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Science education in schools

Updated Mar 04, 2016 08:20am

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The writer taught physics at Quaid-i-Azam University and Lums.
The writer taught physics at Quaid-i-Azam University and Lums.

We have a new national hero in Nergis Mavlavala — a brilliant experimental astrophysicist, a professor at MIT, and a front-seat explorer of the deepest mysteries of the cosmos. Her contribution in designing the interferometer that detected the slight murmur of space-time given out by two merging black holes over a billion years ago has put her among the pioneers of such exploration.

The event happened so far away that if light were to come from there, it would take over a billion years to reach us. We take pride in Mavlavala because she is one of us and had her schooling in Karachi before she went to face the challenges of higher education in the best institutions of the world. We take pride in the fact that a person educated in Pakistani schools can be among the best in the world.

See: Nergis Mavalvala: The Karachiite who went on to detect Einstein's gravitational waves

That science education in Pakistan is inadequate is saying the obvious. In fact, it is bad enough to scare students away. There is a long list of problems with science education in the country. Textbooks written for Pakistani textbook boards and colleges are dreary and uninteresting, and only overload students with facts. Badly printed, they are terse in their explanations, and care little for graphic presentations. Teachers are either untrained or poorly trained, and hence uninspiring. Many have poor knowledge of the subject they teach, and hence discourage questions, and kill curiosity.


When it comes to teaching science, the biggest issue is the medium of instruction


Examinations demand memorisation, so that students have no reason to understand and internalise the subject matter. Laboratory facilities are not available except in private elite schools or a few well-looked-after public schools. In most public schools, where lab equipment exists, students are not allowed to handle it for fear of causing damage, and the equipment is used by teachers to only demonstrate experiments to the students.

There is no reliable survey data available, but it is safe to say that Pakistani students are in general scared of studying science in schools and colleges. Most students in the higher classes opt for subjects in the arts and commerce. All of this is because of the way science is taught.

Teaching science requires special attention and special training of teachers in teaching methods that invoke reasoning and curiosity. It also requires laboratory equipment to let students explore and verify phenomena and learn methods of scientific inquiry. It requires textbooks that make scientific phenomena understandable through systematic exploration. End-chapter exercises in textbooks must not ask recall questions, but demand thinking, reasoning and analysis. The same is true for examinations.

Know: Jinns invade Pakistani campuses

Sadly none of this is evident in the vast majority of Pakistan’s schools, public or private, except in some expensive elite schools. So only a small fraction of the total number of students gets to learn science properly; the rest are left struggling.

The biggest issue in science education in Pakistan, however, is the medium of instruction, an issue on which our policymakers have been vacillating when it comes to teaching in Urdu or English. Not long ago, it was decided by the Punjab chief minister that English would be the language in which science and mathematics would be taught in his province from class I. It transpired that it could not be done because the teachers at that level were unable to employ English as the medium of instruction.

The issue of the medium of instruction in science education is a complex one. Concepts and their explanations can be best conveyed and received in an easily understood language. In this respect, texts written in Urdu or mother tongues should be the best. But the problem arises with terminologies. The latter convey not only concepts behind phenomena but also interconnections between related phenomena through words that are derived from the same root.

Also read: Supreme Court orders govt to adopt Urdu as official language

The language of science instruction has to have the capacity to allow the formulation of terminologies that possess these two qualities. If a language does not have that capacity, it has no recourse but to borrow words from other languages. In borrowed terminologies, however, that interconnection can be lost, which is not an insignificant loss.

If we are to teach in Urdu and yet desire that the interconnectedness of terms, for example, oxygen, oxide, oxidation, oxidisation, oxidised, of the English language be preserved, the solution would lie in using Arabic and Persian vocabulary and grammar, as was done some decades ago. This for students today would be as unfamiliar as English words. An added problem for students would be to make the transition from Urdu vocabulary to English upon reaching higher classes.

Coupled with this is the seemingly perennial problem of poor teaching of English in public schools. A vast majority of students from public schools can hardly understand English. We observe this even at the university level where we see blank faces when we deliver lectures in English. Students often admit not being able to fully comprehend lessons in foreign textbooks, or even the questions at the end of the chapter.

No one familiar with this problem can agree with the assertion that science and mathematics be taught in English from early schooling. Teaching science and mathematics in English to those students who do not understand the language is tantamount to denying them the means to understand and hence enjoy learning these subjects. It also amounts to forcing them to memorise the text.

