Children do matter

Published November 30, 2011

IT is now widely believed that the root of the evils of militancy and extremism in our society lies in the faulty education system of the country. Textbooks preach hatred and religious prejudice against non-Muslims.

Pedagogy is not designed to open up the minds of children, broaden their outlooks, inculcate tolerance and teach them to think critically. As a result, we are rearing a generation of discontented and disoriented youth that lack direction.

Given the shocking state of the education system, it would be a tall order to ask educationists to get children involved in their academic life and participate in education-related activities to keep them away from the clutches of unscrupulous elements who draw them into a life of violence. However, the Children Literature Festival organised by the Oxford University Press (OUP) and the Idara-i-Taleem-o-Agahi (ITA) in Lahore last weekend brought hope to many despondent hearts.

All is not yet lost in Pakistan. It clearly proved that it is not impossible to turn the system around and give a new meaning to education by providing children with more than the classroom-based instruction most of them are accustomed to at the moment. First a few words about the distinguishing features of the CLF that made it such a success. It was a ‘people’s’ event. The selection of the venue — the Children’s Library Complex — set the tone. The complex, which is easily accessible, made such massive participation possible. In the words of ITA’s Baela Jamil, the children came in “wave after wave” — nearly 20,000 she estimates — and more than half of them were from public-sector schools that we have written off as being incapable of contributing anything to the child’s cognitive development.

The CLF more than confirms that our children, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, can still think, express their thoughts and achieve a lot provided they are given the opportunity for self-empowerment. Thus no talented lives should be wasted on account of poverty.

Another feature of the festival which made all the difference was that its proceedings were bilingual — English and Urdu but leaning heavily towards the latter. Even the chief minister of Punjab who inaugurated the ceremonies and began his speech in English ultimately came round to speaking in Urdu. The language factor was crucial. It made the CLF inclusive, notwithstanding the unilingual banners in English. If anything, some purely English speakers became the odd ones out. It also proved to be the ‘equaliser’ many of us want our education system to be.

There was some food for thought for the educationists who adopt a hidebound approach to pedagogy. The storytelling sessions, puppet shows, theatre, song and dance unleashed the energies of the three-to-eight-year-olds effectively. They became participants as their vociferous responses in many workshops — take the ‘live cartoon presentation and muppet show’ by Nigar Nazar and the storytelling by Fauzia Minallah ‘promoting tolerance through children’s books’ — testified to. That is what education should be all about. One has to do away with the culture of silence cultivated by our English-oriented education system in the classroom.

The idea was to provoke interest in books in the children. The organisers can rightly claim to have succeeded in their mission. But will this interest be sustained? Many sessions, such as the one on ‘getting children reading’, ‘setting up and running a school library’ and ‘making a book’, evoked a lot of interest not just in the children but also their parents who are the key factor in inculcating the reading habit in their offspring.

This interest will have to be kept alive. Considering the prices of books, not many parents can afford to satisfy the demands of children who are avid readers. It is here that libraries have a role to play. The CLF will only make a dent if its focus on libraries triggers a public drive for school libraries.

The other area that received significant attention was language. Since one cannot talk about books without speaking about language, it was inevitable that the issue of language came under discussion in a number of sessions especially those that had adult participation. One session was entirely devoted to the medium of instruction.

There was consensus that a young child should make his or her debut in the world of education in a language he or she understands i.e. the child’s mother tongue. How various languages and at what stage should they be introduced in the school system needs proper research, planning and a policy. One can only hope that the CLF will get the language in education ball rolling.

Boosted by their success, the organisers have announced that a children’s literature festival will be held every year — in 2012 it will be in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. That will be widely welcome but a way must be found to incorporate the ethos of the CLF in our school system on an ongoing basis. It needs to be done through the teachers and their pedagogy.

The importance of involving our teachers in the exercise of creating new bonds between children and books cannot be emphasised enough. Teachers need to be mobilised and motivated to perform as agents of change in the lives of children. They can use the methods adopted by the festival to draw children to books and knowledge. This again may appear to be a challenging task in view of our decaying education system. It is time something was devised for teachers on a similar scale. Were their self-esteem to be restored, they may be able to perform better.

www.zubeidamustafa.com

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