Pakistan's Terminally Ill Schools

In accordance with a traditional understanding that continues to be widely followed in South Asia by many educationists, the process of learning today is still largely by rote. There is little or no understanding on the part of most students of what exactly they are studying, nor why.

It is critical to realize, however, that education in the 21st century is far more demanding and competitive than it was in the past, due to the vast and growing knowledge base, developments in technology and an increasingly globalized perspective. It is imperative, then, to make students into active rather than passive learners to deal with this changing context – but this is a lesson that many in South Asia, and particularly in Pakistan, have yet to appreciate.

Around the world, the idea of 'quality' education has itself been forced to evolve in recent years, in three particular ways.

First, in terms of the education process itself, students must be taught how to relate their learning to their day-to-day lives, with a focus on how to learn rather than depending solely on teachers and textbooks.

Second, the goal of quality education has also changed, with an eye to enabling students to perform well academically and socially, and to become thinking, caring and tolerant global citizens.

The third aspect is facilitating learners not only to perform well academically, but also to groom them to think for themselves. In short, we hope that they will be adaptive, mature and tolerant; and to respect ideological, cultural and religious diversity. Indeed, such skills – quite removed from the central tenets of the traditional curricula in this region's countries – have become important for a student's very survival in the globalized world.

Quality education assumes the pivotal role of trained teachers who have a solid knowledge base, and have control over what to teach and how to teach it. The teachers themselves therefore need to be allowed to develop the expertise and self-confidence to show students the path to independent thinking and learning – and without feeling threatened themselves.

Seen from this perspective, Pakistan is nowhere near achieving the goals of quality education. Over the past several decades, education-policy documents, white papers and commission reports from Islamabad have typically been full of idealistic rhetoric, but they are not underpinned by the research required to guide educationists in the campaign for a quality education.

Government policy has been marked by a conspicuous lack of grounding in reality. The poor and worsening condition of government-school education can be seen through the prism of English-language education in Pakistan, with the spectrum of problems evident from government administration to teacher training, curriculum and reading materials. The situation has changed so little that the hyperbolic metaphor included in a British Council analysis done during the 1980s in Pakistan remains as relevant today. "The present [English Language Teaching] situation in Pakistan," a UK-based analyst named B Campbell wrote in 1987, "can be best compared to a terminally ill patient … who has suffered multiple injuries in a catastrophic accident or been attacked simultaneously by a great number of severe illnesses. It is not possible to restore the patient's health by curing only one of his problems at a time. All must be treated simultaneously in a coordinated way, otherwise, when one illness or injury is cured, the remaining disorders will grow worse and leave the patient sick as ever."

That 'terminally ill' patient has now been suffering from various diseases for an additional painful two decades. Over the 40-odd years that this writer has been associated with education in Pakistan, little but cosmetic changes have been made in the country's education policy, and there has been negligible impact on teacher education or teaching materials.

The adventure novel The Prisoner of Zenda, published in London in 1894 and long taught at the intermediate level in Pakistani colleges, was singled out by teachers during the 1980s for removal from the national syllabus. Yet the novel is still being taught today, leading many to joke that the real 'prisoner' in need of freeing is the curriculum itself.

Chronic ailments

In 1989, a handful of Pakistani teachers got together and identified several of the 'illnesses' that were afflicting the country's English-language education system. And like The Prisoner of Zenda, two decades later these too offer a checklist of the problems that remain endemic. First, outdated and uninteresting textbooks are not only badly produced, but include outright de-motivating material.

This includes syllabi that are heavily loaded with old English literature, such as works of Shakespeare and Milton in which students are asked to negotiate the difference between, say, hath and has. There is also significant outdated information. For instance, an article by the late British philosopher Bertrand Russell has been taught for six decades in Pakistani classrooms, in which he expressed his fear that the Soviets and Chinese could join together – and how such an alliance would augur for the West.

Along similar lines, curricula often lack grounding in students' own lives, whether in terms of not using 'real-world' English or simply not relating to learners' needs and social environments.

Over time, much questionable content has crept into classroom materials to suit the rulers in Islamabad, to the extent that racial hatred is often nurtured. Year after year, I was forced to teach Pakistan Zindabad, which outlines a one-sided history of Partition, including frivolous comparisons of Mohandas Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah along the lines of, "No two creatures could be so different. Jinnah wore his spotless white sherwani and sat on a chair. Gandhi wore his familiar white dhoti and sat on the floor."

