Sharing Science in the Classroom: An Alternative Teaching Method

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Sharing Science in the Classroom: An Alternative Teaching Method

by Brenda Lansdown

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 11, No. 6, November/December 1979, p. 22—25

This article describes a teaching method observed in China in 1977. It is not known whether it reflects current practice, but we feel the teaching method is a valuable model.

In the High School—Facts and Social Relevance

The science lesson I observed in Shanghai in 1977 was on physics—electric circuits. The teacher had a demonstration board on the front desk and a diagram of the circuit on the blackboard. Most of the 54 students seemed eager to answer the questions as to what would happen if … Then the teacher performed the operation and the result (the bulb did or did not light) was explained and re-explained by various students. Those who did not understand said so and it was often the other students who supplied the reasoning. All showed patience in having everyone learn and understand.

But I had a question or two to ask myself. Why should students be interested in a basic electric circuit? Why should they want to watch while the teacher did the experimenting? What kept students wanting to answer questions the teacher raised instead of posing questions themselves and then trying to find answers?

I looked around. Outside the windows in the commune farm there were mosquito traps: long shaped light bulbs which attracted insects and then either electrocuted them or fried them on landing. (I do not know which!) The student whose desk I was sharing let me look at her textbook. There! There on the open page was the connection which began to tie things together for me. The mosquito trap was pictured and alongside it the blackboard diagram.

So—the science lesson was both useful and meaningful to the lives of the students; they were making connections between theory and the practical needs of the commune. However, what could these young people do? Could they fix broken wires or analyze a mosquito trap which didn’t work?

Later we visited the commune shops where students spent two months full time each year engaging in actual production. In one shop the students were producing electric circuits. In another classroom they were experimenting with circuits or repairing electric motors. So there I had some answers. Theory, hands-on practice and social needs all intertwined, all meaningful and important to the students’ lives. I was told, too, that workers from industry come to the classrooms to tell how what they learned in school has been helpful to them in the factory work, for, after all, it is the workers themselves who design the way production proceeds.

The Method of Thinking

Another question occurred to me. Is the teaching method optimum for achieving the large. goals, goals on the forefront of industry where workers have to face new problems, think up creative answers, and test their solutions in the field?

There are really two aspects in every course of study: the content and the method of thinking. The whole of these students’ society certainly supplied the rationale for the content offered, but what about the method of thinking which the physics lesson conveyed? Facts came from the teacher, they were introduced and illustrated by his manoeuvers. Students tried to find the right explanations for what they observed. They helped each other understand preconceived concepts.

Is there anything wrong or limiting with this approach? To answer this, one has to select criteria. While in most countries of the world, the method of thinking conveyed by school teaching is not analyzed (indeed it is not often discussed although it exists forcefully), in the People’s Republic of China the method of thinking is paramount. It is known as Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) Thought, Mao’s adaptation of Marxist-Leninist thinking to the history and needs of the Chinese revolution.

There are many facets to Mao Zedong Thought. Some of these are: unity of theory and practice, relevance to the needs of workers and peasants, the belief that everyone can learn and be helped to understand. So far, no problem with the physics lesson. Let’s look at another lesson I observed, one on politics.

In the Junior High School

A junior high school class was presented with a quotation from the works of Mao. On the board the teacher wrote: “Why is it important to distinguish friends from enemies?” The teacher explained the assignment briefly. Then the students from each double desk made groups of four by turning around or joining the couple in back or in front of them. The students had evidently read what Mao Zedong had to say on the subject. Now each one shared with his or her companions examples of what the quotation meant in their own lives, where they had experienced the acts of friends or enemies. The discussions were lively with everyone contributing. Toward the end of the lesson one member from each group reported (very fluently) to the rest of the class a summary of the ideas which had been generated; it was a synthesis of the group’s process. The teacher then asked whether the others agreed or not.

The Lessons Compared

In what ways is this lesson on politics similar to and different from the one on physics?

The content of both lessons was rooted in the students’ experiences, the method of both lessons provided for student-student interchange, but the method of thinking conveyed by each lesson was different.

The facts of the physics lessons came from the teacher as did the questions. The students learned and explained according to a pre-conceived correct pattern. The facts of the politics lesson came from the students’ own experiences as did the questions they asked each other. There was a pooling of knowledge from reading and shared experiences. The physics lesson aimed at having each student understand certain facts and relationships, the politics lesson aimed at having the students discover facts and relationships and then create a new whole by summarizing the collective experiences. In both lessons the teacher had chosen the area and concepts within which the lesson was focused. In the physics lesson these were the dynamics of electricity, in the politics lesson they were the dynamics of a socialist society, but within the provided focus, the methods of thinking differed. In the physics lesson the facts and relationships were given from authority: the role of the learners was to be able to repeat and explain correctly. In the politics lesson the learners learned from each other, putting their experiences into their own words, fitting these to the shared experiences. There were no right answers from authority but a correctness of interpretation agreed upon by the group, a whole cluster of possible answers.

I pointed out the differences to a friendly science teacher who acted as my guide and interpreter. She agreed that the methods of the politics lesson were better but she explained that the country had not yet had time to work on an overall change of teachers’ habits and long used methods.

Importance of the Method of Thinking

This problem assumes major importance at present in the current drive to increase interest and skill in science all over the country. So far as I know, until recently there was little science taught in the elementary school. Let us see how the method of teaching which conveyed the thinking of the politics class would work out in a science lesson. The principle can apply to any level of teaching, but we will illustrate from an elementary school level where a similar lesson on circuits is well within the grasp of children aged nine or ten. It is the principle of the method which makes the transfer possible.

