Monday, July 6, 2020

School Science Learning and Languages

This article aims at presenting the importance and role of language skills in science learning and stresses the need for making systematic and deliberate attempts to ensure that students master the basic skills with a view to enriching their science learning.

Recently during a workshop on assessment criteria, many teachers had queries related to language requirements for sciences. Most of these queries emerged because of teachers’ commitment to ensure that their students obtain good results. However, many had not realised the importance of language skills for sciences. Many science students also share their views. It is not unusual to hear science students say, ‘I don’t like languages.’

School Science: Why has it assumed such a narrow view?

I refer to the interviews of the President of Student Union of the University of Mauritius where she openly expressed her dissatisfaction with science education and Nobel Laureate Prof Hoffman as well as the editorials published in Le Mauricien on 7th and 8th August 2008.

It would be an understatement that I had mixed feelings while reading these. Some difficult and disturbing questions arise. Why is school science considered boring and a waste of time? This question acquires more importance when we consider who are making these statements. These are not students who dropped out of a science course for any number of reasons ranging from their difficulty to make sense of it or to the pull factor of other courses that promise a lucrative future with huge salaries but those who form part of the top set that has successfully completed the "A" level science.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

School Science, Examinations and Underachievement

I presented this paper on systemic underachievement that school science appears to initiate and encourage at the Second Peoples Education Congress on the focal theme 'Science Education In India.' The Conference was jointly organised by the Peoples Council of Education and Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education from 5th October to 9th October 2009. It was an enriching experience.


“Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest
Some Cromwell, guiltless of his country’s blood.”

Thomas Gray (1750)

These two lines from the “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray draw our attention to the many talents that remained latent and thus unsung. His observations on underachievement remain equally valid even today and may be all the more pertinent as it would appear that underachievement is being fostered by the formal education and examination system.

This paper founded on empirical research attempts to show how the current practices of school science, tailored mainly to produce ‘good’ examination results, provide a narrow and indistinct view of science that significant numbers of students at all ability levels fail to enjoy and make sense of. They ‘retire hurt’ either with poor self concept or use the widely accepted ‘difficult’ nature of science to sit back and not make adequate efforts to see the complete picture of science that is imperative to become efficient users of science. The main aim of learning science then becomes preparing for the examinations.

It is common knowledge that not all objectives are amenable to external examinations. However, logistical constraints to communicate and explore the nature, methods and knowledge of science combined with a poor management structure to monitor and support what happens inside a classroom further affect the acquisition of some of the feasible objectives.

This paper raises certain pertinent questions regarding the limited view school science has come to assume and its inadvertent repercussions on students’ learning and self esteem, identifies different types of underachievement, highlights the need for a refocus to prevent the delivery of school science as a ‘rhetoric of conclusions’ for examination success and proposes some corrective measures.

Chemistry Education for Socially Responsible and Sustainable Development: What are the challenges for a developing country?

I presented this paper at the 20th ICCE Conference held in Mauritius in August 2008. This paper has been published in the Book of Proceedings, Chemistry in the ICT Age.


Historically, Chemistry education in Mauritius had a clear utilitarian and vocational focus: it was meant to support local agricultural activities. Its inferior position compared to classical subjects was tacitly acknowledged. However, the introduction of formal chemistry courses associated with external examinations and scholarships raised its academic status and inadvertently steered the shift from a vocational to a purely academic focus. Moreover, the logistical constraints to effectively communicate the subject’s inherent and interlinked macro, sub-micro and symbolic components rendered it bookish. In the process, the appreciation of the nature, the methods of science, the skills that should have been developed through scientific enquiry and other higher order cognitive skills were neglected. This resulted in Chemistry education being divorced from the developmental priorities of the country.

This paper explores the challenges facing Mauritius because of the dichotomy between the educational focus and the country’s priorities and proposes corrective measures.


The need for education for sustainable development (ESD) cannot be over emphasised. It has become crucial to examine the future economical, environmental, ethical and social cost of our actions. However, in many cases, the repercussions of our actions manifest themselves within a very short span of time.

Chemistry, as part of our everyday life as well as a central science offers many possibilities to develop ESD core competencies such as futures thinking, systemic thinking, critical thinking and building healthy partnerships.

What is needed is to help students adopt a helicopter view of the subject matter and its interactions with the nature and the society. It encapsulates developing an appreciation of the dynamic nature of science, its methods, and related ethical considerations. This clearly goes beyond the existing practices of school chemistry which focus on communicating the established body of knowledge but with little emphasis on how this knowledge was discovered.

