Wednesday, May 24, 2023

My Language ∝ My Science

This paper was published in the Journal of Education, 2012, Volume 7, Number 1, pp. 32-44.

(The title, 'My Language ∝ My Science) is inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ‘the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.’)


This paper founded on my research extending over two decades discusses the language demands of school science. These cannot be taken for granted, especially when numerous initiatives are being undertaken to popularise science subjects and thereby create a scientifically literate citizenry. The paper accepts the position of many linguists and philosophers that language is a key to understanding any subject and attempts to establish how ‘my world’ in the Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous quote, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (1922) also encompasses the salient but often ignored “my science”.


Each year examination reports at the CPE (Certificate of Primary Education), SC (Cambridge School Certificate) and HSC (Cambridge Higher School Certificate) levels indicate students’ inadequate language skills. Many Ordinary ‘O’ level and Advanced ‘A’ level science students are however not unhappy with this weakness and openly flaunt their contempt for languages. They could not be bothered with improving their language skills when they have the more important job of studying the sciences. Their teachers ‘understand’ their difficulties and the limited time they have to master the basic language skills and provide support (which could be even in the form of essays on expected exam topics), crack the examination code and dutifully ‘teach to the test’. Students cram the expected and learn to the test for the examinations (Hunma, A., 2011; Hunma, V., 2011) and manage to obtain ‘good’ results.

These practices are founded on the erroneous assumption that science subjects being empirical in nature proceed through experimentation and thus do not require the mastery of language skills. Beneath this is also some false pride that languages are for not so bright kids, who study these because they have no other options. Such attitudes and the subsequent teaching learning practices further exacerbate the difficulties in science learning, especially for Mauritians who learn it in a foreign language. To succeed, they therefore require a robust mastery of both the highly specialised technical language of science and the non-technical one for expression and communication.

Scientific literacy

One of the earlier attempts at defining the components of scientific literacy was made by Pella and his colleagues in 1966. Many more attempts have been made after this to define scientific literacy but the basic elements have remained more or less the same and thus, it is the definition of Pella et al., which is referred to in this paper to discuss the ambit of science learning. They defined scientific literacy as comprising of an understanding of the:

  1. the basic concepts of science;
  2. the nature of science;
  3. the ethics that the scientist in his/ her work;
  4. the interrelationships of science and society;
  5. the interrelationships of science and humanities;
  6.  the differences between science and technology. (p.44)

There is a significant overlap among these six components and it is not easy to address any one of them in isolation. Nevertheless, this paper focuses mainly on the first component.

Understanding of the basic concepts of science

Recently Yanish studying in Form I told me that he had learnt about pasteurisation.  To my questions; “What is it?” “How is it done?” “Why is it done?” “What if it is not done?” his answer, after some reflection was: “It improves the taste.”

The following week he was excited about an experiment with purplish grey potassium permanganate crystals. He had dissolved the glistening crystals in water and the water had turned uniformly purple. To my ‘when’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions, once again he had some vague ideas but clearly not the underpinning science of diffusion of particles.

These are two very simple but new concepts that were introduced in familiar contexts. Still, Yanish had difficulty explaining these. There are many such students who are not able to explain their understanding of science. Could this be because of their poor language skills?

Nevertheless, just before the exams, they will open their books and learn the answers by heart and obtain good results and forget everything soon afterwards.

The questions that we need to answer are as follows: Can we afford to remain vague in our understanding of science? Do we need to learn it only for the examination success? Will we still be successful in examinations if the questions are set in unfamiliar contexts? How do we strengthen our science learning?

It is useful to present another simple example here. At upper primary and lower secondary levels, students are introduced to the states of matter. The melting point of a solid is defined as the temperature at which a solid changes to a liquid. The freezing point of a liquid is defined as the temperature at which a liquid changes to a solid. Most students get these two points separately. Nevertheless, it is not easy to appreciate the implication that in theory and for most substances, the melting and freezing points are the same temperature. Many years ago, a young student inferred this similarity and got baffled. Both ice and water are at the same temperature! He tried to make sense and shared his understanding with me. He explained that ‘for the ice the temperature was little below the melting point’. How little? Why little? 

At the same time, introducing new concepts such as equilibrium, phase change / transition, pressure, pure substance, nucleating substances or exceptions to the rule, may further augment the difficulties. The questions that arise concern what to teach and how to make young students understand.

Most Mauritian students have seen the Tamarin salt pans and know that the water evaporates, leaving the salt crystals behind. Both crystallisation and freezing are familiar processes. What are the subtle differences between the two? How are the dissolving, melting, freezing, crystallisation and evaporation, similar and different?

