Tuesday February 27, 2024

SNC: what now?

May 03, 2022

We have another opportunity to take a hard look at the Single National Curriculum that was implemented for grades 1-5 in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2021 and is scheduled for extension to Grade 12 by 2023.

A country is shaped by the capabilities and worldview of its majority which, in Pakistan, graduates from its public schools. School education is thus a make-or-break proposition.

It is disappointing that even serious critics of the SNC are, in the name of realism, calling for minimal changes limited to adapting the SNC to be more equitable and inclusive with revised learning outcomes. This misses the point that the SNC is grievously deficient – it is pedagogically flawed, age-inappropriate, and with content of extremely poor quality. These flaws cannot be overcome by marginal adaptations.

Consider a few examples. Pre-1 mathematics in every public school, no matter how remote, is taught in English, a foreign language, contrary to pedagogical best practice. No convincing reason has been proffered to justify this decision which makes it impossible for disadvantaged children unfamiliar with the language to understand the subject.

Each number in Pre-1 maths is introduced with a verse in English that is incomprehensible for a five-year-old encountering the language for the first time. The verse introducing the number 4 reads as follows: “Four friends who are very tall / Together they achieve it all / Day and night they worked hard / Success of Pakistan is their yard.”

The vocabulary (words like achieve and yard) is far above the level of a five-year old unfamiliar with English. But the verse is nonsensical – it doesn’t even mean anything. What are students expected to get out of it? Can a curriculum littered with such examples be taken seriously?

There are also conceptual absurdities to contend with. Zero, undoubtedly the most important numeral in the number system, is introduced as follows: “Zero means nothing at all, / That’s why zero it’s called.” This is plain wrong. The number is not called zero because it means nothing at all – the name is derived from ‘sifr’ which morphed into cypher before ending up as zero in English. In other languages it has quite different names, like ‘shunya’ in Hindi.

And the message itself, that zero means nothing at all, is grossly misleading – just appending a few zeros to a number should make its value obvious. Too many Pakistani students are hobbled with such poor conceptual foundations; they can ‘solve’ problems without understanding what they are doing.

Consider other dimensions of the SNC. Parents were repeatedly told with pride that it was introducing students for the first time to critical thinking and creative writing. As a reality check, look at these examples from the Grade 4 English textbook. The first critical thinking exercise on page 6 includes the following: “At what age did Hazrat Ali [ra] accept Islam?” The first creative writing exercise on page 12 asks the student to “Write a paragraph about Hazrat Muhammad [pbuh] in your notebook.”

The authors of these textbooks claim high qualifications. Is it really the case that they don’t know what critical thinking and creative writing mean or do they wish the faculties of public school children to remain confined to memorization of facts? Either way, the SNC is discredited.

Keep in mind that the last two examples are from a Grade 4 course to teach English. They might be appropriate in a textbook for Islamiat but even there they would encourage memorization and not serve the purpose of teaching critical thinking or creative writing. But how is the content relevant for the teaching of English?

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. They reflect the intent of the SNC to make children virtuous via an overdose of morality. How does that premise square with the evidence after 40 years of the injection of morality in the curriculum by Ziaul Haq? The nation is not any more moral while being a lot more intolerant and violent.

Three-fourths of the population of Pakistan is below the age of 40 and has known no other education than the Zia variant. The leaders using abusive language are from elite schools. The mob involved in the Sialkot lynching was the output of public schools. The cultists who can’t separate fact from fiction and have reduced politics to a primitive state are products of the same curriculum. What will the products educated under the SNC, which goes far beyond the Zia interventions, be like?

Pakistan is headed in the direction of Afghanistan unless citizens take the stand now that they didn’t at the time of Ziaul Haq. Nobody is safe in a bubble bobbing on a sea of intolerance and violence. We are all passengers in the same boat who will swim or sink together.

The implementation of the SNC should be suspended forthwith and the entire package evaluated by a body of independent experts. Our children need protection from this callous attempt to crush the flowering of minds with the ability to demand accountability for what our rulers of various stripes are doing to the country.

The writer is the author of ‘Plain Truths About Primary Education in Pakistan and Single National Curriculum:A Review of Pre-1 Model Textbooks’, both published by Folio Books in 2022.