ICT can play an important role in ESD. First, it can enhance the understanding of the subject matter by presenting models of micro chemistry invisible to the naked eye and simulations of reactions that are too complex, fast, slow, dangerous, expensive, minute,... to demonstrate in the classroom. Secondly, it offers an excellent tool to promote futures and systemic thinking by simulating complex interactions among multiple variables which are not easy to discern at one and the same time.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Assessment for assessment’s sake or for learning?

What can trigger the change?

I presented this paper during the symposium held on the theme “Assessment and Future Directions” by the Mauritius Examinations Syndicate on 22 February 2005.


In theory, examinations are supposed to certify learning, introduce some degree of accountability to maintain certain agreed standards and also to motivate students’ to learn. Examination results and reports are expected to indicate the extent to which candidates have achieved the objectives and trigger corrective measures to raise learning standards. However, year in year out we see examination reports pointing to the same lacuna and confirming that the majority masters the part of the syllabus that deals with the lower level knowledge objectives. Classroom research further confirms that sufficient systematic and deliberate attempts are not being made to cater for the higher order objectives. This paper raises questions such as: where have we gone wrong? Why have we not been able to take the appropriate remedial measures to raise the learning standards? Can we assume we know what directions the teaching learning should take? Do we take the measures that we are supposed to take? What can trigger the change? ... and highlights the need to focus on the agents of the system rather than the products.

Mahatma Gandhi on Education

How relevant are Mahatma Gandhi's ideas today ?

Mahatma Gandhi made an interesting observation in Young India on 25 May 1931 : "There is nothing so ennobling or lasting as self-study. Schools and colleges make most of us mere receptacles for holding the superfluities of knowledge. Wheat is left and mere husk is taken in. I do not wish to decry schools and colleges as such. They have their use. But we are making altogether too much of them. They are but one of the many means of gaining knowledge. " (cited in Gandhi on Education, 1998, National Council of Teacher Education, India, p. 257)

We cannot miss the relevance of the above statement when our children are spending most of their waking hours going from school to one tuition to another and then in doing home-work. Do they have sufficient time for self-study, to explore and reflect on their own learning, to identify the inconsistencies in their learning, to strengthen their understanding, for meta-cognition ?

This situation appears to be the consequence of the narrow orientation that education has acquired. The common belief is that schooling implies transmission and acquisition of knowledge for examination performance to acquire more and higher qualifications and certificates to obtain lucrative jobs to secure a "better future"… and so on and so forth.

However, at some stage in this linear model we expect satisfaction, happiness. Instead, we notice frustration among many because they feel that they are not getting their due (whatever this means) even when they have hard acquired so many qualifications. This lamentation is of course unrelated to their capacity to deliver.

Science for life

1. What are the challenges?

Often our limited knowledge of science comes in our way of making effective, safe and responsible use of everyday science and technology. This could range from simple understanding of how to ward off Chikungunya mosquitoes to food nutrients and supplements that our body requires to taking informed positions on scientific matters.

We all know that natural resources cannot last forever. How do we protect and conserve them? Our garbage has also considerably increased over the years. How do we recycle and reuse it? How do we make symbiotic use of our waste products? Bagasse is one local example. What are the other energy alternatives? How much solar energy do we use? What are the financial implications? Undoubtedly, we need many more sustainable and cost-effective solutions.

New and improved gadgets and practices are constantly produced to improve our health, environment, productivity and comfort. However, it is no longer sufficient to be satisfied with the immediate gains in terms of usefulness of the products and practices. For example, the use of genetically modified foods or stem cell research appears acceptable when we consider the benefits in terms of either the increase in crop yield or the potential healing of patients. More recently, the possibility of uterus transplant gives new hopes to childless women. What are the risks of health and psychological traumas that the recipient body might go through if the body rejects the donor uterus, say after 6, 7 or 8 months of great expectations? There are many such ethical concerns that cannot be disregarded.

Our responsibility as citizens goes far beyond the effective and safe usage of these products and practices to examining the social, environmental, ethical and moral consequences especially if we do not want the future generations to pay the price of our actions and greed. Where do we draw the line? The ability to weigh the pros and cons and take positions has become crucial.

How do we become responsible consumers of science and technology?

By gathering scientific knowledge?

Well, with such rapid expansions in research, products, practices and procedures, science for life or scientific literacy can no longer be synonymous with the mere knowledge of science. Besides, it is not feasible to acquire knowledge of all science that is around us. Science and technology are becoming too specialised for us to keep pace with the latest developments. A decade ago we could open an appliance and tinker with it to make it work. Not any longer. Now we need experts.