This image invariably made students laugh, thus forcing teachers such as myself to move into explanations of Gandhi's ideology. How many teachers in Pakistan today know enough on the politics of Partition to provide such impromptu explanations?

Of course, many of the problems with classroom materials are mirrored in classroom teaching technique, too. Exams in all schools of Pakistan, both government and private, continue to perpetuate rote learning as part of a system that is wholly oriented to students regurgitating from their textbooks and guide notes, without fostering or even evaluating thinking skills or real competence.

As such, learners often completely lack guidance from their teachers and develop dangerously misconceived notions about how best to learn. Such an issue is only exacerbated by funding and management problems, which lead to extremely large classes that at times number more than 150 students. Most importantly, the skill level of many teachers is low. While teacher-training courses (through departments of education and public-sector training institutions) are badly in need of review and alignment with current concepts of education, very little is being done to provide incentive for continued teacher development in Pakistan.

Added to these multiple chronic diseases, another serious affliction within Pakistan's education sector is lack of coordination – between the provincial and central departments of education, as well as between the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. Inevitably, these gaps manifest themselves in many ways. Aligning education objectives between levels and coordinating them to materials to be taught should be the job of a specialist. Unfortunately, a secretary of education, or a director of the Bureau of Curriculum or of the Examination Board, is appointed from the civil service. Thus, this will undoubtedly be an individual who knows well the government's rules of administration, but not necessarily one qualified in the relevant fields of education planning, management or curriculum development, or in issues of evaluation and testing.

Regardless, important technical and pedagogical decisions continue to depend on the discretion of these figures. This writer remembers one instance in which a textbook on Sindh was rejected by an education minister because it was twice as long as the corresponding book on the North West Frontier Province. Dutifully, the Textbook Board minions proceeded to lop off half of the Sindh book's pages – without consulting the authors, nor bothering about how the students' learning processes would be affected. The resulting book was used for years, until the original manuscript was 'retrieved' and printed under a World Bank project.

In modern education, research is required to play an important part in decisions regarding materials and pedagogy. Yet Pakistan lags far behind even its neighbours in initiatives such as education research and teacher training. India, for instance, started its education-research programmes decades ago, when it established the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages in multiple districts. It also established a central curriculum wing, which field tests materials to check their appropriateness and monitors how objectives are being achieved. Likewise, China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand each began regular capacity-building and training of teachers in English three decades ago.

In contrast, Pakistan is yet to produce a well-considered, technically and pedagogically sound education policy. Such a policy would need to take into account the current research in education and the country's ground realities, and outline concrete and practical ways to move forward in terms of educating the country's millions of school-going students. Instead, if we look at all the policies on education that have been put forward over the past six decades, in addition to all the many education-focused white papers that have been churned out, they are all full of empty rhetoric. Particularly lacking in all is the inclusion of achievable objectives, targets that can be monitored and are in alignment with the modern concepts of education.

Unfortunately, time and again, the changes made in the central and provincial education policies have been done not with a view to improve the quality of education, but to score political points or facilitate personal agendas. The lack of consistent follow-up due to the frequent change of governments in Islamabad, ideological quibbling, scrapping of plans of previous governments and re-inventing of the wheel have, if nothing else, resulted in colossal waste of national resources and expertise. The effect on students is a different matter altogether. Today, we can see the effect all around: due to the tunnel vision presented in the course materials, made worse by the way these are taught, today's students in Pakistan find it difficult to relate to the world at large, to find their niche in the fast-changing society within Pakistan and globally.

Agents of change

Quite simply, education has not been seen as a critical need in the power corridors of Islamabad. Of course, many who do take education seriously in Pakistan are well aware of this lack of priority. The question, then, is what can be done to put Pakistan back on track. The analysis put forward decades ago by B Campbell was certainly on to something: it is simply not possible to restore the patient's health by curing only one ailment at a time. All problems must be treated simultaneously in a coordinated way.

