Education, irrespective of the content, has to engage a child, make him/her interested, and give something that he/she can apply and utilise to make sense of his/her world. Children are not empty vessels that can be filled with all sorts of things irrespective of their attitude to learning and irrespective of the use to which this knowledge can be put to.
Teachers have a very difficult job. They have a syllabus and a work plan to go through but in order to deliver they have to have the cooperation of the 30-40 children that they have in class. Most systems for teacher evaluation judge the performance of the teacher on the basis of what a child has learned. But for this to happen, the teacher needs to engage the child, in addition to making sure that she has a good handle on what is going to be taught.
I went to school 3 decades ago. My school experience was not great. I got some lovely and wonderful teachers who made learning a joy. But, by and large, the teaching was lackluster and mediocre, enthusiasm low, and commitment ensuring students understood what was being taught quite variable. The regimentation that goes with education, of being in school day in and day out, living with doing excessive amounts of homework everyday, dealing with corporal punishment, and dealing with the expectations of middle class parents, made my experience poor.
When I look at some of the children of my friends now, it feels Pakistani schools, even the top schools, have not changed much. The textbooks have become better, some schools now use the latest books from abroad, use of physical punishment has been restricted, and some schools do try to use more interactive methods for teaching. But it seems that the schools are still the way they were some decades ago: not places where children love to go to learn and grow, but places where children have to be because parents want them to be there for future prospects for advanced education and jobs.
But education does not have to be this way. Our nephew goes to 4th grade in a public school in the US. The public school is, admittedly, in a good school district, so maybe he is getting a slightly better than average education, compared to public schools in US in general. But, the elements of pedagogy and education that I am going to focus on are more general and I presume work across the education system in the US.
He looks forward to going to school and this is not just because of friends there, it is because he likes things he does in his classes. His everyday schedule is not too heavy; he does not have to carry a massive amount of books to and from home. He does get homework but the amount is kept at a level where his evening is not totally overwhelmed by attempting to complete it.
The teachers make it interesting for students to learn new things. To learn English he is required to read some pages of any book he likes, fiction or otherwise, everyday. He keeps a record of how many pages he reads and makes some notes every day. When he finishes a book he presents a report in class. Recently, he was reading Harry Potter that way. In mathematics, his teacher is able to present even difficult ideas, division, fractions and so on, using examples that connect with everyday life and show students how they have been, almost, doing fractions and division anyway. The science class connects to the wonders of nature and brings that wonder into learning. Students are encouraged and required to do small science projects that enhance understanding significantly.
His teachers take a keen interest in him that goes beyond any call to duty of a nine to five job. Though his teachers are public sector employees, they spend, it seems, almost 11-12 hour days at their job. Another friend, whose child also goes to public school in the US had the teacher of his child call at 7pm to ask if he could talk to him about his child. Then the teacher spent 45 minutes discussing things with my friend to just go through some adjustment issues that the child was facing. At the end of it all, it was the teacher who thanked my friend for taking the time out to help the teacher in making a better learning environment for the kid. My friend was flabbergasted. He was much more used to, in Pakistan, hearing that he had not done this and that, and that he was failing his child. If our public education can work the way it works in these US schools, we would not a have private sector in Pakistan. And it has nothing to do with higher salaries or better infrastructure. It has to do with how child-centered learning systems have been designed.
Education should not be a chore; it should not be a soulless, dull process of just expecting the student to regurgitate knowledge. And many school systems have clearly found ways of addressing all that. We need to think a bit innovatively about education and schooling.
The writer is an Associate Professor of Economics at LUMS (currently on leave) and a Senior Advisor at Open Society Foundation (OSF). He can be reached at [email protected]