CASTME

Encouraging Practical Science in Primary Schools

Sue Fisher B.Sc. M.A.

It is generally accepted that experience of practical work is highly desirable when providing quality basic primary science education. However there are three standard reasons regularly offered by primary school teachers for not doing practical work in their classes. The first and most common is that they have no equipment; the second is that there is not enough time and the third that the classes are too big. Whilst the third does sometimes present some daunting challenges it is suggested that the real reasons for so little practical work are not quite as simple as those stated.

Availability of equipment

It is certainly true that the majority of the primary schools in many parts of Africa, especially in rural areas, have no standard equipment designated for science practical work. But, with the exception of magnets, no formal equipment is required before teachers are able to carry out a whole range of activities with their classes. At the same time these would cover most of the topics required in the syllabus. There are many opportunities for improvisation from materials in any of the local environments. What is lacking is recognition of the need to do practical work, the stimulus for ideas for improvisation and a background of experience of such activities on which to draw. Access to large quantities of particular materials might present a problem at times. However, with limited equipment a demonstration, well handled, would be better than no activity at all and sometimes this may be the appropriate teaching strategy.

Improvisation

Setting aside the lack of recognition of the importance of practical work for the moment, those teachers who have a good foundation of theory need some stimulus to get them started. Once teachers are presented with some activities at a workshop using local materials, and experience using them, then they begin to have their own ideas about other local materials which might be an alternative or even better for a particular purpose. At the beginning of term a week's workshop run for a group of teachers might have this as a major theme. At the end of term when the teachers return for further in-service training they would all then bring examples of improvisation. Where this has been done it was found that many of the teachers had used an excellent variety of materials and showed considerable imagination. Both natural and manufactured products had been pressed into service.

Application

However, even when stimulated the teachers do have to have an idea of the ultimate purpose of an activity and an idea of how this may be achieved. This means a reasonable understanding of the concepts and principles behind the topics being taught. In one workshop teachers were asked if anyone knew how to show pupils a spectrum without using a prism. One teacher described how he used a mirror and a dish of water but he couldn't explain what was happening. It is therefore often necessary to go through as much of the syllabus as possible carrying out the recommended activities (however simple), suggesting others and discussing materials, theory and the relevant teaching points. It takes time but it is worth making the effort to cover each of the topics of water, air, soil, and matter and energy (including light, heat, sound, electricity and magnetism). Teachers often think that discussion on the teaching of plants and animals is not needed, but there are rather too many primary school lessons in classrooms surrounded by bush, where the 'parts of a plant' are studied by means of a drawing of a hypothetical plant on the blackboard! Lack of materials is not the fundamental problem.

Use of time

It cannot be denied that practical work takes time. Teachers frequently state that there just isn't time to do any activities. There is the perception that activities are peripheral to the real job of learning. The syllabuses in many counties are certainly entirely content based. Pupils must learn all the facts and churn them out in the exam. Firstly, teachers have to be persuaded that doing practical work leads to greater understanding and enhances learning, both of which are beneficial to the pupil in the short and the longer term. Secondly, the teachers’ time management needs to be significantly improved. Teachers have to be encouraged to be punctual, well prepared and have the class ready, as simple starting points to managing time. Thereafter the need for good planning and management of the activity must be stressed as being critical alongside a well-trained class.

Undoubtedly, as in the world over, planning and management take some of the teachers’ non-teaching time and in Africa disincentives abound. There may be very little motivation as a result of poor school leadership, lack of recognition of teachers’ efforts, conservative attitudes of the administration, other responsibilities, delay in payment of salaries and low salaries. In addition some teachers fail to accept the principle that they are there primarily for the benefit of the children. Several of these are government matters but others have to be tackled at the more local level of the region and the school. Time itself is not the problem.

Class size

In many situations the class size is an inhibiting factor especially in the lower grades of primary. Classes of 60 to 100 or more need special handling but the use of group work, for example, may still be achieved. In many cases however it is not the size itself but lack of teaching experience; concerns about discipline and class control; the organisation and planning of activities; noise levels; and the perception of others that real work is not being done that inhibits the teachers. Despite legislation against it the stick or plastic tubing may still be the main means of establishing and maintaining discipline in primary classrooms. It is feared that once the scenario of the teacher at the front with his or her stick of office to hand and the pupils in ranks facing the front (albeit squashed onto benches or mats on the floor) is broken, then all discipline will be lost. Managing pupils in groups, talking, moving around, using water or soil or candles presents a far greater challenge to the teacher. But this is so whatever the size of the class.