Students do try to make sense but science learning goes beyond this personal construction of knowledge. Hodson (1988) points out:

Learning science is not simply a matter of ‘making sense of the world’ in whatever terms and for whatever reasons satisfy the learner. Learning science involves introduction into the world of concepts, ideas, understandings and theories that scientists have developed and accumulated (that is, what science knows). p.48

Driver et al. (1994) had also posited that “the process of knowledge construction must go beyond personal empirical inquiry. Learners need to be given access not only to physical experiences but also to the concepts and models of conventional science.” p.7

This is a tall order. How does one achieve this progression from personal constructions to knowledge constructions that have been socially accepted by the scientific community? Language becomes important in this transition as has been posited by many researchers such as Bruner (1964) and Vygotsky (1978). They have established the importance of language in cognitive development, understanding – how and why things are, and thinking about what and how they could be.

The languages of science 

As pointed out in the preceding sections, science proceeds through two languages. The first one is the highly specialized and technical language of science and the other one is the non-technical one that is needed for expression and communication. Students require the mastery of both to understand and become active users of science.  Consequently, it is crucial to ensure mastery of the language in which science is taught, particularly in a multilingual society where research studies by Tirvassen (2011) and Raghoonundun (2011) have underlined the need for clearer language policy, curriculum emphases and practices.

The technical language: It comprises the following:

  1.  Familiar everyday words with new, specific and often different meanings, 
  2. New words in familiar contexts, 
  3. New words in new contexts,
  4. The semiotic or non-verbal language.  

Moreover, some of these could be easily observable and understandable at macro level and others could be abstract or at sub-micro level requiring tacit understanding.

Familiar everyday words with specific meaning: Some terms, concepts and processes such as mass, work, force, energy, current, power, pressure, time, salt, solution, acid, base, element, compound, mole, boiling point, dissolving, diffusion, root, fruit, egg, have definite meanings in science. For some, mole for instance, the science meaning can be very different from its everyday connotation.

Moreover, two terms with specific science may have only one word in Kreol morisien. For example, both ‘dissolving’ and ‘melting’ are “fon” in Kreol morisien. Sugar dissolves or ‘fon’ in water and ice melts or ‘fon’ to the liquid state. 

New words in familiar context: The new words in familiar settings could include for example, parts of a plant. The familiar “stem is made of nodes and internodes, … Inside each root there are vessels to carry water, mineral salts and food. A flower has sepals, petals, stamen and pistil. The complete set of sepals is called the calyx. The complete set of petals is called the corolla. A leaf has a main and lateral vein, each vein consists of vessels to carry water, mineral salts and food….” (Science, Form 1, Ministry of Education and Human Resources, 2006, pp. 28-30).  Each new word has a specific meaning.

With the common experience of observing sugar and salt getting ‘moist’, students learn about deliquescence and hygroscopy and try to understand the subtle difference. Deliquescence is the “action of absorbing water from air to form a solution” and hygroscopy is the “action of absorbing water from air to become moist.” (Chemistry, Form 3, Ministry of Education and Human Resources, 2005, p. 84)

New words in new contexts: The entirely new words in new settings could be cells, atoms, sub-atomic particles, electronic structures, their configurations, …cathode, anode, … vernier callipers, standard error, parallax error, potential energy, …

These also include technical terms, prefixes and suffixes in Latin and Greek. For example, the animal invertebrate groups Cnidaria and Echinoderms. “Cnidarians are aquatic invertebrates. They have soft bodies with tentacles to catch small animals for food. Hydra, sea anemone, polyps and jellyfish are examples of cnidarians.” (Science, Form 1, Ministry of Education and Human Resources, 2006, p. 17).

Echinoderms have a spiny skin. Starfish, sea cucumber and sea urchin are examples of echinoderms.” (ibid., p.19)

The above list of words constitutes only a small sample of the vast scientific vocabulary that a student has to master.

There are many more at different levels of complexity that students are required to learn, learn their spellings and right pronunciation and understand the meaning that the scientific community has accepted. No approximations are allowed.

The semiotic or non-verbal language:

Moreover, the technical language is not just verbal. There are signs, symbols, numbers, abbreviations, images, equations, visual representations, graphical representations. These cannot be used mechanically. One needs to understand these for correct usage.

Graphical representation: As part of my PhD research (Hunma, 2003), I asked a group of B.Sc. Year 1 students of the University of Mauritius to plot a graph to present the data given below:

Use the data below to plot a graph:

Heart Rate:                              55        70        80        90        120      150      170

(beats per minute)


Volume of blood:                    4.0       4.8       5.2       5.6       6.0       5.8       4.6

(litres per minute)

This question was attempted by a total of 165 students in 1998 and 1999. Figures 1, 2, 3 and 4 represent the typical graphs. Thirty-one students submitted plots similar to Figures 1 and 2. Six students drew plots similar to Figure 3 and the remaining 128 drew the graphs as shown in Figure 4. Figures 1, 2 and 3 raise many questions, especially when graphs, their plotting and drawing inference form an important learning outcome. About one fifth of the students could not plot the graph correctly. Why did they not realise that there was something wrong with their graphs? Why were the graphs plotted in such an unthinking way?

