With a little help they can see the light

It took me two weeks to prepare an hour-long lesson on the subject of refraction for Grade 8 science students in a rural township school outside Worcester.

Two weeks! Although I have a Bachelor of Science degree, I had not taught high school science for a long time and my training was to teach senior biology or what they call the ‘life sciences’ these days.

How did I end up with this challenging assignment? I was critical of the teaching of five mainly young teachers in this new township school. Having briefly observed their Grade 8 classrooms I saw little passion for the subject, almost no evidence of enthusiasm for teaching and little sense that the learners were leaping out their seats in response to what was happening inside these sedate classrooms.

Having shared my criticisms in the debriefing session, the teachers instructed me: ‘Okay, so you think we can’t teach? Why don’t you come and give a model lesson?’ Fair enough. But I soon realised this was a major task.

I read books on refraction. I consulted expert teachers of Grade 8 science. I collected equipment for experiments on refraction. I prepared a multimedia presentation on the subject. I redesigned the teaching plan at least nine times until I was sure the content matched the context, that the mode of delivery fitted the time of day (early afternoon teaching requires a different energy than early morning instruction), and that the starting point for teaching refraction was based on clear assumptions about what the learners already knew. This is a complex thing, teaching. And I had built-in contingency plans if anything went wrong – what if the ray box would not switch on at the last minute?

After playing the booming song Ice Ice Baby – to which the learners were invited to dance – I asked whether Vanilla Ice was right in his lyrics: ‘Turn off the light and I’ll glow.’ Clearly this made no sense. But it raises the question – how do we see things around us? Light travels from the object into the eye, concluded the discussion.

It did not take long to convince the learners with a simple demonstration using a ray box that light travels through the air in a straight line. Until they put various glass blocks and lenses in front of the ray of light and then it bent. Refraction. This is the key learning – light bends.

Quickly I realised that these were second or third language English learners. So to say light is distorted or that light bends because the density of water is greater than that of air means the science lesson is now also an English lesson – distortion and density are big words that require attention.

Okay, so light bends. Then the famous coin in the bowl experiment. Move backwards slowly until you cannot see the coin below the rim. Good. Now pour water into the bowl. Wow, the coin becomes visible. Faces light up as volunteers suddenly see the coin. My expert assistants explain to the now groups of learners through skilful questioning – the coin becomes visible because the light rays bend as they move from water to air revealing the coin to the eye that could not see it when there was only air in the bowl. They understand.

Then the spear-the-fish photograph familiar to science teachers. Where the man with the spear sees an image of the fish underwater is not really where the fish is because rays of light bend as they move from the water into the air placing the image in a different position in the water. So where should the man aim the spear as the fish come towards him? The learners soon agree the spear must be launched in front of where the man thinks he sees the fish.

Most of the time is spent doing science through simple, hands-on experiments. Much time is in groups where learners discuss these various problems with facilitation. The learners predict, draw pathways of light, pose questions and suggest answers.

What did you get out of this lesson, I ask a group of learners? Participation, they say.

I conclude the lesson with four short assessment questions to determine whether the learners actually learnt the key points. They quickly mark each other’s work. A majority get all four questions right.

There are five core lessons for teaching. One, when you teach in disadvantaged schools, almost every lesson is a compensatory act; you are making up for lost time, for things not learnt earlier. Two, when you teach in any context, planning a lesson takes much, much more time than delivering the lesson. That is why giving professional teachers’ pre-planned lessons is such a dangerous thing when contexts are so remarkably different. Three, learning a subject can be exciting regardless of whether its science or economics or languages. It simply requires a passion for what and whom is taught. Four, learning is the only outcome that matters. Yes, teaching is performance. But unless the children learn something, there is no point. And five, there is nothing wrong with the children. With competent and committed teaching, any learner can glow, even in the darkness of our education crisis.

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