Interview: “Our region has a strong debt with how to teach science to young people”

By 23/10/2020 News

We interviewed the Argentine scientist Melina Furman, master and doctor in education from Columbia University and a reference in Latin America and the Caribbean for specializing in addressing scientific education in the region. In addition, he was one of the leading figures who participated in the “Education for the Sciences” colloquium, within the Science in Motion cycle promoted by the CILAC Forum.

Melina Furman is a woman with a full scientific vocation and she demonstrates this with every idea she transmits. Apart from having graduated as a biologist, she dedicated her career to researching the different approaches to education in Science and Technology that work in the world and that promote the development of critical thinking in people. For this she obtained a Master's degree from Columbia University in New York, and later obtained her diploma from the same educational center as a Doctor in the subject. She is currently a researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) of Argentina and Associate Professor at the School of Education of the University of San Andrés, in that same country.

From a deep sensitivity, Furman spoke with UNESCO Montevideo to detail where the gaps are in Latin America and the Caribbean in terms of approaching science in educational terms, what the possible solutions are and what practices should be used to transform the paradigm. scientific educational, in order to update the way in which science is presented to young Latin Americans, from initial education to the most advanced levels of formal learning.

The outstanding specialist also participated on October 14 in the third colloquium of the cycle Science in Motion, which organizes the CILAC FORUM, entitled “Education for sciences”.

How is science taught in schools in the region today?

Clearly, our region has a strong debt with how to teach science to young people in the 21st century, to apply other ways of learning that, by the way, are highly supported by educational research and are very important to generate a taste for science and technology. scientific literacy, which is the great objective. These are activities that are more related to the experimental and with the possibility of generating observations of phenomena, drawing conclusions, working with data and being able to analyze cases and dilemmas, being able to debate and argue with evidence. All this work, which is related to generating thinking skills, is unfortunately very little present in the classrooms of Latin America and the Caribbean.

The current shared trend in science teaching in our region, on the other hand, is focused on the transmission of conceptual content and finished concepts. Facts and data related to the functioning of the natural world, for example, biophysics, chemistry, where teachers present and students take notes or ask questions.

Does this happen in other parts of the world or, if not, are there countries that have updated the science education paradigm?

It is a way of teaching that is not only found in Latin America and that many other regions have already surpassed it. In Europe, for example, the Nordic countries, Australia, Canada, and the United States, today they teach a more updated type of science that is more aligned with scientific practices. There, students are the protagonists in the construction of knowledge, they work collaboratively, explore phenomena, and carry out research. It is a more active and less encyclopedic teaching. It is not easy, it requires very trained teachers, but it is possible and the results are very good, really.

What are the indicators to visualize what levels of scientific thinking are incorporated into children/young people in this part of the world?

The best-known indicators are standardized assessments, both international and national. A very well-known one in Latin America is the one made by UNESCO that focuses on primary education and learning in natural sciences. He makes a comparison between different countries and the results show that the general level of scientific skills of the students is very low. There are high percentages of boys and girls who do not reach the expected levels.

The tests show the same PISA, which are those taken by the OECD to 15-year-old students and that specifically evaluate scientific competencies, apart from other areas. With proposals that involve thinking, analyzing, solving and that go beyond the mere enunciation of declarative knowledge. And in these evaluations, with some small differences between countries, in Latin America as a bloc we have low results.

What also shows the current state of the situation are the national evaluations and research that take a more qualitative look, where evaluations are carried out on teachers and interviews with students, etc. But the general picture always shows that there is much to strengthen.

What would be those new innovative scientific learning practices that should be incorporated into the teaching scheme?

More generic questions to all areas of more active learning. For example, work with metacognition, that is, with reflection on one's own learning. Or a work based on solving authentic real-life problems. It is necessary to rely more on technology, with a STEM approach, which proposes that science and technology can often be addressed in an integrated manner. All of this is supported by educational research, but we still have a lot to do to incorporate it into our classrooms.

In summary, practices are those that have to do with inquiry, as I told you before. That students can formulate researchable questions or work from questions given by the teacher, that they can do guided investigations of reality phenomena. It is also necessary to work with episodes from the history of science. I mean the stories. Through the narrative, “the kitchen” of the construction of scientific knowledge becomes visible and this allows students to see science from a more human and exciting side.

There is little work with socio-scientific dilemmas. Situations where scientific knowledge has a lot to contribute, and other fields of knowledge that are relevant to contribute to those discussions, where students learn to argue, to debate with justifications based on evidence.

