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.

Education of Our Children: The choice is ours

1. Building confidence and nurturing talent

…examinations are a nuisance. All that can be said about them is that they do push us on a little… But… [they] are no test of anything worthwhile.

This is what Pundit Jawahar Lal Nehru wrote to his daughter Indira Gandhi on 29 June 1936, the day she took the seven-hour Oxford entrance exam and failed (cited by Katherine Frank in ‘Indira, The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi’, p. 116). She did not have the advantage of an English education and faced difficulties in clearing her Latin papers both at the Oxford University entrance and Pass Moderation examinations.

Her father understood. Clearly, for him the experience of learning was more important than passing examinations.

I distinctly remember my father telling us children to listen to the Akashvani radio news because ‘choti munni’ (small girl) would come. It was his way of switching us on to the news. We learnt about other issues while waiting intently for one of our ‘age group’ to come on air. She spoke like a nervous young girl on verge of tears.

How does one who started so poorly in health, examinations, public speaking, ideas (Mrs. Harold Laski described Indira Gandhi as, “a mousy, shy, little girl who did not seem to have any political ideas” (ibid., p.135) grow up to be such a powerful leader with incredible physical stamina, a real asset for a leader of the world’s largest democracy and an exceptional orator who delivered speeches in Hindi, English and French with equal ease?

She was allowed to learn, fail, gain experience and grow in a very conducive environment. This atmosphere also helped in building her confidence in her own abilities.

She was not an exception. There are many who achieved great heights in the fields of arts, business, literature, sports, science, politics, social work, … in spite of not doing so well at school. The important point is that they did not give up and were not allowed to wither away.

At the same time there are many more ‘could have beens’ and who have no remarkable achievements to their credit. Why did their talents remain untapped?

Why do I tell this story? Definitely, not to diminish the importance of examinations or to tell students on the eve of examinations not to work hard. In fact, examinations have evolved in the last seventy years and now strive to provide a finer and more dependable picture of student’ academic profile. It is also time that students stopped wasting time and focused on their work to score good grades.

Neither is the purpose to cast any blame on anyone but to draw attention to the need to address the broader objectives of education. Each child is special and requires specific and appropriate environment, opportunities and treatment to develop his/her inherent talent.

The question we need to reflect upon is, “are we providing our children with the opportunities they require to express and develop their talents, strengths, interests, views and ideas?” We all are aware of the state of extra curricular activities in schools. Some teachers even forbid primary school pupils from running around the yard during recess!

Here it is worth remembering that a doctor does not have a blanket treatment for all patients suffering from various ailments. Farmers know that different soils, fertilisers, pesticides, sowing and harvesting methods are required for different crops. The reasons are obvious.

Why do we wish to maintain the same treatment for all children? At the same time, we cannot deny the importance of academic attainments in this era of exponential knowledge growth. Thus we are faced with the formidable task of guiding each child in the achievement of academic objectives while using and developing his/ her inherent interests and abilities.

The task is difficult but not impossible. It is a challenge that we need to accept for we have to decide whether we want to encourage and nurture the special talent that each child has or let it wither in oblivion. The choice is ours.

2. Ownership of learning and learning skills

Recently I met a friend who was sad because his son was not doing well in studies despite the exceedingly strong dose of private tuition he was taking. The young boy and his friends also got in trouble with the school head for damaging school property.

This is not a one-off incident. Many bored students engage in reprehensible activities and neglect their studies. Are they immoral and academically weak? Why do they require supervision to engage in a constructive activity? Obviously, they require channels and challenges to express the vast amount pent up energy.

However, as many teachers would vouch, the curricular activities also fail to induce cognitive engagement or active participation of many even not so bored students in their learning. Paradoxically, one can see these students regularly and punctually attending school, listening to their teachers, doing all class work and homework and proceeding to take tuition lessons after school hours.

Why does the hard work these students put in remain passive, mechanical and superficial? Why do they not take the ownership of their learning? Is it because the generous ‘support’ they get that inadvertently shifts the responsibility of their learning to their teachers and parents? I remember one star college head telling me, “we ‘kurchul’ feed them.”

