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Bagfuls of burden

Updated March 02, 2014

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Nisa, a student of class two, loves her new school bag. “It is pretty and has pictures of Ben 10,” she says. Inside the bag are textbooks, notebooks, and a pencil box — a load fit for a suitcase. Students as young as Nisa are expected to carry such heavy bags without any questions asked. “I won’t complain that it is heavy because I am strong,” she says.

The culture of heavy schoolbags is rampant in Pakistan. Many educationists mistakenly believe that the more books that they prescribe, the more knowledge they’ll be able to impart.

On average, there are around 16 notebooks in a child’s school bag — half class work copies and the other half homework notebooks. Then there are some eight textbooks too, not to forget pencil cases, geometry boxes, and lunch boxes. Some children also carry a thermos or flask. Few educationists are mindful of the impact such a heavy burden can have on the health of a child.

“Carrying a weight that is 15pc to 20pc of your whole body’s weight is never a good practice. It affects your whole body, especially the spine and shoulders, and to some extent your lungs too,” explains Dr Irfan Tariq. “If you talk about children, carrying such extra weight can lead to lifelong problems.”

Dr Tariq explains that when carrying heavier loads, the human body tends to bend towards the earth in what is called the Kyphotic posture. “This puts unhealthy pressure on the spine; in the long run, children adopt this posture in their walking practices. It is therefore recommended that a school bag should never be more than 10pc of the total body weight of a child.” In Pakistan, though, it is common practice for school bags to weigh almost 20 to 30 pc of a child’s total body weight.

Dr Tariq says that potential health risks can be mitigated by ensuring that a school bag is balanced on both shoulders. “For best practices, a bag should be balanced while a child is sitting down. Then, as they stand up, the burden should be transferred on their legs. This will help prevent back injury.”

Heavy school bags are not only a burden for young school-going students but they are also a burden on their parents’ pockets. On average books and copies and all the stationary required for a new school year, depending on the school a child studies in, ranges between Rs3,000 to Rs8,000 per child.

Many schools also have their recommended book depots, from where parents are obliged to buy books. To ensure that parents buy from designated depots, schools produce monogrammed notebooks, which in turn, are deemed compulsory.

The Pakistani educational system seems to focus on filling bags with books, irrespective of whether they are needed or not. There is less emphasis on the need to assess a child’s learning capability and then to apply learning tactics that are suited to them. All students are painted with the same brush — a function of the commercialisation of education.

“Education in Pakistan nowadays has become a business; it’s just like another private entity where the sole purpose is to earn profit by any means possible,” argues Muhammad Adeel, lecturer of FAST-NU Karachi Campus.

“Syllabi can really be cut short and there is a dire need to update curricula to modern standards. The syllabus must be amended within a period of two years or at least should be given a revised look to keep it relevant and related to the current developments of the world,” Adeel says.

Experts argue that there are various learning styles that can be tailored for a child’s aptitude. Some children are good at visual learning — they find it easy to learn through pictures and drawings. Some love audio. Some find verbal directions easier to deal with. And some children learn through physical contact — by touching things, feeling their existence. For such students verbal or linguistic method will not work as well.

Then there are some children who are wired to be mathematicians but hate other methods. They love logic and try to solve everything through this innate capability. For them, other traditional methods don’t work. And there are some who don’t like people around them. They work alone or with a minimum amount of people around. They flourish when given such an environment.

Both parents and teachers should be mindful that archaic methods don’t end up stunting both the minds and bodies of students.