Conceptual clarity – why it is important in primary education?

School students are perpetually battered with the burden of ‘syllabus completion’ right from the ‘ripe’ age of 6-7 years. This ‘syllabus-gospel’ that schools and teachers stick to is hugely driven by the content in textbooks. There is no dearth of the number and variety of textbooks available in the market for schools to choose from.

There is also the unfortunate reality that the quality of the textbooks is rated by the number of pages and hence by the quantity of content that is crammed into those pages, rather than the meaning of that content. This has been a pet peeve for me for the entire length of my learning and teaching experience.

I do not necessarily dispute the accuracy of the scientific facts detailed in the textbooks, the facts are usually accurate enough. However, the crucial element in gaining a deeper conceptual clarity is ‘context’ and that is what is missing in these text books. The context is crucial because, without it, the content remains at the superficial level and if the teacher is not competent and motivated enough to fill in the missing context, misconceptions may be carried on for the rest of the students’ academic journey. This is the reason that college students often carry misconceptions about fundamental science concepts because they have learnt the content, but not attained depth in conceptual clarity through exploring the context.

This gap is a combination of how content is presented in textbooks, how teachers deliver the content and how school curriculum is treated by educators and the general public alike.

Let me illustrate this with instances from my own experience.

Textbook content:

In fifth or sixth-grade science textbooks, the concept of matter is typically presented in the following form.

Matter is anything that has mass and occupies space. It exists primarily in three states – solid, liquid and gas. The properties of solids, liquids, and gases are:

Property

Solid

Liquid

Gas

Shape Definite Not definite Not definite
Volume Definite Not definite Not definite
Flow Does not flow Does flow Does flow
Compressibility Not compressible Not compressible Compressible
Particle arrangement (usually accompanied by a graphical representation) Tightly packed Fairly loosely packed Very loosely packed

 

While factually all the above information is accurate, the problem is that the macroscopic and microscopic properties are listed together with no distinction. The observable macroscopic properties of shape, volume, flow, and compressibility are a result of the microscopic characteristic of particle arrangement. Without this context, students simply assimilate everything in the same framework, which will lead to misconceptions when more complex concepts (atomic structure, quantum mechanics) are introduced later.

Personal learning experience:

When a student of Chemistry is introduced to the stereo-chemistry of cyclohexane, the chair and boat forms make an appearance. The distinction between these two forms and the advantages and disadvantages of both these forms make an important part of the study of stereo-chemistry. Although this concept is first introduced in 10th or 11th grade, I did not completely understand the importance of these structures until my second year in Masters’, when my excellent professor brought a 3D model of cyclohexane to class and showed us how one form could change to the other. That was the first time I ‘saw’ the position of Hydrogen atoms; something I had never been able to visualise before in my mind from the dotted and bold bonds in the textbooks. That was also the time I realised that I was a visual learner when it came to converting 2D diagrams to 3D space. Now, my college Chemistry professors were excellent, and they were my key motivators to pursue Chemistry in my higher education, but this 2D to 3D visualisation was a context that I struggled with all through my college years.

Attitude towards teaching:

A few years ago, I was interviewing candidates for the position of Science teacher at my organisation. One candidate was a confident software engineer who wanted to enter the teaching field. His justification for his competence to teach basic science to school students was that he was an engineer and he could read the school textbook content competently enough to teach. In other words, his knowledge of basic science was limited to the textbook content. He had chosen the concept of ‘Elements and Compounds’ for his demo. What followed was a gruelling one-hour session at the end of which the candidate came to the conclusion that ‘reading’ the content was not enough to be a good teacher.

This is another pet peeve for me. People deign to think that “I have studied the same Science and Maths in school, I can read it up again and teach. How hard can it be?” This kind of cockiness is what leads to sub-par quality of teachers. People often ask me why I chose to work in school education after working hard to earn a doctorate in Chemistry, isn’t it below my potential? I believe that if my advanced education has taught me anything, it is this – every learning experience is a step in a student’s educational journey and if I can make a difference in even one step of one student’s journey, it is worth it. Also, when I need to strengthen the life of a building, where better to focus than the foundation!

Our motto in NumberNagar® is “Learn it right the first time” and I whole-heartedly believe in this. When you learn fundamental concepts right the first time, there is more time and mind-space to learn, un-learn and re-learn new things. I appeal to students, teachers, and parents to focus on the depth of conceptual understanding rather than assimilating loads of content. The learning will then be stronger and longer-lasting.

Featured image credits: harishs/pixabay/creativecommons

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Dr. Soumya Sreehari

Dr. Soumya Sreehari

Co-Founder and Specialist at NumberNagar®
Dr. Soumya is an Educator and Researcher with a passion for reading, writing and teaching. She is the believer and executor at NumberNagar®. She cares deeply about Education and Science Communication. She strongly advocates uncompromised quality in everything she does.

2 Replies to “Conceptual clarity – why it is important in primary education?”

  1. Fantastic Article. Makes a lot of sense and Kudos to Number Nagar. I am sure many will follow Number Nagar in the coming days.
    Good luck to the entire team.

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