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How a Well-meaning Gentleman killed my Interest in Science

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When I was 14, I was asked by a well-meaning gentleman what I wanted to do in life. I replied, “I wanted to be a doctor.” He then went on “Just like your father eh? Good, good … tell me young lad, what is the definition of science?”

I was flustered and sheepishly, embarrassingly admitted my ignorance. He turned up his nose and droned “Science is a systematic study of phenomena through observation and experimentation.”

The well-meaning gentleman wasn’t well-meaning after all. Not only did he smash my hopes of becoming a doctor, he also, quite unwittingly, brought to surface something fundamentally wrong with education in India.

To illustrate my point, I need you to look at the gentleman’s definition of science again. Where is observation and experimentation in our science education? Aren’t our question papers skewed in favour of students who can memorize facts and “definitions”? Shouldn’t we be discouraging cramming and rewarding understanding instead?

I can count on fingers of my hand the number of crammers who went on to win Nobels. Wait … I’ve got no fingers. Just kidding.

You guessed it. The headline was just a ruse to get your attention. The post isn’t all about me ranting about lost opportunities. On the contrary, I’m thankful to that gentleman for killing my dreams of becoming a doctor. If it hadn’t been for him, I wouldn’t have become a copywriter – a job I thoroughly enjoy.

So what is this post about then? It’s about …

Everything Wrong with Science Education in India

Here’s a list of things that I feel are wrong about the way science is treated in the classrooms across India.

A curriculum for a few

Indian curriculum doesn’t take into account all learning styles. It only favors those who can keep pace with teachers’ instructions and memorize like a parrot. The curriculum is so poorly designed that there is little or nothing for kinesthetic, visual and social learning styles.

Such learners can benefit a lot from hand-on activities and demonstrations. But sadly, such activities are considered extra-curricular rather than being a part of core curriculum. Despite National Curriculum Framework (NCF-2005) and Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) guidelines on making hand-on activities a regular part of the curriculum, most schools view these guidelines as an obligation.

Disjointed syllabus

Students are introduced to the concept of motion in seventh standard for the first time. A whole year goes by before they’re exposed to the concept again in ninth standard. By this time, their slate is wiped clean. In fact, students forget the concepts as soon as the seventh standard exams are over. This disconnect in the syllabus is only matched by the incoherence of the books.

The school books are usually authored by one person. This means students are exposed to a single viewpoint, which we all know can be a dangerous thing. What’s more, different subjects live on their private islands. Students fail to see the interdependence between subjects.

Theory, theory, theory

Learning science without experiments and hands-on activities is like learning to swim without taking a dip in water. But if science labs are ill-equipped or missing completely, how can scientific concepts be understood?

“Everybody knows the importance of labs in science teaching. But learning science has been reduced to mugging up things.” rues professor Yashpal, celebrated science columnist.

Teachers fail to make science relevant

This is how science was taught in my heyday:

  1. Teacher asks her favorite student to read aloud from the book.
  2. The teacher paraphrases with no additional examples.
  3. Finishing syllabus is as easy as 1, 2, 3 …

It’s not difficult to see why most teachers teach this way. Because this way requires no effort at all. No preparation of notes before the lecture. No lesson planning. Nada.

Really bad teachers

In 2011, CBSE introduced the Central Teacher Eligibility Test (CTET). In 2012, 99% of the 7.95 lakh teachers who took it failed. Here are the latest figures from 2015:

  • 17.90 % of the 207522 appearing candidates cleared paper I (Primary classes I-V)
  • 9.16% of the 470032 appearing candidates cleared paper II (Elementary classes VI – VIII)

Year-on-year, those are good results. Maybe, just maybe, the quality of teachers has dramatically improved in just three years.  Perhaps the exam has become easier. Or is it the mushrooming of coaching institutes?

Anyway, those who passed will go to CBSE-affiliated schools. What about the rest?

You got that right. There isn’t a dearth of low-paying schools in India as there is no dearth of shady B. Ed. colleges that regularly churn out mediocre talent.

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