Children underperforming in maths & science nationally, study says

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Children underperforming in maths & science nationally, study says


Professors, lecturer compare generational values, privileges leading to cultural shifts in intellectual curiosity

More than 90 per cent of students across the country are ‘underachieving’ in mathematics and science, according to a study conducted by the faculty at Aga Khan University (AKU)’s Institute for Educational Development (IED), Pakistan.

The overwhelming majority of nationwide primary and lower-secondary pupils have ‘only a weak or basic understanding’ of mathematics and science they are required to learn, the AKU-IED report revealed.

Some 15,000 students of 153 private and public schools completed standardised tests on the two fields as part of the study funded by the Higher Education Commission (HEC).

The average mathematics score was 27 out of 100 while the average science score was 34 out of 100.

Dr Shakeel Ahmed Khoja, Professor and Dean School of Mathematics and Computer Science (CS) at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) Karachi, remarked that the education ‘gap’ was a divide between the rich and the poor. “Schools have been commodified and are failing to impart quality education. We do not have any control (checks and balances) on the systems running our educational institutions”.


Sharing his concerns over the parameters used in the AKU-IED study, Dr Khoja, who also serves as a member of the Aga Khan Education Board for Pakistan, commented that science is not being encouraged in our society and the intellectual curiosity of the students is not being challenged.

In our region, there are two benchmarks that need to be considered to understand the decline in maths and science. “The first is our performance compared to the rest of South Asia. We are among the poorest academic performers overall and need to work harder to remove our distractions. The second is our place in the academic world and I am sure we fall in the last quarter of mathematics and science performers”.

Speaking about the issues faced by the youth and school-going children, the dean urged the need to counsel students ‘to make them aware of the realities of life’. He added, “In our culture, we are still treating university going students as if they are kids in the classroom. This teacher-centric model should be replaced by a collegial model”.

In response to the AKU-IED study’s finding that ‘students tended to learn less from experienced teachers than from those new to the profession’, Dr Khoja replied that older teachers tend to have regimental and authoritarian approaches to teaching. “It’s an age problem due to which pupils may opt for courses taught by younger teachers fully equipped to educate children of the digital era. In the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, I have always advocated for flipped classroom, problem-based learning and project-based learning as the best way to inculcate effective studying habits”.

He regretted that over the years, the corporatising of major cities led to the people viewing professorship as a ‘less valuable’ occupation. “Why is money the only parameter of success? Tying our employability to our qualifications has led to us forgoing our passions. Our educational institutes will boast about producing CEOs but never about their graduates rising to the post of the principal of a school; why the discrimination?”

Dr Shahid Hussain, Assistant Professor and Chairperson at IBA’s CS Department termed the HEC-funded study’s findings of the maths and science score averages as ‘too low’.


“Around 20 to 30 years from now, students in my generation would have gotten better scores but this is not a Pakistani problem. STEM subjects are at a global decline”.

Dr Hussain, who has taught computational complexity theory, a subfield of CS that studies algorithms for solving maths-related practical problems, stressed for a lack of representation of mathematics in children’s media. Our society is obsessed with glamour and sports. What we really need are role models in STEM for today’s schoolgoers”.

He recalled, “When I was growing up, PTV, the country’s state-owned broadcaster, showed this brilliant television series titled Cosmos: A Personal Voyage presented by the late astronomer Carl Sagan. It was dubbed for the Urdu-speaking audience in 1987 and it deeply inspired me to become the scientist I am today. Sagan’s intuitive style of teaching glued us to our television screens”.

It is different today in the world of streams and video-sharing platforms, the computer scientist regretted. “The children and our youth can switch to any channel anytime without the right intervention(s) and this results in them developing unhealthy habits associated with binge watching”.

Of course we need good professionals in all fields including law, journalism, entertainment and STEM, Dr Hussain clarified. “Our school textbooks are also responsible for a weak academic base in today’s children. A lot of obsolete experiments in the physics and chemistry books, and the absence of new scientific techniques in our study material, has led to a problematic approach to learning among the pupils”.

In mathematics, we are clearly missing the point when we fail to find connections between the different concepts and the real-world problems, he asserted. “Our society still does not understand the applications of calculus and linear algebra, or how maths is connected to the sciences or even banking”.


Among STEM students, there is a need to take up at least some social science courses like history, philosophy or sociology. “They had an immense impact on Newton’s science. Even in Aristotle’s time, no one knew science as we know it now and this change happened after humanity broadened its understanding of the sciences”.

