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Schools and pedagogy in science and math

When I was 15, I was preparing to sit for my O Levels. I was terrified. I was doing poorly in Math, Physics, Chemistry, and Biology.

I’d been doing badly in Math for some years before that. My parents had been paying for my schooling at an elite private school. The main subject area I excelled in was English and Urdu literature – areas I enjoyed anyway. As for Math, I recall being perpetually confused. And then, being made to stand in front of the class as a punishment for not being able to complete my work.

Because humiliation really helps learning.

I also remember my Math teacher in Class 7 shouting at us, and especially at me, because I couldn’t solve the problems: “I know your older sister. My older sister teaches the older students, and your sister is terrible at Math too.” Again, because humiliation is supposed to help.

My Chemistry teacher, bless her heart, was so terribly boring and unclear, I could never stay awake long enough to understand anything.

My parents should’ve demanded their money back.

At the age of 15, I decided I would not pursue any STEM careers – breaking my parents’ hearts, as they wanted me to be a physician.

Today, I am reminded of my private schooling and my Math teachers, and how they facilitated my aversion to Science and Math.

Because I see the same thing happening for my daughter. From an early age, I have noticed how often her teachers have focused their attention on the students who get it, not on those who do not. I have been wrestling for months with the completely unclear directions on her Science homework, and hearing her say the dreaded words I hate Science. 

I am looking at her assignments, and I see reams of space-fillers, bureaucratic paperwork to check off boxes. I see poorly-worded and barely-conceptualized work that fills up her hours. I wish I had her full attention, away from this garbage, for a few days a month so I could a bit of education in.

So you can have all the special STEM programs you want in expensive summer camps and magnet schools, but what about public K-8 schools and pedagogy?

After beating our heads against a wall for years, we have now hired a tutor. After years, our daughter has positive feelings about Math. We cannot possibly hire tutors in all the subject areas.

My daughter doesn’t have to stand in front of the class, but she frequently experiences the benign neglect of the teachers.

When she was in Grade 2, at a private school, I happened to drop by to see what was going on. And was horrified by the contrast between the learning experience of the docile, compliant, focused students vs. the students who needed some support. The main (master) teachers explained material to the smart kids, and gave them feedback as they turned work around quickly. A student-teacher produced a jar of coins for the students with autism, and spent the period picking up coins from the floor. I could barely contain my rage when I went to speak to the principal.

In private and public schools, I have been communicating about this kind of stuff for years now – specifics, pleading for support. Last year, predictably, I have heard the dreaded words that I am too demanding. Because people like me aren’t supposed to ask for support.

I am not too demanding. I just know how surely these things restrict a child’s professional and financial future. I have seen it. And I am scared.

I speak as a supporter of public schools and of teachers. I am myself a teacher. But I have to speak out about what I’ve been seeing for years.

What I am speaking of is not limited to Science and Math, but the impact of poor pedagogical support in Science and Math is especially catastrophic on kids’ futures.

Students who need support are not getting it. Teachers and schools are working for students who are already performing well.

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