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Experience and Science in Geography Education

By examining geography textbooks and students' responses, an attempt is made here to substantiate a problematic of science education. The decontextualised nature of science education contradicts everyday life experiences. This situation does not enhance a dialectic relationship between science and experience. It is argued that cognition by itself cannot address the issue of science "enculturation"; instead, it needs to be addressed through some essential relationships of science. These include relations between common observations and reflections beyond appearances as well as relations of science that modify and control nature.

INSIGHTEconomic & Political Weekly EPW june 14, 200845Experience and Science in Geography EducationYemuna SunnyBy examining geography textbooks and students’ responses, an attempt is made here to substantiate a problematic of science education. The decontextualised nature of science education contradicts everyday life experiences. This situation does not enhance a dialectic relationship between science and experience. It is argued that cognition by itself cannot address the issue of science “enculturation”; instead, it needs to be addressed through some essential relationships of science. These include relations between common observations and reflections beyond appearances as well as relations of science that modify and control nature.Recently the Delhi State Council Educational Research and Train- ing(SCERT 2004) and the National Council of Educational Research and Training [NCERT 2005] and subsequent writing of textbooks made much efforts to alter the state of alienation brought about through mainstream textbooks. Yet, somehow geography seems to con-tinue without sufficient critique. “Focus group” processes lead to National Cur-riculum Framework (NCF) of NCERT, but in social science a consensus was not reached on the need to critically examine the nature of geography that is taught in schools.1 In geography, students face a dilemma of their observations of the world over-whelmingly contradicting the science model, like experienced flatness of earth or apparent movement of sun from east to west. It is seen that interpretations by students are done through common sense, and the science model remains in an abstract plane, not owned by them.The present study is based on responses collected from more than 2,000 students across different areas and schools of Madhya Pradesh. The intention of the studywas to examine the nature of learn-ing vis-à-vis objectives of the school system. Students responded to questionnaires2 on the theme “Movements of the Earth”.Sampling was done to contain various types of schools like good, bad and average as per local opinions. Two areas each of rural, semi-urban and urban were selected following the definitions of Census of India (in Eklavya’s3 field area in Madhya Pradesh). Within each school, grades 6, 8 and 10 were chosen and a minimum size of 30 students in each grade was main-tained for statistical significance. Samples of graduate and postgraduate studentswere also included. All together the sample size was 2033.4 The sample contained some of the best reputed schools of Indore and Bhopal cities. Rural and semi-urban areas were chosen from Hoshangabad and De-was districts.It is often argued that the system does not function well because it is not that well-oiled teachers do not teach or infra-structure is insufficient, etc. But the sam-ple design with all shades of schools should be able to discount this factor; therearemany sites where “facilities” are abundant, including educated parents. The questionnaire, based on the text (grade 6), was modified through pilot surveys conducted with students. The questionnaire had two sections, one that demanded direct answers and the other that was open ended with space for draw-ings, etc. This was supplemented by smaller samples of discussions that were recorded. It is to be noted that the objective of the study was not to understand what “children understand”, but to assess the ontological position (especially of science education) on which the school system functions. The findings of the study examine the nature of science and of geography. The nature of geography was analysed against the backdrop of history, shifts in perspec-tives and ontology of geography as social science education [Sunny 2006]. The present article is based on an examination of school geography that is confined to its natural science lineage.5 1 Findingsfrom Survey Overall, half the respondents stated that the earth’s movement around the sun causes day and night. Only 30 per cent students opted for earth’s rotation on its axis. The trend that does not distinguish between the two movements is sustained in most cases from grades 6 to 10. Some differences are found only in urban good school and at postgraduation.6 There were three questions on tilt of the earth. It is seen that only 14 per cent of students expressed reasons that combined revolution and tilt of the earth to explain seasons. The notion of tilt, even in the form of rote, is weak and this pattern iswidespread; only 11 to 26 per cent respondents have expressed it. It is seen The article owes much to Arvind Sardana who had teamed up in the sampling and organisation of the survey. His most valuable contribution was in making sense of the quantitative data by assessing the emerging patterns and trends. It also owes much to Ramakant Agnihotri in helping with designs of sampling and questionnaire. Yemuna Sunny (yemunas@yahoo.com) has been working on issues of geography education through Eklavya which is based in Madhya Pradesh.
