Science Brought Alive in the Classroom

In both the classes that I observed, I noticed that Mithun was acting mostly as a guide and facilitator, rather than as a sage dispensing knowledge. The lessons were embedded into the context of the students, built around the life of students and the environment in which they played around and lived. He says that he strives to make all concepts as concrete and as visual as possible for the students.

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Teacher: Mithun Patel
School: Government Upper Primary School, Belaria, Chhattisgarh

Like many non-descript villages spread across India, Belaria is a small habitation, located near Raigarh, the capital of Chhattisgarh. The village sits on the border between Chhattisgarh and Orissa and is not connected by any means of public transport. The nearest bus stop is about 8 km away on the Raigarh-Jharsuguda highway.

The narrow mud road from the highway towards the village winds through huge trees, vast agricultural land, scattered villages with old houses, aged men and women sitting on the roadside and young children running about. These sights make one wonder what the state of schooling would be in these interior areas which are not yet touched by what many would call modern development’. Yet, while travelling through this road in the morning, one is greeted by a very encouraging sight of young boys and girls, dressed smartly in school uniforms on cycles going to school. At the end of the road is Belaria, a few meters from where one can cross over into Odisha.

Most of the inhabitants of the village are either dependant on agriculture, occasional fishing during the rainy season or work at the Jindal steel plant. There are about 60 families, most of them belonging to the socio-economically disadvantaged section.

The school

The school is located just at the entrance of the village. It is surrounded by a boundary wall encompassing about 1.5 acres of land. The school complex has three single-storey buildings, one which is used for office and classrooms of the upper primary (UP) classes, another building houses the primary classes and the third building is for the Anganwadi. Altogether there are about 14 rooms which are used variously as classrooms, teachers’ room and for assembly. There is no separate laboratory. There is also a shed which is used to prepare the mid-day meal. The school has a plentiful supply of water from an adjacent water tank. It also has separate toilets for boys and girls. There is a large playground in the middle of the school.

There are about 60 students in the school, studying in classes I to VII. The students are all well-dressed, in the light-blue and navy-blue school uniform, many of them with a tie and footwear. The school has a team of eight teachers, including the Headmaster. Mithun Patel is the science teacher.

The teacher

Mithun belongs to Kotra (Rajnandgaon District, Chattisgarh), where he completed schooling. He did his graduation from Kirodimal Government Arts and Science College, Raigarh in Physics and subsequently B Ed from Guru Ghasidas University, Bilaspur. He became a teacher in the Baleria school in 2013.

Mithun had an interest in teaching from a young age. He used to take tuitions for school students when he was in college which is when he realized that he had an inclination and temperament to teach. He followed this motivation and became a teacher. Schein (1978) identifies several career anchors. Career anchor refers to certain talents/​skills/​temperament/​inclinations/​motivations that drive an individual in making career choices. Career anchors include security, functional competence, managerial competence, creativity and autonomy. Mithun was driven by functional competence; he chose teaching because he liked science and wanted to share his love for the subject with his students. The pre-service education that he obtained also helped in crystallizing his interest in teaching as a career.

Chhattisgarh has three types of school teachers – Panchayat teachers, local body teachers, and teachers working under the state government. Panchayat teachers are those appointed by the Panchayat. Local Body (LB) teachers include Assistant-LB (teaching in primary schools), Teacher-LB (those teaching in UP schools) and Lecturer-LB (those teaching in high school and senior secondary schools). Teachers working directly under the state government are called UDT- Upper Division Teachers. Mithun is a Panchayat teacher.

The Baleria UP school is Mithun’s second school as a teacher. When appointed to the school, he faced a daunting task — he was the first science teacher to be appointed to the school in more than a decade.

Challenges faced

Being the first science teacher posed some challenges, both at a personal level as well as with his students. Personally, he admits that he underwent a transformation of sorts in the school. As a new teacher, he had to change his pedagogy to enhance student learning. In his earlier days, he tried to teach by lecturing. When he realized that it his students were not learning, he tried to change his method of teaching, which was a challenge in itself. The school was also not well equipped for science teaching. It did not have basic science equipment, let alone a science laboratory. The students also lacked interest in learning science because of the absence of a science teacher for a prolonged period of time.

Pedagogy

Mithun analysed the situation in the school, his own teaching practices, and students, then, began to work on improvement. He decided to improvise his methods of teaching and found that activities created an interest among the students and also improved their learning. Having learned about activity-based learning during his pre-service education, and having attended some training programs, he decided to try it out. In his own words, he decided to bring science to life in the classrooms’.

Mithun explained that students learn well when they are happy (joyful) and they are joyful when they have something to do with their hands, something with which they can play, feel, touch, make, experience etc. Moreover, they are interested when the lessons in the classroom are connected to their own surroundings. He says that his job is to provide students with activities and playful experiences which will make them interested and joyful and will result in learning. By doing activities in class, Students get involved. They do not feel that they are learning. Learning becomes play for them. Activities are very essential in science. They help the students to visualize science concepts, for example, the magnetic field of attraction, magnetic poles, plant growth, etc.’

A case in point is the class that I sat through. I saw a few plastic glasses containing water and onions placed on the edge of the glasses. A student in the class explained that they were observing the growth of the root and shoot of the onion over a period. The students observed and measured the length of the root and the shoot and tabulated the same in their notebooks. This gave them an understanding of the process of plant growth. The students pointed out that the roots of some onions did not grow after a certain length because they had cut off the root tip. The understanding that the students gained was that the root tip produced substances which helped in its growth.

Focus on relationship with students also makes a difference, says Mithun. He is friendly and warm with the students makes sure that they can walk up to him and ask him anything. He feels that when a teacher is friendly, the doubts and questions in the minds of students are expressed freely.

