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Science Education And Its Inequalities

Updated: Jun 24, 2023

Perhaps nothing defines the human condition better in India than its inequalities. We all see it, from a very young age, given how exposed life is in India; especially for those who have very little. We see people suffering and feel sympathy towards them, but are often helpless and sadly indifferent towards them too. Every bit of dignity of the downtrodden has been ripped off them, like the skin on their bare feet, walking on scorched asphalt in the summer heat of an Indian megalopolis; but much more troubling is how we too have often gotten desensitised to it.

My intention through this article is to give my perspective, created through my experiences, about the state of (science) education in India; and to see the rather quirky relationship social status has with access to an appropriate form of education. These perspectives have been framed by my experiences growing up, and recently as someone steeped in science education research and implementation in India.

Having grown up in a family of scientists, who have been dedicated to education in India for more than two generations, I have heard discussions and have also noticed how most “science stream” students in India no longer take up science research or education as careers. My parents, who were both research scientists at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA), during their working careers, kept reminding me of this decline over the years. About how the quality of students IIA (and Raman Research Institute, Indian Institute of Science and other astronomy/astrophysics institutes) received in the 70s and 80s, compared to those who started applying over the last 3 decades, differed enormously. There has been a steady visible decline. The youth may choose “science” as their stream after matriculating, but that is predominantly to become an engineer, or doctor, or perhaps even an entrepreneur via an MBA. In my parents’ generation, the best science students ended up in the pure sciences, doing research and/or teaching at one of India’s few Premier research facilities or universities. Many also went abroad, but to do a similar line of work. In a short time, due to the boom in various service industries the world over, and a desire for the West to have their back-end supported by cheaper labour in the Developing world, the cream of our science students got attracted to the workforce. In the process it was Indian society and its education system that suffered as a consequence.

An increasing number of graduates, wanting to become engineers and joining the top universities – which haven’t scaled with our population growth or demand – has created a rat-race of young humans, all desperate to score high grades without a clue about the basic concepts; and providing a workforce that has long overheated. Meanwhile, our schools and universities have many mediocre, low-motivation teachers; high-end schools charging hundreds of thousands in fees but sourcing teachers from a pool of parents, or those who have no other job options and using it as a last resort, or who just want to supplement the family income doing something different. An uninspiring curriculum, woven into a system craving only grades, coupled with deteriorating teaching standards and de-motivated students is about the worst combination one could hope for in an education system; and we seem to have it!

Once, when my colleague and friend, Vishal Bhatt, and I visited a private school to do a workshop for the teachers, we did a demonstration of numerous hands-on science activities, all made with simple materials, and the teachers were absolutely hooked! We’ve never had any other sort of response: it has always been one of awe and wonder, whether in elite private schools or in rural government schools. At the end, a conversation started about an activity, which demonstrates some aspects of gravity, weight, friction etc. When asked a simple question – is the gravitational force on a heavier object the same as that on a lighter object – to our horror, these high school teachers were totally flummoxed and unanimously gave us the wrong answer, the wrong understanding. How are they then supposed to communicate the most ubiquitous of concepts to their students?

As absurd as it may sound, children learning in private schools, and those in under-privileged rural government schools are often faced with virtually the same low quality of education. The urban child in a private school has access to a well-appointed laboratory, the online resources, libraries, coaching and tuitions, but is her/his understanding of the concepts helped by any of this? Is a rural or inner-city government school child really that much worse off having none of this expensive intervention? Our experience in this has been mixed. Thankfully, when it comes to how our brain is moulded when trying to grasp and learn abstract scientific concepts, it is not the facilities you have that make the difference, it is the experiences1. And a good learning experience, steeped in understanding science concepts, can be created with very little. In fact, there are many instances of a part of life that is taken for granted in the villages, that has been completely forgotten by the urban society. When we now see children playing with a stick and tyre, we marvel at it! Does the child understand angular momentum? Most likely not; but s/he is at least experiencing it! Who knows, a little bit of experimentation, changing the variables etc, and the child discovers something for themselves. A theory, a hypothesis of their own, based on an experience, and formally referred to in the textbook as “angular momentum”.

In my experience as a science educationist, the apparent inequalities, as mentioned above, are clear. Children from privilege have access to better facilities, have larger safety nets to try different options, have the resources to learn if they are self-motivated and/or guided, and are usually supported by ever-ambitious parents willing to provide any teaching tool, kit, gadget, workshop, coaching class etc that the child desires. Added to that, parents now consider school education and quality inadequate, so most urban children start going to private tuitions or coaching lessons, geared towards “scoring high marks” or “clearing entrance exams”. This has led to a plethora of highly-funded online (and other) coaching classes that have made a mockery of our education system and relegated schools to just an “authorising” agency, where kids need to be enrolled just to be able to write National or State Board exams. Meanwhile, our education system, with a flawed emphasis and stagnant or even deteriorating teaching standard, barely does the child any justice. The victims are our children, who get caught up in a whirlwind of tests, exams, tuitions and marks and in general lose out on an holistic education that may have been richer with a hands-on experiential aspect woven into the mainstream curriculum.