INSIGHTjune 14, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly46that 23 per cent of postgraduate students ignore this factor. A diagram of the earth was given to demarcate the night portions; it was seen that 38 per cent of respondents held no clue and another 29 per cent were confused. Thus at least 67 per cent were unable to apply the concept of tilt. In the better per-forming pockets like the 10th grade and urban schools, only around 40 per cent have answered in tune with the text and this goes only to 56 per cent with postgrad-uate students. Similarly, it is seen that only 13 per cent of respondents showed some idea of earth’s rotation in west-east direc-tion, nearly half (49 per cent) of the stu-dents visualise a north-south movement. Why do India and Australia experience different seasons at any time of the year? (A picture of the globe indicated location of the two places). One-fourth of the students did not respond to this question. Examining different subgroups, marginal deviation from the “general” scenario was seen among 10th grade students. At post-graduation, the situation stood much improved (56 per cent).Students’ explanations of latitude and longitude grids are mostly confined to recognition on maps and to their imagi-nary nature. But their names are confused and their identities as separate sets of lines arenot recognised. Moreover, their coordi-nate functions (location) and the associa-tion of longitudes with time figure no-where in their articulations.A large number of students (30-40 per cent) have opted not to answer the ques-tion on direction of latitude and longitude. This situation is seen in all areas and school grades. Overall, the recognition of latitudes and longitudes are seen only within a range of 30 to 40 per cent.As evident from the findings, students do not seem to decipher the scientific model, as the text desires. Instead, inter-pretations of the world are made through impulses and concrete experiences. For instance, seasons get explained on the basis of varying distances between earth and sun.When we sit near a fire it feels hot and when we go farther away from it, it feels less hot (explained as a simple metaphor).When the earth comes to the centre of the sun it becomes hot and when it goes away from the centre it become cold.These interpretations dismiss factors like tilt of the earth. Why do seasons occur? What causes seasonal change?The seawater evaporates and forms clouds by which rain falls. Rainfall causes winter. This is an interesting chronological ex-planation of summer, rain and winter. Most explanations reflect observations, like:Seasons change because rain falls on earth and rainwater makes rivers and rivers go to oceans. Rainy season changes with the help of the sun. Sun produces more heat to make water into vapour and rain is falling.Even though the text provides scientific explanations, students stick to concrete reference points. Across age groups and areas we find no major departure from this situation,7 even at senior grades and in the so-called well-equipped schools. 2 Analysing the TextThe textbooks do not give evidence of helping students move beyond appear-ances to interpret the world. What are the reasons for this situation?Instead of pinning down the cause on teachers and students, we need to look at larger influences which control the nature of education. What is the nature of the textbook? Characteristically textbooks give scientific information in cryptic forms; and this has various fallouts. It impacts students’ inter-pretation of information, and hence, their scientific understanding. It creates bottle-necks in education-pedagogy and there is an enforcement of duality between con-crete experiences and science.2.1 Students’ Interpretations Students use concrete impulses to interpret the abstract text. For instance, latitudes indicate heat zones on the globe, but they interpret it as showing temperature8 of places. Latitudes give us torrid and temperate zones. So they tell ustemperature of places.Lines which show partition of different temperature of the world (Emphasis added).Another interpretation is that latitude-longitude lines are used to calculate dis-tance between two places or:Latitude and longitude are a type of scale. How latitude and longitude can be used to find distance between places?From the scale given below, e g: 1 cm = 100 km (referring to the map scale).Some persons mentioned the distance of 111 km between any two latitudes (factually correct statement) can serve to calculate distance between places (wrong interpretation). Earth’s rotation is interpreted as “... the top part of the earth has day, the bottom part has night”. Here instead of an east-west demarcation of day and night, a north-south one is visualised (sun is sup-posed to be on “top” where it gives light; the “bottom” remains in darkness).It is commonly found that day-summer and night-winter are visualised as occur-ring due to the same reasons like:Revolution of earth from east to west.Revolution of earth’s axis round the sun.In most cases students seem to memo-rise terms from the text and then construct explanations on those. 