Pakistani teachers, check your egos at the door

18 Aug 2014

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We need to produce thinkers, not assembly line workers with wonderful test scores and no critical faculties. -File Photo
We need to produce thinkers, not assembly line workers with wonderful test scores and no critical faculties. -File Photo

I was never really a good student. Having been one of those kids who asked far too many questions in class, I usually ended up standing on a desk or in a corner because teachers couldn’t be bothered to deal with me.

I missed that subtle yet crucial phase of Pakistani primary education that takes place outside the classroom, where family and society covertly convince a child into keeping his or her mouth shut about certain things.

It is quite a delicate brand of conditioning: learning to read heightened body language, social cues and lightly murmured ‘tsk tsks’ in response to certain questions prepares a child about the acceptable boundaries of curiosity.

Having spent my childhood abroad, where being ‘inquisitive’ in a classroom was encouraged, it took me a couple of years of being met with shocked looks and ‘haw hai’ whispers behind my back to realise that the Pakistani carrot/stick method operated differently.

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It actually took me quite a few years to recognise that certain questions were not supposed to be asked in Pakistan. You didn’t ask, for example, why there wasn’t a chapter on Gandhi in Pakistan Studies class or why we didn’t study different religions and languages in school.

Why didn’t we ask these questions? That was another question we never asked.

Ironically, I am still faced with the same problem; only this time it is reversed and I have encountered it in the capacity of a teacher.

Even at the college level, I usually find that it takes me an average of five to six classes before my students are somewhat convinced that I ‘really mean it’ when I tell them that within my class they can ask anything. That, if all they learn from me is to listen to someone else’s opinion, in spite of disagreeing with it and without flying into a fit of rage, is learning enough.

Critical thinking is a core component of all education and apart from the buzzwords that underline this, all it really means is a person raising their argument rather than their voice.

It is a constant challenge to get students to form their own opinions, because this is something the Pakistani education system does not teach us. If anything, we usually learn to defend opinions with logic rather than emotion in spite of our education and not because of it.

Explore: Learning to learn

A trend I have observed among many students is an innate fear of exploration.

It is true that institutionalised education systems do limit academic exploration, and that standardised tests and over emphasis on GPA and foreign admissions are often a poor litmus test for gauging passion, original thinking and creativity, however, these are not irreconcilable domains.

I have lost count of the number of times a student has come to my office asking me what to write their research paper on. I always respond with:

What do you want to write it on?

And he or she invariably counters:

What do you want me to write it on?”.

We continue this negotiation for the time that it takes me to convince them that my job is to help them best express what they want to express, not tell them where their interests should lie.

Seeing as I work within the Humanities, I find this hesitance all the more perverse but I can understand where it stems from.

We, in Pakistan, seem to have a very strong need to hold absolute opinions as answers to complex and simple questions alike. Very few of us are comfortable entertaining multiple positions and ideas in percentages 60/40, 70/30 rather than Yes/No monoliths.

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Maybes, almosts, sometimes, often this and occasionally that are words that I need to teach most of my students. The fact that using qualifiers is not a sign of cowardice or moral relativity or lazy thinking is something they need to be convinced of because they have seldom encountered it. If anything, absolutes lead to lazy thinking because a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer seldom requires a follow up and there are very few practical or personal situations that can be summed up so simply.

Embracing grey zones in thought is often the best use of grey matter, but it is often a struggle to convince people of this.

Pakistan’s education system needs to produce thinkers rather than assembly line workers with wonderful test scores and no critical faculties.

One of the keys to doing this is for teachers to check their own egos at the door, for us to finally recognise that learning is a two-way street and just because our side of the desk tends to have more years and degrees in its corner doesn’t necessarily mean that it should do all the talking.

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The best classrooms need conversation, and if teachers can make students believe that what they think really matters to us, students tend to approach their education differently.

I often randomly ask my students to take over my desk and ‘teach me something I don’t know’, it’s a great exercise where they simply feel valued enough and I get to learn about a discipline I have no background in.

This has extended itself to students coming to my office and lending me books and recommending authors I’ve never heard of, proposing class discussions that I can incorporate and generally feeling invested in our work together. Because that is the key, we work together.

I had very low expectations of myself when I set out to teach last year and the only standard I set was that I wanted to be the kind of teacher I wish I had when I was in college. I wish I had teachers who told me to take books as maps and go exploring and genuinely cared where I ended up.

I wanted teachers to tell me ‘where to look and not what to see’ as Alexandra Trenfor puts it.

I couldn’t abide the idea that there were ‘right books’ and ‘wrong books’ because I think that people who take this approach are inherently terrified of knowledge and exploration and of thinking for themselves. Someone who pre-empts that some knowledge might inherently corrupt or destroy them is already compromised… by fear.

There is already plenty of that to go around in Pakistan and students shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of it.