“Let’s open chapter two of our science books!” As pages flipped, some students raced to be the first ones to reach the right page, while others nonchalantly flipped the pages back and forth, until everyone had reached the same page.
A silence, then, came to wait inside my classroom. Students looked at me, expecting me to begin. To instruct them.
They waited for me to read the chapter and to arrive at the chapter questions, which they could then answer with their guides. And then, to feel relieved that they were now yet another chapter through their syllabus.
‘Chapter 2: Atoms and Molecules,’ was just that -- a chapter in the textbook, one they had to go through.
As we started reading the chapter, I stopped and shared examples to relate the topic to their daily lives, and to discuss alternate theories that have existed and continue to exist about matter and its building blocks.
My students, apart from a few, were disengaged. They were waiting for me to come back to the textbook, and to give them strategies to remember so they could later reproduce the content. They were actually doing nothing wrong, according to public classroom standards.
In fact, they were doing the only thing they’ve been allowed to do in Pakistani classrooms: listen. And by sixth grade, my students had accepted and mastered this role.
The role of a bystander to the activity that others call science. The role of storing whatever is in the textbook and ensuring they could retrieve information on the day and hour of an examination.
If science was a body of knowledge, and if this body were to ever appear in front of the students, they would have considered it an impostor, and continued to focus on each individual part, oblivious to its function and interconnectedness.
The scientific mindset is not only absent from classrooms and our national discourse, but misunderstood and even feared in some quarters.
Doubt, questioning, and entertaining and presenting alternate opinions has become tantamount to being opposed to faith.
Some people claim: Today, they are questioning the building blocks of matter, and who knows, tomorrow they might question the building blocks of faith.
An atmosphere of silence, blind acceptance, and the need for (continuous) shielding from criticism helps keep safe the pieces that have become fundamental to our culture: authority, patriarchy, and conformity.
But the scientific mindset with its reliance on reason, skepticism and evidence, directly disturbs this safety.
The concern is that if this mindset is demonstrated and practiced in science classes, then it will easily and inevitably go on to disrupt systems of thought that have remained unquestioned in existing spheres of power.
Unfortunately, the low quality of science teachers in our public classrooms has ensured that the stagnancy that the teachers witnessed during their own schooling is perfectly reproduced in their teaching.
Thus, this collective attitude of apprehension towards the evolving field of science is continuously reinforced, even as the world around us changes at an unprecedented pace.
As my teaching experience progressed, I began to feel weak in the face of this system and culture that had slowly delegated the realm of critique to oblivion.
In my classroom, my students began to seem like mere spectators in a cricket ground—watching, understanding, even enjoying the game—but not realising that they were an essential part of it.
Adding and changing rules, and potentially disrupting the game, were too absurd to even consider.
I shared these thoughts with a Pakistani friend in the US, and he commented that different scientific theories need to be discussed only so we can better understand the content of the science textbook.
Puzzled, I asked him about the role of the textbook in learning. He replied, “The textbook is a complete guide to what concepts and theories have worked best to describe our physical world. The science textbook is the authority on science.”
In my friend’s response, I saw a sense of security and sacredness that he attached to the textbook. He was cognizant of the multiplicity in opinions and their importance but only in respect to understanding the content of the textbook.
The way he described it, this textbook was considered complete, and the domain of science was considered a work of the past, by individuals who had completed the work for us and laid out whatever there was to be known.
Reading, memorising and understanding the textbook was our small but only attempt at repaying an enormous debt.
I then turned to my fellow teachers and discussed my concerns.
I explained that I wanted our students to treat questions as an actual quest on which their curiosities were at times more desirable than the answers, where they could bring scientific discoveries from a foreign and unfamiliar sphere to a familiar one, where their participation could play a key role.
I found some supporters, advocates and doers.
We tried to lay seeds for a new culture where curiosity and inquisitiveness could find some ground. An empty tissue paper box was installed outside the principal’s office where students could submit questions anonymously.
A range of questions came forward:
Which is the highest peak in the world?
What is the name of the fastest animal?
And slowly, the which’s and what’s started to become why’s, who’s and how’s;
Why is there so much violence in our society?
If God has made us, who made Him?
Simultaneously, in classes, students were pushed to voice their opinions, reactions and ideas about the content. Discussing, questioning, and clarifying started to become classroom traits.
Science presentations became a requirement. Students had to speak to their class. They had to explain the content, and this repositioned the power dynamics in their classroom.
Those who were previously shy and inexpressive began to speak, gesticulate, walk around classrooms, and design assignments for their lessons. The class was becoming responsible for its own learning.
While presenting, students began to get frustrated and passionate. They, would grimace and smile. Learning was becoming personal.
Explore: No science culture
But there was something that we did not plan for.
In a few months, complaints began to filter in. In a weekly staff room meeting, teachers complained:
Bacche kharab ho rahay hain. (The kids’ behaviour is becoming erratic.)
Stick lagte hue aankhein neechay hi nai karte. (They don’t even lower their eyes when they are hit.)
Aagay se kuch tau sawaal bhi karte hain, kyun maara hai aap ne? (Some even ask, why did you hit?)
As they began to share these stories, a small wave of fear entered the staff room. Perhaps this fear had already been present there, lurking behind the metal benches, or in the dust that had gathered on the old clock.
Now, with everyone finding the words to discuss experiences they had neither imagined nor prepared for, fear came and settled on different hearts. For those with folded arms, it just stood next to them.
Another teacher chimed in, “Mein kuch din chutti par tha, aur class mein wapsi par mere se bachon ne poochha, “Sir aap ne chutti kyun ki? Hamari parhai ka kia ho ga?” (I took off for a few days and upon return my students asked, “Sir why did you take a leave? What will happen to our studies?”)
The principal was listening. She had also heard that students had begun to talk--first in whispers, then in sentences and most often through their eyes--about the school administration and their decisions about the school, and how it would affect the students.
It was then that we realised the distance a question travels and what it does along the way. How it permeates boundaries, stepping softly into new domains and disrupting conventional discourse and existing systems.
Additionally, we witnessed skills that exist in tandem with questioning: participation, activity, accountability and ownership.
It was then that we saw for ourselves how effectively questioning disentangles the ropes that conformity binds within and across systems, and noticed the faces of those who have not imagined a reality other than their own.
Rather than resisting the changes, the teachers were mostly surprised by the way the students now viewed themselves and their role in their classrooms.
Eventually, many of the teachers began to loosen their conventional ways; their perspectives had significantly shifted, as had their instructional behaviour.
My experience at this particular school can be used to draw parallels across Pakistani classrooms. Orthodox approaches and environments frequently resist attempts at change.
However, being open to innovation, to new ideas, and to probing questions will allow students to be active participants in their education rather than passive bystanders.
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