How does this make sense?

Published September 15, 2023
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.

WHY do we put so much academic pressure on our children? Why can we not lighten up a bit? We have too many academic subjects that we teach our children right from grade one, and for each subject we have too many learning objectives in our curriculum for each year.

Too much pressure does not make for happy studying or for happy schooling. Children are always under pressure. Teachers and school systems resort to excessive testing and examinations to keep the pressure on and to make students ‘learn’.

Children are always either preparing for or taking tests and examinations: pre-pre-mocks, pre-mocks, mocks, exams, weekly tests, monthly tests, term tests, and finals. The result is a rather poor schooling system where there is just too much academic pressure and students employ rote learning and do not care about understanding the material or enjoying the experience of learning. So we end up defeating the purpose of education and do not even get good learning out of it.

You must have seen the heavy bags children lug around. They often weigh more than 10 kilograms. How does this make sense? How can students take so much and do justice to all of it?

Why do we have to teach more than English, Urdu and mathematics in the first two to three grades? This is what children need in the initial years. They need to learn numeracy and literacy: to read, speak, listen, and write. We should focus on that. ASER and other surveys and tests tell us that we are doing a poor job of imparting literacy and numeracy.

Should we not focus on that rather than adding other subjects like religious studies, general knowledge and so on? What should be added, instead, are art, music, play and other social/interactive activities. These will result in a much better and more wholesome development of our children and their mental and physical faculties than by what we are doing right now.

Children often lug around schoolbags that weigh more than 10kg.

And even in English, Urdu and mathematics, we should go slowly. How do children learn languages? They learn by listening (usually to parents in the initial years), speaking, reading and then writing. Our schooling system privileges writing far too much and far too early in the day. The first two to three grades should be far more oral than written than what they are currently.

And we do not need the other subjects this early. We can use English and Urdu to tell stories and give values if needed. We can also use art, music and singing to open up new opportunities for our children. Children should love their school and their education. They should not be afraid of the material, teachers or the pressure they are put under.

As children move up to higher grades we can introduce other subjects, but this still needs to be a selective process and what we teach in each subject should also be curated carefully. This tendency of just adding things because ‘children should know all this’ does not make for good education.

It does not matter whether it is 21st-century skills or computer science or even the translation of religious texts. If we need to add something, something else needs to be taken out and there has to be good reasons for addition and deletion, it should not be on the whim of a school or a curriculum council or even a prime minister. Sadly, every revision of the curriculum adds more subjects and more material.

A website of a schooling system in Pakistan mentions that for Grade 6 it teaches eight subjects: English, Urdu, mathematics, science, history, geography, computer science and religious translation. This seems to be quite a lot. There is no mention of arts, music or anything else. And there is no mention of extracurricular activities either. What do we want our grade 6 children to become?

The details of books within each subject mention five books for English, three books for Urdu, two for science and then one book for each of the other five subjects. This is just too much. No wonder student bags are so heavy and students prefer rote learning to understanding. Do students really need this much?

A number of education experts have written on this issue of too much and too fast, creating problems with learning and understanding. Teaching is not the same thing as learning or understanding. Teachers often complain that they cannot slow down teaching, help those who take a bit longer to learn, spend more time on topics that need repetition, etc, as they have a syllabus to cover and have lesson plans to stay abreast of. But this is exactly the issue. Is completion of the course and syllabus more important or student learning and understanding? The answer should be obvious. But it is, sadly, not. Finishing the curriculum takes precedence over learning in almost all schools and at all levels.

Universities admit students with three A-levels all over the world but we require students in Pakistan to also sit for examinations in Urdu, Islamiat and Pakistan Studies. In intermediate, we require students to complete seven subjects (English, Urdu, Islamiat, Pakistan Studies and three major subjects).

The same challenge of heavy content confronts us here too. There have been, numerous times, suggestions to add Quran and Seerat studies as additional compulsory subjects. Can these subjects not be taught as part of Islamiat?

It must be kept in mind that the growing burden of subjects on our young people can hamper their development.

The situation reminds me of the Pink Floyd song:

‘We don’t need no education/ We don’t need no thought control/ No dark sarcasm in the classroom/ Teacher leave them kids alone’.

Elders, please lighten up and give our children a real chance at learning and enjoying the process of learning as well.

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, September 15th, 2023

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