In Defense of Elementary School Science

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When I was a kid, I had the privilege of a private school education, where teachers were paid well enough and the school had enough funds for grade level administrators to think of ways for us kids to appreciate science.  I had the privilege of having science as the core of my education from elementary, right up to high school.  I had my Ladybird textbooks on everything from dinosaurs to how washing machines work, I had my encyclopedias, and I was able to spend countless hours away from the playground poring over astronomy textbooks in the library, or fiddling with microscopes in the science laboratory.  I had Dr. Beakman and Lester on TV. Science was fun.

To quote Richard Feynman, “I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something;” much of which, I owe to my elementary school science teachers.

But many Filipino schoolchildren don’t have that today, much less an assured education to speak of.  We owe them science; we owe them the way we’re taught and the lessons we learned from our days behind the school desk.

Now, thanks to the Department of Education, those kids won’t have the joy of science at all.  In a report by Asian Scientist, the DepEd has decided to drop Science from the basic curriculum of Grade 1 and 2 students, although the DepEd says that the subject has not been taught in public schools for the past 30 years..  Education Secretary Armin Luistro says that science will instead be integrated into other subjects; as a subject, Science will be taught when the child reaches Grade 3.

It’s fairly easy to be outraged at this matter, but based on the K-12 curriculum guide for science education, science is pretty much integrated into other subjects and subject matters until the third grade, where it becomes a subject on its own.  I’m not so sure how the most elementary ideas of botany and zoology and even human anatomy can be connected to things like say, civics and culture.  While I think that the DepEd is trying their best in improving the state of education given the extremely limited budget offered to them, I think that it’s a grave mistake for them to not offer Science for Grade 1 and 2 students, or at least postpone the subject matter until the third grade.

True: there is no practical value in studying “Ten Bones” in Grade 1, or seed structure in Grade 2.  The knee is not a “bone” per se, and none of us differentiate monocots and dicots when having a lunch of ginisang munggo.  While science does require some degree of memorization, the primary thrust of science education should be curiosity and discovery.  The practical value is not in our ability to grow the bean sprout from a dish full of cotton in the event of a zombie apocalypse, but the logic and critical thinking required to appreciate more complex concepts in more advanced subjects.  At the risk of a soundbite, science teaches rigor and inspires curiosity.

I agree with the Department of Education: science process skills are best learned in context.  But so are other important concepts, like nationalism, like the appreciation for literature, and language for that matter.  But what context can be gleaned from intertwining science knowledge with things like Sibika, English, or Filipino?  It doesn’t seem like “sound educational pedagogy” to postpone the pursuit of knowledge of nature’s most amazing secrets.  The great reward of science education isn’t in memorization of concepts, but in the application of knowledge, and thus, the appreciation of how things are the way they are.  It’s the scientific method that matters more than than say, plastic models of molecules, or differentiating commensals from parasites (more on the practical knowledge of that when I feel like it).

If science will continue to be taught by way of memorizing terms and concepts, then it will be difficult – and not child-friendly – to teach science.  If Science is taught with the lack of enthusiasm for the subject courtesy of a schoolteacher not equipped with the physical and emotional needs to teach a subject that requires enthusiasm, then Science will remain child-friendly.  And if Science is taught in decrepit classrooms where microscopes are merely concepts from obsolete and fraying textbooks, then science cannot be received well by children even as they grow older and face a world governed by science and reason.

The way I see it, we won’t face the problem of relegating science to the back burner of knowledge if we, as a nation, invested on education more.  This includes demanding for a higher share of the national budget going into the salaries of teachers and the equipment and the facilities needed to improve science education.  It’s about giving teachers the equitable salaries and training needed to teach science at a competent level.  It’s about providing students the resources and the skill set needed to view and interact with the world scientifically: to be, to quote an old PSYSC rhyme, “young scientists.”

More than that, it requires a more pragmatic view of education not as a way of learning concepts, but of discovering them and finding meaning in them.  I could go on about Paulo Freire at this point, but I digress.

In a way, the defense of retaining or offering science in the basic levels of elementary school is a defense of the public educational school system.  To invest in education is to invest in science.  And to invest in science is to invest in progress; to do that, we must invest in the education of our children.

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