Is there specific training for teachers to incorporate new practices into scientific teaching?

There is a lot of research on how to prepare teachers for this type of more innovative and powerful practices, which puts students in a more leading position. It has been proven, for example, that this must be strengthened in the initial training of future teachers. That spaces are available where they can develop didactic knowledge of content. This is not only learning about the topics from a conceptual perspective, but also from didactics, combined with didactics.

For example, what are the best ways to teach photosynthesis to a 10-year-old based on how children learn at that age? Basic ideas of photosynthesis, possible answers, complementary activities, etc. More importance must be given to teachers who are about to graduate so that they can strengthen the didactic approach through experiential and reflective activities, where they can experience more innovative teaching strategies firsthand, so that, later, they can put into play in their own classrooms.

It is also super important that future teachers, in their careers, can work with practicing teachers. That they can serve as good models and good practices. And build networks of schools that are doing interesting work that is inspiring for the teachers who are going to receive it.

How important is the training of teachers who have already been in practice for years?

Continuous training is key so that teachers can continue trying new ways of doing things with their own students and also build communities of practice where they can evaluate what they did: how it went, what can be done differently, analyze the work of the students to see what they are understanding and what they are not, how to reach all students and incorporate approaches that can recognize all the diversity that exists in the classrooms. This must also be strengthened in our region.

Does promoting or discouraging the scientific vocation fall solely on teachers?

Awakening the scientific vocation depends on several things. Of course, many times, there are family environments or personal interests that the children already bring with them. It also influences what culture we are in, how much science is valued in the society we live in. How much access is there to informal science education resources: TV programs, series, books, museums. Everything that is around the school is key to awakening that interest. We must continue to strengthen this in our region.

Of course what happens inside the classroom is determining. Especially in high school, for example. The way in which teachers present science is very important so that students feel that it can interest them, that it has a connection with what happens to them in real life and that, in truth, they can also do it for themselves. Many times the opposite happens, precisely, and students are made to feel that science is difficult, that it is boring, alien and that it is only for a few, not for everyone. A shame.

Should this new paradigm that you mention be contemplated, then, at all levels of the Latin American educational system?

This paradigm should begin in kindergarten, when the first rudiments of scientific thinking occur: there is a lot of curiosity and a lot of desire to explore. We have to take advantage of that momentum. And it is essential that it is sustained later in primary school and that it is also part of how it is taught in secondary school. It is a path that must have a lot of coherence between all levels and must occur in a sustained manner with teachers working in the same direction so that scientific literacy occurs, because it is really very important.

What would be the social benefits of a country that educates its children/young people from scientific thinking?

It is more than proven that a society that educates its children and young people in scientific thinking generates a citizenry that is much more prepared to face the great dilemmas that exist. The great global problems we have today: environmental, health, food. Individual and collective decisions that must be made with solid knowledge. And also citizens better prepared to discern and understand the information they receive. To know if what they read has evidence to support it or not, and to be susceptible to fake news, for example. All of this has been highlighted with the pandemic.

And I think that the other benefit, which is also very valid but is not discussed as much, is the fact of building a citizenry that enjoys knowledge. Who is interested in knowing how things work, who asks questions, who is curious and wants to learn all his life. The natural sciences are a very fertile ground to foster that curiosity that is so important for anyone who lives in this changing world.

Are you optimistic that Latin America and the Caribbean will be able to reverse this scenario in the short term?

It depends on the day you ask me. Sometimes yes and other times not so much. Reversing this scenario depends on several things. First, strengthen the teaching career, continuous training and offer better working conditions. In some countries such as Argentina or Uruguay, most secondary level teachers work in more than one school and do not have paid time to train or meet with their colleagues. They are paid for the time they are in front of the students. Management teams must be strengthened so that each school becomes a space for pedagogical innovation, removing bureaucratic burdens, giving them resources and autonomy. Reversing this requires investment in teacher training and resources for schools.

The investment must be translated into training programs, good teaching programs, policies to support teachers, accountability, and being able to evaluate how and what is done well.

It also implies realizing as a society that learning science and technology is essential to being a full citizen in today's world, for the life that boys and girls are going to live as adults. Here is something we can also do. Our educational systems sometimes, as there is so much to improve, feel that the priority is learning language and mathematics, and the natural and social sciences are left aside, when they are essential parts of the world. They are key fields of knowledge for the comprehensive training of children, as are art and sports. It is essential to put science as a priority in schools to achieve a population with critical thinking willing to continue learning throughout their lives.