The major educational challenge of the 21st century is the acquisition of new sets of skills required by students and teachers alike. These skills may include critical thinking, problem-solving, artificial intelligence, creativity, and adaptability to new circumstances.
To cope with this challenge, we need to take stock of the prevailing paradigms of learning in Pakistan. There has always been a difference of opinion about the goals, dynamics and assessment of education. This difference has its roots in competing philosophical positions that construct, justify and rationalise particular educational approaches.
These positions also inform, inspire, shape and defend the notions of education, pedagogy and assessment. One major paradigm that emerged as a powerful position and swayed the educational systems of many countries in the past was behaviourism. The attractive aspect of this paradigm was its doable dynamics and measurable performance techniques. The behaviouristic paradigm of education is now a part of history as there are other positions, e.g. cognitivism, constructivism and humanism, etc. that have attracted the attention of educationists. But it is still in vogue in most Pakistani mainstream schools.
Before laying out the reasons and repercussions of this paradigm we need to briefly define the theoretical framework of behaviourism. Some important names that are associated with this paradigm include Pavlov, Thorndike, Watson and Skinner. Pavlov experimented with a dog about ‘conditioned stimulus’ whereas Skinner carried out his experiments on rats and pigeons. Skinner popularised the notion of ‘operant conditioning’ of which stimulus, response, reinforcement and repetition were important components. Skinner claimed that learning is also a kind of habit formation.
The behaviouristic notion of learning and education entails acts of imitation, drilling (repetition) and measurable assessment practices. Since the ‘drilling’ principle is used as a driving force in the paradigm, in most mainstream public schools memorising through drilling is an integral part of education.
Most of this drilling and repetition does not involve any conscious thinking, and students reproduce information without making sense of it and manage to score good marks. One of the essential points of the behaviouristic paradigm is its ‘predictability’. It became popular with school managements because of its simple transmission in which teachers ‘tell’ the students, instead of facilitating them to participate in the teaching/learning process.
Lectures are perhaps the ‘safest’ way of teaching. The teacher tries to teach students by ‘telling’ them. The students in this paradigm act as passive recipients. Thinking of a higher order and the application of knowledge are not tested.
Though apparently students, teachers, parents and educational managers are happy with the arrangements proposed by the paradigm, the broader goals of education – socio-economic development, social justice and individual freedom – are not achieved. The basic flaw in the paradigm is that results of experiments on animals were applied to human beings without considering the fact that there is a huge difference in their intellectual makeup, especially with regard to their linguistic repertoires.
If we want to use education for broader goals we need to go beyond the behaviouristic paradigm. This would give us an opportunity to revisit the goals of education. We also need to rethink the process of learning where the role of teachers and students must be determined. The learning process has to be built on what the students know and what they need to know. This means that meaningful learning can only take place if students are actively engaged in the classroom, their opinions are sought and their experiences shared.
This kind of learning is based on the principle of constructivist learning, where teachers and students are engaged together in the construction of knowledge in the classroom. In this vibrant paradigm of learning, the learners have to make the effort as the ‘learning’ doesn’t come to them in a passive mode. Teaching in this mode focuses on exploring the knowledge of students and throwing at them the intellectual challenge to move slightly above the existing level. This pedagogy is inspired by Vygotsky’s idea of ‘zone of proximal development’.
The constructivist paradigm has direct implications for teachers and their style of teaching. In this paradigm they need to move away from the transmission mode to critical pedagogy by facilitating the students’ active participation. This would also mean creating an enabling environment for students to express their ideas freely. This teaching style is certainly more challenging as compared to the teacher-fronted ‘lecture mode’, but is essential in order to imbue confidence in the students and reinforce a positive self-image so that they can become independent thinkers.
In this paradigm, learning is viewed as a vibrant phenomenon and sources of learning are not confined to a teacher as students themselves can act as a source of knowledge. That is why this paradigm encourages collaborative learning through group work and problem-solving activities.
In the constructivist paradigm of learning, assessment needs to be taken out of the confines of the memorisation of isolated facts. It should be used to tap higher-order thinking skills by requiring students to apply knowledge.
The task of moving away from the comfort zone of the behaviouristic paradigm to the constructivist paradigm is challenging but if we really want to prepare our students for the 21st century we have to take this challenge up, and equip them with critical thinking skills so that they are able to come up with creative solutions in these fast-changing circumstances.
The writer is an educationist.
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