75 per cent of class five students in Sindh can’t read class two-level English sentences
On a September afternoon in a village near Larkana, I had a chat with two boys who had cleared matriculation exams and were filling in their admission forms for intermediate. These two were among the smartest boys in the government high school of their area. They appeared to be intelligent, ambitious and engaged youngsters; eager to get ahead in life and make a contribution to their community. I asked them if the earth rotates; their expressions turned blank and confused. One of them thought I was joking. I picked up a globe and asked them if they could identify continents and oceans on it; they took it from me and kept turning it in their hands.
Using the globe, I showed them in a few minutes how the earth rotates on its own axis and using a paperweight as the sun, I also showed them how the earth circles the sun. They were genuinely excited to hear this, asked intelligent questions and immediately grasped the knowledge.
A few days later, I met another 16-year-old boy who said he wanted a scholarship to seek admission in intermediate since his impoverished family couldn’t spare the thousand rupees or so he needed to pay the fee. He had also passed matriculation exams. I asked him if he could write the English alphabet on a paper; he hesitantly took the pen and said he could attempt capital letters only but doesn’t promise to get it all right. I asked him why he wanted an intermediate certificate when all his education so far hadn’t even taught him the alphabet. His response: just in case fate hands me a government job.
Then, I visited a girls’ high school and asked students in class nine to name the president of Pakistan. The answers: Asif Ali Zardari, Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan.
We often mull over how to open non-functional government schools and of course that is an important goal. However, once schools are running, government staff is more or less regular and student attendance has been ensured, there is the major problem of how to make learning effective so as to produce graduates who are confident and knowledgeable. In doing so, there are three major hurdles.
First, unmotivated government teachers use staid teaching methods and encourage rote learning. There is no classroom engagement or dialogue between students and teacher. Second, the standard syllabus is outdated, slanted and irrelevant to the world students see around them. And third, there is no supervision by district education departments to ensure integrity in the examinations process; thereby sending students the message that learning isn’t essential at all.
It comes then as no surprise that 75 per cent of class five students in Sindh can’t read class two-level English sentences, 41 per cent can’t read a class two-level story in Sindhi or Urdu and 69 per cent can’t do two-digit division, according to ASER Pakistan’s 2014 report.
Overpaid and under-trained government teachers must be put through non-government teacher training programmes, complete with assessment and grading that should count towards their government promotions. This should be done in collaboration with a private teacher training institute so that government employees are not involved in the assessment process and its integrity is ensured. Teachers who do well during these training sessions should be rewarded and those who display a lack of interest or don’t score well on the assessment should be penalised. At its heart, this training must involve very basic motivation on the vital role teachers play in the lives of children, their importance in society and their desperate need for the future of the country. It should also include presentation of data on the ruin these teachers have caused so as to generate awareness of the scale of the problem.
Then, the school syllabus must be made fair, balanced and relevant to modern-day society. Additionally, teachers must be trained to include civic sense, tolerance and awareness of world news in classroom dialogue. Students should be engaged in activities revolving around these topics that require them to conduct research and prepare presentations via creative methods such as play performances, group activities and mobile phone videos. All this will help create confident and expressive minds.
Third, school principals are often judged by their district education officials on how many students pass or score well and in the complete absence of integrity, they resort to facilitating cheating in exams and giving everyone a passing grade regardless of what the student’s level of learning is. This pressure should be taken off principals who should instead be judged by spot checks district officials make to test students’ learning. Additionally, students should be taught the value of integrity and how it will serve them to be honest, honourable and self-regulating. Batches upon batches of students are being created who have not been ingrained with very basic values of uprightness and morality. The sole aspiration they’re being pumped with, from home and from society, is to secure a government job because it pays well, is secure and doesn’t require hard work. Once these students who have spent their lives cheating through exams enter government jobs, the ruin is simply perpetuated.
Lastly, communities must become involved in the running of government schools in their areas. If parents and members of the community start taking an interest in the school environment, how much children are learning and how they’re turning out, principals and teachers will automatically come under the pressure to perform. Positive and constructive engagement on the part of the community along with participation and contribution in terms of helping with student activities and sharing knowledge in classroom sessions is a simple and easy way to generate immediate improvement. And the role of the community as watchdog, caretaker and owner is a powerful and irreplaceable force.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 24th, 2015.
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