In an ideal situation, the Single National Curriculum would have united all of us without any doubt. But the situation we confront is far from ideal.
We wonder how the prime minister can talk about turning all schools to resemble his own alma mater in Lahore if he has visited any of the public-sector schools scattered across all four provinces where children sit on tattered mats on the concrete floors of packed classrooms without even a fan, or else outside in the scorching sun.
The learning experience is after all far more complicated than reading textbooks or listening to teachers who themselves possess only limited education and almost no pedagogical skills. The sight of small children rocking back and forth as they try to learn lessons by rote is disturbing. Perhaps rebuilding the infrastructure of schools and training teachers so that they can impart learning to children is as important as developing a unified curriculum.
These should all be matters the education team on a new system thinks about. Perhaps they are already doing so. But when it comes to education, the curriculum is of course an essential element. Introducing into the already inadequate books allotted to children at public-sector schools a greater measure of religious learning will not help matters at all. There is already for too little science or creativity in our schoolbooks. Many of the facts included in books intended for primary school children are both inaccurate and so highly monotonous that they would very quickly wipe out any interest in school education. General knowledge textbooks designed for class 1 contain information that is poorly presented and so badly explained that it would be impossible for most adults including the teacher to comprehend it.
There is nothing in these books that could Ignite the natural curiosity of a young child or develop that crucial ability to think critically, to reason and to work out the world around them using their own remarkable faculties and abilities to innovate and to understand by experiencing and experimenting. Rote learning page after page of text will help them in no way in negotiating the world or preparing for higher education – if they are fortunate enough to be able to strive towards it.
This raises the question of why primary level textbooks have not been radically altered. It also suggests that when the curriculum for higher grades past class 5 is announced it will follow the same dismal pattern. This is obviously not encouraging. There has also been inadequate explanation as to how the very vast differences between elite private schools and other lower level private institutions and government schools will be tackled. Yes, we have been told standards will not be brought down. At any rate, it seems impossible to push them down any further. But how will they be raised to levels acceptable around the world? This is the real question.
The federal education minister has informed us that the main purpose of the new curriculum is to set a minimum standard but not a maximum standard. This makes sense. But it is hard to see how even the minimum standard is to be attained when the concepts are so badly taught it is impossible for children to build on them as they move step by step through the grades. They are at risk of falling further and further behind.
After all, the mathematics taught to them at the primary level is essential to developing the understanding needed to put them on track at a much higher level. There is nothing in the new curriculum which suggests changes will be made to enable this. The purpose of the entire exercise then comes under at least some question. Surely we should be working to offer all children a quality of learning better than what is being offered to them right now.
Aside from students doing the overseas exams available in the country, Pakistani students are placed well behind most others in the world, including those in the region, in terms of performance in key subjects. We also have issues such as the language of education to grapple with. Ideally, all children in the country should be attending schools which offer them similar chances of success in life. Currently we are so far away from a possibility that it does not seem a single curriculum which incorporates a still higher degree of religious learning will take us very far at all.
While we badly need a better education system and much less disparity across it, it is unlikely that what has been proposed will take us very far. Instead far more radical measures are required. Even today the literacy rate in the country hovers at around 50 percent. It stands considerably lower for girls and women and in some less developed parts of an equal country.
This requires a complete overhaul. It may mean all schools are shut down for a considerable period of time, perhaps even up to a year or even more while we re-educate and train our teachers and improve the quality of classrooms. During this time we should also be studying countries that are known for their outstanding system and where children are encouraged to spend as much time as possible playing rather than learning from books. Such nations exist. Finland is one that consistently produces top achieving students in the world.
Shutting down schools may seem like a drastic measure. But it may just be the only way to rebuild a demolished system and save ourselves and our children.
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.
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