Students Shouldn’t Sacrifice Maths and Science for ‘Scoring Subjects’

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Nov 25, 2018

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I have met more than 25 families in the past two months to help their children decide what subjects to choose in high school. Most of the families approach this topic from the standpoint of “which group of subjects will give my child the highest mark,” rather than from “which subjects will give my child a strong foundation for their future.” Too often, maths and science are the subjects dropped in high school; 10 out of those 25 families told me they reached that decision because their child “…never wants to study or pursue a career in engineering, medicine or anything related to science.”

This is shortsighted.

In 2016, the CICSE board announced that maths and science are not mandatory for grades 9 and 10. Rural schools lacked teachers for these subjects, and the move ensured more students would achieve a class-10 pass and get competitive scores to enter college. Since then, the option to drop maths and science in high school has been availed of not only by students whose schools lack resources, as intended, but also by students looking to stack their schedules with ‘scoring subjects’ and thus gain an edge in college admission.

Because our education system is so exam driven, students are making decisions on subject selection by thinking about the marks they are going to achieve. But the concept of “scoring subjects” – that one subject, like economics, is easier to get high marks in than others, like maths or science – is relative, and not generic. In school, science and maths came to me naturally; those were my scoring subjects, rather than, say, social studies or Sanskrit, which for others might be their scoring subjects. Making generalizations about what subjects are easiest to get high marks in risks missing out on building individual students’ strengths; alternatively, many students who move into the IB board for grades 11 and 12, prefer to continue studying Hindi, which they already know from having learned Hindi for many years, in order to get high marks; this risks stagnation, as students relearn information they already know.

Marks are not, of course, unimportant. The Indian education system is structured in a way that forces students to choose a stream in grades 11 and 12. But universities, in their admission decisions, are more concerned with core subjects because these instill the basic skills students need to master any other subject. Mathematics, English, science (biology, chemistry, physics), languages, history and geography are considered core subjects. If a student has studied all of these subjects in high school (or at least until grade 10), they have the prerequisite knowledge and foundation to study whatever they want in college.

In fact, many colleges do not require a student to have ever studied, say, computer science or business studies at high school, even if a student wants to major in them in university. They require students to have the skills to be able to tackle these subjects — and studying the core subjects will give students those skills.

If a student wants to study computer science in college, universities are more concerned about their grades and ability in mathematics and physics, rather than in computer science.

“The specialization or major in a particular field of study, such as computer science, is the university’s responsibility — not the high school’s,” says Sabrina Moss, the international admissions counselor at the University of Washington in the US. “So, when reviewing their high school curriculum for an admission decision, we not only want to ensure they can be successful in these classes based on their past academic record, but we also want to be sure they have the logic, mathematical skill set, and computational reasoning for long-term success in those fields.”

Similarly, for business program aspirants, the important subject in high school is mathematics, not business studies or commerce. Business in university is quantitative, and admission tutors judge prospective students’ ability to cope by examining their competence in quantitative skills – that is, whether they have studied mathematics throughout high school. The better the university, the more likely it is to give weight to a grounding in core subjects.

But eliminating core subjects, like maths or science, before class 10 will not only be a problem for higher education; it also can prevent students from gaining the basic skills and knowledge needed for their future careers – regardless of whether those careers are in math, science or something seemingly unrelated.

For example, if a student intends to pursue a career in digital media and marketing, they might drop maths and or science in high school, thinking these technical subjects will not be useful to their future career. While they may not want to study science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) in university, they are not preparing themselves for careers that require interdisciplinary skills. For example, a creative artist from Ogilvy and Mather may be asked to design a marketing campaign for a new multivitamin that a pharmaceutical company is launching. Understanding basic biology will allow the artist to create more realistic designs and content for ad campaigns to attract the consumer. Students without basic knowledge in life sciences will be less equipped to do this. Moreover, the creative artist may want to compare the impact of different graphics on consumer response. In this case, if the artist has a working knowledge of mathematics, they will be able to effectively analyze user trends and statistics, thereby resulting in more constructive creatives for the campaign. Finally, taking maths and science in high school (and maybe even college), would help this creative artist draw parallels and see intersections between seemingly unrelated concepts.

Our education system allows students to take decisions about what subjects they study in high school. It was a move aimed at improving education statistics, though, not necessarily at what is best for students. The benefits of a complete grounding in core subjects throughout high school far outweigh any path toward easy marks, or early specialization. It is crucial that all students study mathematics and science at least until class 10, but the longer, the better – because core subjects instill in students the skills they need to master all other, more specialized, subjects later.

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Written By Namita Mehta

Namita Mehta is a partner and the Undergraduate Services Manager at The Red Pen. Namita led the University Guidance Counselling Department at B.D. Somani International School in Mumbai for more than three years. As an in-house counselor, she advised students on effective profile development, managed the international university application process, and developed relationships with university admissions offices. Namita also specializes in training applicants for the Oxford and Cambridge interview process. She currently resides in Mumbai, but past homes include Hong Kong, UK and Germany. She holds a Masters in Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry, University of Oxford.

  1. Rajkumar L Sippy

    Critical thinking comes from learning science (and social studies) the right way , not as memorisation. Same is true for mathematics. The outcomes of students are based on their abilities . A rigorous core during the academic years like maths, science ,English and a language will give students a clear signal about what the universities want.

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