Figure 1                                                                    

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

The non-technical language of science

Students come to the classroom with some scientific notions and everyday experiences or what Claxton (1993) describes as ‘gut science’, acquired through direct physical experiences and ‘lay science’ which is acquired through social interaction and media experiences. Sometimes these ‘informal ideas’ (Black and Lucas, 1993) are acceptable. At other times they need to be rejected or modified in line with the established scientific ideas. Vygotsky (1962) calls these ideas ‘spontaneous concepts’. Students have personal meanings for each one of these but these remain localised and unrelated to other scientific concepts.

Teachers are expected to skilfully relate these spontaneous concepts to the established knowledge and practices of science. This is not an easy task because the learners may store the two – everyday science and the formal science, acquired in two entirely different contexts in two separate compartments with no apparent links between the two. 

Moreover, this shift from the non-formal to the formal established scientific knowledge becomes difficult because of students’ inadequate mastery of the non-technical language. In fact, numerous research studies (See, for example, Sharp, 1994) have established that science students have more difficulties with the non-technical language than with technical language. In an interesting study, Cassels and Johnstone (1985) came up with a list of non-technical words that students had difficulty in using. Their list of ‘difficult’ words included words such as abundant, emit, linear, converse, negligible and many others, the understanding of which we take for granted.  

Students require the mastery of the non-technical language to understand and communicate the scientific knowledge in an objective and precise manner acceptable to the scientific community.  As such, the language skills are required in order to:

  1.  Listen to science lectures and talks, 
  2. Read science texts,
  3. Talk about one’s science ideas,
  4. Write about science ideas.

Listen to science lectures and talks:  Most of the scientific knowledge is communicated to students through teacher talk. Not all of it comprises the technical language of science.

Students need to develop the active listening skills that help them in comprehending – what, when, why, how the new knowledge is related to the much broader interdependent conceptual framework as well as retaining and responding to the teacher talk.

Nevertheless, what often happens at the classroom is akin to Wellington and Osborne’s (2001) ‘Postman Pat’ model of education. They state that the “dominant metaphor for teaching has now become ‘delivery’…. ‘Delivering learning’ as if it was some sort of package or commodity which is passed on to the student, stored in a kind of pigeon hole and later redelivered to a higher authority when assessment or examination comes around.” (p.3)

In the absence of the active listening skills, many students appear to be sincerely but thoughtlessly copying the teacher talk and then mechanically memorising it for reproduction in examinations.

Read science texts: The reading of any written text involves scanning, skimming, scrutinising for main ideas and the main train of arguments, inferring meanings, understanding the relationships, separating facts from opinions, drawing relevant conclusions and making informed judgments.

Science texts usually follow a strict procedure to present the scientific knowledge. While reading a science text we learn about the knowledge and also how it is to be communicated. The scientific community has a strict regimen for both. This difficulty is further exacerbated because most reading is done outside the class alone and without the teacher’s help.

Moreover, in general, most science texts are not easy to read. This could be due to the nature of the subject where the authors are expected to communicate the knowledge while adhering to   established conventions that include analytical and, impersonal style with text written in third person.  Illustrations help but the difficulty level remains high.

One example is as follows: “The locomotory system consists of the skeleton and muscles. The skeleton is made up of bones. The skull, vertebral column (backbone) and the breastbone make up the central part of the skeleton. The limb bones are connected to this part of the skeleton and help in locomotion. The skeleton gives a form, shape and support to the body parts. It also protects delicate organs such as heart, lungs and the brain. Muscles are attached to the bones. They help to bring about movements.” (Science, Form 1, Ministry of Education and Human Resources, 2006, p. 51)

This is a typical example of a science text which has nothing superfluous. Each sentence introduces a new concept. The non-technical words are essential, simple and specific – they illustrate the significant features of the concepts. 

Often with inadequate reading skills, students find science texts difficult and resort to memorising the text without any understanding. In the long run, they are not motivated to read more on their own.

At the same time, in most cases simplifying the texts is not the solution because this can distort the picture or convey an incomplete one.

Talk about one’s science ideas: Talking about one’s science knowledge is an important skill as it stimulates thinking and reflections on knowledge and learning. Students discover inconsistencies in their thinking and reconstruct their ideas. Teachers also come to know about students’ knowledge, its depth and misconceptions.

Nevertheless, inside most science classes this student talk, as Lemke (1990) describes it, is in the form of a ‘triadic’ dialogue where the teacher asks a question, student replies and the teacher evaluates the answer.

There is hardly any discussion that could involve students’ views and thereby give them an opportunity to test the robustness of their ideas. (Hunma, V., 2011) There are many reasons for this absence of classroom discussions. Students either lack the confidence to present their ideas or hesitate to share their knowledge because of the severe competition that exists among them. It could also be because of the excessive emphasis on course coverage rather than on the quality of learning outcomes. 

