AN ‘A’ Level English literature student, the daughter of a friend, told me that she was reading Shakespeare for her literature course. When I asked her if she was enjoying the experience and what she liked about him, she told me she did not understand Shakespeare and his language, and could only make sense of the plays through the various guides that she was consulting.
She said that her teacher also encouraged the class to work through the guides and not expend too much energy on the original.
Another ‘A’ Level economics student, from a different school, told me that his teacher went ‘backwards’ from examination questions to economic concepts. The teacher took past papers, gave the students ‘ideal’ answers for the questions asked in them and, if needed, explained concepts that were relevant for answering these questions.
The students were expected to learn and reproduce these answers and there was seldom any opportunity to consult the textbook. In fact, the teacher felt that even when there was a need to go beyond the questions and answers, his own notes that he had given to the students were enough and going through the textbook was not needed.
A few years ago, when I was helping a BA student prepare for her English language examination, I was surprised that when asked to write an essay in English, on any topic of her choice, she said she could ‘learn’ an essay from the guide book and reproduce it but she could not write the essay on her own.
In her case, this was an issue of language. She had been educated in Urdu-medium schools, had been introduced to English, even as a subject, quite late, and had attended government schools, where the quality of education was an issue all the way.
Her reliance on guide books was understandable. Especially so since it was only in English where she resorted to rote learning. She was comfortable expressing herself in Urdu and did not need to resort to rote learning for other subjects.
There is competition for grades, and students, teachers and parents want as many ‘A’ grades as possible. This is needed for college admissions and for signalling ability and quality: we want to tell the world how good our child is. And it is assumed that better grades show better understanding. This last link is a bit tricky and this is from where part of the problem emanates.
What is it that parents want from education? Is it just the ability to enter good colleges, get degrees and get good jobs? Or do parents want their children to grow, as human beings, through their education? Do they want them to become better citizens and better human beings as well?
Probably most parents want education to ensure better career prospects and make their children better human beings as well. But since the latter is more difficult to achieve as well as to gauge, and the former more practical and more binding, parental attention gets focused on the issue of performance and career prospects.
Better grades increase the probability of admission into more reputable schools substantially, there is no doubt here, but the connection to better career prospects is a bit loose. But, more importantly, better grades is not a guarantee that your child is being educated well, is getting to engage with learning properly, and accessing the larger benefit of education including its impact on his or her personality.
Teaching to examination level and the hunt for grades has narrowed education too much. Shakespeare will not reveal the secrets of life and living if we only engage with him through guide books. He needs to be read and re-read, mulled over and, to an extent, lived, before his words will open up new worlds for students.
Even a social science, like economics, needs to be set in context, its conceptual framework needs to be motivated and its theoretical structure explained for students to appreciate the depth of its reach. This will not happen if we limit ourselves to learning ‘ideal’ answers to questions that appear in the ‘A’ Level examinations.
The principal of the college that I attended for my undergraduate studies, at the welcome dinner, had said something that has stuck with me all these years. “You are here to learn how to learn.” He had gone on to explain that undergraduate education was not about becoming an expert in any field, it was just to learn how one learns, how one engages with learning and how one allows one’s learning to become internalised.
The vocational part of becoming an expert in a particular field, he thought, could come at the graduate level. At school level this applies even more. We are not teaching students to be experts in economics or literature at ‘A’ Levels or Intermediate, we just want them to “learn how to learn”.
The quest for grades can undermine the broader objective. Where at college, students take more responsibility for how they engage with education, they are too young to do so in school. Parents bear more responsibility while their children are in school and should be more aware of what their child is learning and how.
In a previous article, some time back, I made the observation that over the decade and a half that I have been teaching at university level in Pakistan, I have observed significant changes in students’ engagement with education and learning. Though students in my classes, in general and on average, have better grades than their peers did 15 years ago, and have been exposed to more subjects, their depth of knowledge seems less and their understanding seems more limited.
Maybe part of the explanation for this is the narrowing ‘teach to examination level’ pedagogy.
The writer is senior adviser, Pakistan at Open Society Foundations, associate professor of economics, LUMS, and a visiting fellow at IDEAS, Lahore.