We do not expect our children and youth to become experts by studying these various disciplines but they need to know the intricacies of maths and science, he explained. “It creates an appreciation inside of you for different fields and the difficulties experienced by their colleagues. A biologist’s struggle is just as valid as that of a mathematician or a social scientist”.

Addressing the ongoing maths and science crisis, Dr Hussain stated that new teachers who are malleable can deliver better education to students facing problems. “We should be discussing facts and hypotheses in academic conversations, not personal opinions on real-world problems facing humanity”.

He also said that he does not believe in a ‘single curriculum’ for the country’s students. “Modern education should always be given by experts. During admission interviews when I present questions relating to mathematics to the candidates, I do not expect them to immediately give the right answer. I simply pose a question to them: Can you please explain to me what the right answer might actually be?”

He argued that during these interviews, Pakistani students would confidently speak on discourses of politics but fail to articulate what they love about maths. “School and college students are obsessed with solving past papers and looking into marking schemes when they should be focused on grasping mathematical concepts. It is far more important to know what a function, derivative or sound wave is than just knowing how to solve it for a good grade”.

Gautam Kirshan Luhana, a Mathematics Lecturer at the IBA currently pursuing his PhD in CS at the University of British Columbia, echoed his colleagues’ concerns over the need to cultivate critical thinking among children. “I am not surprised at all by the average maths and science scores in Pakistan. Over the years, we have miserably failed to invest in education. Even a glance at some of the locally published science and mathematics textbooks makes it abundantly clear that these books cannot even facilitate the understanding of basic mathematical and scientific concepts, let alone build the foundation for the 21st century mathematicians and scientists”.


Education reform policies, like the recent Single National Curriculum were often ill thought out and attempted a quick fix to a multifaceted problem, he highlighted. “This is anecdotal but even before the coronavirus pandemic, students coming from supposedly the best and most expensive schools were showing signs of a downward trend in mathematical skills. The pandemic situation has greatly exacerbated this academic crisis”.

Luhana told Bol News that there is a persistent belief in Pakistani society that mathematics is just a bunch of formulas that should be rote learned and then regurgitated in exams and by extension, mathematicians are simply people great at memorising these mindless formulas. “I will not claim that mathematics is easy, no true scientific endeavour ever is. But thinking about complex problems for hours, days or even months on end hoping for a moment of creative insight, which ultimately leads to a satisfying solution, is at the core of almost all scientific advancements”.

As a society we have been moving further and further away from encouraging such intellectual pursuits, the maths lecturer regretted. “A school student today is engrossed in thought about which choice of subjects would ultimately lead to a more lucrative career rather than exploring their interests. I do not blame the students of course; children are very perceptive and pick these ideas up from their surroundings”.

He argued that the lack of interest in STEM has more to do with a lack of demand in the local industry for technical skills. “We do not have a large industrial or research base that demands engineers, mathematicians and scientists”.

Having more degree programmes outside of STEM is good as our students are now aware of more career choices and are no longer just restricted to the traditional trio of choices — the ‘doctor, engineer or banker’, he further said. “The alarming thing however is that career choices are often made by the parents on the basis of average salaries”.

Speaking on the report’s finding of girls slightly outperforming boys in science, Luhana remarked that more studies should be conducted to figure out exactly why this gap exists or if it is even significant enough to be probed. “The reason I am staying away from making any guesses at the possible factors is because it is very easy to attribute these differences to something inherent in the genders, which is an archaic view that is sadly very much pervasive in our society”.


On the question of academic qualification for teaching, he explained, “A mathematics teacher with top-tier degrees in education is worthless if they do not fully understand the Pythagorean Theorem. The students will quickly lose interest if the teacher is unable to explain a concept, regardless of what innovative pedagogical methods they employ. Students are very smart, in that they figure out very quickly whether or not a teacher knows what they are talking about. How passionate the teacher is about their subject will ultimately reflect in how much interest they were able to generate in the students for the subject”.

Sharing his personal experiences in the STEM fields, Luhana revealed that he realised later on that one could even pursue a career in theoretical physics, learning so after one of his job interviews. “I did not know the International Maths Olympiad was a thing until I had almost graduated. We need more such conferences, more celebrations like Pi-Day and World Science Festival, and more places like the TDF MagnifiScience Centre and National STEM School among others that have had a direct impact on creating interest in mathematics and science. These events encourage students to take on scientific pursuits as career choices”.


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