SEMBLANCE OF SCIENTIFIC SUPERIORITY

I have always struggled with the supremacy of sciences in the hierarchy of subjects in school curriculum, particularly the obeisance we accord them in Indian education setup. This struggle was brought to the forefront, this past month, by two triggers: the 2011 Lenovo Global Student Science & Technology Outlook that was forwarded by an acquaintance, who is an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow, advising the federal government on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs in the US. The other was a chance interaction with an Indian parent of a young college lad at a parent interaction session in a school near Delhi.  I am currently advising this reputed school, known for its rigorous academic orientation, on its adoption of an international curriculum. The objective of the session was to answer parents’ queries on benefits and rigors of the international program.

Girl Science Experient.jpgAt the session, many parents proclaimed racial/national superiority of science programs offered by Indian boards; articulating doubts about the ‘rigors’ of the science programs offered by the international framework. One parent, who had been quiet for most part, also shared the story of his academically brilliant son who had passed out of grade 10 from the very same school. Based on the outstanding scores of his son in grade 10 external examinations, the father decided that his son would benefit from intensive and focused coaching to crack the maniacal entrance examination to premier engineering institutes. The sixteen year old was packed off to the city of Kota in Rajasthan, a city with pathway to the engineering dream as its sole raison d’être. Statistically speaking, the cram schools in Kota have an impressive success rate. Like all cram schools, they are inhumane and depressing. A lesson learnt by this father the very hard way, as his teenage son became a nervous wreck and was clinically diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). That explained his presence at the session- he had been converted to a more holistic framework of education for his younger, equally brilliant son.

Skimming through the findings of 2011 Lenovo Global Student Science & Technology Outlook, excerpted here, left me connecting the dots:

  1. Is Science more valuable to society than the Arts? Yes, it is, except in Russia. Kids in India and Mexico especially believe so.
  2. What is the current state of Science in each country? Kids in Japan and Russia especially feel the number of students pursuing Science is declining. Kids in India feel the number is increasing.
  3. How many kids are interested in pursuing a career in STEM? The least are in Japan. The highest interest is in India and Mexico.
  4. Will STEM make them rich or change the world or both? Kids in India have the highest expectations of getting rich if they pursue a career in STEM. Kids in Russia have the least. Mexican and Japanese kids feel more strongly that they could change the world.

My two cents

In India, as in most other places, we misunderstand science and art and confine them to watertight subject boundaries. Science is not a set of subjects with a fixed body of knowledge; Science is a way of thinking, an attitude of curiosity, imagination and rationality.  The mental processes of an artist and scientist are the same.  It was one of greatest scientists of our times who said, “If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music” ~ Albert Einstein, highlighting the synergy symbiotic relationship between the two disciplines!

In most schools in India, we use the term science and science subjects interchangeably. In our science lessons, we discourage inquiry, reflection, and observation to make room for rote. Science subjects are taught (not learnt) as a dull drab mass of disjointed facts sans much science, the drudgery of which students tolerate due to parental pressure or some hope for gratification/ ROI in the future as the Lenovo survey amply demonstrates. Living in a poor nation like ours where majority of people are still deprived of basic necessities, I do not see even one science student with the zeal and passion of Severin Suzuki. The aim for studying science (or anything, actually) is simply to amass personal/individual riches.

With our tunnel vision of sciences and fundamentally in-the-box view of careers, the vast Indian middle-class parents still cannot think beyond medicine, engineering and IT for their children.  If you talk to them about the knowledge economy and that the career landscape in five years will be very different from today, with the emergence of new sciences, new art forms, new trends and paradigms of needs/wants; they are convinced that this implies that the quantum of information multiplied manifold so more rote and drudgery is required on part of their children to be successful in the uncertain future. Knowledge is pursued with such passion that understanding and application are frowned upon as infringements on precious, scarce time. The disconnect between knowledge and application is so pervasive that we have engineers graduating from of prestigious institutes who cannot even change a fuse.