Write about science ideas: Students are expected to master the specific writing conventions to communicate their knowledge of science.  Jones (2000) lists four different genres of science writing that students should be aware of. These are “instruction, explanation, argument and discussion.” (p. 100)

In addition, they need to write their reflections on their science knowledge and their own learning to evaluate it and thereby promote it. Writing thus engages their active participation, plays both the cognitive and meta-cognitive roles and initiates the process whereby the students become responsible for their own learning. However, for this, it is important that students are given a lot of writing assignments that encourage them to think about their science learning understanding rather than repeat what the textbooks and their teachers state. 


In this paper, an attempt is made to highlight some language requirements of science and show how mastery of the language in which science teaching and learning takes place is a necessary condition for understanding scientific knowledge. This mastery promotes the understanding of – how and why things are, and thinking about what and how they could be (Bruner, 1964; Vygotsky, 1978).  In a multilingual society, it becomes all the more crucial to give the language science is taught in, its due importance in the curriculum.

It is therefore for us to decide whether we want to encourage our students to see the bigger picture of science and learn science for life rather than use the easy and popular ‘delivery mode’ or the ‘Postman Pat’ model (Wellington, and Osborne, 2001) of education for transient examination success.


Black, P. J. and Lucas, A. M. (eds.), 1993, Children’s Informal Ideas in Science. London:  Routledge.

Bruner, J., 1964, The course of cognitive growth, American Psychologist, 19, pp.1-16.

Cassels, J. and Johnstone, A., 1985, Words that Matter in Science. London: Royal Society of Chemistry.

Claxton, G.,1993, Minitheories: a preliminary model for learning science. In P. J. Black and A. M. Lucas (eds.) Children’s Informal Ideas in Science. London: Routledge, p.45-61.

Driver, R., Squires, A., Rushworth, P. and Wood-Robinson, V., 1994, Making Sense of Secondary Science: Research into Children’s ideas, London: Routledge.

Hodson, D., 1998, Teaching and Learning Science: Towards a personalized approach, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Hunma, A., 2011, Identities in transit and academic writing: an ethnographic study of first year Mauritian students at a South African university, Journal of Education, 6 (2), p.53-69.

Hunma, V., 2003, A Study of the Relationship between the Intended Curriculum and the Achieved Curriculum with Special Reference to Science Practical Work at HSC Level in Mauritius, Unpublished PhD Thesis, UoM.

Hunma, V., 2011, School Science and Underachievement, Journal of Education, 6 (2), p.22-35

Jones, C., 2000, The Role of Language in the learning and teaching of science, In M. Monk and J. Osborne (eds.) Good practice in science teaching, Buckingham, Open University Press, p.88- 103.

Lemke, J. L., 1990, Talking Science: Language, Learning and Values, Norwood, NJ, Ablex.

Ministry of Education and Human Resources., 2006, Science Form 1, EOI.

Ministry of Education and Human Resources., 2005, Chemistry Form 3, EOI.

Pella, M.O., O’Hearn, G. T. and Gale, C. W., 1966, Scientific Literacy – Its Referents, The Science Teacher, 33 (5), p.44. 

Raghoonundun, N., 2011., Clarté cognitive et littéracie : le développement de concepts scientifiques en langues étrangères en contexte d’enseignement multilingue, in R. Tirvassen (ed.) L’entrée dans le bilinguisme, l’Harmattan, pp.101-132.

Sharp, A., 1994., The linguistic features of scientific English, School Science Review, 75 (273) pp. 101-113.

Tirvassen, R., (2011) Curriculum et besoins langagiers en zone d’éducation linguistics plurielle, Le Français dans le monde. Recherche et application, 49, pp. 287-300.

Vygotsky, L.S., 1962, Thought and Language, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.

Vygotsky, L.S., 1978, Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Wellington, J. and Osborne, J., 2001, Language and Literacy in Science Education, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Wittgenstein, L., 1922, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,   accessed on 02.03.12.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

School Science and Underachievement


(This paper was published in the Journal of Education, 2011, Vol. 6, No. 2, 22-33.)


This paper founded on empirical research situates the inadvertent repercussions of the current practices of school science on students’ learning, self-esteem and subsequently their failure to achieve what they are capable of. This is systemic underachievement as it is fostered by the formal education and examination system.

This paper highlights different types of underachievement that remain unnoticed and unresolved and attempts to identify some of the systemic factors responsible for this underachievement. It also underlines the need to implement corrective measures so as to bridge the gap between students’ potential and actual achievement.


In the last two decades of my research work, I have come across many science students and science teachers who, with a tenacious focus on examination results, appeared to be sincerely engaged in the teaching learning process both at school and after school.

This educational venture produces satisfactory results with around two thirds of the students managing to pass the examinations. However, we fail to scrutinize the quality of these results and cheer with pride the quantitative improvements in pass percentages. And with equal ease we try to attribute the occasional quantitative deteriorations to causes such as difficult examination paper, unfamiliar paper format, stricter marking criteria and other unavoidable logistical constraints that schools are made to cope with. These reasons rarely prompt us to systematically evaluate what happens inside a classroom when the teacher and students meet. Nor do we try to put in place an accountability system with a view to enhancing the quality of classroom experience for each student.

