MY colleagues and I have been working in some schools across Punjab and Sindh to understand what goes on during English lessons in middle-school classrooms. We wanted to see and understand how English is being taught in these schools to get a better understanding of why students struggle with it.
Leaving aside the details about learning English, there were some general points that came through. In our class observations and interviews with teachers and students, the phrase that came up most was ‘yaad karna’ (memorisation). Teachers talked about the best way for students to memorise lessons. For students doing well meant memorising the lesson while doing poorly had to do with not having had the time or not having put in the effort to memorise a lesson. Tests were about reproduction; hence memorisation was key. Test preparation was all about memorisation as well.
A typical lesson was as follows: the teacher would come to class and read out the paragraph or story that was the lesson of the day. She would then go over the paragraph word by word and sentence by sentence, explaining — usually in Urdu or the local language — the meaning of difficult words. The students would be asked to reproduce the meanings they had been explained. Then they would be made to repeat the lesson again and again. The teacher would even practise the questions at the end of the lesson, on which the examinations were also to be based, and then keep repeating them until most students could answer all the questions that could possibly be asked about the lesson.
In the next lesson, or a couple of lessons later, the teacher would take a ‘test’ to check if the students had learnt the lesson well (yaad kiya). This would be repeated in the run-up to tests and exams.
By memorising some paragraphs and meanings we cannot learn a language.
One cannot learn a language this way. Language learning requires immersion in listening to and speaking that language. Usually listening, speaking and reading come before writing. By memorising some paragraphs and meanings of some words and writing of some sentences, we cannot learn a language.
More importantly, memorisation is poor pedagogy for teaching and learning. If the aim is to learn a language, and not just to memorise and reproduce specific lessons, we need a different pedagogy. We need a lot more emphasis on reading, listening and speaking before writing. Writing is given too much importance in our education system, even in the early grades. Writing comes later in the learning of languages — think of how you learned a language when you were growing up. We would do better if we could focus on oral interactions more in the early years.
More importantly, education is about reasons. It is about understanding. True, it uses memorisation but that is not the limit of education. Understanding is. And for understanding, the focus has to be on reasons — why things are the way they are; why things are done the way they are done. It does not matter what subject is being taught, language, math or science; reasons for why things are the way they are is what constitutes education. To reduce it to memorisation is to undermine the aim of education.
Irrespective of what definition of education one employs, understanding, critical thinking, and the ability to use one’s own reasoning and to be autonomous and independent are going to be key elements in that definition. It is hard to think of an educated person, as opposed to even a trained person, without invoking all of this. Reason, reasoning and reasons all have a special place in education. An educated person is moved, in terms of her thinking, doing and being, by reasons.
Memorisation and reproduction, though it might be a part of educational pedagogy, would be very negative if it is the whole of educational pedagogy. It would create people without the ability to think on their own, who would not be able to reason and use reasons well; it would create mental slaves who would not be able to develop as autonomous individuals.
Kant had challenged humans to “have the courage to use your own reason”. This was one of the key lessons of the Enlightenment for him. But the courage to use one’s reason cannot come if the education process does everything to dissuade a person from using it, does not educate people in using reason and undermines the confidence and ability of children to develop and rely on their reasoning and understanding.
Imagine yourself in Grade 8 and you find your math textbook has a mistake or misprint and the answer to one of the exercise questions they have given is wrong. That question comes in the examination and you know how to solve the question correctly. What will you do? Will you write the answer that is given in the book or will you write the correct answer? A friend narrated this incident. He said he wrote the answer given in the book, even though he knew that answer was wrong but he got full marks for it. Another friend solved the problem correctly and wrote the right answer and was given a zero in that question. This is what pedagogy of memorisation does to us.
We see the consequences of the pedagogy of memorisation when these students come to us at university stage and later in their practical lives as well. They struggle to find themselves and be themselves. They look for validation far too much and far too often. And they tend to follow rather than lead. This is not the youth we want as they will be the leaders of tomorrow. More than any other change within education, SNC or no SNC, the change in pedagogy, though harder to achieve, can have large returns for us in terms of helping build the next generation of the country.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.
Published in Dawn, July 21st, 2023