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.
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.
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.
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