Moreover, any questioning concerning the pedagogical significance of school science practices is difficult. This is partly due to the general consensus regarding the relevance of science subjects in everyday life, their indisputable special and superior position in the school curriculum, their perceived difficult nature, their specific laboratory requirements and the discipline that the study of sciences requires. Most science teachers work conscientiously in their laboratories.

Also, the relatively brighter cohort that opts for science subjects and that appears to be engaged in some promising pursuit further freezes any attempt to evaluate the pedagogical significance of the practices of school science. We thus accept school science, its practices, its place in the school curriculum, its role in producing scientifically literate citizenry and its results per se.

Nevertheless, during the course of my research on ‘A’ level science practices, students with good ‘A’ levels in science subjects expressed their dissatisfaction with the practices of school science (Hunma, 2009).  They complained that they sometimes lacked the crucial knowledge and background to understand topics, that there were not enough illustrations and practical work for them to understand the principles and see how these are manifested in practice.  As a result, they were not able to discern the relevance of school science to everyday life. At other times, they wanted to delve deeper into the related fields that stretched beyond the confines of the examination syllabus. This was not always possible because of the inadequate time and facilities needed for such illustrations and discussions.  

They alleged that their teachers, on the other hand rarely stepped beyond any topic. Most teachers ‘focused’ on the learning outcomes, completed a topic and then moved on to the next one without even making sure whether or not most students had understood the topic. Their priority was to complete the syllabus within the given time frame. The number of topics covered had precedence over the quality of the learning that took place.

Most students thus studied the course for the examination using time tested strategies of working out the past years’ question papers and rote learning answers to all prospective questions (ibid). ‘Practice makes perfect’ seems to be the guiding principle. ‘Hard work pays in the end’ being the motto. Such practices and attitudes raise many questions. The most important one concerns the aims of school science. Why do we study science? Is it merely to pass the examinations?

Why School science?

The National Curriculum Framework of the Ministry of Education & Human Resources (2009) for secondary education stresses the need for a scientifically literate citizenry in its rationale for science education.

Scientifically-literate citizens equipped with skills and knowledge to study and solve complex problems, are essential to sustain and improve quality of life on earth, to enhance democratic societies and promote global economy. (Ministry of Education & Human Resources, 2009, p.84)

Such objectives place tremendous challenges on school science which then not only has to communicate the established body of scientific knowledge effectively but must also help students develop the skills and abilities that are crucial for solving problems, taking decisions, research and innovation. These expectations are not new. Similar emphases have been expressed in previous curriculum frameworks.

However, my earlier research pointed out the gaps between the practices of school science and the developmental priorities of the country. Not all these objectives are addressed inside a science classroom (Hunma 2001; 2003). The main reasons behind the disparities between the intentions and what gets done in practice include our failure to reckon the differences between the nature, methods and practices of science and science education, the system of examination that regulates the access to further education, and other related pedagogical and logistical factors (Hunma, 2009).

Systemic Underachievement

For the purpose of this paper, underachievers are defined as those students whose performance does not reflect their real potential. They can achieve much more given the appropriate direction and support.

This unfulfilled potential is not due to any inherent weaknesses in the students themselves but due to the external pedagogical factors and their consequent impact on students’ affective characteristics. This results in limited cognitive engagement by these students. They half-learn many things and are not in a position to effectively apply this learning to solve problems, take decisions, innovate, as they are expected to.

This is systemic underachievement for it is prompted and fostered by the formal education and examination system.

However, not all underachievers are the same; they have different learning difficulties and require attention that is specific to their needs.

2.                  Research Study

This paper is an offshoot of a research carried out in 2006 and 2007 to capture the views of students regarding current practices and provisions of school science. Students’ answers to three questions of the study namely: ‘what are the topics you enjoy and why?’, ‘what are the topics you find difficult and why?’ and ‘any other comments that you would like to make regarding the practices and provisions of school science’, hinted towards limited achievement. These answers were then explored further in interviews for this study. 

Sample of the study

The sample of this study was selected in two stages. It started with a sample comprising 130 University of Mauritius (UoM) and 108 MBBS Year 1 students of the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (SSR) Medical College. They had all studied science subjects up to ‘A’ level. The purpose at this stage was to gather information on the practices of school science. It is important to state here that the sample was not a representative sample of the school population as it included mainly those who had obtained good results in their HSC/ ‘A’ level science courses.

It was felt that these students were in a better position to reflect objectively and freely on their school science learning now that they were out of the school system and also evaluate this learning in the light of the demands of their tertiary courses and their ability to cope with these. The students in the sample were asked to reflect on their experience of school science to respond to the questionnaire and interview. A quarter of the sample was interviewed either individually as they handled practical work in the UoM science laboratories or in groups constituted by a Professor of Anatomy at the SSR Medical College.  

