The Difficulty with Science

One of the first things that struck me when I started teaching is that science comes across as a difficult subject to a majority of the students. There are some to whom it seems to come naturally, and we label them “science-persons” while the others who seem to struggle, as “arts-persons” or “humanities-persons”.

While there is no denying that there are variations in children’s ability, aptitude and interests, I’m gripped by the question whether everyone can be given a meaningful and enriching, and not painful science education. And if so, what would that be like.

One of the approaches that could be taken, perhaps, is to study how science is normally taught and what are the sources of the difficulties which children face. How is scientific knowledge organised in our brains and what are the factors which make this process so difficult for so many? It might require some thought about the very nature of science and scientific knowledge.

While I’m not an expert in any of these areas, some of the problems which I myself have faced as a student provides some hints. The problem may not be such a big mystery if you look a bit closer.

Much of science is abstract, counter intuitive, and removed from real life experience. Take, for example, the kinetic theory of matter, which says that the particles which make up matter are in continuous motion and that the temperature of a body is a measure of the average kinetic energy of its particles. Most text books don’t explain why people came to believe that the particles are in motion, or why a body is hotter if the particles are moving faster. There is a lot that ends up having to be taken for granted.

This is not an isolated example- far from it. Every theory or topic that children have to learn has some gap like this, and after a while instead of the concepts building up nicely into a jigsaw puzzle- an understanding of the way the world works, they end up being isolated and unrelated fragments that have to be “mugged up”.

Related to this is the fact that scientific knowledge is often presented as absolute truth. Very little, if any importance is given to the process of discovery and the evolution of scientific knowledge. Text books do mention some history, but it is often lost within the vast sea of facts which children have to memorise. And in the process, only the end product, and not the evolution of the idea or the real life phenomenon that led to it, is given importance.

Another difficulty which students often face is in forming mental pictures or representations of concepts or processes. If you are unable to visualise it, it quickly becomes abstract, meaningless information.

For example, consider the case of common salt dissolving in water. I, the teacher, have a vivid picture of differently sized Na+ and Cl- ions packed tightly in the solid crystal, and water molecules floating (or flowing!) around with their partially positive H and partially negative O ends. And the moment you put NaCl in water, the partial charges of water molecules arranging themselves around the ions in the salt and pulling them apart. It is a complex mental representation, built up over time, with connections to many other concepts like kinetic theory, chemical bonding etc. How can a teacher help a student build her own mental picture? Some students do this effortlessly, but can the others do it with some help and more importantly, can having such coherent mental pictures help them learn science more easily and connect with it better?

Most text books would introduce this concept with a sentence like “Sodium chloride dissolves well in water because it is a polar solvent.” And then go on to beat around the bush with all kinds of irrelevant information. How does the student visualise the term “polar solvent”? Does she think about it at all, or switch off completely? Or does she memorise the term without any clue as to what it means and move on and write the correct answer during the exam?

It’s important to note that the problems I have mentioned are not solved by just doing “more practical work than theory”. The same problems arise in lab sessions also, because doing an experiment is one thing, and understanding what happens behind it is another. Of course, being usually more engaging than theory classes, there is a greater chance that the student will apply herself better and get the concept. But one cannot assume that the student has understood it just by carrying out the experiment.

Again, let’s take an example, say precipitation reactions where solutions of two soluble salts are mixed together to form an insoluble salt.

Na_2CO_3 + CaCl_2 longrightarrow 2NaCl + CaCO_3 downarrow

Some children are immediately able to connect the above equation to their understanding of ionic compounds and solutions. They will immediately conclude that calcium and carbonate ions can’t stay together in the solution and that’s why they precipitate, and if they had come across calcium carbonate in earlier experiments, they would already know that it is an insoluble salt, which all fits in nicely into a perfect mosaic of knowledge. They would already be predicting which other pairs of solutions would give precipitates.

But for most, the equation wouldn’t mean anything deeper than what it literally states, and it needs to be made explicit to them what all information it represents and a visualisation of the process that is taking place. Otherwise, it is not unlikely that many would do this particular reaction, learn the equation by heart, do the next one, again learn the equation by heart and so on.

It’s fortunate that I have had these problems myself as a student, especially during engineering days, so that I can connect with the difficulties which students face. It’s not as if only “non-science-persons” face these difficulties, and “science-persons” don’t face them at all. I, whom many would classify as a “science-person”, have had experiences of having gone through entire courses without being able to make out head or tail of what was taught, and having to mug up to pass the exams. The moment you are unable to form coherent mental pictures of a concept, it is going to become more and more meaningless.