Investigation and Colloquium

In science we call this type of lesson “Investigation-Colloquium.” Investigation is provided by first-hand contact with materials which by their potential interactions are related to important science concepts. The colloquium is a verbal sharing of perceptual experiences, a collective discussion about contradictions all expressed by the learners; the group searches for possible solutions, not previously decided. This all leads to collective future action. The teacher’s role is one of helping to pinpoint the contradictions as expressed by the learners and giving everyone a chance to contribute, to think together. The teacher does not give answers, but helps with vocabulary, asks questions which have many possible answers (not just a “right” one) and so encourages creative thinking.

Principles and Applications of the Investigation and Colloquium Method

Each principle is followed by an application to a science lesson in elementary school.

1. The teachers or workers committee has to decide which science concept is to be the focus of study, and in what ways this is relevant to the social context of the students.

A lesson on circuits would be chosen because it introduces part of the electromagnetic phenomena of the universe, an aspect of the basic concepts of mass, energy as well as of life. It would be assumed that the children had some experience with electric lights and perhaps electric generators in their commune.

2. A common experience has to be provided so that the students can think together. The experience is provided through free experimentation with materials whose interactions present the concept to the senses in a variety of ways.

The common experience is the crux of the lesson to generate the kind of thinking we are talking about. It really requires that each child has access to carefully selected materials with which to experiment freely. In this case a group of two, three or four children would sit around a table on which were dry cells, copper wires, some flashlight bulbs and some kind of sticky tape with which to hold things together. The only instructions needed are: “See if you can make the light light”. That is really all. It invariably works. Children are highly motivated and very ingenious.

3. The group then is able to share each person’s perceptions of the experience. This sharing usually reveals problems and contradictions, either in the perceptions or in the experiences themselves.

After each group has achieved success the teacher arranges for a verbal sharing period. This is where we learn that the children have discovered many, many different phenomena. Some will say that the wires got hot, others will say they didn’t. A contradiction! Further sharing of facts shows that when electric energy (the teacher supplies this phrase) is doing work like lighting the bulb, the copper wires do not get hot. When there is a “short circuit” and no work done, the copper wires do get hot, by turning the electric energy into heat energy. Many other problems are revealed. The wires have to be connected firmly. Isn’t there a better way to hold them than with sticky tape? Two dry cells make the light brighter, two lights on one dry ceil have a dimmer light. And so on and so on. Problems and contradictions galore, many solved by more careful observation or more sharing of each other’s experiences.

4. The nature of the problems and/or contradictions has to be reduced to objective statements upon which everyone can agree. 

The learnings can be agreed upon and stated clearly. The residual problems need to be stated also by collective agreement.

5. Solutions to the problems are sought by reading, by asking other sources, or by further concrete investigation. 

6. The group pools various ideas oft heir own which may be original or adaptations of the resources. 

7. An explanation or plan of action is agreed upon.

5,6,7. Older children can read or ask adults about the remaining problems, then return to another lesson. But this can also be a lesson for which the teacher brings in additional materials to provide more experiences.

Investigation-colloquium as a way of teaching science closely parallels the politics lesson: a basic common experience, a sharing of ideas and relevant perceptions interpretations, and a summary of the collective creative thoughts.

Investigation-colloquium teaching brings into the classroom a procedure by which Mao Zedong Thought can be applied to substantial academic subject matter. It parallels not only the procedures used by many forefront scientists but also the study procedures by which members of communes and factories do their after-work study and solve problems of their work life. In these sessions everyone states the problem as he/she sees it. These statements are then refined until only the objective facts are left and these again are related in a statement which voices the problem and the contradictions.

For adults and older children there can be a search into the literature and from experts to learn where similar problems have been addressed. The younger children follow their sessions with reading and then with further investigation on additional materials supplied by the teacher. For example the circuit lesson might be followed by one in which additional materials would lead to discovery of what type of wires allow electrical energy to flow through and what type of materials heat up.

To complete the training in Mao Zedong Thought a few more aspects have to be incorporated: that of history based on class struggle and emphasis on dialectic change. Of course experience in a related industrial set-up and repairing simple appliances is optimum. All this is more readily achieved in a socialist society than in one not yet arrived at in a nonexploitive system. All aspects of investigation-colloquium science teaching with its trend toward Mao Zedong Thought are as applicable to the biologic as to the physical sciences, and indeed to all other areas of the school curriculum.

The Vital Importance of Addressing the Method of Thinking

Thinking that emphasizes learning from authority is a teaching method from feudalistic tradition. Thinking that emphasizes the role of the individual is a prime example of the capitalistic mode of teaching. Any society inherits the left-over traits or characteristic thinking methods of the previous social order. Mao Zedong was eternally aware of this. In the Soviet Union where new content after the revolution was taught by authoritarian methods people had difficulty changing. Societies that can prepare children for leadership in social orders where the world’s goods are more evenly distributed, and where collective living is the foundation, should have the foresight to teach methods of thinking and problem solving in anticipation of this new social order. Indeed, they have an obligation to do so.

In the people’s Republic of China where thinking is a primary concern and where science is now on the ascendant in the curriculum, a concern for new methods of teaching science might well be embraced.


Many examples of sets of materials which motivate the type of thinking being discussed as well as verbatim accounts of “colloquia” by children of all ages and social backgrounds are given in the book: Teaching Elementary Science Through Investigation and Colloquium by Brenda Lansdown, Paul Blackwood and Paul Brandwein, N.Y. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (1971)

In several areas where there is concern to develop in children a type of thinking which will equip them to solve some of the problems of the future. Investigation-Colloquium science teaching has been adopted in several cities in the USA, Canada and Ghana.

Brenda Lansdown is the originator of the Investigation and Colloquium method of teaching. She has taught at the City University of New York in Brooklyn and at Harvard University.

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