But even more painful is reading those science textbooks in Urdu which retain English terminologies transcribed in Urdu. It is not hard to imagine the difficulty faced by a class V student reading terms like ‘endangered species’ or names of complex organic molecules in Urdu, and understand why children get scared of science.

The answer eventually lies in increasing the English language skills of students — of all the students. Teaching of English in schools is a major unresolved problem of our educational system. One wonders why we cannot resolve this problem at the national level once and for all.

The writer taught physics at Quaid-i-Azam University and Lums.

Published in Dawn, March 4th, 2016



The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


Comments (49) Closed



brr Mar 04, 2016 06:02am

scientific terms should be wholeheartedly included / absorbed into other languages to make science eduction possible.

Elya Mar 04, 2016 08:15am

very well written. I second you, sir. English can solve many problems of the students. If a student is doubtful about his/her teacher that they were not taught correctly (which happened a lot of time with me), still they can find so much stuff on the internet to clear their concepts. but this can happen only if the student is good at English.

Naveed khan Mar 04, 2016 09:00am

Very Productive, Agree English is universal Truth Now. Our Country Should have long Term Strategy to Educate the Nation with English.

shahid Mar 04, 2016 09:09am

So why are the Chinese, Russian, Japanese, German, Iranian, Dutch, Spainish, Arab, and so on, not taught the basic scientific subjects in English? Are they not producing and scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers? The problem is the deep inferiority complex from which our ruling elites suffer. The author's article is a good example of this slavish mindset. Last time I checked Dr. Abdus Salaam was a product of an ordinary school where he was taught in Urdu. There are literally tens of thousands of Pakistani engineers and doctors and scientists who are the products of regular Urdu medium schools and have done quite well, the author's opinions notwithstanding.

atif khan Mar 04, 2016 09:25am

prolem is that teaching science in urdu is hell lot of more difficult, i was teaching a kid physics voulntarily and coudlnt understand the technical wordings myself :),

wellwisher Mar 04, 2016 09:44am

In sixties, north Indian states reduced reliance on English and southern states increased it. Result today software revolution is largely confined to south and northern states lag badly behind them in economic development

wellwisher Mar 04, 2016 09:47am

@shahid --China is increasing use of English language as it wants to move from low end manufacturing to high end research.Europian nations are using English for all higher education, in fact now airline pilot communication is only in English.Russia and Japan lag behind in research.

Iqbal Mustafa Khan Mar 04, 2016 11:14am

Good article. We need more people writing about education in Pakistan instead of current affairs.

Sabaq Foundation (www.sabaq.pk) has tackled science education head on by providing FREE video lectures for Math, Physics, Chemistry, and Biology for Matric and FSc. These videos are in Urdu but use English medium terminology. Last year over a million students watched these videos.

AAM Shehri Mar 04, 2016 11:15am

@SHAHID, Thats because Germans speak German, Japanese speak Japanese, Russains speak Russian at their home while we speak Pushto, Sindhi, Balochi, Punjabi etc at home. I am a non Urdu speakr and frankly speaking when I was a student (when there was no media) I found Urdu not any less foreign than English. If you are a Urdu speaker may be it makes sense for you but not for the rest of us.

Tariq Ali Khoso Mar 04, 2016 11:30am

It is right at all that government should take into consideration how little children get full focus by teaching them in english language rather than teach them in urdu or their native language which is the best form of communication.

Sanjeev Mar 04, 2016 11:41am

A student will understand better if the subjects are taught in their mother tongue. When I studied in India all the subjects were taught in the provincial language , Marathi for my province. Till Matrik exam students learnt all subjects in the provincial languages. In college the medium of education shifted to English. This did not cause any trouble in understanding science. The English medium schools are normally private schools and charge more fees. Only the rich or upper middle class parents can afford to send their children to English medium schools.

Chicago com department Mar 04, 2016 11:44am

Urdu should not be used as medium of science instructions... ... Problem is not that youth cant understand science in its true language called English.. Issue is our teachers has issue to communicate in English... Please force the teachers to learn good English ... Please not deprive us to read school science in English..

Student Mar 04, 2016 11:44am

These people should come out to discuss the policy. There must be a single medium of education across the country ....either English or Urdu. And that should be our national/official language. Duality in the system is a never ending story and you can not build a nation on that...never ever.....Thank you.

jehanzeb Mar 04, 2016 11:51am

nice article.

