Tackling science as a process of inquiry

How many states of matter are there? If you answered three, you're wrong - for there are at least five.

And like you, generations have grown up learning "science facts" which may get them full marks in school, but are either incomplete, or simply inaccurate.

Academics and educators say that while topics must be made simple so children can understand basic concepts, teachers need to give pupils room to discover in a more complex way later on. If not, the myths persist into adulthood.

Dr Abel Yang, who teaches physics and astronomy to undergraduates at the National University of Singapore (NUS), says teachers need to show children that science is a process of learning, rather than just accumulation of facts.

"Science is a framework for us to objectively understand the world, and a very important part about it is experimentation," he said.

"It's about layering knowledge upon knowledge, starting with basics, backing up with experiments and moving on to the next level to expand those theories."

National Junior College chemistry teacher Harman Johll noted that some misconceptions can affect students' understanding of topics later on.

In primary school, for instance, pupils who start learning science formally in Primary 3 represent solids, liquids and gases with circles closer or farther apart, depending on the strength of interactions between particles in each state.

Then in secondary school they learn that atoms are the basic particles of matter. So one mistake students make is to think a circle represents an atom, when it is actually just a symbol representing a concept.

"This could have implications on how they understand physical and chemical properties of materials," Mr Johll added. "Teachers need to clarify concepts from the start, and sometimes across topics, because science doesn't work in silos."

When contacted, an Education Ministry spokesman said that students learn what is "developmentally appropriate" for their level.

"At lower levels, students learn simple concepts but progress to develop a deeper and more complete understanding of these concepts at higher levels," she said.

Associate Professor Rajdeep Singh Rawat, deputy head of research and postgraduate matters, speaking on behalf of academics at the National Institute of Education's Natural Sciences and Science Education Academic Group, pointed out too that that there are different levels of scientific literacy for everyday or expert use.

Science Centre Singapore chief Lim Tit Meng also emphasised the importance of questioning.

"It's important to tell kids that science is a process of inquiry - that's why we do research - and it requires you to have an open mind."

This was a lesson that has stuck with Mr Johll since Secondary 3 - one of the first things his science teacher told the class was: "What I teach you may in 10 years' time not be true, or may be proven by someone else to be wrong."

How the subject is taught in Singapore schools has come under fire in recent months, with parents complaining that their children are taught to memorise answers, and are penalised unfairly for answers that do not contain the right "keywords".

Said Mr Johll: "Sometimes teaching science concepts tends to be rigid, but teachers need to communicate to students that science is a malleable subject."

Dr Ling Shuo-Chien, an assistant professor at the department of physiology at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, said that scientific inquiry could be taught through processes like observing and coming to conclusions.

"We should push students to think about things they may not usually notice," he said.

"I wouldn't be so fixated on what's true or wrong, because knowledge keeps progressing. We don't know what will happen 20 years from now."

Associate Professor Lim added that the Science Centre tries to help pupils understand basic science principles through workshops tailored to suit their age, which address mistaken notions and explain findings such as why Pluto is no longer a planet, for example.

Dr Yang added that since young children do not have much scientific background, "you can't unleash the secrets of the universe on them". That is why primary colours are taught as blue, red and yellow - which children are probably familiar with - instead of the more accurate trio of cyan (greenish-blue), magenta (purplish-red) and yellow.

As Mr Johll pointed out: "The challenge for primary school teachers is to strike a balance.

"That process of questioning students' assumptions and interacting with them to clarify what they're thinking, or addressing flaws in pictorial representations, is important."

And while in-depth scientific knowledge is not a must for all jobs, some knowledge is always a plus.

"We should know enough so that we can make sense of things that we come across," he said.

"Having some appreciation of science helps us know how the world around us works."


This article was first published on July 3, 2015.
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