Table 1: Sample of the study


University of Mauritius

SSR Medical College











B.Sc. 1








B.Sc. 2








B.Sc. 3











MBBS Year 1



B.Sc. 1








B.Sc. 2








B.Sc. 3



South Africa




Sub total















The sample for the second stage comprised 20 (mostly girls) students studying at the University of Mauritius. They were identified on the basis of their responses to the items in the questionnaire and the interview and also their performance at the ‘A’ levels and at the University (as reported by them). It was apparent that they were not achieving what they were capable of. It is important to state here that no psychological tests were administered to identify underachievers.

The medical college students were not selected for this part of the study though some of their responses (very easy, not challenging enough, we worked very hard, you prepare for the examination, …chemistry is so boring, there is so much to cram, there is no link to everyday life, I could have joined the medical college without studying any science at school, it is not helping me, …) were explored with the sample of underachievers.

3.                  Research findings

Three distinct groups of underachievers emerge from the study.  

Group 1: Students who focus on examination success

This first group of students comprises those who are rarely labeled as underachieving for the simple reason that we measure achievement in terms of examination results. We often accept the results at face value and at best hold the students responsible for their performance. And in this way, we ignore the gaps between students’ potential and their attainments and do not examine the factors underlying their performance (Hunma, 2005). We also overlook the gaps between the intended, the implemented and the achieved curricula.

This group comprised highly motivated students from ‘good’ secondary schools. These schools enjoy the reputation of producing good results at the HSC examinations. These students worked with a clear focus on scoring good marks in the examinations. They took private lessons so as not to miss out on any of the examination requirements. They unanimously agreed that the main aim before them was to score good grades and then move on to the next level, till they finally obtain “a good job”. With ‘passing the examination’ as the main aim, it made perfect sense to neglect all that was not amenable to examinations. Why waste time?

As far as the examination results are concerned, some managed to get the grades they aimed for and some did not. The credit for those who managed to get good grades goes to their hard work and to their teachers who managed to decipher the examination success code more accurately. This is not a difficult task as all information regarding examinations is readily available in the form of learning outcomes, past years’ question papers, practice papers, marking criteria, mark schemes, model answers and examination reports. In addition, over the years and with the increase in the number of candidates, there has been a simplification of examination demands with objectivity, reliability and management priorities overriding the validity concerns. One example is the introduction of the SC/’O’ level written alternative to the practical paper. 

Against this backdrop, it was not surprising when this group confessed that it had not acquired some of the crucial knowledge, understanding and skills that could have facilitated their transition to the university. It was not easy for them to adjust and learn. The courses were new, the place was new and not all lecturers were willing to ‘spoon feed’ them. 

Group 2: Students who give up due to boredom

It is important to understand how teaching takes place in most classes before we discuss this group of students. Good teachers select a topic and its learning outcomes and plan their lesson. They focus on the importance of each outcome, its many salient features that may appear in the forthcoming examination paper and also the logistics, which include the facilities and the time available for the class.

Often in the process, the emphasis shifts to the smaller and more trivial parts and many questions, how, why, why not, under what conditions, what if, … relating to the wider theme are postponed for the ‘next class’ when the topic would be dealt with again or remain unexplored. It is not that the details are not important but on their own they are insignificant and blur the bigger picture. This absence of a perspective negatively affects students’ interest and makes learning tedious.

This second group of underachievers thus comprised students, who gave up bored because they found the tasks so unchallenging and irrelevant to their needs and to everyday life. They saw no point in handling them and deliberately stopped engaging in learning. There were not many opportunities for them to explore and pursue their interests and queries. Nor was there any encouragement or time for what is often seen as unproductive digressions. 

This group did the minimum that was needed to survive the class. Soon they managed to acquire the labels of ‘average ability,’ ‘weak’ or ‘not interested.’ They appeared to be indifferent to these labels.

Group 3: Students who give up feeling dejected

At some point in their school cycle, for some reasons which include medical, late admission, peer group pressure, extra- curricular activities, teacher behaviour and prejudices, students of this third group either missed some classes or did not learn some lessons. With no focused attempt from teachers to help them catch up with what they had missed, they started lagging behind and eventually experienced failure in class work, home work, and class tests.   

This failure had an adverse effect on their self-concept. They started questioning their capacity to handle the demands of the science course, stopped making adequate efforts to understand their learning and gave up feeling dejected. The research work of Black & Harrison (2000) has also shown similar cases of ‘retire hurt’ students who they state “avoid investing effort in learning which could lead to disappointment.” (p. 32)

These students, with little faith in their own abilities to succeed, continued with their studies because there was no other alternative. They could not opt for another course. Nor could they drop out of the course.

It was not difficult to identify these students in the UoM practical classes where they pretended to be involved in some important work from which they could not be disturbed. They started fiddling with the apparatus, noting observations or taking readings that were not there each time they saw their teacher approaching. They did not want their teachers to know of their failings and difficulties.

However, behind this façade they had already accepted failure. It was hardly surprising that they stated that they rarely sought help to understand a topic. Instead, they accepted their weakness. They receded into their shell when faced with difficulties. The signs of ‘learned helplessness’ (Seligman, 1975) among students of this group were easily recognisable.

