Bangalore: Nouman Sheikh is a free bird these days; he flies kites all day. That’s just what a young boy who has finished class VI should be expected to do all summer.
Sheikh studies in a school affiliated to the ICSE board in north Bangalore and says he feels liberated from “the month-long mugging up” exercise, a reference to the fact that he had to learn lots of things by rote. ICSE stands for Indian Certificate of Secondary Education and the syllabus in ICSE schools is considered the toughest and the most progressive in the country.
Yet, ask Sheikh about the most “fun thing” he did in science through the year, and all he can come up with is one experiment from chemistry class — a burning candle that gets extinguished after a beaker is put on the flame.
That experiment shows air is essential for burning. It also shows how unimaginative science teaching in the country really is.
Things are no better in higher grades. Aymen Sheikh, Nouman’s sister, has just finished class IX in a school affiliated to the Karnataka board. She says she has not visited the school laboratory even once — the school does have a laboratory — and the only practical demonstration she can remember is one where her teacher showed the class how magnets have north and south poles, and how like poles repel and opposites attract.
The problem with science education in India is a national one, say experts. “This is a nationwide problem which is not so much due to the curricula, which have been revised lately, but because of the examination system,” says Arvind Kumar, director of Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (HBCSE) in Mumbai and a member of the steering committee of the 2005 National Curriculum Framework of NCERT, or the National Council for Education, Research and Training. The assessment system, which is memory-based and not really a test of comprehension, has to be changed, adds Kumar.
One of the most convincing pieces of evidence on the inability of school students here to understand basic science concepts comes from ASSET, a scholastic skills assessment test conducted by the Ahmedabad-based Educational Initiatives (EI), an organization started by alumni of the Indian Institute of Management to help improve the quality of school education. In a recent survey, 3,668 students of class VI were asked: “If you’re standing on the moon holding a pen, and you let it go, it will:
A) float away, B) float where it is, C) fall to the ground, D) float towards the earth
Only 15% of the students chose the correct option, C; 42% chose option A, which is the most common wrong answer. Clearly, these students do not understand gravity.
“A common misunderstanding is that heavier things fall faster on earth than lighter ones because of their mass,” says Vaishali Shah, communication manager at EI. The scientific reason is that this happens because of the difference in air resistance, and not in mass. “This misunderstanding may play a role in students choosing a wrong option in this question,” adds Shah.
Most educationists agree with Kumar’s opinion about the curriculum not being at fault. They blame the poor grasp of science among school goers on course overload, way of teaching and the evaluation system. “The problem is not with the curriculum; 90% of the syllabus is fine across the boards but there is little focus on sparking curiosity in children,” says Ramji Raghavan, founder chairman of Agastya International Foundation, a charitable trust which is trying to create a different way of teaching science in rural India.
Agastya operates 27 mobile science labs and nine science centres across 25 districts and has tested its model of creative learning on around two million children and 75,000 teachers. Raghavan says the model is now ready for large-scale deployment. “Schools do not teach the process of questioning — how to observe better and apply the classroom learning to everyday life,” he adds.
The malaise runs deep and even though the examination systems are poorly designed, it’s not easy to change them radically. There’ll be public outrage, says Kumar. “NCERT is trying to put grades in place of marks but nothing drastic can be attempted,” he adds.
Change, it appears, must come in small doses. For instance, this year, students of class X and XII in CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) schools had new “high order thinking skill (HOTS)” questions to answer which were meant to measure the ability to reason, analyse and evaluate information in most subjects including science and math. Still, Kumar worries about the implementation of the new curriculum and believes some feedback mechanism needs to be built by which the impact can be measured. “I cannot say about the central boards, but NCERT is working on this issue with the state boards,” says Krishna Kumar, director of NCERT.
Covering lost ground
At the 95th Indian Science Congress at Visakhapatnam in January, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced unprecedented funding for science education. Among other things, he said that one million schoolchildren would receive science innovation scholarships of Rs5,000 each over the next five years and 10,000 annual scholarships of Rs1 lakh each would be given to students taking up science degree courses. The 2008-09 Budget has even made a Rs85 crore provision for this scholarship under the INSPIRE (Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research) programme where students aged 10-22 will be eligible for scholarships for continuing science education, and those aged 22-31 for pursuing a career in science.
And in its 10th year, Kishore Vaigyanik Protsahan Yojana (a scholarship programme for students at levels between class XI and their second year of a bachelor’s degree course in science that was instituted by the department of science and technology and is run by the Indian Institute of Science, or IISc) has doubled the number of scholarships to 250. Convenor of the programme Dipankar Chatterji says that despite only 30% of the recipients continuing in the science stream, it is worth continuing the programme.
Are these incentives a little too late?
“India has lost out on precious time,” says Sujatha Ramdorai, professor of mathematics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, and a member of the Knowledge Commission, leading its working group targeted at having more students enrol in math and science courses.
The two important “pressure points” for the state of science education in the country according to Ramadorai, are poor teaching in schools and a surfeit of competitive engineering exams which do not encourage creative thinking or curiosity-driven, reflective approach to problem solving. “Schoolchildren do not have role models; there are no media stories on science to excite them,” she says.
Still, teaching science is a challenge in other countries too. Several national science academies, assisted by the InterAcademy Panel (IAP) in Trieste, Italy, are encouraging inquiry-based science education (IBSE) in children aged 5-13.
“Although India does not have a national programme in IBSE, its Indian National Science Academy is actively participating in our programme,” says Jorge E. Allende, IAP’s coordinator of the science education programme. IBSE intends to reproduce in the classroom the process of learning that happens in scientific laboratories. This is a widely employed methodology in the US and rapidly spreading in Sweden, France, Mexico, Brazil, Malaysia, China and South Africa.
In fact, HBCSE, which is part of the IAP international oversight committee on evaluation, has prepared science books for the primary school (class I to class V) based on IBSE, where each textbook has a workbook as well as a teacher’s book. “These are not elitist books, but for everybody,” says Kumar, but cautions that they require some orientation and preparation on the part of the teachers.
Teachers in India are another weak link in the system, say experts.
“They are teaching too much science at too young an age,” says P. Balaram, director, IISc, speaking more as a parent of a 10th grader than a scientist.
“Biology is very descriptive, it is taught as badly as it was in my days,” he adds. Balaram is not the only one; several scientists say that while physical sciences and math curricula in Indian schools are of reasonably good standards, biology has ostensibly lagged behind.
It would appear that biology is largely taught as a “back-up” science—an option for people who don’t want to take physics and math. “There is hardly any coherent presentation—a build-up from fundamental ideas to observations and explanations,” says Mukund Thattai, a biophysicist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore. “I am certain people leave school not knowing at all what biology is about.”
The initial response to the International Biology Olympiad, organized by HBCSE for the first time in India, proves Thattai’s point. “The initial number of applications in the biology Olympiad is one-third of what we get in physics,” says Kumar, who has organized math and physics Olympiads in the past.
The scale of the problem is enormous, Kumar adds. Almost 85% schools are state-owned, according to the National University of Educational Planning and Administration in New Delhi. So, restoring the dignity of school teaching as a profession to rigorous training of teachers, overhauling the examination system to changing societal perception, is a massive exercise.
“It is indeed, but we need to create a buzz in the whole country about science,” says Ramdorai.
This is the first in a three-part series on the quality of science education in India. Part 2 will cover engineering education and Part 3, research.