Here, we can see that Mithun is trying to focus on the learner, learning process and the learning environment, which Mithun says is an ever-evolving process of improvisation. Understanding the learners was the first thing he tried to improve upon. Since he has been teaching the same cohort of students, over a period of about five years, he has understood his students well. He knows them all by name, their family, their interests, what they are good at and the special abilities of each student like drawing, singing, games, etc. He also knows the right students who can procure the material (like plants, fruits, rocks, bottles, etc.) to be used in the classroom. Most of the teaching aids he uses in the classroom have been procured locally with low/​no cost.

Mithun admits that in the initial years, it was tough to create a joyful classroom and meaningful activities which could improve learning. But, as he says, I have improved from than last year’, he believes in steady progress on these aspects. Over the years, he has built a repertoire of activities to teach. He says that building activities that are suitable for the students is a daunting task. But the task was made easier by the students themselves, who came up with ideas and material. Students have a basic curiosity about the world around them and they also have explanations of what they see around. Therefore, a good number of the activities were built with the contribution of the students themselves.

Mithun is also an active member of the PTA. He makes sure that he interacts with the parents of his students on a regular basis. He, along with the team of teachers, visit the homes of the students, especially those who are absent frequently. He is also in touch with the students who pass out of the school, providing career guidance whenever needed.

Collaboration with the Foundation

The collaboration with the Azim Premji Foundation has been immense in helping the teacher build a conducive learning environment and effective learning processes. Mithun visits the Teaching Learning Centre (TLC) at Raigarh when Block level meetings are held and to use the library and the resources available. The discussions with other teachers provide valuable inputs in improvising the teaching-learning process. The Resource Person from the TLC often visits the school and conducts demonstrations and experiments which the students love.

Some observations

Over the last five years, Mithun has improved his pedagogical practices. The day I visited the school, he was teaching the topic classification’. It was a continuation of the previous day’s class. Each student was asked to name something in the environment – rocks, plants, animals – and describe its properties. His job was just that of a facilitator: asking questions and noting down the responses of the students on the blackboard. The students took turns in naming and describing whatever they saw around them. At the end of the class, the students were themselves able to classify things as non-living and living; and the living as fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals (the terms, of course, were provided by the teacher).

Another class which I visited was learning about acids and bases. The students themselves had bought a good number of substances which they then dissolved in water and tested with the litmus paper and identified them as either acids or bases. In both the classes that I observed, I noticed that Mithun was acting mostly as a guide and facilitator, rather than as a sage dispensing knowledge. The lessons were embedded into the context of the students, built around the life of students and the environment in which they played around and lived. He says that he strives to make all concepts as concrete and as visual as possible for the students.

During our conversations, I learnt that Mithun’s classes were not the same when he started teaching as a novice teacher. Back then, the classes were mostly lecturing or one-way conversations. He noticed that the students were not learning much, and the classes were boring; and unconnected to the lives of the students living in the rural areas. This observation of the learning outcomes of the student and self-reflection of his own classroom practices made him reconsider his instructional strategies. Gradually, he developed instructional strategies and classroom practices which were more interactive, more activity-based and therefore, more child-centric. This was further enabled by the in-service support provided by the TLC, the in-service programs run by the government and interaction with peers that helped him gradually develop classroom practices which made science learning effective, relatable and meaningful to the students.

One of the interesting observations about his classes was that students did not hesitate to speak up. They corrected and corroborated with examples their answers, asking a lot of questions and counter questions. The teacher was patient in answering the questions and in many cases, the question from the student would be answered by a question from the teacher, which made the classes really interactive. Though this would seem chaotic and noisy to an observer outside the class, in reality, science was alive, and learning was progressing. Every student was made to feel that their opinion mattered. One reason for this, though, is the small number of students in the class.

Other observation is that students worked in pairs/​teams. Whether it was filling up a worksheet, describing something, drawing etc. working in teams was encouraged.

Apart from science, Mithun also teaches English to the primary school students. He says that these students are first-generation school-goers of English and hence, the added difficulty. Till class V, he has to teach them alphabets and simple words. The students in class V, for example, could not distinguish between r’ and s’, b’ and d’ etc. It has taken a lot of consistent effort on the part of the teacher to teach simple written English. The only resource available to teach English is the textbooks provided by the government – no newspaper or magazine is available in the village. One interesting way in which he helps the students to speak English is through stories. Students of class V and above are asked to narrate parts of stories in as much English as possible. This has helped the students to speak simple English words to some extent.

Testimonials

I spoke to the Head Master of the school who was all praise for the young teacher. He said that students really love their science teacher. If any teacher is absent, the students come up to the HM and request him to allot the class to Mithun sir. This speaks volumes about his work. The HM also tells us that Mithun is active in all co-curricular activities, participating alongside the students. A student mentioned, If Mithun sir does not come to school, we feel bored’.

I took a walk into the village around the school. Almost all the children in the village, from the children of farm labourers to factory workers study in the school. I asked a few villagers what they think of the school. The unanimous opinion was in favour of the school and its teachers. Just abutting the school was the house-cum-office of the village Registered Medical Practitioner (RMP) with whom I had a chat. I asked him about the school and the teacher. He told me how the current team of teachers had improved the quality of the school in the recent past. If there was a good team of teachers like this earlier, my children would have been scientists or doctors,’ he said.

Acknowledgement

I sincerely thank the teacher, Mithun Patel for spending time with us and sharing his experiences. I also thank the HM of the school for permitting me to visit the school and interact with the teachers and students. This work would not have been possible without the support of Rakesh Kumar, Resource Person, at Raigarh, who facilitated the entire visit.

Author:

Alex Joy teaches Science Education and Teacher Education at the Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.