In which medium?

June 21, 2013

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PARENTS want their children to be proficient in the use of English, and rightly so: there is a significant premium on English proficiency. But there is evidence that children learn concepts better, especially at an early age and given a certain quality of teaching, if they are taught in their mother tongue.

The previous government of Punjab addressed the issue by declaring that all public-sector schools in Punjab would use English as the medium of instruction. Emerging evidence from work being conducted by Abbas Rasheed (who heads the Society for the Advancement of Higher Education), in the form of interviews with teachers, head teachers and bureaucrats suggests that the policy has encouraged enrolment in public schools, and that parental perceptions of public schools and the quality of education imparted there have indeed improved.

Though it is too early to evaluate if the policy will improve the quality of learning and education, given the reports from the above source, it seems unlikely that there will be quality improvement.

The policy decision of using English as the medium of instruction seems to be designed to address three separate issues, and it seems it is not suited for any of them.

If the objective is for children to learn English as a language, using English to teach mathematics and science is not going to facilitate the learning of English. The evidence seems to be quite the opposite.

Teachers, used to teaching in Urdu or the vernacular, are doing a poor job of teaching even mathematics and science let alone helping students learn English. Students who should be learning mathematics and science in mathematics and science classes are being forced to grapple with a new language at the same time. This is not the optimal environment for explaining difficult concepts of division and multiplication to seven- and eight-year-olds.

There is evidence that children learn difficult concepts best in their mother tongue. For most children in Punjab this happens to be a dialect of Punjabi or Urdu. Even in countries where having textbooks in the mother tongue is not possible and a second language is important to acquire, a better policy option seems to be to have textbooks in the second language but with teachers explaining concepts in the mother tongue so that children can understand what is being taught.

This language switching, sometimes referred to as code switching, is quite a developed concept. This happens often even at the college and university level in Pakistan. But by switching to English as the medium of instruction, and trying to enforce it, the government seems to be discouraging or rejecting this option. For our environment, this might be a better option to explore.

The quality of teaching is not related to the medium of instruction issue. In fact, if teachers are not comfortable in English, and the majority of the primary school teachers in the country are not, then forcing them to teach in English is going to have a negative impact on the quality of teaching/learning.

Many of the teachers have been given ‘trainings’ for teaching in English. But these trainings are of a few days’ duration only. Can we expect teachers to pick up a new language and teach in it with a few days of training?

On the other hand, parents do want their children to learn English. Proficiency in English is considered to be necessary for having opportunities to advance in life. And there is a lot of truth to this impression. This is what made the government policy shift popular. But when the results come in and parents realise that their children are not learning English what will happen then? This seems inevitable with this policy.

The medium of instruction policy does not address the objectives of improving the learning of English and improving the quality of learning and education for children.

If we want to ensure that students in our schools acquire proficiency in the use of English we have to improve the teaching of English as a language. This can only be done by improving the standard of teachers of the English language. There are many companies and programmes that specialise in language teaching. Maybe we need to see if they can teach our English-language teachers and improve their standards.

If we want to improve the quality of teaching in our schools, it will not happen by switching to English as the medium of instruction. It could happen by using code switching much more adroitly. Teachers should be able to explain concepts to students in a language the students understand, and use relevant examples and concepts that are suited to a child’s level of learning.

A head teacher told me that some of her mathematics and science teachers are trying to get out of teaching these subjects and want to switch to Urdu or Islamiyat. They are not comfortable teaching in English and are afraid of taking up mathematics/ science teaching. This is no way to treat teachers. But it will happen and continue to happen as long as we impose policy changes without adequate preparation or without going through the relevant evidence.

Acquisition of language skills should be separated from the medium of instruction debate. The two are separate issues. In addition, the policy can have a negative impact on the quality of learning and education. And the medium of instruction cannot be used to address quality issues. These have to be addressed directly through teacher training and a design for better teacher monitoring and support mechanisms.

Now that the provinces have become responsible for this issue after the 18th Amendment, it will be interesting to see how each province handles language-related questions.

The writer is senior adviser, Pakistan, at Open Society Foundations, associate professor of economics, LUMS, and a visiting fellow at IDEAS, Lahore.