Another salvo that parents are fond of shooting to defend the ‘Indian way of teaching sciences’ is that most doctors, scientists and engineers in US are Indians. Statistically incorrect, but this is a widespread perception when it comes to our scientific arrogance. I would not defend or dispute that claim but suffice to reflect that Indian organisations are lamenting the quality of new engineers and doctors in India, in some cases, only 25% of engineering graduates are found to be employable. Also, producing workers (doctors or engineers) with an edge in foreign lands- is that what we are so boastful about when there is rampant deprivation related to food, housing and livelihood?

Finding comfort in nostalgia, we harp on the laurels achieved by our scientists of yore like Aryabhatta and Shushruta. Fast forward to today, how many innovators and creators like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates have we produced lately? In a country where malnourishment and hunger is rampant, why have we been able to produce only one M S Swaminathan; in a country where public transport is non-existent, why have we been able to produce only one E Sreedharan? Well into the 21st century, Indian educational set up churns out millions of engineers annually, but we are yet to figure out how to construct roads that can last one monsoon; we are a unique nation where 80% of road accidents are caused by faulty road engineering.

Our fixation with science subjects has not taken us too far as a nation, as majority of our people continue to live in deplorable conditions. It’s time to put some science back into the science subjects!

So how does one put more science into the science curriculum so as to instil scientific temper? Here are some of my thoughts, more from perspective of foundational years necessitating attitudinal shift:

  1. Children are born with a scientific temper; pre-schools must design learning experiences in a way that sustains this spirit of inquiry and exploration.
  2. Taking the baton from the pre-schools, the elementary schools must encourage questioning, observation, listening and problem solving among young learners. Culturally, our tolerance threshold for children’s probing and queries is very low.
  3. As adults, we should take away the focus from one-right answer and keep the door of possibilities and probabilities open when it comes to interactions with children.
  4. Subject boundaries should creep in only when children grasp the rationality of doing so, somewhere around mid-teens; till then all/most learning experiences should be structured to be transdisciplinary/interdisciplinary.
  5. As adults we need to come down from the pedestal of ‘know-it-all’ where we have placed ourselves in our dealings with children. The desire to respond with ‘the right answer’ to every inquiry of children should be curbed and slowly eliminated. This will bode well for us as well as our children, so that they do not feel they need us as crutches in their information gathering to construct an understanding.
  6. Most science lessons till middle school should be experiential with strong conceptual and theoretical underpinnings.
  7. Encourage children to experiment and evaluate things that fascinate them. Help them inculcate a habit of research, analysis and reflection. Done effectively, it deepens understanding and creates linkages.
  8. Young children are intelligent beings and make deductions based on observation and valid reasoning. We should refrain from mocking and laughing at their theories, which in most cases is a reflection of his world and how he sees things. For instance, if a four year old observes that the “sky is moving”; avoid a patronising tone (the ‘How cute!’ kind); avoid the urge to tear through his deduction. Being told that it is earth that moves and not the sky will only make him repeat/regurgitate without actually understanding. A scientific thought deserves a scientific answer.

The possibilities are endless and we as a community, as educationalists and as parents need to find our own answers!

2 Comments

  1. Hi Payal,
    You have once again proved that impeccable vision and your lucid approach in penning down the factual thoughts that undergoes in an individual's mind. I only desire that one day, we would be able to incorporate our thoughts of setting up an institute by providing the right guidance of knowledge and practice to every child born in this universe and take the educational field to a stable and mature stature.
    Well done!
    Dhan.

  2. Having taught for fifteen years in Turkey, I can see that many Turkish parents, children and even teachers for that matter share the same prejudices about science and engineering as you describe for Indian parents. Your discussion of these prejudices too reminds me of the way we deal with these questions and misperceptioms about STEM in our IB Theory of Knowlege course as well as in the subjects themselves, especially the similarities between science and art in the need for experimentation and the creative generation of new ideas and interpretations. I have also noticed that justifications for a greater emphasis on the arts are more persuasive with such parents when they are based on improved chances of being selected into more competitive colleges abroad than any improvement in the cognitive abilities of students, or the intrinsic value of imagination and emotion in the process of building knowledge.

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