While it is true that this excessive support may produce short-term gains in terms of examination results we can not deny the serious repercussions it has on students’ ability to solve problems, take decisions, retrain and relearn with the changing requirements and conditions. The difficulties that they face during further studies and at work are flagrant.

I often refer to the story of a lame butterfly whose entry in the world was facilitated by an eager young boy. He had helped it to come out of the pupa. Certainly, there is a developmental process through which a butterfly has to go through, develop and strengthen its body parts before emerging out to face the world. There are no short cuts in life.

I am reminded of yet another story. Each morning, when I open my window I see a young boy of 16 or 17 sand papering cars parked in a vacant plot under a Longane tree. He is there on rainy days, on cold days, on windy days, on sunny days, on weekdays and on Sundays. He sings the latest film songs while pouring water from an empty paint can. His boss welds and paints cars in a nearby shed. Why does this boy go on scrubbing and washing even when no one is around?

Similar is the case of a Form III drop out who works as a beauty parlour assistant. Within six months she has moved from menial jobs to handling facials and hair brushing. With equal ease she offers her opinion on clients’ beauty queries addressed to her boss.

The perseverance and confidence with which both these young apprentice are learning and the hard work that they both put in to make sense of their work, is remarkable.

Many questions emerge from these stories. How does one change the ‘passive and giving the impression of diligent performer’ attitude of our children to that of an ‘active and responsible participant’ attitude? How do we help our children build a strong foundation of knowledge, skills, abilities and values that guarantees smooth sailing not only in examinations (which are just a necessary part of the learning cycle) but also in life? How do we help our children see the relevance of their work? How do we ensure that our children take the ownership of their learning? How to make education ‘cool’ that they get motivated to get engaged in it?

The list of questions is very long. However, it is not enough to raise questions or to comment on students’ poor learning standards. It is crucial that we evaluate the practices, provisions and resources that have produced such appalling results and subsequently suggest and implement improvements. We have to create the right conditions for learning and meta-learning of generic and transferable learning skills and abilities. The choice is definitely ours.

3. Educational technology and management of learning

Two decades ago as a young wife and mother I sent air letters to my parents in India and waited for at least three weeks to get answers to my many questions. We rarely phoned. International calls were expensive. During the late nineties, I could get recipes from my mother through e-mails. Now I get immediate answers to my culinary queries via sms. “Mash a boiled potato in the dough and you will be able to roll it” mummy replies in full sentences. She still has to pick up the sms slang.

It is amazing how fast the technology has changed. However, classroom teaching has largely remained untouched by these developments. My children were taught the way I or my parents or my grand parents were taught.

Well, there are changes. ICT, for one has entered the school curriculum as a subject but not as a learning tool! There are changes in the content of other subjects as well. However, the methodology to transmit this content has remained the same.

At the most, ICT to aid learning is limited to Internet search for projects and assignments and in most cases to unabashed plagiarising. This may not contribute to any meaningful learning as students reproduce this information without even bothering to summarise in their own words or to address to the question set.

And yet we know the ease with which even very young children adapt, handle and master technology. Most parents would proudly confirm that they learnt text messaging from their children. Their children also rescue them by recovering the document they had ‘lost’ on the computer. Their children are the ones who initiate them to the latest technology and give useful tips on its efficient use.

Why has technology not seeped into the classroom to make learning more accessible, interesting and to motivate students to learn? Is it just because of the scant resources? I am not so sure. It is more to do with teachers’ fears, insecurities, insufficient trust in their ability to handle technology and the absence of necessary support than with the availability of resources. It would not be incorrect to say that because of the ‘hurdles’ one faces in using technology or any other innovation for that matter, ‘chalk and talk’ turns out to be the best option. This observation is further strengthened by the fact that we are not making full use of even the accessible resources. Quality audio-visual programmes have been available for decades now. Each year the list grows longer. And yet not many schools use these programmes regularly and efficiently.

This state of affairs is largely attributable to the management of learning in schools which remains largely untouched by developments in the field of management. Each year, business managers strive hard to increase efficiency and productivity. School administration, on the other hand entrusted with the responsibility of producing the most important asset that a society needs, restricts itself to attendance, replacements, discipline, punctuality, leave sanction and other similar activities. This administration, at best projects a semblance of order and prevents the disquiet from surfacing but it is not of much pedagogical significance.

