The science of learning

What young people are learning in science and mathematics is woefully inadequate in providing them with capabilities needed to find their way in a technologically advanced, complex, and interconnected world

The science of learning

The science and mathematics education of Pakistan’s youth is in a state of grave crisis in terms of its content, instructional practices, as well as reach. What young people are learning in science and mathematics and, more importantly, how they are learning these subjects is woefully inadequate in providing them with capabilities needed to find their way in a technologically advanced, complex, and interconnected world.

The obsolete teaching and learning practices that encourage rote learning and regurgitation of knowledge are routinely blamed for this situation.

But this is not entirely correct.

We underestimate the effects that high stakes secondary and higher secondary examinations have on the instructional practices.

Those who make it to the high schools in Pakistan enter two different streams -- the traditional secondary school certificate (SSC) and higher secondary school certificate (HSSC) and the international O- and A-levels system. The O/A-level stream is widely perceived to be much more academically rigorous than the SSC/HSSC. But only a small number of students, whose parents can afford to send their children to this stream, opt for the O/A-levels.

In 2013, only 200,000 candidates appeared for the O/A-level examinations administered by Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) in Pakistan, which is roughly 3 per cent of the applicants in the SSC/HSSC in the same year.

The final examinations for these two streams are substantively different. Those who go to SSC/HSSC stream must rely on their memory a lot more than conceptual understanding to succeed. Those in the O/A-level stream are tested for both memory and conceptual understanding.

The preparation for these examinations, and, by corollary, the instructional practices in both streams also look different.

The SSC/HSSC examinations have been stagnant for decades. Let me recount my experience as a student and compare it with that of teachers and students these days to explain this. I went through the SSC/HSSC stream as a student over three decades ago. Doing well in those days meant, as it also does these days, getting a high score in the final examinations. The marks we received were the only proxy for our learning.

The majority of our youth is consigned to receive a stagnant secondary education in which the teaching and learning practices remain what they were four decades ago.

What kind of knowledge and skills did these examinations assess? They did not test the use of higher order thinking skills but our ability to reproduce the answers exactly as they were given in the texts. Interestingly, the correctness of the answers did not matter as much as the ability to reproduce. A colleague, who obtained full marks (100/100) in his mathematics paper, recounts, "I had learned by heart the answers to all the MCQs at the end of my mathematics textbook. Some of them were obviously wrong. An MCQ was given in the paper to which I knew the correct answer as well as the wrong answer given in the textbook. I preferred to write the wrong answer. I got 100/100 marks. My friends who opted for correct answer lost the marks."

The textbooks were the reservoirs of materials that the students had to commit selectively to their memory. A typical textbook chapter would have the definitions, descriptions, explanations and illustrations, followed by an exercise containing some questions. In science textbooks, these exercises usually had questions that began with verbs such as state, define, describe, explain and write. Some also began with what, and there were a few why questions as well.

The mathematics textbooks followed a similar format. The questions in the exercises typically began with such verbs as solve, find, prove, etc., etc. The examinations papers could be more or less difficult, but there was one constant. Regardless of their level of difficulty, the problems/questions in the test were always selected from the textbooks. So reproduction of the pre-existing answers to the problems already given in the textbooks was the only sure route to success.

An example from mathematics will help put the matter in perspective. Our 9th grade textbooks contained proofs of several theorems. Proofs, another name for logical arguments in mathematics, are central to mathematical practice for as long as it has been in existence. In the case of Euclidean geometry, the proofs involve beginning with a given set of assumptions already known to be true and proving a theorem through a sequence of unbroken deductive steps.

Mathematics educators do not have consensus on whether the proofs should be included in the secondary mathematics curriculum or not. Instead of formal proofs, some encourage the teachers to provide opportunities to the students to apply the existing theorems in solving worthwhile mathematical problems. Others think that inclusion of selected proofs from Euclidean geometry in the secondary mathematics curriculum serves to introduce the learners to a crucial aspect of mathematical practice and communication in addition to developing their deductive reasoning skills.

But in the classrooms of our high schools in the early 1980s, both teachers and students knew that, like much else, two column proofs were to be reproduced in the final examinations in exactly the same form as given in their textbooks.

So, barring a few exceptions, the students crammed the proofs and teachers encouraged them to do so. With hindsight, I know that getting a high score in mathematics in my SSC examinations left my meagre deductive reasoning skills untouched.

Opportunities to use critical thinking and problem-solving skills can lead to learning with understanding. There is a touch of irony in how and to what end most students, including myself, used their problem-solving skills. The problems we had to address in our secondary schools did not have anything to do with learning. The high performers meticulously studied the structure of the past test papers, carefully and thoroughly examining them to develop deep insights into patterns of repetition, exclusion, and permitted choice within the test papers. We were assisted in this analysis by ‘guess’ papers produced and marketed exclusively for test preparation. ‘Good’ teachers saved their students even this effort by providing them with time-tested recipes for selective study.

Has anything changed between my times as a student and now?

Look through the test papers, talk to the teachers, and you will not help but notice that nothing has changed in how we assess the achievements of our youth at the secondary and higher secondary levels. In fact what they can achieve is, in no small measure, determined by these examinations. Rote learning is what we did in the SSC/HSSC stream decades ago. Rote learning is what the students preparing for these examinations do these days.

One teacher that I interviewed was teaching both the SSC/HSSC and O/A-level streams at a private school. As he put it: "I teach both streams on the same day. My teaching attitude and methods change as I move from my matric to the O-level classroom. In my matric class, I must make them learn the text by heart. But in the O-level class I have to help them develop conceptual understanding."

Thus, a miniscule fraction of the youth, mostly from privileged backgrounds, seem to be getting an education that is at par with what their peers would receive in high performing countries. The majority of them, however, are consigned to receive a stagnant secondary education in which the teaching and learning practices remain what they were four decades ago.

In the SSC/HSSC streams teachers are forced to drop any pretence of teaching for conceptual understanding. A reputed secondary schoolteacher told me that when he tried to teach for understanding, some of his students told him that he was wasting their time.

According to this teacher, the art of getting good marks in SSC/HSSC examinations has been perfected over the years. As he put it: "Students know they have to prepare ‘questions’ from the book. So it does not matter how much teaching for understanding I do. Eventually, what matters is the preparation for exams."

As I mentioned in an earlier column as well, the powers that be in education must recognise that ‘what you test is what you get’. The stakes of SSC/HSSC examinations are high for students and parents. They do what it takes to succeed in these examinations. Changes in the examinations can also change what it takes for the students to succeed.

Teachers who teach both SSC/HSSC and O/A-level streams acknowledge that they change their teaching strategies from encouraging rote memorisation for the former to promoting conceptual understanding for the latter.

If the policymakers genuinely wish our youth to become proficient in science and mathematics, they must take steps to reform the secondary and higher secondary examinations.

The science of learning