That little children are gifted with sophisticated thinking capabilities and can solve problems like a hard-wired scientist has been documented by many studies. Instead of nurturing these talents and imparting other skills like logical thinking — so very essential for excelling in science — the system ends up blunting or even destroying what they already possess. The systemic problem can be traced to the way science is taught today in schools and colleges: through lecture-oriented, teacher-centric instruction. If this turns the students into passive learners, introducing “difficult concepts too early in the science curriculum” compels them to become rote learners and excellent reproducers of “boring, incomprehensible facts,” notes a recent editorial in Science. The system ensures that the joy of learning science is killed at an early stage. Learning by doing is regarded as one of the best ways of stimulating a child’s curiosity and interest in the subject. Unfortunately, the faulty system has corrupted even this avenue. The curriculum has laboratory-based ‘experiments’ that require students to blindly follow certain prescribed procedures to achieve some predetermined results. This is in stark contrast to open-ended experiments where students, like scientists, are required to raise a logical question and go about testing it in a scientific manner. This kind of a system that makes science enjoyable is neither practised nor encouraged in India.
A recent initiative by Science provides an ideal opportunity to undertake some vital course correction to inculcate interest in the subject. The journal has started publishing one inquiry-based activity a month; this will be continued for the next 15 months. The intent of the initiative is to “increase scientific literacy [and] impart a fundamental understanding of the nature of scientific investigation.” Aside from increasing scientific literacy, the modules, if properly used, can surely serve as a starting point for teachers and students to appreciate the power of learning through ‘real’ experiments. In the short term, institutes in India should focus on moving away from the teacher-centric education that is in vogue to a more active student-centric instruction. The merits of such learning have been demonstrated by none other than Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman at the University of British Columbia. In his study, the active learning group scored nearly double that of the passive group and outperformed it on all counts.