Lack of confidence

Let us return to the question of recognition of the importance of practical work mentioned in the beginning. It is suggested that it is lack of confidence which, though not stated, plays a major part in the reluctance of teachers to engage in science activities in primary schools. By this is meant lack of confidence in:

  • the importance and efficacy of practical work, and 
  • the individual's ability to carry it out in his or her classroom.

The importance and efficacy of practical work

Many of the teachers have studied at school, passed their exams and got where they are without the benefit of the practical work under consideration. They have, however, read and written about the various activities and can often quote examples for examinations. A major task is to induce confidence in the importance and efficacy of doing practical work at all. It is suggested that the most convincing way to do this is for the teachers to experience some of the activities for themselves. (A group of science teachers in Primary Colleges in Uganda were asked the one most significant occasion when they had learnt something in science. All but one quoted an activity or experiment in which they had participated that had made all the difference to their understanding. The exception quoted the lesson where the teacher explained the 'mirage' effect on the hot tarmac road outside). Where opportunities for teachers to participate in and be encouraged to carry out activities exist then confidence in the importance of those activities soon grows. Too many instances occur during workshops, where a teacher's face lights up as theory is shown in practice or teachers become totally absorbed in following an activity through, for this to be disputable.

Once the majority of teachers themselves are thus convinced it is a short step to persuade them that such pupil centred teaching has value. Following such a change, there still remains the need to persuade the teachers to 'risk' doing activities in class.

The individual's ability to carry out activities in his or her classroom. Several obstacles stand in the way: 

  1. The lack of basic scientific knowledge of the teacher; 
  2. The teacher's poor professional competence; 
  3. Concern over discipline; 
  4. Perceptions of hierarchy in the classroom; 
  5. Concern for the marginally higher noise level, likely fluidity of class structure and resultant possible censure from the senior staff.

Scientific knowledge and professional competence (1) & (2) vary with individual teachers and are sadly weak in many cases. However, a start could be made through in-service workshops. Besides going through the syllabus much emphasis, as might be expected, should be put on planning, preparation and good classroom organisation. Provision of user-friendly activity sheets, showing the experiments and activities by means of very simple drawings with the text reduced to a minimum (7 or 8 words), possibly with further basic information and hints for management on the back might supply additional encouragement. Activities are sometimes mentioned in the text of the teachers' guides but are often not read and rarely stimulate use in this form.

A major concern is that of maintaining discipline (3). Many teachers have few ideas as to the variety of ways in which discipline can be maintained and they need help and encouragement to take any risk. Perceptions of hierarchy in the classroom (4) presents an associated problem. The teachers strongly believe that they should know all the answers and always be right. This is a view shared by most of the pupils. Any weakness in these areas would result in loss of respect and loss of discipline. Rigidly controlled chalk and talk lessons would avoid most challenges, whereas activity based lessons could present teachers with unexpected situations and unpredictable questions thus possibly exposing them as less than omniscient. Changing these attitudes will take time.

Finally, should the teacher be prepared to accept the slightly higher noise level resulting from pupil discussion and the greater activity in the classroom, there is concern about and experience of censure from the Head and senior teachers (5). It is essential that the head teachers be kept informed of what is being expected of the teachers by way of changing methodology and that they be encouraged to support it.

Conclusions

Whilst provision of equipment, time management and class size all present challenges to teachers doing practical activities they are often only a screen hiding the underlying lack of confidence of many of the teachers. Tackling the reasons for this lack is something that the teachers are unable to do by themselves.
I recommend: 

  • greater promotion and experience of practical work alongside theory in teacher training in science; 
  • in-service courses to foster change in those already in post; 
  • positive support from Education advisors during visits; 
  • access to local Education Centres with opportunities for exchange of ideas, materials and supplies of activity sheets; 
  • recognition by senior management in each school, that such an approach to science teaching is to be praised and supported.

Sue Fisher has worked in Primary Education as a teacher, DFID Science Advisor and as project consultant for Encouraging Girls’ Education. Countries include England, Uganda, Malaysia, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana and The Gambia.