The Express Tribune

The Emergency in Pakistan’s Schools

Pakistan’s daily disasters and constant crises mean that long-term issues, education prominent among them, get little attention from our harried leadership. When education is addressed, the focus is almost entirely on increasing access, enrolment and literacy, and if we’re lucky, on girls’ schooling. Getting children to go to school, and to stay there, is obviously critical. Fortunately, we appear to be on a positive trajectory in terms of this goal, especially in Punjab.

But that goal overlooks the glaring education emergency within our schools. The fact is that our schools are failing miserably in educating the children who make it to them. Each day is an opportunity lost for each uniform-clad, schoolbag-burdened child who heads to school in the morning. These children attend school, but are not getting an education. Their inquisitive spirit is crushed, their thinking ability never developed. They are never taught that there are, at least, two sides to every story, and every history. They never learn to question and to analyse, much less to imagine and to create.

Let me be clear here — I am not talking about the schools which cater to our elite, but about those that reach our masses. In these schools, textbooks following the official curriculum, with their poor quality, and questionable and biased content, reign supreme. The teachers literally teach one page of the textbook per lecture, asking students to memorise the content, with barely any explanation and no additional material taught.

In a typical high school classroom scene, the teacher asks a favourite student to read aloud a paragraph from the course textbook. As the student reads, the other students sway slightly back forth as if in a trance — they are rote learning the content. In one class 10 lecture I attended, a teacher had the students memorise, down to decimal places, the exact amount in dollars that Pakistan spent on each of its imports. The dollar figure was from two years ago. The futility of this exercise was mind-numbing.

These teachers are not villains. They are part of a system in which board examinations are the ultimate assessment and the exams reward memorisation of the course textbooks. This situation persists despite the 2006 curriculum reform that was supposed to tackle textbooks, as well as teaching, both by correcting mistakes and biases in textbooks, and improving teaching and examination methods.

Pakistan also crucially suffers from a lack of political will from the centre for deep policy changes with regard to our biased curricula and ineffective teaching methods.

But the reform has resulted in marginal changes, at best. Implementation of these small changes has also been exceedingly slow. It has been impeded by a new policy, which made textbook writing a competition among private publishers, and the Eighteenth Amendment, which made curricula a provincial subject, thereby granting power to new provincial curriculum authorities and creating a turf battle with the old textbook boards. These parallel, confused structures have implemented the reform in slow, iterative stages in Punjab and are still at the early stages in Sindh.

On the other hand, India is far ahead of Pakistan in curriculum reform. The Indian government undertook an overhaul of their textbooks in the mid-2000s and chose a university professor, Krishna Kumar, to lead the effort. Their new textbooks for high schools “demonstrate how historians work, how they use sources and evidence, and why interpretations of the same event differ”, and notably use this approach in discussing Partition, a sensitive and charged issue for both countries.

The contrast between the speed, and the breadth and depth of India’s and Pakistan’s reforms is startling. It points to the benefits of having a government outsider, an academic, being charged with the reform rather than a large bureaucracy. But Pakistan also crucially suffers from a lack of political will from the centre for deep policy changes with regard to our biased curricula and ineffective teaching methods.

So each day, a silent tragedy continues to occur in classrooms across the country. We create a new generation of non-thinkers, who cannot think logically, cannot evaluate evidence and cannot discern trustworthy sources of information from those which are not. The source of our lack of a national imagination becomes clear. We also begin to understand why we blindly trust some things, but sceptically disregard others. And why we cannot seem to think our way out of the mess in which we find ourselves.