Amitabha Mukherjee, Anil Sadgopal*, P. K. Srivastava and Vijaya S. Varma

Department of Physics and Astrophysics

University of Delhi

Delhi 110007

Department of Education

University of Delhi

Delhi 110 007


The Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme (HSTP) was started jointly in 1973 by two voluntary

agencies. Friends Rural Centre and Kishore Bharati, in 16 government middle schools of the Hoshangabad district of Madhya Pradesh. These agencies convinced the state education department to allow them the freedom to run a programme of teaching science, based on experimentation and activity, in classes VI to VIII (11 to 13 year olds). This initiative was a response to the challenge posed by the conditions then prevalent in government schools (which unfortunately continue to be true in large measure even today).

These may be summarised briefly as:

A school, particularly in a rural area, was characterised by - a poor building, no library, no

laboratories, no equipment and no facilities. Teaching of science was done without performing any experiments and consisted of a body of received knowledge being transmitted to children, validated by the authority of the textbook and of the teacher, which brooked no questioning.

Teachers were often untrained in science. They had no resources and no support from the system

They had no inputs into the curriculum and yet were expected to be the repositories of all knowledge .It was not surprising then that they adopted authoritarian modes of teaching.

Children were docile and submissive. This was almost a cultural imperative, one that dictated that

elders had to be respected and their authority never to be questioned. There were no rewards for

showing initiative and all independent enquiry by children was suppressed in the name of maintaining

discipline in the class.

From the very beginning, the organisers encouraged interaction between schoolteachers and faculty from university departments and research institutions. For example, the University of Delhi and the University Grants Commission were persuaded to grant study leave to faculty members to spend time familiarising themselves with the conditions of the schools and to work on curriculum development.

Assumptions and premises

The philosophy of educational change that guided the programme can be characterised by

A decision to operate within the framework of the existing government school system, rather than in individual schools, to try and change the system as it were from without.

A commitment to teach science through experiments which children themselves perform in the

classroom. This was eventually elevated to a guiding principle, which said that nothing that could not be demonstrated by such experiments would form part of the curricula. This meant, for example, that we decided not to teach atomic theory and chemical formulae in the middle school. That this did not lead to a deprived curriculum was ensured by including topics like probability and positional astronomy which did not form part of the conventional school curriculum but for which suitable experiments could be devised.

These basic premises resulted in what can be termed as a set of guiding principles and non-negotiable components of the programme.

• It was guaranteed that all the equipment necessary for children to perform the experiments and activities in the curriculum would be made available to each school in sufficient number. A specially developed kit of equipment was to be provided to each school so that children could perform each of the experiments in the curriculum. To reduce the cost of the kit, as much use was made as possible of locally available material.

• All teachers in the programme were trained in not only doing each of the experiments in the curriculum but also in guiding discussions with children about the implications of the results of these experiments. This was done during special 3-week training programmes for every teacher every year for 3 years. Continued support to teachers was provided through monthly meetings and through regular school follow-up by trained personnel to help teachers with problems they encountered in the day-to-day implementation of the programme.

• Feedback was constantly collected from teacher training sessions and classroom observation and used to modify the curriculum.

• The annual and final middle school examinations had both a written and an experimental component, with the programme teachers setting the question papers. Permission was also obtained to make the examinations open-book and of unlimited duration. Children were allowed to take with them their workbooks and their class records and could take as much time as they wanted for the examination.

• The curriculum required children to do all their own experiments, working co-operatively in groups, and discuss their findings among themselves and with their teachers. It encouraged them to go on field trips, gather information about their surroundings and put up exhibitions of their work in their schools and even in village fairs.

• The major thrust of the programme was to focus on the process rather than the products of science, on how to make scientific enquiries rather than on committing scientific facts to memory. Since for many children, middle school is the end of their formal education, the emphasis was on teaching them how to learn for themselves so that they could carry on learning even when they left school.

One of the strategies of learning that was adopted in the programme was to address the misconceptions or rather the alternative conceptions that children bring with them into the classroom. These alternative conceptions do not arise as a result of any formal instruction but rather develop from children's own attempts to make sense of the data that they constantly receive from their immediate environment. For example, many rural children believe that flies are born spontaneously from cattle dung. Instead of directly contradicting this belief or ridiculing it, we get children to cover fresh cattle droppings with polythene bags. They are asked to observe them over a period of time during which little flies are born in similar droppings that have been left uncovered and are visited by flies. This forms an interesting prelude to the study of the life cycle of a fly. Similarly, rural children often believe that butterflies suck out all the goodness of flowers and that the flowers die as a result. We therefore get children to enclose some flowers in perforated polythene bags as soon as the flowers have budded and before they start to bloom. This allows the flowers to 'breathe' but prevents butterflies from visiting them.' In time, children see that these flowers shrivel up and give no fruit while those that were not so covered give rise to fruit after they die. We use this activity to introduce pollination and the role that insects play in the life cycle of plants.

