Mathematics and Science Learning Opportunities in Developing Countries

In general teachers are very good at preparing students for external examinations by making sure that they cover the stated syllabus content in the classroom, as well as exposing students to the format and structure of external examination papers during classroom activities.

In some places teachers go to the extent of organizing very successful teacher groups whose role is to work on activities aimed at scheming together the syllabus coverage and then setting of common examinations, for internal assessment purposes. The common examinations are organized for students in similar class levels in schools. In many schools where teachers are not part of these regional teacher groups, team mobilization is at departmental level, in which teachers teaching the same streams work as a team to produce schemes of work and common examinations.

This collaboration by teachers to set regional common tests has some advantages such as (1) helping members get motivated in the coverage of the required amount of syllabus content; (2) students’ assessment being common over a region, gives students some of confidence because they sit for papers that are taken by a number of different schools; (3) there is in general a certain amount of satisfaction amongst teachers, especially those who are new in the profession, of getting support of experienced colleagues.

As the common tests are modeled after the external examination papers students get used to the style of questioning of the external examiners, and therefore are not intimated by the structure and content when the time comes for of the external examinations.

Even though teachers work hard at giving their students the right amount of practice in examinations, unfortunately the quality of teaching and learning is not effective. Students are confined too much to the chalk and talk type of learning. The main classroom activities for students are notes taking, and then answering some oral questions from the teacher. The text books and the class notes are the primary learning materials for students.

Subjects like mathematics and science suffer tremendously when it comes to external examinations. It is seldom and very lucky for students to get a demonstration of a practical lesson. Hence students go through high school education with very limited skills in expressing themselves, handling and using basic science teaching materials such as the thermometer and the measuring cylinder. Teachers often fail to let students take measurements of dimensions of their school books, desks, and floors and walls of their classrooms, during mathematics and science lessons, which merely require use of a ruler and a metre stick. The process of observing and recording temperature changes when water melts from ice until it boils is also a basic activity that requires a peanut butter or jam bottle, source of heat and a thermometer. Yet students learn concepts like these theoretically through notes taken from science text books.

The basic skills required in science are (1) use of measuring instruments, (2) recording of readings from these instruments, (3) setting up of simple experiments, and (4) making a basic science report. Closely related to these skills are the graph plotting and interpretation. Examinations, even though do not always demand laboratory skills in science, require recognition and familiarity of activities in science in the form of practical work.

Mathematics and science are regarded as the most difficult subjects by many. The subjects are supposed to be beyond the grasp of ordinary people, which is not true because there are a lot of practical examples in real life that are related to these subjects. These subjects tend to be difficult because teachers adhere to text books too strongly. Use of everyday money coins, or colored lids from drinking bottles are affordable materials that can be easily obtained in many developing countries. These materials come in handy in the learning of mathematics. Bags of the various snags like potato chips, tins and bottles that come with a lot of stuff bought over the counter are great materials for mathematics and science learning and teaching. What is more being widely available students are most likely to remember learning activities done through the use of these materials, because they see them everyday. These materials have labels of amounts (in milliliters or grams and kilograms for example) of goods packed in them.

Mathematics even for very bright students requires a lot of practice. But students are not taught to think for themselves; they stay too much teacher dependent, and they are stereotyped to getting the red tick, for the ‘right answer’. The ‘red tick’ is valuable if the process of getting the ‘right answer’ is taken into account. Without appropriate work clearly showing the steps leading to the answer, there is no valuable learning taking place in the mind of a student. Students are not getting vital skills like inserting a computed value of an unknown, back into the original equation, to see that the value does lead to the balance in the equation, in exercises which require solving of unknowns in equations.

Another vital strategy in mathematics learning is the use of more than one method in problem solving in topics like simultaneous equations. Getting the same answer through use of at least two different approaches is a good reflection that the answer is right. This strategy helps students in the end to finding a way of checking whether or not their work is right and reduces the amount of time and energy spent on teacher consultation.

Some of the best teaching strategies involve giving learners the inspiration to work as much as possible on their own when they have left the classroom.