A school as a whole is made of many small units or classes each headed by a teacher. Most teachers conscientiously prepare according to the syllabus and the training they have received, teach, test, correct and mark students’ work. In this routine, each teacher creates a niche for himself/ herself and remains inside it indifferent to the external reality. There is no interference from the school head as long the teacher is in the class and irrespective of whether s/he is doing any useful work. Neither is any discussion, support and guidance on what is to be achieved in terms of learning outcomes or on what has not been achieved and why and on what should be done to improve. This school administration does produce some good results and some not so good results. However, it is not sufficient to cater for the learning needs of our children.

What we need is the participative school management where all resources are harnessed to achieve a common goal. The participative management where all participants – heads and teachers share the same understanding of the goals that have to be achieved, the conditions under which these have to be achieved, the strategies and means to achieve them, the strategies to evaluate the attainment of these goals, the corrective actions that need to be taken, the training needs, the recognition/ reward system,… Unless, this participative management is put in place, most resources will remain either unutilised or underutilised. We have to decide. The choice is certainly ours.

4. Education for life

A couple of months ago we attended the wedding of two very successful professionals. He (probably as most husbands) was disappointed when she first cooked and could not hide his feelings or eat the food. He missed his mother’s food. She teased him when he could not change a washer in the bathroom tap. Her father could repair anything and everything. They have frequent arguments and according to the grapevine they may soon separate.

I do not wish to support any gender stereotypes that girls should learn to cook and housekeeping and boys all the rest or vice versa but raise a basic question, “does the education system prepare young people to be tolerant, adaptive, adjusting, sharing, giving space to others to develop and respecting the views and differences of others?

The issue is not just about maintaining marital peace between the two but also about how to strike a balance between career aspirations and family and home responsibilities especially when career for women is no longer an option but a necessity. It can be a very difficult period for a young family.

It certainly does not imply that the home and family responsibilities should be dumped on the in-laws (the advantages of living in a larger family are plenty provided one maintains a healthy two-way traffic) and one concentrates on one’s career for the problems of adjustment and working together are not limited to the marital life. One faces similar problems in the professional life also.

I always circulate my papers to my friends for their views and trust their contribution in improving the quality of my work. One day a colleague asked me not to do this. His sincere concern was that others would copy the idea. “Would that not be flattering?” I asked. He wasn’t so sure.

We also have long discussions on many issues with colleagues and friends. However, we prefer to maintain silence on topics related to our professional growth. It is rarely shared. Unless of course we are seeking a push from a superior who offers no threat or competition.

Why are we so reticent about sharing with and learning from each other? Many students would tell us of the difficulties they face in catching up after missing a class or two. Not many friends come forward to help and provide information on what happened during their absence.

Certainly, there are expectations to achieve, to excel and to do better than others. Trying to meet deadlines and excel in whatever we do can put additional pressures and result in severe stress for some. With a past track record of good academic performance, it becomes difficult to accept our own limitations and weaknesses in the personal / professional sphere. In most cases, the difficulties we face have nothing to do with our inherent abilities (we can still possess an intellect fit for a rocket scientist) but with the education we received.

We do not always realise that seeking help and sharing problems do not raise question about our abilities but indicate our willingness to learn and improve. Many forums that are launched to provide opportunities to discuss issues, share experience and seek solutions dissolve after a couple of sessions due to insufficient participation.

It is difficult for a grown up to change his/ her behaviour and develop certain attitudes and values. These have to be inculcated from the childhood.

This does not imply that the school should introduce an additional subject on ‘living up to the future responsibilities.’ All subjects can inculcate the basic values of cooperation, collaboration, living together and many others. We have to explore ways of implementing this part of the curriculum that largely remains hidden and latent, especially because it is not amenable to any ‘external’ testing. We have to decide whether we want to ensure a smooth transition for our children to their future roles or not. The choice is finally ours.

This series of four articles was published in Le Mauricien of 10, 11, 12 and 14th October 2006.