7 thoughts on “The Difficulty with Science

  1. This post does give a great insight about the science education followed in most of the schools and how students learn science. I hope you would be able find better ways to teach science to students to make it more interesting and easy to learn for them.

    Best wishes with your teaching.

  2. You can find on the net lots of essays and Youtube videos of the best science teacher who ever lived – Richard Feynman. Studying them would give you some idea as to how to approach the teaching process. I would also recommend Prof.Walter Lewin’s OCW lectures.

    You should also check out Tony Kuphaldt’s “Socratic Electronics”. Go through some of the worksheets and try to create something of that sort for chemistry!

  3. May be this has some relation to your theme. There is a drastic difference between water color painting and oil painting. In the first one takes the whiteness of the paper as the given and the forms are carved out of this whitenss with shades and shadows. In the second one takes the darkness of the background as the given and the forms are built on this by the play of light of several hues. If one apply the techniques of water color with oil paint the result is labored and unpleasant. The same happens if one uses the techniques of oil color with water color paints.

    Does an artist takes light for granted and is looking for patches of imperfections that brings out forms. Then the path of abstraction may be alien to him. Normally the artist and scientist live side by side in everyone. Is not cultivating both sides in a balanced way is also a role of an educator?

  4. It’s nice to see that you have invested so much thought into improving your teaching. I personally don’t have much experience with it thought I too enjoy explaining things.
    When I think of the best teachers that I have had, what comes to mind first is their ability to start with explaining the basics and ultimately describe how everything fits together and describe graphically the “big picture”.
    Even if everyone doesn’t get everything, they will at the very least see the beauty, power and importance of the concept to the overall scheme of things. I remember being asked when I was in the first year to explain what the significance of the Laplace transform was. Starting from the equ. you can finally arrive at a point where you can see the frequency components(real and imaginary) of any signal. It’s applications in everything from mechanical design to electronics to sound engineering can motivate even the most hardened science/math hater to at least acknowledge it’s importance.
    It is true that a lot of people especially children don’t naturally seek out the big picture. But, that’s the challenge, right!? It is up to the teacher to actively build up that kind of holistic thinking even in children who are not naturally inclined to do it. This should be done with greater zeal in the lower grades.
    With that kind of conditioning, kids will, I guess try and think at a higher level automatically when they reach the higher grades.

    I also remember seeing some study suggesting that some kids especially the girls tend to not use their hands or bodies or for that matter other physical objects to try and visualize things or as an aid in abstract thought processes. The researchers after observing this conducted a small session telling everyone to use their hands etc. to study maths and voila, they started performing at the same levels as their peers in maths and science.
    This is maybe one small point. But, I have always a noticed that a lot of people don’t like to “give shape” to their thoughts. Of course its just a matter of being introduced to it. I think if students are encouraged to think in physical terms it might improve their performance.

    1. Sabu,

      “I have always a noticed that a lot of people don’t like to “give shape” to their thoughts. Of course its just a matter of being introduced to it. I think if students are encouraged to think in physical terms it might improve their performance.”

      Interesting thought … if you watch the Feynman video I have linked above (jiggling atoms), I think he too is trying to sort of give “shape” to ideas using his body language and expressions!

  5. Very well expressed. I personally have been through this experience while helping out college-mates in undergrad. And I am surprised, for I was just about to mention Feynman lectures. 😛 😛 😛 Ramuettan beat me to it though. He was indeed the best, and I consider him an idol for his efforts at trying to serve the true purpose of education: to train the mind to think. Indian education is something to be permanently brooded over, and it is very difficult to do something about it unless you are in a like minded atmosphere. Starting from evolution to the basic concepts of Newtonian mechanics to Aristotle’s Physics (by the way, read it if physics is your forte. Mine is :D) to the brilliance of radiant chemistry.

    When I first read The Fountain Head, from a philosophical point of view, I found exactly what I believed in. The joy of understanding and uncovering knowledge is in itself a reward, and nothing else matters. But then that is never a notion these days, as marks and competitive progress and jobs take up the main reasons.
    I believe, in future, to live and teach by these principles where knowledge and its conceptual application and understanding take first priority. And you seem to be doing a great job already. Keep up with it. 🙂
    And Ramuettan, Socratic electronics was brilliant. 🙂
    One must read The Origin of Species, Godel Escher Bach, Aristotle’s Physics, Principia Mathematica and most importantly the works of Bertrand Russel. These are eye openers for teachers, and I feel sorry that hardly 0.00001% of the teachers do it.

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