Education without substance

Zubeida Mustafa

SHAN is a young man of 22. Seven years ago he would often come to me and I helped him with his school work. His mother worked for me and I had offered to help her children with their education.

One day I was teaching Shan something about the solar and lunar eclipses and the rotation and revolution of the earth. Having explained the phenomena with a globe and a lamp. I asked Shan very casually why we don’t fall off the earth when it rotates.  Without giving it even a minute’s thought, Shan replied, “Because God doesn’t want it to happen.”

I was taken aback as I hadn’t expected this answer. I tried to explain to Shan that all natural phenomena followed some rules and religion exhorts all Muslims to look for them and discover them.

Unfortunately, our education system does not teach our children to search for these answers which they must find through a process of critical thinking.

Most of our children do not think; they are not taught how to because it appears many teachers do not know how to think either. They simply ask the students to memorise what is in their textbooks. This is shocking for without having the capacity to think critically no person can really be a truly educated person. As a result the rote culture is so common in our schools. This unsurprisingly leads to plagiarism as people cannot create anything original. They simply copy what has been written by someone else.

Small wonder our education system is producing students of such dismal quality. The Annual Status of Education Report (more popularly known by its acronym ASER} that has been testing our students mainly in the rural areas since 2008 has shocking results to show.

The last ASER survey was held in 2016. It had a horrendous story to tell.  The academic performance of the students was on the decline. Only 52 percent of the children in Grade 5 could read a story of Grade 2 level in a local language in 2016.  In 2015, 55 percent had been able to do that. English reading skills were worse.  When testing students of Grade 5 ASER surveyors found that only 46 percent of them could read sentences designed for Grade 2. In 2015, the success rate was 49 percent.  The showing in arithmetic calculations were equally poor.  In 2016, 48 percent managed to solve the sums of Grade 2 given to them.  The previous year the success rate had been 50 percent.

Syed Ali Shah
If it weren’t for education …
Our school comprised a mud-plastered room donated by a villager

ASER, however, found the students of private schools performed better.  But this is no consolation because at the Grade 5 level a preponderant majority of the children study in public sector schools.

To what would you attribute this weakness in our education system? The main flaw lies in the teachers. They do not receive the best training and, therefore, are not really qualified to teach. Poor pedagogy is a problem but lack of motivation is a bigger problem.  Corruption and absenteeism also take their toll.

The quality of the textbooks is another problem. The government has on numerous occasions spoken about improving the books but with no revision of the curricula the books remain in a rut. Recently some efforts were made to revise the curricula as well as textbooks but the changes that have been introduced do not seem to have gone far enough.

Ingenious solutions will have to be found. There are individuals who are trying out new ad hoc methods to give an input of a different kind to give a boost to students’ standards. There is Amra Alam who visits schools and does storytelling in her chaste Urdu to students who enjoy it and without their even realising it the standard of their language improves.

Similarly Atif Badar, a teacher of theatre and drama, uses drama, elocution, singing, music and puppetry to draw children out of their   introversion, build their confidence and make them articulate. These improve their scholastic performance.

I have tried to develop with Baela Raza Jamil a programme we call “dekho, suno, parho, socho aur bolo (See, listen, read, think and speak)”. It is designed to encourage children to think. I use pictures followed by questions to get children to think and suggest solutions to problems.

But these are value adding measures. The basic product, that is educational skills, must be brought to a certain acceptable level before the enhancing exercises will expand the students’ mental powers. I could not change Shan’s academic ability and mindset. His basic education was too poor for any other exercise to change him. This boy who dreamed of working in an office at a computer, today sweeps and mops the floor in an apartment block.

The writer is Dawn’s former Op-ed editor. She currently writes a fortnightly column on the social sectors. Her writings can be found at  www.zubeidamustafa.com

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