Science should be taught in our national language Urdu in which we talk we dream. It will produce excellent results

Gabbar Mar 04, 2016 12:01pm

English is the best language to study !!!! The world works on English , In India vernacular Mediums are almost shut atleast in Urban India. We Indian are adaptable and fast learners . And soon we will take over the world along with China.

Nomi Mar 04, 2016 12:03pm

Students should be taught in Urdu for the first few years. Say 6-8 years. My early education was in Urdu. 8 years. After that I moved to an English Medium school. I faced difficulty for the first few months . But after that I started doing better than the rest of the kids. I felt that I had an advantage over other kids in math especially. In fact even when I was at Urdu medium school, I used to help English medium kids in science and math. Once kids develop English language skills they should be taught in English. For 1st 8 years they should be rigorously tested in English and should be taught technical terms even in their english course work. They should be instructed with the view that ultimately they would have to study in English. For this special books that would help these kids transition from Urdu to English should be taught in middle school. SO that by the time they move to high school they are well versed in English and are familiar with technical terms.

9Do11 Mar 04, 2016 12:26pm

Sanskrit has all the scientific terms - and there is nothing that can be communicated in English and cannot be through Sanskrit. Therefore Hindi medium schools in India are able to explain scientific terms in the native language and most of the students understand. Loads of students from Hindi medium schools qualify for prestigious IITs(including myself). Urdu, closer to Arabic, should do the same - i.e. pick up scientific terms from Arabic, if present.

M.Saeed Mar 04, 2016 12:47pm

Introduction of science in gradual stages is the answer. Start at primary level in Urdu but using the terms in English. Go to grade 8 as such and from that level, teaching should be in Urdu/English combined and then going to the matriculation level for complete English. That would make it easy for all further studies for the students in local and international educational institutions.

Abdul Rehman Mar 04, 2016 01:02pm

Thats the main problem we lag so behind in research output, many of the graduates don't have the basic concepts of natural sciences as they have to learn it in English. A country like Iceland with a total populaion of just 300,000 which is less than a smallest city of Pakistan like Shiekhupura Still they teach everything in their own language, Even graduate level Medical and Engineering education is in Icelandic. I think now it will take alot of resources to change it back to Urdu here but atleast uptill intermediate(F.Sc) all science subjects should be in urdu. So a person from small village has tthe same opportunity to excel as an elite from DHA.

ZIDANE Mar 04, 2016 01:04pm

I agree with you sir, but you can't give me single example in which any country adopt other language for their education system about which country's 99% people doesn't know their basics, and that country developed. China, Japan, France, Germany ets so many other examples which i can give you, that nation adopt their mother tongue for education and now they are teach the Wolrd.

Aftab Mar 04, 2016 02:16pm

One has to take into account that the linguistic problem is not only confined to education only but has a political dimension that is congruent with the sociological ethos of the phenomenon. The mere fact that we, as post-colonial state, we still have the tendency to keep the markers of unequal treatment of languages intact. I wonder even if we were to switch all education system in English, we will still find these nuances of better English vs. local English divide among the different sections of the society. The problem is not of one language against the other, but the attitudes and aspirations we have attached to these languages in general. Psycholinguistically speaking, it makes more sense to teach in the language most widely used in a child's environment. Having schooling in English while 93% of the people of Paksitan still face the problem of communicating in English will further the divide in the society, hence non productive in the end. Nevertheless, the discussion shall go on

Sahir Sumalani Mar 04, 2016 02:33pm

The writer suggests that the English language skills of students must be increased on the contrary the government has directed its offices to communicate in Urdu rather than in English.... In the long run switching from English to Urdu will have a great impact on new generations.

SUNIL Mar 04, 2016 03:26pm

The danger of science education is that it teaches students to be analytical, rational and inquisitive.

X Mar 04, 2016 03:31pm

@shahid Urdu has not been developed enough to have the right words for scientific terminologies and technical jargon.

Azhar jamil Mar 04, 2016 03:39pm

English and Urdu is not a problem while our learning attitude is the main problem. In our schools education is not a priority. Teaching system in our schools mostly emphasis on collecting informations for passing exams. And education is a process of developing minds from the very begininng till end, which is almost endless. In this sense education needs more of our attention rather than languge.

naji Mar 04, 2016 04:01pm

It is worth to learn English and all science subjects in English. Improve education level in Urdu and English, train teachers, administration in education, increase numbers of highly qualified and honest staff in upper level of education department.

Varun Mar 04, 2016 04:30pm

What is the translation of "Science" in urdu.

