Learning to learn

06 Jun 2014

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ENTER a school and within 10-15 minutes you can tell if it works or not — whether it is an exciting place where children learn and are keen to learn or if it’s just a space where children and teachers park themselves to spend five to six hours a day because they are required to.

Schools that work have a lot of energy: children and teachers are actively involved in learning; they exude the excitement of learning; they are involved in many activities that allow them to engage with their curricular material; there is a lot of extracurricular activity and the management of the school is purposeful. Schools that do not work or are just about functional lack this excitement and activity.

Over the last few months, I have had the opportunity to visit a significant number of schools, across different cities, private and public, low-cost and high-fee, and the difference in schools, irrespective of the fee level, determines, to a significant degree, how learning is proceeding in these schools. It is exciting to see children excited about learning.

In one of the schools, a grade 5 student wanted to have a conversation with me in English. She was so keen to show me her language skills that she kept tripping on her words in an effort to get them out quickly even as her mind was racing on to new things to say. I had to tell her to slow down as my mind worked a lot slower than hers. Full marks to those teachers, administrators and school managers/owners who make learning exciting and are able to impart valuable skills to the children.

But a few observations continue to bother me. They tend to be reinforced with every visit to a school and with every interaction with teachers, managers and owners. One is the narrowness of the skill set that our schools are giving to our children. Most of it is about language (with the focus on English), mathematics and ‘facts’ from science and history. But even within these subjects, the focus is very narrow eg, on some parts of history (Pakistan Studies, early Islam), some mathematical skills and some scientific concepts.

True, education must have a focus, but the narrowness, suggestive of the ‘teaching for examinations’ phenomena, even in the early grades, is worrisome. Children need to learn how to learn, they need to play with what they learn and they need to develop a critical attitude towards what is given to them. This is not possible if the content of our teaching is narrow in scope.

Narrowness of content encourages an uncritical attitude: teachers can develop the attitude that students have to ‘learn’ specifics come what may. But this is not what we want our children to learn. We want them to learn the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ too.

The narrowness of content, especially in subjects related to the social sciences, will have the unintended but negative consequences of producing relatively narrow-minded individuals. My interactions with students show that the only heroes they have are Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Muhammad Iqbal, and their knowledge of other religions, ethical systems, cultures, ways of being and traditions are not only inadequate, there is little or no understanding or awareness of the existence of such multiplicities.

We are also not teaching our children the skills of critical thinking they need to have. Rote learning allows almost anyone to regurgitate and reproduce whatever they have learnt, but learning can only be internalised if a child is and has been able to play with the material they have been learning.

Children need to be able to question the premises of what they are learning, they need to comprehend the application of content and they need to have a better understanding of the context of the material they are engaging with. This is as true of concepts from mathematics and science as it is for history and Islamiat.

In a grade 8 classroom, students were learning about triangles and how the sum of the angles of one triangle totals 180 degrees. I asked the students to tell me why this was so. They did not know the answer.

That is not important as in grade 8 they are not expected to. But they should be taught so that they are curious about the whys. If they are curious enough, they will automatically seek answers. For instance, in an Islamiat lesson where students were reading the translation of Surah Al-Asr I asked them as to why God swears by Asr at the beginning of the Surah.

Irrespective of subject, it is the ‘learning how to learn’ part that is a very important part of what we should be teaching.

Because of the narrowness of some of the content, and encouraged by this narrowness, there is an attitude that the content has to be ‘learnt’ and that it should not be questioned. Questioning is tantamount to undermining the legitimacy of the content as well as the process. In fact, questioning and playing with learning material is how learning happens and how the material is internalised.

In most interactions I have had with students and teachers, the narrowness of their approach to learning has been very noticeable. The goal of making students learn well is commendable but that should not imply forcing material down their throat.

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

Published in Dawn, June 6th, 2014