To take one other example, we start our unit on astronomy by asking children the minimum length of the shadow cast by a vertical stick and the time of the day at which this occurs. Invariably the answer is that this happens every day at noon when the sun is directly overhead and then the stick of course casts no shadow. You can imagine how surprised children (and many adults) are when we get them to do this experiment and let them discover that neither of these beliefs is correct.

Growth and reproduction of the programme

Over a period of 10 years, the programme grew from the initial 16 schools to cover all the middle schools in the district of Hoshangabad (around 200 in 1978) and then to school clusters in 14 districts of the state (over 450 schools in the 1990's). Special structures were set up in the offices of the state department of education and many administrative procedures were altered to bring them in greater consonance with the needs of the programme. The existing Resource group was supplemented by others drawn from local colleges and high schools to help with teacher training, monthly meetings, school follow-up and curriculum development.

We realised soon after the inception of the programme that improvement in science teaching could not be brought about in isolation. How other subjects arc taught feeds into the science classroom. Teachers cannot be expected to become less authoritarian and more child-friendly in the science classes if they are not also trained to teach the other subjects in the same manner. Also, if the children are not taught mathematics and language properly, it is unrealistic to expect that they will either be able to analyse properly the data they collect in their science experiments or be able to adequately record or describe their experiences in their own words.

In order to look after the higher demands of the expanded programme and also to try and overcome these limitations, a new voluntary agency called Eklavya was set up in 1982-83. As one of its mandates, it initiated similar interventions in other subjects which led to a social sciences programme in the middle school and an integrated programme for the teaching of language, mathematics and environmental studies in the primary school.

One realisation we arrived at after years of engagement in the programme is that a good curriculum must not only be responsive to the demands of the discipline and to the cognitive development of children, but it must also take account of the capabilities of the school teachers who have to transact it in the classroom.

Another realisation that has emerged from our experiences is that of the intellectual isolation of the schoolteacher and how important it is to try and remove this isolation. This is why we have encouraged the involvement of teachers from high schools, colleges and universities in our programme and laid so much stress on in-service training, orientation and continued academic and intellectual support of our schoolteachers. It would be no exaggeration to state that every instance of success in our programme can be traced to an involved, committed and capable schoolteacher.

In the last few years we have seen similar programmes inspired by these experiences starting off in the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan. There is now, as compared to when we started, a greater acceptance of the need for change in our educational system. I would like to believe that our efforts have had, in some small measure, a role to play in bringing about this change. It is appropriate to point out at this juncture that terms like discovery method, activity-based learning, child-centred curriculum were furiously opposed by agencies like the NCERT in those days. Now they have become clichés that are freely bandied about at every official conference on education, yet the fact of the matter is that the curriculum in government schools and teaching practices have changed little in this regard over these years.

Achievements and impact

Perhaps the clearest achievement of HSTP is that it has set the tone for an alternative discourse in the region in which it operates. It has fostered a climate of debate and discussion on education that extends beyond the rarefied atmosphere of conferences such as this one.

Has it made any difference on the ground? In the absence of systematic studies, we can only cite some impressionistic and anecdotal evidence.

Children are freer, more questioning and accept that learning requires an effort on part of the learner. They enjoy doing experiments. In a district level quiz in which children were asked to try and prove or disprove a given proposition, many of the teams devised on their own experiments to test the hypotheses, sometimes even providing for control in their experiments. The question-and-answer column Sawaliram is flooded with questions from children in the HSTP area.

Replenishment of the material in the kit has always been a problem for the government. After arrangements were made for such replacement (each child has started contributing 50 paise a month to a science fund), the Hoshangabad centre has sold items worth one lakh in the last year indicating that the kits are being used in schools.

School follow-up would appear to indicate that between 20-30% of the teachers are seriously pursuing the programme.

The younger schoolteachers in Hoshangabad district who are themselves products of HSTP accept that experimentation and enquiry are the main ingredients of good science teaching.

A network of schoolteachers is in place. These teachers appear to be more receptive to suggestions for change. At least those that have been inducted into the resource group seem to have developed a sense of ownership of the programme. They resist attempts that would appear to reduce the importance of the role of experiments in the curriculum as evidenced in the curriculum revision workshops that have been conducted.