It is important to point out that most of these students were from secondary schools with relatively poorer academic reputation which is judged in terms of the ‘laureates’ the school produces. They lived up to the relatively poor expectations of their performance and confirmed the labels assigned to them on the basis of their performance in the CPE examination.

The existence of such ‘Pygmalions’ (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968) was further confirmed when some students even told me that they were of ‘average intelligence’ and could not achieve better results.  The data on which such judgments were made is certainly questionable.  A rough estimate would indicate that with elimination at different stages (CPE, SC and HSC), all students who reach the university level would be at least among the top 20 percent of the student population.

When I insisted that they could improve their learning by changing their study habits, some of them promptly replied, “It is not easy to learn science.” They conveniently used the public perception of science as a difficult subject as an excuse not to work harder. They thus tried to remain unaccountable for their attainments.

4.                  Discussion: School science silo - an end in itself!

It is clear from the above that the system initiates and then perpetuates underachievement. The sampled students repeatedly indicated their narrow view of science which they allegedly failed to enjoy, to understand and to relate to their everyday experience.

Why has science assumed such a narrow role? An attempt is made in the following paragraphs to explore some underlying factors that may be responsible for this.

From a vocational to an academic subject

Historically, the vocational bias of science subjects was recognised and special classes were organised at the Royal College of Mauritius. H.A. (1842) wrote:

Enfin, prenant en considération l’état de nos manufactures, de nos usines, et la nécessité de donner à notre agriculture le plus grand développement possible, on devra doter le college Royal de divers cours où l’on enseignera la chimie et la mécanique appliquées aux arts, la théorie des machines à vapeur, & c. ... L’importance des cours d’Histoire Naturelle, de Physique et de Chimie est trop évidente pour avoir besoin d’être démontrée. On ne saurait donc moins faire que d’ouvrir une fois par semaine, tous les jeudis, de 8 à 10 h., des cours spéciaux pour l’enseignement de ces trois sciences si essentielles. (p.10)

Such utilitarian concerns prompted the Royal College of Mauritius to open a ‘Modern’ section in 1861.  Science subjects were introduced as part of the Natural Philosophy curriculum. The Annual Report of the Royal College of Mauritius for the Year 1861 states:

The college is divided into classical and a modern section, with a view of enabling the students to follow one or the other accordingly as he may be destined either for a learned Profession or for a career where the higher classical attainments are not considered indispensable.” (The Royal College of Mauritius, 1861, p.5) 

This low status of science subjects was in line with the contemporary thinking of those days where “science was seen as a subject that was utilitarian, intellectual but inferior because it was not cultural.” (Nott, 1997, p.55)

The status of science subjects changed when the Art. I and II of Ordinance 15 of 1892 stipulated one English Scholarship for the Classical side and one for the Modern side students (Council of Education, 1893). However, with this, the teaching and learning of science subjects became academic, bookish and insulated from technology of local import. Ward (1941) observed:

The emphasis in the science course should be shifted so as to provide for the needs of the country in which the agriculturist is the chief user of a scientific knowledge and technique. I do not imply that commercialism should govern the curriculum…. The existing college curriculum goes almost to the extreme of remoteness from everyday life and could be recalled with advantage. (p.40)

This has remained the case.

From natural philosophy to many sciences

Moreover, over the years, with the expansion of knowledge, we have moved from Natural Philosophy to many distinct branches of science. Each branch acquires its significance by isolating itself from other branches. Different branches may deal with the same topic in different ways. Different topics may not have any linking strands at all, even in the same branch.  In fact, it appears that school science has achieved such levels of sophistication that in some schools even Form I science is taught by three different teachers!

Within this framework, the emphasis obviously shifts to communicating the mere knowledge of each branch for there seems to be a lot of content to transmit. There is little time for exploring the links between science and technology and the history and philosophy of science that could have helped students acquire a larger perspective. This bigger picture is crucial to understand the nature, relevance and methods of science. However, we tend to cut out the frills and communicate the essentials. Kuhn (1977) describes the practices of normal science education in the following words: 

Information about how that knowledge was acquired (discovery) and about why it was accepted by the profession (confirmation) would at best be extra baggage” (p.186)

Classroom practices

As stated earlier in the introduction, we seldom evaluate the pedagogical significance of the classroom practices. Science teachers remain in their lab, preparing, teaching, working hard. Rarely do we ask them: What aims/ learning objectives are they trying to achieve? What are the conditions under which these have to be achieved? What strategies are they using? Are these the most appropriate ones? What support do they require in their work?  How would they know if their students have achieved the objectives? What corrective measures (formative assessment) would they take on the basis of this evaluation?   

Moreover, science subjects are taught and learnt using the same old strategies that gave wonderful results in the past when only a select few (or the best) became teachers and students. The same old strategies are now expected to work with huge numbers in a mass education system. This is a daunting task for many reasons. The use of technology, for one, which makes life easier in all other fields and which can make science more accessible to the technology-savvy youth, remains absent.