GAK Wazir Mar 04, 2016 04:46pm

Unfortunately, we are undecided so far whether to learn English or Urdu or introduce Arabic as a speaking language. Learning English is essential for us as all correspondences with other countries of the world are in English. Secondly, we visit the world states in connection with preaching of Islam and other important engagements the only language which is a sources of communication between us and them is English. Our competitive examinations and the major scientific, economic, religious, social and political books written by foreign authors are mostly in English. We should not undermine its importance but pay due attention to keep balance with the world in terms of language and other sciences.

RS Tirkie Mar 04, 2016 04:48pm

@Sanjeev : You can comprehend English unless you have a solid foundation in it. You will not get a job with a multinational company unless you cannot write correct English. That is the reason in soviet union foreign students were taught Russian for one year and tested for their proficiency in Russian before the student can join any functional stream. You seem to have forget that standard of teachers have reduced unto such an extent that an MA pass can not write error free English.

Ali Mar 04, 2016 04:50pm

I was heartened to read a column relating to a useful subject that will help us progress as a nation. The amount of science taught to young children under the age of 12 in the UK and US is very limited and could relatively easily be taught in Urdu, Punjabi. Most effort is focused on developing sound fundamentals in English and Mathematics. By the age of 12, if our school system is up to scratch, then the English skills of students should be good enough for them to understand key concepts/terms in English. Urdu etc could still be used without detriment in as a medium for teaching but English would be necessary in certain situations. I see why the 2 cannot be used in conjunction.

murtaza Mar 04, 2016 05:22pm

@wellwisher Have you ever visited China? All their education is strictly in Chinese, there is no increased reliance on English. In fact society frown upon pupils in English language school, because there level of education is so low. In history the country that have prospered are the ones that hold on to their culture and language.

Atam Vetta Mar 04, 2016 07:11pm

@shahid. At some stage all scientists in the countries your mention learn English language and English science terminology. If you are in doubt, please look for the Chinese & Russian names in the list of authors in the papers published in the 2 main scientific journals, Nature (UK) & Science (USA). Today all important research is conducted by teams from different research orgs and Universities in different countries. English is the language of science NOW.

Amir Dewani Mar 04, 2016 10:28pm

Teaching science means and understands investigating in anyone of the natural sciences like physics, chemistry biology etc. The scientific investigation has to be accomplished in accordance with methods obtained by thorough learning and training. This means systematized knowledge derived from observation , thorough study and experiments which aim at learning the nature and principles of what is being taught. Yes, the core issue is the medium of expression. The crux is in the ' process of active listening with understanding through a common medium of communication. And good listening needs the use of eyes, ears and presence of mind too!.

Aisha Mar 04, 2016 10:59pm

There was a time when language of science was Latin. Many terms in Chemistry and biology are still retain their origins. During the scientific revolution, most europeans switched to using their native languages for publishing scientific work. One may note here that scientific learning in native, 'vernacular' languages did not prevent scientific revolution from happening. There was a point when even Newton had to publish in English. The connection between language and learning that we keep making seems to be running in the wort direction. There have been studies which prove better learning behavior and possibilities for innovation when the medium of knowledge interaction is one's own language. On the contrary, link between a foreign language and original thinking and creativity seems to have no scientific or historical basis.

Valar Mogul Mar 04, 2016 11:23pm

Why reinvent the wheel when these issues have been dealt with decades ago in neighbouring countries? I am amazed at the english skills (not accent lol) of Indian coworkers who are from much poorer backgrounds than I am. Agree with their politics or not, one can still learn from how they teach Science in language similar to our urdu. I would not recommend copying Persian or Arabic ways, if we do that why not copy the English terms - at least it will be accurate and the student can graduate on to international books later.

Buroung Mar 04, 2016 11:27pm

Very simple and factual summary. The writers observation is laudable.

US Mar 04, 2016 11:27pm

@shahid

So why are the Chinese, Russian, Japanese, German, Iranian, Dutch, Spainish, Arab, and so on, not taught the basic scientific subjects in English? Are they not producing and scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers?

Since when these countries are producing scientist??? They all are copying The US.. Chinese, Russian, Japanese, German, France were noting, they are now something because of the US.. They are producing something but with ill knowledge!!

Pakistanis are something just because of the US.. You want to learn Science than go to the States!!!