Let me stress again that these observations are anecdotal and point to the importance of developing suitable tests and rigorous evaluation procedures which will either validate or refute these claims. Clearly this is not an easy task otherwise it wouldn't have hung fire for so long.

Open questions

HSTP started off as a programme of innovation in science education. It is an open question as how this spirit of innovation can continue to be maintained and how the programme can be prevented from getting set in its ways so that there always remains space for new initiatives. If this cannot be done then it will not be able to attract the fresh new minds that are essential for its survival and continued vitality.

HSTP has gone through two rounds of expansion, each accompanied by debates within the core resource group, and a third round of expansion has been inconclusively debated for the past few years. A basic question thrown up by the HSTP experience is: if a school education programme is found to be successful by whatever definition of success - at the micro level, what should its future be? Should it be expanded to the macro level, and, if so, what should be the mode of expansion?

Many models of expansion have in fact been considered but so far no consensus on the desirability, the feasibility, the modality or the scale of such expansion has as yet emerged. Should it be done by seeding other areas with similar voluntary groups which would act as the resource agencies for such expansion? Where are such resource persons in adequate numbers and willing to take on such responsibility to be found? Should such expansion be attempted through the government system of DIETs? They neither seem interested nor indeed seem to have the capability. In any case how does one get the government to buy into such a scheme? The technique used so far, labelled the palace intrigue method, has been to find some key person in the bureaucracy or the ministry who you convince either by the force of your arguments or because of some connection, who then passes or gets passed the necessary orders. But such methods never bring about any systemic changes and when that key person is either transferred or is thrown out of power at the next elections, the whole programme is threatened with imminent collapse unless the process can be repeated.


The programme did not and does not address questions like

• The impoverished conditions of schools, the almost total absence of support facilities.

• Large-scale teacher absenteeism and its impact on the programme.

• The lack of accountability in the system - no rewards for work well done, no penalties for non-performance. That this is a great de-motivating factor for many teachers has been repeatedly brought to the attention of everyone connected with the programme.

• The lack of basic competence in many teachers, even after the extensive training that is part of the programme, particularly in being able to guide discussion in the class after children have performed their experiments and arc trying to assess what it is that the experiments have taught them. Given the present circumstance of government schools in our country this is an inherent feature of any model of intervention that does not select the teachers that it interacts with. On the other hand, it is possible that the programme is too ambitious in terms of the changes it expects in the classroom?

Community criticisms

Often demands have surfaced that the programme which has been running now for almost 20 years should either be extended to the whole state if it is considered to be successful or should be closed down if it isn't. Why should only the children of this district be experimented upon? Community criticisms of the programme have also been made on other counts. These have rightly caused concern to the organisers. However, it is important not to forget that the community is not just one of concerned parents and guardians of children. It also consists of kunji writers, publishers and sellers whose books don't sell. It also consists of schoolteachers who suffer economically because children don't take tuition in science any more and of schoolteachers who are disgruntled because they have to work harder in the science classes without any monetary rewards. It also consists of organisers of satta games who perceive that their livelihood is threatened because children are being taught about probability and chance and who get questions raised in the Assembly and Legislature on the pretext that we are teaching children how to gamble.

It has become popular in recent times to talk of community participation and even community control of education. Whereas the former is desirable and probably even inevitable, the latter is not without problems and needs very careful consideration. Those who advocate community control of school education even to the extent of formulating school curricula would do well to ponder on the following:

• The demand that the community should control the curriculum is to devalue the role of teachers and professional educators in curriculum design.

• How would one resolve the contradiction between teaching for better understanding and teaching for better performance in examinations so long as you couldn't ensure local community control over national or state level public examinations?

Experience in England and the OSA would indicate that there is a real danger that the Government will use this as an excuse for requiring that the community should then also raise funds for education. This would mean that the schools in richer communities would be endowed with better facilities, better libraries, better laboratories and, in a market driven society, even with better teachers. Instead of a more equitable school system we would end up increasing the disparities between different schools.

The most worrying aspect of such a development is the very real danger that the curriculum would come under the control of the forces of mindless majoritism. How would you counter demands that eclipses should not be taught as arising from shadowing but due to the action of Rahu and Ketu? If you think this is far fetched then consider that not so long ago the value of pi was fixed by legislative fiat to be equal to 4 in some mid-western states of the USA. Or that even today it is forbidden to teach Darwin's theory of the evolution of species in 4 States of the USA because it is contrary to Creation as described in the Bible.