2.2 PedagogyGeography curriculum largely consists of abstract and global themes like earth’s movements, wind and pressure system, ocean currents, etc, mostly in initial grades of middle school. The text is terse from junior to senior grades, its nature is uniform; concrete experiences are not engaged with in any form. This induces difficulties like cognition of multiple and complex situations well-documented in studies on children’s understanding of heat and temperature [Erickson and Tiberghien 1985] and light [Guesne 1985] etc.Guesne points out “We have seen that before being in a position to grasp a pheno-menon such as virtual images, adolescents have many stages to go through” (ibid: 32).The relationships between processes of cognitive development and learning capabilities have been dealt in depth by L S Vygotsky. His significant concept of “zone of proximal development” was conceived as functions that are rather like “buds” or “flowers”, than as fruits of development. The textbooks are in sharp contrast to such understandings, where final formula, the “fruits”, are offered. Vygotsky has defined zone of proximal development as:The distance between the actual develop-ment level as determined by independent
INSIGHTEconomic & Political Weekly EPW june 14, 200847problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collabo-ration with more capable peers (1978; 86). If we assess the findings of the study within Vygotskian formulations, there is hardly any movement towards potential development levels. In allegory, relation-ships between buds, flowers and fruits are not allowed in our schools.2.3 Concrete-AbstractDualityThe term “concrete” is used here to reflect the concreteness of life, hence it repre-sents existing knowledge of students, for instance, as in narrations by grade 6 stu-dents on season-based and related changes in cultivation and the sequence of seasonal change, etc. But when reasoning was guided towards the science model, a stu-dent explicitly stated, “Madam had told us about the earth, but I do not know”. The term “abstract” is used to indicate drawing out essence from concrete expe-riences and often involves an attempt to find the “universal”. Thus it has a quality of dealing with ideas, that which cannot be physically felt as in the case of “con-crete”. Learning only through abstractions delinks life experiences.9 Our life experiences represent relations with nature, but science education ignores this and instead practices a forced implan-tation of the “final” model. Bo Dahlin (2001; 144), writing on theoretical bases of science education, critiques lack of an internal, dialectic relation between the personal subjective aspect and the formal objective one. This, he says, is a cause of alienation from both nature and science.By denying human sense and contexts, students’ life experiences that contradict the science model stand out to be “wrong”. These various “wrongs” are actually inter-pretations or reinforcements of sense per-ceptions like the feeling of warmth near a fire (used to explain summer). Abstrac-tions are derived from concrete experi-ences; but their dialectic relationship is not considered in our textbooks.3 Analysing the OntologyScience is not getting dialogued with learners’ worldview and this has cultural, educational and socio-political implica-tions. If we understand science education as enculturation of students not only into tools and symbols of science, but also into scientific thought, then what do our find-ings indicate? It shows more or less no achievements. How do we analyse this situation and what are the concerns emerging out of it? Science would have many institutional practices, but in the context of education the main need is as emphasised by John Dewey (1933), the overall development of the learner. It would be interesting to examine the relation between these two aspects.Many innovations in education empha-sise thought processes of students. Such “constructivist” trends replaced memori-sation with conceptualisation. For instance, Margaret Donaldson’s (1978) writings on “embedded” and “dis-embedded” thought provide deep insights for pedagogy. Donaldson addresses the question of “starting point”, the knowl-edge with which children come to school. She also raises the question of whether most children must inescapably fail to become competent in disembedded thought. She emphasises intelligence not as something that we “have”, but rather as something to be cultivated (ibid: 85).These concerns have pedagogic rele-vance for findings of the present study. But we need to understand the problematic from non-psychological and non-pedagogic vantages as well since they play significant roles in shaping nature of education. For instance, science’s ontology, nature and objectives of schooling, etc, extend their influences on nature of science education. How to teach? This is a secondary ques-tion in our problematic that demands look-ing into nature of knowledge on which lie roots of decisions on what to teach.3.1 Enculturation intoScience Science contains various symbols derived from contextual experiences. When the con-texts are left out, we have the abstractions. Context-deprived science is questioned by many, for instance, in terms of sense perception, phenomenology and aesthetics [Dahlin 2001]. Others have questioned absence of life qualities in