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Busy hands, busy brains – Hands-on science lessons at Ban Phang Heng Secondary School

The best way to activate children’s brains is by having them move their hands. Conducting experiments in science lessons and experiencing things physically helps to gain a better understanding of materials and might avoid the potential gap between theory and practice.

Already Aristotle recognized the importance of experiential learning (learning through experience). In 350 BC he wrote: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” Since the 1950s, thanks to psychologists like Piaget, Lewin, and Dewey, this idea became very popular in Europe as well as in the United States.

We, Rebecca and Veronika, started to sensitize the science teachers of Ban Phang Heng Secondary School to this idea with our workshop during our first stay with Team IV in spring 2017. We showed them ways to teach that go beyond writing facts on the board or simply explaining things orally. Besides showing the teachers where to find or how to create additional material to enhance the course books, we also made them familiar with the school’s new science laboratory.

The availability of a science laboratory (a kind donation by Mr Marion and Ms Monika Schellberg) is remarkable and no regular part of a Laotian school. This would not be obvious for every reader, as is the fact that its usage was also not a simple given: It first had to be introduced to the science teachers. Additionally, we invited them to join us for “Activity Time”, during which Rebecca and I conducted experiments with the pupils with everyday material so they could observe us. We assume that they quickly grasped the sense and value of it, meaning that a different place of learning can bring variety and allows new possibilities for teaching and learning. Since then they have started teaching in the science laboratory more often. At first, the teachers mostly showed experiments in the front to their pupils, but step by step this changed to letting pupils conduct experiments themselves. This progress was one of the outcomes of working together with our tandem-science-teachers, Mr Sackbong, Mr Phit, Ms Khamsee, and Ms Chanmany.

One of my responsibilities in our work on site is to observe the science teachers’ lessons and then to give them feedback on their teaching to help them improve it. I show them different approaches and give them methodological ideas for other, novel ways of teaching. This task is anything but easy as their lessons are obviously held in Lao, which I do not understand. I follow their lessons as best I can with the help of the few Lao words I know, by the pictures in the course books, and formulas or drawings written on the board. Also, the science teachers’ English skills are still very limited, as they only started learning English a short while ago with us. These two factors pose quite a barrier in communicating with them. This is one of the reasons why they also do not always tell me in advance what they are going to teach. Nevertheless, I manage, and I saw some highly interesting lessons by Ms Khamsee.

Within the teaching unit of introducing sizes and units, Ms Khamsee took her pupils to the laboratory to work with balances and thermometers. It seemed to me as if Ms Khamsee had not properly planned the lesson and therefore had to be very spontaneous, but she gave the pupils different tasks through which they experienced how one can use weights with different masses to equilibrate the balance. Despite some difficulties, she – presumably not totally conscious of it – gave the pupils the opportunity for experiential learning. From observing what exactly the pupils did I could tell that some groups directly knew that they simply needed to add together the masses of the weights and have the same number on each side. Others tried by putting different weights on the two balance trays until there were equilibrated.

 

Professionalization as a process – varied teaching needs to be learned

When Ms Khamsee started to introduce the topic temperatures and thermometers, I realized that she was not really sure how to do it. That is why I stepped in to help by instructing her – and she implemented the suggestions directly. Unluckily, the thermometers did not work properly: Each showed another temperature. This caused confusion. Nevertheless, Ms Khamsee and I tried to salvage the situation by letting the pupils compare whether the temperatures of each thermometer had risen by the same number of degrees. This result was satisfactory in this situation; however, for the next class I will have thermometers from Germany ready, assuming that they will be more reliable.

During another lesson I could observe a similar situation. The topic was bases and acids, and Ms Khamsee had prepared a universal indicator and brought some everyday substances, i.e. Pepsi or washing detergent, to show which are basic and which acidic. The basic idea was correct and the motivation was there alright, but the implementation was another matter. Also there were not enough test tube racks and beakers, and then Ms Khamsee ran out of vinegar for the chemical tests.

However, the pupils were engaged for the entire lesson. Each of them had the opportunity to see and do something – to experience the concept in question, which is something seldom seen in a regular science lesson in a Lao classroom.

This showed me that first steps towards a variation of teaching technique had indeed been taken, but that the planning, implementation, and the spectrum of possibilities as well as the laboratory equipment would still need to be improved.

On the other hand, I also joined Mr Phit during an extra lesson in the afternoon. He invited 10 pupils of grades 3 and 4 and had them make soap. Already in spring, during my first stay at this  school, he tried out this experiment, but it did not work. The wrong ingredients were used and there was not exactly a plan of how to conduct the experiement. As it seems, he was dissatisfied with this fact and  searched for a solution during the rainy season break. Finally, he had found one, planned the lesson again, prepared all materials and the laboratory in advance and had a splendid lesson.
Mr Phit’s example shows that professionalization is a process which needs time, trial and error, and a lot of patience. Even if one fails once or twice or just takes baby steps, keeping on trying is essential – and all that counts in the end.

Text & photos by V. Golla

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