Issues in Learning Math and Science

Why children may struggle for marks in math and science despite being regular at school?

It makes better sense to discuss this question with parents. The discussion that follows could be shared with parents, without any need to edit.

We sincerely appreciate this parental predicament – all the hard work and commitment in living up to the schools’ demands and routine are not yielding the desired achievement levels in maths and science. Unfortunately, there is a proverbial slip between the cup and the lip – schools’ processes are not really the optimal ones for teaching maths and science. Even the best adherence to schools’ processes will not yield the best results for your child.

Specifically, there are four lacunae in the schools’ processes relating to maths and science education as detailed below:

  1. Your child is lagging behind in maths and science. Your child does not have the critical prior knowledge to understand the concepts being taught in the current class. For example, to understand the concept of HCF in Class VI, a child has to know prime numbers and prime factorisation taught in Classes IV and V respectively. The reality is – knowledge needs knowledge – new knowledge can only be built on the foundation of another set of knowledge called the ‘prior knowledge’ for the new knowledge – prime numbers and prime factorisation are prior knowledge necessary for learning HCF. Your child may be lagging behind in prior knowledge necessary for most of the concepts to be learnt in the current class.
  2. Of course, your child is not at fault for lagging behind because the school’s report card does not offer cumulative progress reports to reflect the state of readiness of your child in terms of prior knowledge and it is too gross in reporting progress in the current class (due to reporting progress in percentages or grades). Thus, neither the teacher nor you (the parent) really know if your child is ready to understand the new knowledge of the current class.
    The progress status of every child should be tracked at cumulative (previous classes) as well as of the current class level. For example, if your child is in Class VIII, the cumulative progress report may indicate that your child’s achievement in Biology is stuck at Class VI level, in geometry at Class V level; and the current class progress report could show that the child has understood 18 concepts out of 40 in maths, 27 concepts out of 50 in science. Together with cumulative progress report and current class progress report, schools would be able to show the actual achievements of the children.
  3. There is nothing to carry-forward to the next class unless it is concept based. Concepts are like magnets or anchors. Only when there is ‘conceptual clarity’ in prior knowledge, will the child be able to ‘catch or hold’ new topics, ideas, discussions. Short of such concept-level clarity, new knowledge will be too superficial to be stored in long term memory with necessary linkages to the ‘existing contents of memory’.
  4. Your child’s English language competence surely leaves much to be desired. Maths and science are logical and abstract domains of knowledge (math is far more abstract than science) and require a strong language backup to be ‘retained’ in long-term memory. Ironical as it may sound, excellence in maths and science requires a high level of English
    language competency (in case English is the medium of instruction of maths and science). Unfortunately, the formal education system has a poor record of language development. Solving more exercises in maths and science is a necessary condition but not sufficient for excellence. The sufficient condition is the ability to abstract the isolated learnings from solving a growing number of exercises into an ever-evolving framework of internally consistent and logically threaded thinking of the world of maths and science. Refer to the section on language to learn more about the crucial links between thinking and language; superior the language competence, the better the ability to think mathematically and scientifically.
    Hopefully, it is clear that there are significant weaknesses in the teaching processes and resources; the most important issue being the lack of use of concepts as the unit of teaching and the other being the weak language competence of maths and science teachers and students.
    The discussion of poorer quality maths and science education can never be complete without looking at the other side of the coin – the predicament faced by schools – the legacy beliefs and systems for teaching maths lack efficacy and maths education quality is a global problem. Science education is equally affected. Maths and science education need complete overhaul along all dimensions – curriculum design, books, assessments, reporting, remedial, classroom transactions, homework, and the role of language.

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