Moreover, most of us who studied science at school 10, 20 or 30 years ago would confess that we use very little of the scientific knowledge that we learned. It was a distant science taught in an academic manner that we could not relate to. We excelled in examinations and forgot all about it afterwards. This prompts our unabashed reply, ‘oh, we learnt a different science’ when our children, grand children, nieces and nephews ask us to solve science problems. The case of those involved in science linked careers is obviously different.

The challenge is therefore to go beyond the routine gathering of the established body of scientific knowledge to develop abilities to understand and appreciate the dynamic science, its nature, its methods, ethics, values and communication. The last one is equally important if we don’t want to get muddled in scientific jargon and thereby fail to recognise its usefulness and shortcomings.

We have reached that point of sophistication in our practices and usage of science where it cannot be the privilege of the select few to understand its ways and means. The ignorance of what science is and how it proceeds is no longer bliss. Neither can we afford to fake evidence and results or be irresponsible in its usage. The stakes are too high to overlook.

2. How can science education meet the challenge?

Science for life has complex implications for science education because science and science education are not synonymous. However, differences between the two are not obvious. The commonalties that exist between the two further blur and confound the differences.

According to Wikipedia (, "Science in the broadest sense refers to any system of objective knowledge. In a more restricted sense, science refers to a system of acquiring knowledge based on the scientific method, as well as to the organised body of knowledge humans have gained by such research."

In practice, science education almost everywhere and at almost all levels (excluding the degrees by research) is about communicating the approved and the established body of scientific knowledge with practical work as an integral part. Practical work aims at illustrating the abstract concepts and developing laboratory skills considered essential in the study of science. However, to what extent practical work achieves its objectives in reality, is another question.

And with the above as objectives of science education, the practices seldom vary. The content, method and very often examples, exercises, examination questions remain similar. The depth, at which science topics or examination questions are treated, obviously changes with the level.

In other words, science education aims at transmitting a very convergent view of science that has the approval of the scientific community. Kuhn pointed this out in 1963, “Scientific education remains a relatively dogmatic initiation into a pre-established problem-solving tradition that the student is neither invited nor equipped to evaluate.” (p.351) His observations on practices of science education are still valid at least in countries with limited opportunities for further education.

Moreover, communicating a convergent view of science appears to be much safer and fairer. Otherwise one can imagine the confused view of science young minds are likely to acquire. Left to experiment and discover science, students may construct and reconstruct cognitive structures on their experience, folklore, fiction and knowledge base that may differ from the established knowledge.

Besides, communicating a convergent view of science reduces subjectivity in examinations and enhances fairness and equity. Examinees learn and reproduce expected answers and examiners mark according to the established criteria.

However, the extent to which all students understand the prescribed knowledge remains another question. Thus emerges the need to review prevailing practices to find out what is being achieved and what is not being achieved and why. There cannot be any compromise in the knowledge, procedures and tools that students acquire.

Notwithstanding, with our over emphasis on the correct acquisition of correct knowledge we often fail to nurture divergent thinking skills, which are crucial for problem-solving. Science in fact flourishes on divergent views. Often, it progresses by the unrelated, previously unthought and unimagined and out of the box solutions, which relies on abilities that formal science education rarely encourages and nurtures.

Also with the emphasis on communicating knowledge, science education seldom communicates how this knowledge has come about or why it is accepted. To complicate matters information on ideas that were rejected and the grounds for rejection is rarely available. What are the acceptability tests and how rigorous are the procedures to meet these?

The formal science education system makes little provisions for such diversions. There is hardly any time for concepts, which failed the acceptability test. Little time is spent on the history of science. Syllabuses have to be completed and examinations have to be taken.

Nevertheless an understanding of these procedures can help students appreciate how science progresses, its nature, methods, values and ethics while equipping them to understand and evaluate future developments. They will be in a better position to weigh not only the social and ethical consequences but also the future responsibilities, which go beyond the mere utilitarian concerns. This shift in pedagogy is all the more necessary if we require users to demonstrate a good understanding of the contemporary science and its ways and to adapt to its changing demands.

Thus, the challenges that the formal system of science education faces are twofold and there is a need to strike a balance between the two extreme objectives. On one hand, it faces the challenge of transmitting the established body of knowledge as approved by the scientific community to all and not just the select few.

On the other hand, it has the responsibility of educating individuals in science, its nature and its methods so that they are in a position to use, evaluate and adapt to fast growing science and technology so as to live a better life.

This was published as a series of two articles in Le Mauricien of 5th and 6th February 2007.