, we can begin by opening windows and doors to simply make use of opportunities for technological education that are present around schools. This only calls for an enabling mechanism to be set up in terms of curriculum, syllabus, school functioning and new practices in teaching and learning.
Every time someone speaks of ICT and mentions how children take to such technology, how 4-year olds can operate mobiles when adults cannot, it is worth remembering that for crores of Indian children, working with wood and metal comes naturally too. They have always been good at handling any technology with their nimble fingers, not only mobile phone gadgets. It is the education system that has never taken this ability seriously.
The hands and minds disconnect
Why is it that such a disconnect between conceptual science learning and a hands-on culture of making things, accepted for so long, as a matter of course? Is it perhaps impossible to achieve an integration of the two? Are we perhaps talking of a new idea so revolutionary that nobody has thought of it before?
On the contrary, this is a very old idea, whose seeds were sown in India long ago. In the 1930’s Mahatma Gandhi advocated Nai Talim, a new style of education for a new country. Gandhi and Kumarappa built a curricular framework on a principle that called for integration of work and education. The village-based society they envisioned would not see education as preparation for entering the labout force post-education, but as education through work. In Nai Talim, work raises questions inside the child’s mind: why does X work and not Y? How does material get transformed? Science provides answers, and the child is able to see how conceptual learning improves her work and results. This is admittedly a crude summary of the idea, but the critical point to note here is that Gandhi was not speaking of vocational education or work apprenticeship but education through work. What is relevant to this discussion is that such a viewpoint carries the potential to build a natural and healthy attitude to (basic) technology and the understanding of how material and energy are transformed through work.
The country chose a different trajectory in education, and the Gandhian vision of education was sidelined along with the Gandhian vision of development. The fear that bringing work into schools would merely perpetuate caste hierarchies was real. On the other hand, a brahmanical attitude that privileges intellectual work over physical work took root in school education. By now, theoretical insights and conceptual understanding are seen as important, hands-on activity gets mentioned only in the context of making classes fun. In practice, memorization and rote learning have taken over, and concepts take a backseat as well. The DNEP reminds us that students in ancient Indian pathashalas were famous for remarkable feats of memory, so are our current toppers in examinations. Neither the Gandhian vision of work in education nor the Nehruvian vision of inculcating the scientific temper in children have been realized in our school system.
With such a history, it is perhaps not surprising that recent discussions in the DNEP on technology in education equates technology with ICT use. ICT is “clean” technology. Here is technology that is not messy, one does not need to muddy one’s hands, no need to deal with hot metal, or worry about errors in measurement. Even the dangers relate to the mental world, not the material one.
The immense power of ICT
I am well aware that the idiosyncratic stance taken here on the nature of technology in the science classroom does injustice to the tremendous potential contained in the use of ICT in school education.
ICT does have a disruptive power that needs to be harnessed. (However, we should still questioning the uncritical fashion in which the DNEP seems to root for “disruptive technologies”; what assumptions underlie such acceptance?) We are all acutely aware of the tyranny of the textbook in our schools. ICT offers highly flexible modes of navigating educational material, through the use of hyperlinks and multiple windows. Thus, it can break into the linear structure of our textbooks. It can also tremendously help in localizing and even personalizing content, which is most welcome in a scenario where textbooks and curricula can create a false uniformity. The combination of these two features, namely, flexible navigation and personalized content, can open doors to new pathways of learning. Consider a child interested in light, exploring art and photography on one side and physics on the other. Such breaking down of compartments is natural in ICT-enhanced education, and can be of tremendous value in situations where a teacher is unable to do this.
Once we start envisioning the possibilities, we can see that ICT not only has the potential to enrich our education but indeed can also provide a tool for educational objectives that we cannot accomplish without ICT. As an instance of the latter, consider the question: how would the world look and behave if the acceleration on earth due to gravity were just a tiny bit less? It is hard to imagine such a thing, much harder to quantify what we imagine. A computer simulation can achieve this very well, can make us think, and indeed lead us to more related questions and open-ended exploration. In a mathematics class, we could not only graph a cubic polynomial, but also pull the curve down, predict how the quadratic coefficient would change, and verify it. Try doing this on paper! Consider zooming into topographic maps in geography. Consider underwater explorations, visits to museums in another continent.
Another critical dimension on which ICT can be immensely helpful is teacher education and in teacher professional development, and this has been rightly emphasized in the DNEP. However, both the dangers of equating ICT and technology use and the potential of integrating technology into science equation need to be integrated into teacher education.
All such singing glories of ICT should always be viewed with healthy suspicion. The dangers of unsafe use of Internet are far too real and immediate to be ignored. We also need to be very wary of the seductive nature of ICT, especially when it is translated to mean instant access to fast-moving images, whether for entertainment or for education. While visualisation of abstractions is a meaningful educational challenge, instant packaged mobile visuals can disengage thought and abstraction, which can harm learning not only at that instant, but for future as well, by causing a craving for such quick answers, making it harder to think. Hands-on, minds-off is a real and present danger in ICT use and the classroom cannot afford to ignore this risk.
Even more problematic is the DNEP’s advocacy of ICT for improving access to marginalised communities. If access to quality education is denied to the socio-economically oppressed, the roots of such exclusion lie elsewhere.
To conclude, the DNEP is an opportunity for us to revisit the role of technology in school, underlining the need to integrate it into science education, but in terms of engagement with the material world. ICT has immense potential, but equating technology use in school with ICT is dangerous. The following points seem worth emphasizing:
- ICT and its visual, simulational and interactive ability does offer a tremendous opportunity for empowerment in education, but this is only one dimension for a Technology Vision in Education.
- We need to see students as constructors of knowledge and technology, and not merely consumers of the potential offered by technology.
- Working with nature and material is essential in science education.
- Technology can play a significant role in engaging students in learning, but this needs to be understood carefully in context and used wisely.
The mathematician and educator W W Sawyer wrote:
Do things, make things, notice things, arrange things, and only then, reason about things.
Ways of thinking are shaped by ways of doing in the material world. This is a fundamental tenet that discussions on science education and technology in education can ill afford to forget.
R Ramanujam is a Professor of Theoretical Computer Science at The Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai.
Earlier versions of this article have appeared in Voices, the journal of teacher education, NCERT, and in the Krishnamurti Journal.
The other articles in this series can be found here.