Teaching Mathematics and Science in Schools

The way teachers go about their teaching; each day in their classrooms is reflected as ‘teaching style’ or ‘approach’. This approach is better understood when the teachers are observed while they teach. Some teachers prefer activities for children associated with the curriculum, allowing students to chose their activity and complete it by themselves. Some other teachers would want the class to be attentive to them for most of the time. Certain teachers would like students to work in groups. Thus the methods adopted in the teaching-learning process is broadly reflective of the teacher’s viewpoint of what is ‘learning’ and how it should be brought into children.

The process of learning is more successful when children are fully involved with the subject or topic of their learning. This is all the more important when teaching science. Life sciences involving plants and animals; and non-living things are real and can be felt. Experiencing the reality through interaction, makes science not only more interesting, but also easier to understand. Mathematics on the other hand involves a bit more abstract level.

Yet, the symbols, signs and figures associated with mathematics with which children work, are self-created reality. In their effort to learn science and mathematics, children proceed further into the subjects, than just at the surface or base encounter. They analyze and interpret the object of focus and attempt to understand ‘how it works’, ‘why its required’ etc. Thus the child begins to develop reasoning for the facts it sees or understands. It may be the development of a new concept, or altering a previously thought concept, or even rejecting an assumption held till then. The teacher who wants to interestingly engage children in learning science and mathematics must personally sense excitement in learning so as to share it with the children.

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It is important to know the development of a child’s understanding and ability to reason, with their growth. Such an understanding is absolutely necessary in developing appropriate contents. For instance in the grades K-4, a child associates a comparison, a description, or a manipulation for all objects, it sees around. Although the child doesn’t understand the science of motion while in this grade; activities like pulling, pushing, dropping of objects gives the child an idea of the cause of motion and its control.

Similarly sound, heat, light, magnetism, electricity are broadly perceived through learning, observation and experimentation. However, the child would not be able to identify elements of temperature, magnetic forces, static electricity etc. In the grades 5 to 8, the concept of energy is developed through investigations into the properties of light, sound, electricity and magnetism. In these grades, there is a considerable shift towards quantitative aspects of subjects. In the 9 –12 grades, students are geared up completely to deal with motion, force, energy; being familiar with theoretical observations and laboratory investigations (NJSC). Here they understand the reasoning behind the laws of motion and why energy is conserved. They are also capable of dealing with technological designs and its problems, using the concepts and principles learnt.

The association of brain functioning and educational practices is increasingly becoming an important factor in education. Brain-based findings have been closely monitored by specialists involved in education. The findings of cognitive neuroscience research has considerable bearing on the methodology of education. A new approach connecting brain functioning with education was emphasized in 1983. Leslie Hart, in his book ‘Human Brain, Human Learning’ suggested that by ignoring the brain functioning of students, the success of students is not achieved to its fullest potential.

The philosophy of the newly developed ‘brain-based’ education is that the brain is used for everything we do; we should therefore know more about it and use it effectively. Contemporary models of brain-based education are multidisciplinary, relying on several disciplines like psychiatry, psychology, cognitive science, sociology etc. Brain plays an important role in the effect of classroom groupings, assessments, physical activity, lunchroom foods etc. Schools’ can affect students’ brain in several ways including through social conditions, stress, nutrition etc. These factors induce brain-based influences by altering cognition, memory and attention.

Neuroscientists Gerd Kempermann and Fred Gage discovered that the new neurons in the brain are intensely associated with memory, mood and learning. The process of neurons can be enhanced through good nutrition, low stress and proper exercise. The brain has the ability to remap itself due to its neuroplasticity (Jenson, 2008). This process can be influenced through reading, meditation, skill-building, career and technical education, and thinking skills, which contribute to student success.

The importance of physical education is also emphasized by brain research. Cognitive scientists, physiologists, educational psychologists and physical educators have strongly endorsed this view. Today more and more schools of education are incorporating the knowledge gained from brain research. Harvard University’s Mind, Brain and Education or MBE program produces postgraduates and doctors who eventually get engaged in interdisciplinary positions, both in research and practice.

A report by the National Research Council Committee in September 2006, on the state of K-8 science education, has determined that science instructions offered in schools today are outdated. These are predominantly based on research findings of about three to four decades early. The report offers groundwork for the next reforms and is based on the recent understandings of how children learn, and recommends a narrower and better focus on important areas of science. It seeks to improve professionalism among teachers and have each aspect of instruction and learning, better integrated with each other.

The Council’s Committee on Science Learning, responsible for science learning in kindergarten to eighth grade had reviewed both, the reforms undertaken in science education in the last decade and the recent understandings of learning and cognitive science. The committee emphasized that young children are capable of intricate thinking and that each student develops an individual understanding of the nature around him. It also stated that the current debate on the importance of teaching content versus teaching process skills, should be put aside and both be replaced by interweaved aspects of science expertise.

The committee has suggested that the curriculum, instruction and assessment should be properly integrated with the focus of fewer, central elements in each discipline, rather than surface level study of a wide topic. It points out that the current science education is based on relatively old assumptions. The current science education underestimates children’s ability of complex thinking and is more attributed to difficulty level in children rather than their ability.

For instructions to be successful, teachers need to have a sound understanding of the subject, know how to teach it effectively and also be familiar with the recent research on student learning (AIP, 2006). Proper, effective instructions can clear misunderstandings and bring understanding closer to perfect. The instructions should include student encounters with science in a sequentially designed and strategic way. Students identified as proficient in science must be capable of explaining the scientific perception of the natural world. They need to be capable of introducing andn analyzing scientific explanations, understand all aspects of scientific knowledge development, and participate in science-based exercises/discussions.

The role of philosophy in developing the intellectual skills of children has been widely acknowledged. The induction of philosophy into the high school academic curriculum is gaining momentum, emphasizing not only the importance of the subject among them, but also the capability of the children for philosophical thinking. Dr. Matthew Lipman (1991), a philosophy professor at Montclair State College in New Jersey, emphasized that bringing philosophy into schools would only enhance the educational experience of children.

The argument here was, philosophy could contribute to critical thinking, which is vital for all other subjects. Empirical evidence also shows that the cognitive and academic skill of children is vastly improved by teaching them reasoning skills early in life, banking on children’s natural inquisitiveness and sense of wonder. Obviously, such development would also contribute to the understanding of science and maths.

It is estimated that about half the secondary teachers in the United States quit teaching within five years. Studies on the selection and services of secondary science and maths teachers reveal their inhibitions of isolated profession, lack of mentoring and dwindled prospects (KSTF, 2005).

It is also important to address these issues, for the success of teaching and learning reforms. The new methods of education for school children, particularly for maths and science should reflect the latest research into children’s ability and brain functioning. Engaging children in philosophical dialogues, also contributes to their ability of sophisticated thinking.


American Institute of Physics. (AIP, 2006) NRC Report Finds Much of Current K-8 Science Teaching Outdated.  FYI Number 142: December 20, 2006 [Electronic Version] downloaded on 24th Feb. 2007 from https://www.aip.org/fyi/2006/142.html

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