Valar Mogul Mar 04, 2016 11:28pm

@AAM Shehri Even as an urdu speaker, formal urdu is not easily rendered to the task of teaching Science. English is compact and concise. A person learning science in urdu is right away at a disadvantage compared to a student learning in english just because of this burden. Throw in the availability of books, youtube videos, etc. in today's world, makes no sense to go to urdu, farsi, arabi for what has been done many times over in english all over the world. Just look at chinese students - they switch over to english.

AMIN JUNEJO Mar 04, 2016 11:42pm

The problem is of non availability of required competent teachers in our schools. children from thier basics stuck with such system of education and lost capability of innovation as they could'nt understand the things properly. E-learning is half a solution.

Talkn Parrot Mar 05, 2016 12:24am

English will always carry an advantage in science, since the research papers are in English. But that said, the only thing preventing science education in local languages at lower levels is a serious lack of imagination. You could preserve the technical words in English - say leave oxygen as is, knowing that 'oxygen' was originally not an English word.

Barrat Mar 05, 2016 02:53am

With a literacy rate of 53% and a non Maddrassa literacy rate of around 40% in Pakisstan, the prospects are very poor

Satyam Vada Mar 05, 2016 03:45am

@wellwisher Unfortunately I find no correlation between studying in English medium and command over English, depends on the standard of the school. Software Industry doesn't really need great command over English, many IT workers from India don't have such good command yet because of their relevant skills they do quite well. All that most Indians need is Business English. That doesn't take all 15 years to master. They can very well be taught in vernacular medium(I studied in Vernacular until 10th in south and we always had English equivalent words for all concepts) while learning Business English. The English craze in India is unreasonable indeed. Why does one need to to know the works of Shakespeare and not Kalidasa or Ghalib or some vernacular poet when most have no plans to be masters in English?

Keti Zilgish Mar 05, 2016 04:07am

Education in just science without any education in the social, psychological, political, anthropological, biological aspects of education will do more harm than good. Only that education can be successful which is undertaken wholeheartedly. For South Asians this is not possible in any language other than English as cruel as it may sound to the spirits of our ancestors.

fatima Mar 05, 2016 08:55am

well written article that focused on English-Urdu dilemma. In Pakistan education is a mess and its process is directionless. The language is not an issue. It is being projected as a major problem of science education by the elite class who wants to be superior in the society and the planners to hide their face due to failure of their planning. Our students feel comfortable when we talk and explain them in Urdu, Sindhi,or in their own mother tongue. The English scientific terms are being used in the textbooks written in local languages and they are commonly used. The terms used in biology are also difficult for English medium students. Textbooks should not be the only tool of teaching and learning. Textbooks should accompanied by teachers' guide for learning teaching methodology and students manual for understanding subject matter.

Keti Zilgish Mar 05, 2016 09:50am

@Elya Experience enables me to trust your observation entirely.

fatima Mar 05, 2016 10:21am

Education in Pakistan is a mess and the process is directionless. The language issue is the dilemma projected by planners to hide face from poor planning and by elite class to be superior in the society. The biology terms are also difficult for English medium. We explained subject matter in Urdu, Sindhi or in other local language and students feel comfortable. Textbooks should be accompanied by Teachers Guide for teachers to learn methodology and students manual for students to understand subject matter. Whatever be the language the process should be full of aims.

Sarmad Khawaja Mar 05, 2016 10:45am

Excellent article. My experience of teaching high school math/science in South Punjab (including a project on measuring the Earth’s Circumference) is further evidence, though small, that in your words "concepts and their explanations can be best conveyed and received in an easily understood language," which in our case is a hotchpotch of Seraiki and Urdu using and explaining English terms where necessary.

Being the ‘best’ this must be the medium of instruction!! Proper semantics is a concern but it should not be overriding. Surely we can resolve the terminologies problem as in China, Singapore, Japan, Finland, Estonia, South Korea, Vietnam, Poland, Liechtenstein—which are the world’s best 10 teachers of high school science (PISA 2012 rankings) and don’t teach it in English.

Almost two hundred years after Macaulay’s Minute, Shabaz Sharif’s and KP’s failed efforts to teach science in English, and despite outlying national heroes of science “more of the same” should certainly not be the recommended course of action.

Sarmad Khawaja Zoya Science Schools

joey Mar 05, 2016 03:29pm

@9DO11

A very simple question. You studied in Hindi medium, and qualified for IIT BECAUSE JEE question papers are in English AND HINDI. If you are an advocate for learning in one's mother tongue, what is your stance on conducting JEE in all recognized major languages like Marathi, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Oriya, Bengali etc?

R S Chakravarti Mar 05, 2016 07:25pm

Very well written and relevant.