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Unlocking the mind

November 06, 2013

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AT what age does a child start thinking? Experts believe that children have a mind of their own since they are born. Some even believe that their cognitive abilities are present even when they are in their mother’s womb. That is why they are more at ease with the language they hear their mother speak.

It is a different — though sad — matter that we, as adults, suppress this creative and critical thinking power of children that nature has endowed them with. Since we are comfortable among conformists who do not pose uncomfortable questions we shape our education policies in such a way that children forget how to question.

It is time we realised that such retrogressive policies are damaging our children. In this age of lifelong education, formal schooling should be designed to create the ability in students to apply their literacy and numeracy skills for acquiring more knowledge, doing research, solving problems and using their creativity.

Education should actually be a tool to enable students to proceed on a self-help basis to grow intellectually and master new skills to progress mentally.

This is possible only if students learn how to think which unfortunately not all schools are teaching our youth how to do.

This holds especially true for public-sector schools where 66pc of our primary-level students are enrolled. It is this shortcoming that the Children’s Literature Festival has set out to correct.

Since October 2011, seven sessions of the CLF have been held, the latest being the one in Lahore last week. The idea of the founders has been to “unlock the power of reading” in children by offering them reading material other than textbooks. Thus they hope to revive the activity of reading for pleasure which has gradually been replaced by television and computers. In the process, the child’s mental horizons should be widened.

The CLF was the brainchild of Baela Raza Jamil, head of the Idara-i-Taleem-o-Agahi, an NGO running schools in Pakistan. Baela rightly feels that our textbooks and the pedagogy employed are encouraging rote learning and not inculcating the capacity among students to think. Undeterred, she joined hands with Ameena Saiyid of the OUP and Nargis Sultana of Open Society Foundations to create new avenues of learning for children by launching the CLF.

The idea has caught on and 500 schools participated in last week’s events bringing a huge crowd of nearly 30,000 youngsters to the Punjab Library Complex for two days of fun and leisure in the shape of storytelling, art, discussions, song and dance as well as a bonanza of books for children. Most of the children were from public-sector schools and who are normally not exposed to such extracurricular experiences.

At the inaugural session, Baela rightly pointed out that our education system is too exam-centric which robs children of the pleasure of reading books as a leisure activity. Small wonder parents are complaining that the reading habit in children is on the decline.

Baela described the CLF as being all about “learning and healing”. Mubeen, a young paraplegic child from a government school for special children summed up the value of books beautifully when he said that he wanted to have a lot of books to read because they kept him engaged by giving him hours of happiness.

The public response to the CLF has been impressive. Baela has promised to conduct an impact assessment to determine how it is shaping school policies and children’s attitudes. There are two benchmarks that can be employed. The first is the spread of the idea. There were teams from India and Dubai to observe how the CLF idea can be exported to other countries. It would be a positive development if book reading assumed the form of a movement and CLFs were to mushroom all over South Asia and the Gulf region.

The second yardstick to measure the success of the CLF is the level of participation of children, the key stakeholders. For the first time, the CLF organised story-writing and poetry contests and art competitions and nearly 3,000 entries were received. This was an impressive level of public interest that was generated among the youth.

There are two dimensions of the CLF that make it so important. One is its stimulating impact on the children who get interested in books and scholastic activities. This is an attempt to spread learning and education through an informal framework that promotes the reading habit in a relaxed atmosphere rather than in a rigid classroom setting.

The CLF plays another significant role. In the plenary sessions, many education-related issues are addressed in which policymakers are also invited to participate. This time there were sessions on making education for special children inclusive, curricula and textbooks, peace education, language, gender and power, early childhood education and promoting the library culture. It was virtually an education fest.

One hopes the messages get across to those who control our children’s future through their education. It is an idea worth exploring if two days are devoted entirely to activities for children and the third day is exclusively for adults — educationists, policymakers and, above all, the teachers whose voice seems to be missing in education policymaking.

They need to be provided more space as they are the pivotal element in the education system. It is time an interactive discourse was held with them to improve pedagogy.

www.zubeidamustafa.com