An attempt to let pupils decide what to learn

My Ghanaian Experience

Adapted from an article in LSMTA Science and Maths News, Volume 25, November 1992

Teaching at Bishop Herman College, Kpandu, Volta Region, Ghana
In 1967 I started as a beginning Physics teacher in this Roman Catholic boarding school for boys. Initially I was given the examination classes, because I was considered the "highest qualified" teacher, in spite of my lack of experience. The boys passed their examination, but I still struggled with two common problems:
     1.  Why don't the pupils understand what science is really about? and
     2.  Are the topics I have to teach relevant to the pupils?
As a survival technique the pupils expected notes from me, which they could cram for the examinations.

Only after I had proved myself as a teacher, I had the courage to insist on teaching the lowest classes. I hoped that I could provide them with a good foundation, so that they should find learning Physics easier in the higher classes. That would solve my first problem, but what about the relevance of the topics?

At that time the school followed a General Science Syllabus up to O-level, which integrated Biology, Chemistry and Physics topics. The school had decided that the first three years were meant to lay the foundation of understanding science, while the examinable syllabus was studied during years 4 and 5. There was a syllabus for the first three years proposed by the Ministry of Education, divided into seemingly relevant topics: Water, Air, Sun, The Universe, Life and Force & Energy.

But still the pupils saw science as a strange body of facts to be memorized. I decided to change my approach and allow the pupils to be the decision makers.

I asked the pupils what they wanted to learn:
Because those young pupils were still full of curiosity, I expected they would be interested in scientific problems. Therefore, I decided to start by explaining to the pupils what kind of questions science tries to find answers to, such as: Why can I see my face in the mirror? What causes rain? Then I asked them whether they had any similar questions. They reacted quickly and each of them came up with a great number, which we all recorded on the blackboard. We categorized them under 4 headings: Water, Light & Sound, Heat and Electromagnetism. We then decided to start with their questions related to the category of Water.

I asked the pupils what they know about water, but.... they must prove it! The pupils came up with many "facts", such as Water is wet; Water boils at 100°; and All animals need water. I then asked them to prove their answers, saying: I don't believe you easily!
This lead to interesting discussions:

How do you prove that water is wet? We came to the conclusion that something is wet when it feels cold, after you have removed your hand from it. This lead to experiments on evaporation and latent heat, but we did not use these technical terms.

To prove that water boils at 100° the pupils asked for a thermometer and found it boils at 98° (the atmospheric pressure is lower at the equator!) They had learned at Primary School that it boils at 100°. This was, therefore, an important discovery: In Science the only judge for truth is what nature tells you. You should not just believe your teacher or books.

The statement that all animals need water, lead to discussions about: What is an animal? Can we do experiments with all animals? Why would they need water? At the end we did not do any experiments, because pupils thought it cruel to take an animal and let it die of thirst. This lead to discussions on the ethical side of scientific experiments.

The pupils used books, but they didn't just believe them: they did experiments.
The school did not have a first class library, but there were encyclopaedias and various books on Science. The problem was: which books can be trusted? We decided only to use those books, which described some experiments, which we could repeat ourselves. If those experiments worked out, then we could be confident that the other facts in the books could be correct too.
The lessons took place in a laboratory, so that we could quickly assemble the experiments, the pupils asked for.

The pupils developed their own experiments. One example:
When dealing with the topic sound, the pupils wanted to prove that sound travels through glass. I thought about using an electric bell inside a glass bottle. Fortunately, I resisted this temptation and the pupils proposed to put inside the bottle a cricket, which they caught just outside the laboratory. We heard no noise, so I asked them: Does this prove that sound doesn't travel through glass? The pupils had their doubts and said: How do we know that the cricket is making noise? They decided to go out again and collected another male cricket: Because they will fight! And soon a horrible shrieking noise from the bottle filled the room. You should have seen their smiles: they were real scientists now DOING Science and drawing the conclusion that sound can travel through glass.

The pupils found the answers to their own questions.
After we had discussed, proved or disproved, the "facts" they thought they knew, we used that knowledge to find answers to their own scientific questions. The pupils had learned by now how to use books and experiments. They found their own answers.
After their questions in the category Water were dealt with, we moved to the other categories.

Short term result: In Science the only judge for "truth" is what nature tells us
As a teacher, I did no scheming or lesson planning. I had to be flexible, creative and trust the natural curiosity of the pupils.
At the end of the year the examination time came, while we were still in the middle of an experiment about how light makes starch in the leaves of plants. I said: We have no time to finish this experiment, therefore, I will tell you what the result will be. The whole class protested: You said that we should only trust our own eyes, so how can we accept what you tell us now? Great!

Medium term result: in one year we covered the nearly the whole three-year syllabus
It was interesting to compare what we had done during that ONE year with the official syllabus. I found that we had covered most of the topics of the three-year syllabus. The pupils had, however, not learned the technical science terminology. They had invented their own words and I did not see any reason to change those at this stage, as long as they could communicate their findings. In examinations too much emphasis is put on terminology, because it is easier to test than the understanding of science.

Long-term results?
The results were very encouraging, but one long-term effect was bad:
I left the school the next year to come to Lesotho. Quite a number of pupils wrote to me, complaining that the science they were doing was so boring.
Yet, when I visited Ghana again after 20 years and met some of my old pupils and colleagues, I was told that the science examination results four to six years after I had left were very high. That was when those Form A pupils did their O- and A-level examinations. Would it be immodest to feel some satisfaction about that?

Conclusion: we can trust learners to shape their own studies
This experiment has given me the courage to trust learners to be in control of their own studies.

Gerard Mathot
Chairperson of the Steering Committee

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