Making learning meaningful is an imperative

Nazish Brohi

I had first thought about writing on the importance of educating children in their native language or what is called the mother tongue. More so since we have no idea how to teach English as a second language. The standard ‘A for apple, B for ball, C for cat, D for dog’ works where children know the words apple, cat and dog in their daily lives and can make phonetic connections. But when apple is saeb or sauf, the ‘a’ sound has no connection to an apple, and children are memorising not just ‘A’ but also ‘apple’, both alien to their world and hence their mastery of it depends on rote-memorisation.

But then I am not sure what moral ground to make this argument from. I have native language level competence in English because of middle class parents who scrimped, saved and overextended themselves to send their kids to an elite English-medium school. Fluent English is also fundamental criteria for immigration to the upper classes in this country. So instead of leaving myself open to the charge of hypocrisy, I’ll leave that validation to educationists who are armed with better insights, observations and arguments.

But personal experience may count for something so I’ll turn to those instead. I tried teaching at one point, two stints in public sector universities, one in Pakistan and the other in Erbil in Iraq. And gave up, convinced I was a terrible teacher. I could teach theory, the students could recall it and summarise it, but they couldn’t apply it by analysing or critiquing a text using theory x.

Nor could they conceptually link or contest theory x on the basis of situation y and theory z that they had learnt about in other classes. I thought that maybe English was the impediment and tried using cinema – Hindi movies and Arab and Iranian films, which made a marginal difference. I folded in defeat and moved on.

But now seeing my daughter’s schoolwork, the problem seems foundational. She’s being taught plant anatomy – a specific knowledge set that more than half of humanity has no real need to know, without this learning being directed at understanding how form relates to function – a generalisable knowledge that would help her beyond labeling the hibiscus flower.

She’s learning about history and wars through dates and names of rulers without being made to consciously think of cause and effect. She learnt about planets in the solar system without any real understanding of what a system is (a collection of things or actions that work together as a connected whole) so she could not use that knowledge to identify other systems in place all around her. And this is at an expensive, private English-medium school; a far cry from government-run or low-cost schools where we assume all the problems are located.

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Learning is supposed to be portable, travelling with the learner to new arenas. It is the fundamental goal of education, to make skills and information acquired in the classroom helpful outside classroom contexts. Educationists use the word ‘transfer’ to refer to the capacity to apply acquired knowledge to new situations, to extend what is learned in one context to new contexts. Transfer of learning is the carryover effect of prior learning, depending on the ability to generalise knowledge.

And it isn’t happening. Across all rural areas where I have worked in Sindh and Balochistan, parents excitedly push forward their kids to demonstrate to me what they are learning in school, and children dutifully recite lessons. Most of them do not study beyond 8th grade.

A relatively recent change we don’t prize enough is the near universal acceptance of the importance of education; unlike in the past, it is highly valued. If children are not going to schools, it is not because schooling is considered undesirable or irrelevant. Every village has its grievances and outrage about dilapidated schools and lack of committed teachers.

But even in the best-case scenarios where children study up to eight grade, I’m not sure how the education system enables them to utilize learnings beyond functional literacy (which of course is important in itself). A 2016 ASER report for instance pointed out that only 46% of students in Grade 5 could exhibit English reading skills designed for Grade 2.

This argument jumps the gun to an extent. We need the physical schools to be functional and kids to be in them, the baans before which the baansri cannot be played. But we don’t have the luxury of time; we already need an education emergency. We can’t afford to have youth that is not just unemployed but unemployable. Already in one private sector bank, the unwritten HR policy is that all graduates from Sindh except from institutions in Karachi, Hyderabad and Jamshoro are to be considered equivalent to matriculates.

So coming back to the transfer of learning issue, the low road can be achieved through rote performance but the high road requires seeing patterns and connections that can create new meaning – the difference between information and skills on the one hand and understanding and knowledge on the other.

Memory mattered before technologies to which we outsourced and collectivised memory retention. Knowing things is no longer dependent on recalling them, making memorisation redundant and placing primacy on thinking skills. We can’t have spent 70 years getting kids into schools only for them to come out with abilities that are redundant.

We can’t afford linear approaches.

The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector

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