A complete overhaul is required, building a realistic learning framework using principles of education planning and management. The first steps need to be capacity-building and specialisation – only technocrats with training in education planning and management can bail the country out of the crisis in its schools. Such individuals would need to work out an education policy that aligns objectives and competencies from the primary to the tertiary (or K-12) levels. In addition, their focus would need to ensure in-built principles of equity and tolerance within the curriculum, to prepare students to become global citizens to meet the challenges of the modern world. Administrative implementation of this modern curriculum would necessarily involve a compulsory alignment of the various government officers of the education departments and agencies (at the provincial and federal levels), to match their activities and coordinate with each other. Doing so would not only help to meet set standards, but would also avoid waste and overlap.

Second, a realistic learning framework requires spreading the focus of education research in three directions: on the learner, the curriculum and the teacher. Let us look briefly at each of these in turn. The students of today's generation are very different from those of earlier years, particularly in terms of how new technologies have impacted on learning styles and attention spans. An understanding of how students elsewhere are interacting with their environments is necessary.

Students the world over increasingly require high-quality input and feedback, lots of opportunity to practice, and variety in classroom activities. As such, guiding students in 'learning how to learn' is far more important than solely giving them what is referred to as 'content knowledge'. Ideologically, it is this part of the framework that will 'activate' the students themselves to take increasing interest in and responsibility for their own education.

The curriculum, which translates the national education policy to subject-specific areas has to be a living document – continuously reviewed, evolving through feedback and field-testing materials, reflecting responses by teachers and students. Internationally, the current education trends look at competency-based models in which testing and evaluation are an integral part of the process.

Unfortunately, in Pakistan, textbooks continue to be slavishly followed, despite their frequent lack of relevance or inaccuracy. To go beyond this tunnel vision, the aim of the curriculum in all subjects should be to build up a knowledge base that is not completely dependent on prescribed materials, and which nurtures individuals who develop independent- and critical-thinking skills. At the same time, a proper system for evaluation and testing of the targets set forth in the curriculum should be in place to encourage true learning. Many studies of Pakistan's examination system have shown the inadequacies.

For instance, public exam papers ask questions in which answers can be 'lifted' from the question paper itself, or predictable questions are given by rehashing the old question papers – thus making them easily rote-learned and re-produced.

The most important factor in the framework of learning is, of course, the teacher. Changes in education can come only through teachers who understand how to move from a teacher-fronted classroom to a learner-centered approach to instruction. At present, the training given to primary- and secondary-level teachers is completely ineffective, as the government teacher-training colleges follow outdated curricula in need of revision to reflect current trends in education. Handling independent students and a competency-based curriculum is thus beyond the capability of most teachers today, who do not understand the concepts of institutions as 'learning communities' or teachers as agents of change.

When education is looked at as a part of a learning community, all stakeholders (administrators, parents, teachers and learners) are seen as integral parts of the education process, and continuously learn from each other. Teachers so seen are involved in a continuous process of professional development and learning, having the capability to address students' needs, nurture independent learners, negotiate the curriculum to fit their teaching situation, and measure students' competencies on pre-set benchmarks.

At the moment, placing hopes on a dramatic upgrading seems to be a tall order in Pakistan, where next to no value is attached to teacher education and professionalism. However, it is not an impossibility, and certain projects undertaken by professional teachers' organisations over the years have indeed demonstrated how effective teacher-education programmes can be handled even with limited resources.

The main lesson that has been learned from these experiences is that there has to be a definitive identification of the problems as well as clear goal-setting, keeping the ground realities and local context of teaching and learning in view. An equally firm determination is required to create a successful alignment between the set goals and modern trends of education, as reflected through research. Lastly, meticulous coordination and follow-up mechanisms need to be fostered, to ensure the achievement of these goals.

Although these projects have thus far been small-scale, the resultant principles can indeed be made to work in broader contexts, if there is adequate will for change. As such, though models of what has worked do exist, given the large number of school teachers to be trained all available resources will have to be harnessed. In the end, how can such a revamped education system help to create 'global citizens'? In a way, the answer is exceedingly simple: a new curriculum, focusing on imparting to students a sense of equity and justice, along with teachers whoknow how to teach that curriculum. That is all that Pakistani schools and students need.

Zakia Sarwar is a professional-development consultant and founder member of the Society of Pakistan English Language Teachers. She is chair of the TESOL Standing Committee on Global Professional Issues in Washington, DC.