Science learning for examination success

In this way, science subjects have come to be taught and learnt in isolation while exclusively focusing on examination success. There is nothing wrong in aiming to get good results except that with so much content to transmit the emphasis has shifted towards teaching it a as ‘rhetoric of conclusions’ (Schwab, 1962). There is no time to address the ‘extra baggage’ (Kuhn, 1977).

We teach what gets tested in examinations and we test what is reliably measurable. It would be worthwhile to question this limited view of science and also the validity of examination results. Validity is not merely concerned with the extent to which the examination covers the curricular objectives but goes on to encompass, as Messick (1989) explains, the inferences drawn and actions that are taken on the results. The usefulness and appropriateness of the inferences become equally important. This raises serious assessment and pedagogical concerns as well as psychological, social and moral dimensions of the ensuing actions.

5.                  Conclusion

The limited educational opportunities for secondary and tertiary education and the associated external examinations to select the ‘best’ for further education have transformed the system into what it is today.

The stringent examination-driven preparation not only results in a neglect of all that is non-examinable but also offers a narrow view of science. As a result, students may not acquire certain knowledge, abilities and skills that are crucial to becoming responsible users of science in everyday life. Sadly, some remain ignorant of their limited learning while others find this examination-driven process uninspiring and give up bored. 

Moreover, there is a group of students that does not get the support it requires, gives up dejected and accepts failure with the belief that it cannot do anything about it.

It is therefore important to review the practices of school science, especially when we know that the sample of the study comprised the top 20% of the CPE cohort. There is no doubt that these practices have yielded results needed to get admission to tertiary level courses and jobs. But beyond that, the questions that emerge are as follows: Do they help students in sustaining their further learning? Do they help them acquire skills and abilities crucial to innovate, explore, and solve problems? Do they help them become responsible users of science in their everyday life? Do they help them realise their own potential?  The list of questions is long.

This review is all the more necessary at a time when the Government is stressing the need to enhance access to tertiary education, develop Mauritius into a knowledge hub and promote scientific research of local relevance (Government Programme 2010-2015). We cannot allow any student to lag behind.

Consequently, it becomes important that we take appropriate remedial measures to effectively bridge the gaps between the intended, the implemented and the achieved curricula, between students’ potential and their actual achievement.    


Black, P. J. & Harrison, C., 2000, “Formative Assessment”, in Monk, M. & Osborne, J., (eds.), Good practice in science teaching, Buckingham, Open University Press, pp. 25-40.

Council of Education, 1893, Minute Number 6, Port Louis, Colony of Mauritius.

Hunma, V., 2001, “Examinations, Scholarships and Higher School Science Practical Work”, Journal of Education, 1(1), pp. 11-20.

Hunma, V., 2002, “Secondary School Science and Technology in Mauritius”, Science & Education, 11 (5), pp. 497-511.

Hunma, V., 2003, “Do ‘A’ Level science laboratory practices in Mauritius cater for the requirements of Cambridge International Examinations?”, Journal of Education, 2(1), pp. 9-28.

Hunma, V., 2005, “Assessment for assessment’s sake or for learning: what can trigger the change?”, Symposium Report, Reduit, Mauritius Examinations Syndicate, pp. 53-67.

Hunma, V., 2009, “Chemistry education for socially responsible and sustainable development: What are the challenges for a developing country?”, in Gupta Bhowon, M., Jhaumeer Laullloo, S., Li Kam Wah, H., Ramasami, P., (eds.), Chemistry in the ICT Age, Springer Publications, pp. 377-392.

Kuhn, T. S., 1977, The Essential Tension, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Messick, S., 1989, “Validity”, in Linn, R. L., (ed.), Educational Measurement, London, Macmillan, pp.12-103.

Ministry of Education and Human Resources, 2009, The National Curriculum Framework: Secondary, Republic of Mauritius, Ministry of Education & Human Resources.  Accessed on 20.01.11

Nott, M., 1997, “Keeping scientists in their place”, School Science Review 78 (285), pp.49 - 60.

Republic of Mauritius, 2010, Government Programme 2010-2015,  Accessed on 20.01.11

Royal College of Mauritius, 1861, Rules and regulations of the Royal College of Mauritius, Port Louis, General Steam Printing Company.

Rosenthal, R. & Jacobson, L.,1968, Pygmalion in the classroom: Teacher expectations and pupil’s intellectual behaviour, New York, Holt, Rienhart & Winston.

Schwab, J. J.,1962, The teaching of science as enquiry, in Schwab, J. J. & Brandwein, P. F. (eds.), The teaching of science, (pp. 3-103). Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Seligman, M.,1975, Helplessness: On Development, Depression, and Death, New York, W. H. Freeman.

Ward, W. E. F., 1941, Report on education in Mauritius, Port Louis, Colony of Mauritius.

[1] This paper was published in the Journal of Education, 2011, Vol. 6, No. 2, 22-33