When Seeking the Right Answer is Wrong
Questioning the way we approach teaching
By Dorje Gurung
“Sir, sir…what is the right answer?” came the question from a young girl running towards us.
A friend of mine, a fellow educator, and I were just stepping out of the school after completing our visit when she approached us. We had spent the morning at a small private secondary school in Kathmandu taking a lesson each in a few different classes. During the lesson, we had engaged the students in a simple task: identify the odd one from a list of four and explain why. On the outset, we told the children that there was more than one correct answer!
In every class we ran the exercise, the students were keen, excited and active! They took risks, volunteering answers and asking questions. But, invariably, as the activity progressed, different students would keep asking, “What is the ‘right’ answer?”
We would again tell them that there was no THE right answer. We explained to them that there was no prescribed answer they had to recall from their science textbooks or from the facts and figures they had memorized in science lessons. We did what we could to hammer home the fact that there were MULTIPLE correct answers. Even then, towards the end of the activity, in pretty much every single class, they would try to cajole us into sharing the right answer! Some, like the young girl, came to discuss the exercise even after we had left their class, still looking for the right answer.
Not content with — or maybe unable to believe — our insistence that there was no one right answer, the young girl running after us must have decided to give the question one last try before we left the school premises! After all, all through school, she had most likely been taught what most students in Nepal are taught – questions have only one right answer!
In pretty much all public (government) schools, rural or urban, I have visited and even in some private schools, science teachers teach facts, figures, definitions and descriptions of experiments directly from prescribed textbooks. Descriptions of experiments — short or long, simple or sophisticated — meant to reinforce concepts, skills or processes also include descriptions of the expected results, and the conclusions to be drawn from those results. It’s rare indeed when students are provided the opportunity to actually conduct those investigations or experiments. The sad fact is that most public schools don’t have science instruments and/or laboratories.
In Nepal’s educational culture, where rote-learning the content and processes to then regurgitating prescribed “right” answers — down to the sequence of words – is drilled into them, it’s perfectly understandable that students will seek, from the teacher, the right answer to any and every question. What then is a science teacher to do? Make the teaching and learning of the subject just a little more hands-on using readily available local materials and resources! Doing so will make the teaching and learning of Science considerably more exciting, engaging, pertinent. Most importantly, hands-on science teaching and learning can impart higher level thinking skills, leading to improved learning outcomes for the students.
When volunteering at Jana Uddhar School in Budhanilkhantha, I worked with their grade five science teacher. When covering the effects of human activity on the local environment, for example, I took the student out on a survey of their neighborhood. Right next to the school is a massive building construction, a cremation site, farm fields and a heavily polluted river. After the “field trip,” the students prepared a diagrammatic report consisting of the evidences for the variety and number of human activities in the neighborhood and beyond, which have an impact on their local, physical and natural environment.
This will probably sound obvious, but any forest is a perfect place to study plants, ecology and Biology in general. Just a short tour through the forest looking at the variety of plants, the size and shape of leaves, and the patterns on them would, I am sure, be more scientifically educational to students than sitting on their benches and listening to the teacher lecturing while copying diagrams of, for example, the plant leaves from the textbook!
In other words, the natural environment – rivers, farm fields, forests, gardens, ponds – can stand in for the science laboratory, the extent of this is only limited to the imagination of the teacher. Facilities at schools or in the neighborhood can also stand in for a laboratory – a kitchen, a carpenter’s workshop, a children’s playground, sport fields and courts etc. are all laboratories!
A kitchen is a perfect place to teach lessons on light, fuel and energy. All demonstrations and experiments on conduction, convection, radiation etc. can easily be carried out using kitchen utensils and reinforced by looking at and studying various utensils with a critical eye. A children’s playground is the perfect place to study physics. Demonstrations and experiments on Newton’s Laws of Motion, Gravity and Friction can be easily performed on a slide using a variety of readily available objects, such as balls of different kinds and sizes, to give but just some examples. A seesaw, for instance, is a simple machine on which experiments can be easily conducted using just the students themselves. A swing can be an excellent stand-in for a pendulum! Simple mobile phones with cameras are excellent resource for teaching about light and images!
Something else that can serve as an excellent resource, which most science teachers in Nepal don’t give a serious consideration to, is their own selves! Science teaching (and teaching in general) in Nepal, as far as I can tell, is an impersonal activity. Teachers generally don’t share much about themselves, their life, or their interests and hobbies. But, there is absolutely no reason not to do so.
I am a Latin-American music and dance loving, didgeridoo and ultimate Frisbee playing, logic-game loving, Jesuit-school educated, Tibetan-Buddhist Science teacher. And you can bet your bottom dollar that I have brought many of my interests into the classroom when teaching science. To give some examples – I have used both dances and music in teaching the Periodic Table, I have used the didgeridoo, along with singing bowls, when teaching sound (in Physics) and also in teaching a Chemistry topic or two, I have used Sudoku and Mastermind (a board game) in my chemistry classroom, and as surprising as it may sound, yes, religion, specifically Buddhism has also figured in the many science lessons I have delivered.
Science is outside of you, all around you, and within you! As such, the subject can be made considerably more exciting and challenging for students and in the process, impart, among other things, higher level thinking skills. The challenge for teachers is whether they are willing to accept the task of preparing students to compete in the 21st century, instead of preparing them to obsess over getting the right answers!
This article was featured in the Innovation in Education Fair 2017 catalog. The writer, Mr. Dorje Gurung, is an independent science teacher and educator. He has extensive international education experience spanning around different dozen countries, such as the US, Malawi, Azerbaijan, Vietnam and Qatar, amongst others. Currently, he is a facilitator of the “Everyday Sciences” workshop under the Book Bus’ Teacher Empowerment Program.
For more informative lessons, tips and tricks about making science education innovative and fun, Check out Mr. Dorje Gurung’s Science blog here : Mr. Gurung’s World of Science