• February 23, 2024

UnSTEMmed

Many video streaming services have invested heavily in original South Asian content. Consequently, it is hard to open such an app and not find it overflowing with Indian content. Here and there, you may find something from Pakistan too, but it is rare and hardly original. One wonders about the decline in the art of storytelling and even poetry in the Islamic Republic. But that mercifully is not the subject of today’s discussion. This scribe stumbled upon an Indian series called Crash Course on Amazon’s streaming service. While the story is underwhelming, the establishing premise is interesting. It is about two colleges that compete to produce the maximum number of high scorers in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects. What distinguishes one school from another is better teaching skills in physics. While I had to abandon this series within the first fifteen minutes, the matter of STEM education stayed with me. There are good reasons.

This took me back to my school days. Maths, Chemistry and Biology were all in competent hands. Teachers had already impressed upon us the importance of these subjects and their purpose too. But one subject — namely physics — was not so lucky. Physics is a subject that later, partly due to self-teaching and partly under the influence of better teachers, would become a personal obsession. But in the first two years, the teacher who taught us physics could not even clarify the meaning and the purpose of the discipline. Every day he would show up, scribble the title of a chapter on the blackboard, sit down and while away the whole period chatting to his favourite pupils. Every year, the quality inspectors sent by the board would arrive to assess the education standards. On such days he would be a changed man. He would show up in an impeccably pressed suit, deliver the entire lecture in English, refuse to sit down and be very interactive. The sad bit was that on such days not a single word he uttered would go to waste. Ostensibly, there was no shortage of capacity there. Just an unhealthy contempt for the job itself. In that term, physics caused many students to switch from science courses to arts.

If decades ago it was primarily an attitude issue, now it has caused some serious systemic and capacity issues. For instance, back in those days, we used to attribute this visible lack of effort to the fact that it was a public school. The situation probably would be better in private schools, we thought.

My children go to a reputed private school system. Recently, when I was having a conversation with my elder daughter, an O-level student, I was appalled to learn that the only subject in which she was facing comprehension challenges was physics. And it is a child with a precocious talent for learning. When encouraged to find online video lectures on physics, she grasped the core principles within minutes. Since it is too tiny a representative sample, I asked around. Physics is a common problem in many schools in corresponding age groups. What does it say about the country’s STEM education? This is a small, privileged part of the country’s educational system. In the public sector, where the number of students per class increases exponentially, the quality decline is pretty steep.

Ultimately, it all comes down to a teacher’s skill set. Teaching STEM disciplines is not easy. A teacher needs to have enough mastery of the subject, enough charisma and communication skills and finally, enough rapport with the students to command their respect and attention in such a way that they imbibe the provided information without a hitch. The teacher then should also be approachable enough that a student feels no hesitation in seeking clarification on a given issue. This means the schools need to hire the best from the talent pool. This seldom happens because good teachers do not come cheap. And when it comes to paying teachers at the school level, the employment conditions, even in the private sector where schools charge exorbitant fees, are sub-optimal. Go to a school to teach, and you get a fixed, unimpressive salary. Open a tuition centre, and your earnings are directly proportional to the number of students you teach and the quality of knowledge you impart. No wonder the teachers who do not produce good results in schools often have very successful private tuition businesses at home. Why should they squander that extra effort in an environment where they do not find enough incentives?

A few years ago, when a group of parents went to courts to challenge the fee structure in private schools, peer pressure grew on me to join them. But not only did I refuse to join the cause, I even refused to discuss the matter in my shows. Private schooling is a choice. If you make this choice, you should be ready to pay up. It doesn’t mean it is easy for any of us, the members of the salaried class. But where I think I find myself and other parents within our rights to approach any forum to get relief is the quality of the goods and services we are paying for. If, after footing an ever-increasing bill, one cannot ensure a better quality of education for one’s kids, one has every right to be angry about it.

Sadly, the conversation will be incomplete without another nightmarish dimension of this problem. The issue of private schools which choose to become grade-producing factories. In such schools, children are subjected to punishing schedules, grueling methods and inhuman pressures. That, too, is not the answer. Grades are important, but so is the need to improve comprehension and produce students with well-rounded personalities. STEM education has a severe gender gap and a class-related gap, and then even in the most privileged subgroups, the quality is declining.

To understand how badly we are failing our next generation, we only need to look at our neighbours. India and China are churning out very competitive STEM students at a breakneck speed. And we are still struggling with the essential standards. If this does not change very quickly, we are doomed. We seem to be approaching the age of another population bottleneck. Only those nations will go the distance that produce a critical mass of STEM experts. We are nowhere near there yet.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 13th, 2022.

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