Unfortunately, as urban mainstream school children are stuck either in their books or smart devices, they have lost the very basic hand-skills that are the right of every child. Besides, an attitude that they are privileged and know everything (like naming concepts), has stifled their learning and understanding of science concepts. As Vishal often says to teachers and students during our workshops: “A science concept is like a person. Just knowing the name means nothing. You have to be with the person, talk to her/him, experience her/him to understand the person”. Among children, who have been fed by a system where “naming the concept” is given due reward, the whole idea of “understanding the concept” has been lost. Also, the fact that children aren’t exposed to the experiential hands-on side of learning has led to bizarre scenes in many of our classrooms, where we take simple-to-make hands-on activities. Children struggling to tie a knot on a piece of thread; unable to wrap a rubber-band around the neck of a balloon; or even unable to inflate a balloon itself! These have been some of my observations in urban middle- and high-income schools.

In government schools, or low-income schools, we have noticed something quite different. Children in general seem to have a far greater interest and passion in learning, have distinctly superior hand skills, are more resourceful in sourcing materials and end up having a more enriching experience when engaging with hands-on science activities. This aspect has been among our greatest sources of joy for the work we do. The glint in the eye; the thrill from making a simple toy oneself that works; the total immersion in the activity to derive the most out of it: these are all liberating aspects for a people that have long been suppressed by society. This perhaps results from the fact that typically the exposure for these children is so limited, that anything new happening in their school, in their classroom, they are excited about. So, like a sponge, they are keen to absorb whatever they are exposed to. Whereas, a lot of the private schools have too many things going on for children – or are so focused on rote learning that the child by the time s/he’s in 8th grade has been shorn of any joy in learning – that an additional activity doesn’t seem to excite them so much.

While gathering my thoughts to write this opinion piece, I came across a wonderful article in The Caravan that perhaps explains the foundational reason for the rot in India’s education system. Titled Caste and the delusion of “merit” in Indian higher education2, by Namit Arora, the article is a well-researched and first-hand account of how our elite institutes and educational centres today cater to the upper castes, who take advantage of government-subsidised higher education and mostly push off abroad to make their big bucks, but haven’t been responsible for any grassroots education development in India, or any innovation or discovery in Indian science that has put us on the global stage. The fact that we still talk about “India’s only science Nobel Laureate”, almost a century after the event, speaks volumes about our scientific achievements in Independent India. Arora goes on to explain how India’s true scientists and innovators, historically, have always been the lower castes: the ones who engineered our marvellous monuments and built the cutting-edge implements of the day. In modern India, they have been shunned and excluded from our “meritorious” elite education, which is available to only the privileged, who in India have always lived in a world of entitlement and been averse to physical hard-work: the bedrock of doing good science.

No wonder, then, that in my short time of 6 years, working with tens of thousands of students and teachers across India, from the most elite schools to neglected government schools in the heart of Chhattisgarh, I have found the brightest sparks coming from some of our most economically deprived and neglected sections of the population. This reality creates a contradictory emotion of hope and despair in me. Hope, because the potential is vast and just providing an equal opportunity is perhaps sufficient in erasing the inequalities of the past. Despair, for if we haven’t done it for so long, what’s the guarantee we’ll do it now? What with the cataclysmic future we are headed into (climate change, crony capitalism); the direction seems wrong and time short! But we live in hope, and it is up to our generation to unravel our true potential by providing a vibrant, appropriate and dynamic education to all our children, which starts at home.

I’d like to end here with a story. 2009 was the only year in which India participated in the Programme for International Students Assessment (PISA) examinations, which specifically tests children on their conceptual understanding, numeracy and literacy skills etc. India selected its two “best performing” states, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh, to participate. Expectedly, from a list of 73 countries that participated that year, India ranked 72nd (and if you consider HP and TN separately, they effectively ranked 72nd and 73rd, respectively).3 In embarrassment, India hasn’t participated in this test ever since. But winds of change and hope are afloat. India has finally drafted and tabled a new National Education Policy (NEP 2020). This document specifically talks about experiential and practical learning in sections 4.1 to 4.6. Its broad vision seems to possess all the qualities of a progressive education system, which holds a lot of promise for our children. With the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) expected later in 2021, one can expect a major push by the National and State governments to implement NEP 2020 and NCF 2021 in the coming years. India has a history of excellent policy, but equally poor implementation. But this time may be different: India has decided to again start participating in PISA, starting with schools from Chandigarh and hundreds of Navodaya and Kendriya Vidyalayas from across India. There’s a vision to slowly start including other state and national board schools. While participating in PISA by itself doesn’t mean our problems will be solved, it shows we are finally acknowledging our deficiencies and willing to address them. Over the last couple of decades, India has expanded its funding and focus on education and research by setting up, for example, the Indian Institutes of Science, Education and Research (IISER); and private agglomerates have followed suit by setting up excellent liberal arts institutions such as the Azim Premji University, Shiv Nadar University and many more. With the publicity conferred upon the NEP and NCF, and its potential for large-scale implementation and impact for all children across our vast country, we may actually be penning something very different in a couple of decades’ time…

Procheta Mallik is a science educationist and researcher with training in physics and astronomy. Procheta is a Trustee at Innovation and Science Promotion Foundation and a Co-founder of ThinkTac, a social enterprise whose mission is to empower every child to engage, enjoy and innovate with science as they learn.

1Kolb, David A.; Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, FT Press, 2014

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