Formal science education has promised to help lift people out of ignorance, poverty, and disease. But much is still holding back the social and economic development of resource-poor countries. That leads one to wonder what difference it would make if informal science learning (learning outside school) were to be organised around day-to-day problems villagers face.
But first, what is the problem with science education?
In many developing countries it is that schools cannot transform ‘textbook’ knowledge into social and economic development. That is, schools are not managing to transfer scientific knowledge into people’s everyday lives.
This transfer of knowledge depends on content, and on how the material is taught — the 'how’ is as important as the ‘what’.
For instance, one tactic that we know helps transfer knowledge is to use metacognition: a strategy for learners to reflect on the ideas they are acquiring, what techniques they are using to learn the ideas effectively, and what additional information or resources they need in order to learn even better.
In the classroom this works when teachers prompt students to pause frequently to assess whether they have developed a coherent understanding of a topic. They are encouraged to spot gaps in that understanding, and to suggest how the gaps can be filled — perhaps by looking up definitions of terms, or revising concepts covered in a previous topic.
Metacognition, widely recognised by science educators as a useful cognitive strategy for learning, can help learners become experts in seeing connections between ideas and how they might be applied in different contexts.
So beyond the classroom, how does the challenge of knowledge transfer express itself in everyday living conditions?
In a recent visit to Kirumi, my village in Kenya, I thought about the difference that knowledge transfer could make for a hypothetical villager I’m going to call Kajuju.
Kajuju studied high-school chemistry and biology, and now runs a small agricultural business in Kirumi. Yet she has not seen the need to do something about the burning of plastic bags and other materials in the home compound where she lives with her young family and several farm animals.
Kajuju and many of her neighbours burn plastic material in open pits, assuming that fire will ‘consume’ it. Despite some formal science education they seem to have no knowledge of the toxic fumes that escape to the atmosphere and the harmful chemical compounds that leak into the soil.
How might adults like Kajuju transfer and build on knowledge from their schooling to understand problems faced in the course of everyday village life — and take the necessary actions to address these?
“The self-awareness approach to education among adults should be introduced in villages through initiatives carefully designed to build on schooling.”
One route is to discuss how ideas can be applied to real-life problems. What I have in mind here draws on some of the concepts and practices first promoted by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire in the mid twentieth century, in his work with villagers in South America. For example, through critical questioning that he called ‘consciousness raising’, Freire helped communities understand the political and economic forces that perpetuate poverty for certain groups of people — questioning the mechanisms for marketing cash crops through middle-men is a case in point.
Consciousness-raising evolved into a mass movement. It may seem to have stalled since then, but has, in fact, been adopted by educators, NGOs and policy makers. One example of this is the social justice movement through which educators promote action on environmental issues such as pollution.
Freire’s approach of using self-awareness to combat oppression has many similarities with the strategy of metacognition in learning. The key in both is to probe one’s own mindset in order to promote deep critical understanding of the issues and to follow up with the necessary action.
The self-awareness approach to education among adults should be introduced in villages through initiatives carefully designed to build on schooling.  With the help of facilitators, this would enable people to discuss and interrogate the conditions in which they live; what and who were involved in creating those conditions; and how they can lift themselves out of those conditions.
Several questions are expected to characterise such problem-oriented exploration. “What will we lose if we get out of this condition — and what will we gain?” “What do we need in order to do this?” Importantly, participants should also be encouraged to substitute the pronoun “we” for “I”, so they can adopt a personal-agency attitude to the required changes.
Facilitators would be needed to convene and oversee such sessions and to provide resources. But the actual events, operations and programming, as well as the language used, should largely depend on local social cultural contexts.
Going back to the Kirumi problem, a discussion on safe plastic disposal might benefit from involving experts from the local higher education institutions, or by hiring audiovisual education materials that help participants explore the answers to such problems.
This strategy is just one more way to extend science-based knowledge and use questions more effectively as people participate in social economic development.
Wanja Gitari is an associate professor at the University of Toronto, with the Transitional Year Programme, and with the Department of Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.