ontology of science like the personal and reflexive [Donnelly 2001], experience [Gadamer 2005; Donnelly 2001] and also in terms ofhistory and philosophy of science [Mathews 1995, 2000]. Enculturation into science means engage-ment with thoughts in certain frameworks which we call “scientific way” of thinking. Science has many characteristics,butDriv-er et al (1994), point out some core com-mitments of nature of science like: Empiri-cism; population of science ontology with “symbols” of science; scientific ideas are constructed, validated and communicated through cultural institutions of science.Learning science therefore means being initiated into ideas of the scientific com-munity. So the role of the science educator is to mediate scientific knowledge for learners, to help them to make personal sense of ways in which knowledge claims are generated and validated (ibid: 6). Science education should imply the engagement of the learner with its ontology and epistemology. Science as a body of knowledge also implies political connota-tions in its engagement with the relation-ships that it makes with nature and with society. This is intricately tied up with the rela-tions of production, distribution, etc, which enhances specific thrusts to nature of development and utilisation of science and technology in that process. It is such implications of science on whose back-ground the problematic of concrete- abstract duality of science education need to be assessed.Science’s abstract nature and questions of subjectivity and objectivity are exam-ined by many persons. Exceptionally in-teresting are the writings of Dewey with his significant contributions to education and of Galileo with his significant contri-butions to science.In Dewey’s writings, we see reflections on the importance of abstractions in science. He wrote that one person’s experience, through abstraction, becomes available for all humans. “In emancipating an idea from the particular context in which it originated and giving it a wider reference the results of the experience of any indi-vidual are put at the disposal of all men” (1933: 270).But, he also elaborated, that as the logical characteristics of method, since they belong to the subject matter, has a high degree of intellectual elaboration and are different

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INSIGHTEconomic & Political Weekly EPW june 14, 200849which science education does not provide the moorings of science. Alternative science education with cogni-tive thrusts engages students with empirical activities. But it is to be noted that empiri-cism is not synonymous to experience. Through activities, science is attempted to be conveyed in cognitively and psycho-logically enhancing ways. Children would be, without doubt, involved in them more than in abstract texts and would even learn such aspects of enquiry as good observa-tion. But it does not sufficiently address questions of nature of science because of lack of engagements with understandings beyond the frame of the activity. Hence, it fails to build historical, philosophical and socio-political contexts of science. It is also to be noted that search of nature’s laws is only part of science’s story. It engages with nature’s laws to change it, be it vaccines to fight diseases, geneti-cally modified seeds, nuclear energy, etc. These engagements to modify human-nature relationship in turn also modify relationships among humans; hence it becomes political.The story of science remains partial if we look at it only in terms of laws of na-ture or in terms of inventions of scientists. This also mystifies and lends uncriticality in understanding questions like utilisation of science by society.The second part of the story is marginal-ised because it is the first part that can cre-ate images of science as neutral, the essen-tially “good things” being done as activities of genius. It is the first part of science’s nature that has been utilised both by main-stream and by activity-oriented education. One need not taste the entire ocean; a drop would tell us the nature of sea water. If this understanding of part and whole is acceptable, then it is argued that the posing of science with an empirical part and (another) theoretical part would not help understand the whole. Instead, their interconnections are needed for educational and political understandings.A Truncated ScienceIn conclusion, attention is drawn to some important relationships of science:(1) The dialectic relation between obser-vations and objective experiences – the movement from impulsive common sense reasoning to a more reflective, “seeing beyond the appearances”.(2) The dialectic relation between empirical activities of science and scientific thought.(3) The relation that science exercises between understanding the laws of nature and of modifying and controlling nature.Understanding science needs to address all the above aspects. But practices of science education are seen to truncate these relationships. Science education becomes reduced to formula learning. This necessarily creates a problem area for pedagogy as an after-effect. And science education also becomes ahistorical and apolitical. Science (in a truncated form) remains with a few because abstractions have kept it away from people and it is techno-logicaloperations, not science, that is with the people. The truncations of science’s relation-ships make its understanding along with socio-political implications a tricky job. This problem assumes greater depth when science is a crucial factor used to shape human-nature relations through relations of capitalism. A question raised earlier was on the relation between institutional practices of science and overall development of students (overall development as emphasised by Dewey). Science that is cut-off from its relationships would not enhance overall development. Whether science remains in abstractions or alternatively only as activi-ties, it fails to reflect philosophical, histor-ical and political contexts.Thus the problematic of science educa-tion needs to be understood in science’s own moorings and relations with the world and not solely in the premises of its operation, the classroom. Notes 1 A drafting of syllabus, which did not move from previous positions, followed this. Hence, in spite of the overall facelift that NCERT has made, in geography we fail to see sufficient advantage of the ethos of change. 2 In the multiple-choice questionnaire there were four options for each question. A familiarisation sheet was provided to help the students with the format. 3 A non-government organisation that has been working on education innovation since the past 25 years in Madhya Pradesh. 4 Within the stratified sample, the choice of schools was purposive. Within a shortlist of suggested schools those that were most convenient were chosen. Since this is different from a random sampling procedure, these results should be seen, as indicative of what we would expect to find in the overall population. So it is more of a judgment sample than a strictly representative one. 5 Even where social science issues are pursued in the curriculum, they take on physical science approaches as examined in Sunny (2006).6 Postgraduate students show a difference, even though 23 per cent of students have still opted for “revolution” as the cause for day and night. 7 Except at postgraduation, students refuse to buy the logic and reasons provided by the text. 8 Even in “urban-good school” noted for diligent teaching, only 37 per cent students reproduced the text. 9 This is very commonly observed (the following examples are not part of the present study) – during an attempt to improve geography education in a school in Sreekrishnapuram (Palakkad, Kerala),it was noted that students perceived biosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, etc, as matters of text-books, having nothing to do with our lives. Simi-larly in a classroom interaction in Raipur (Hoshangabad, MP), students imagined volca-noes as not occurring in concrete places where people live. Two worlds are imagined, one that is abstract (in the textbooks) and the other that is experienced (in real life).ReferencesDahlin, B (2001): ‘The Primacy of Cognition or of Perception? A Phenomenological Critique of theTheoretical Bases of Science Education’ in F Bevilacqua, E Giannetto, M R Matthews (eds), ScienceEducation and Culture: The Contribution ofHistoryand Philosophy of Science, Kluwer AcademicPublishers, The Netherlands.Dewey, J (1933):Democracy and Education: An Intro-duction to the Philosophy of Education, The Macmillan Company, New York.Donaldson, M (1978):Children’s Minds,Flamingo, London. Donnelly, J (2001): ‘Instrumentality, Hermeneutics and the Place of Science in the School Curriculum’ in F Bevilacqua, E Giannetto, M R Matthews (eds), Science Education and Culture: The Contribution of History and Philosophy of Science, Kluwer Aca-demic Publishers, The Netherlands.Driver, R, H Asoko, J Leach, E Mortimer and P Scott (1994): ‘Constructing Scientific Knowledge in the Classroom’,Educational Researcher, Vol 23, No 7, October, pp 5-12.Erickson, G and A Tiberghien (1985): ‘Heat and Tem-perature’ in R Driver, E Guesne and A Tiberghien (eds),Children’s Ideas in Science, Open University Press, Philadelphia.Gadamer, Hans-Georg (2005):Truth and Method, Continuum, London, New York. Guesne, E (1985): ‘Light’ in R Driver, E Guesne and A Tiberghien (eds),Children’s Ideas in Science, Open University Press, Philadelphia.Machamer, P (2001): ‘Galileo and the Rhetoric of Relativity’ in F Bevilacqua, E Giannetto and M R Matthews (eds),Science Education and Culture: The Contribution of History and Philosophy of Science, Kluwer Academic Publishers, The Netherlands, pp 31-40. Matthews, M R (1995): Challenging NZ Science Educa-tion, The Dunmore Press, New Zealand. –(2000): Time for Science Education, Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, New York.NCERT (2005): National Curriculum Framework, National Council of Education Research and Training, New Delhi.Sunny, Y (2006): ‘Analysing Current Practices in Geography Education’,Economic & Political Weekly, Vol XLI, No 3, January 21, pp 270-78.Vygotsky, L S (1978): ‘Interaction between Learning and Development’ in M Cole, V Jon-Steiner, SScribner and E Souberman (eds), Mind in Society, the Develop-ment of Higher Psychological Processes, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London.

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