The spirit of learning

September 10, 2017

Reflections on education systems in four countries -- England, Pakistan Turkey and Japan

The spirit of learning

Education in Pakistan has always been about honouring a system that obsesses over a set of rules that have very little relevance to being human and developing humane qualities. From a very young age, children are burdened with loaded bags, given a ton of homework and pressurised by their teachers and parents to perform well.

I had my primary schooling in Leeds, UK where I have my fondest memories. The classroom environment was relaxed, teachers were encouraging and the international community was diverse. Moving back to Islamabad I experienced a school environment that was pretty much the opposite of what I was used to.

Sixth grade in Pakistan meant I had to carry a bag that was bigger than myself, wear a uniform, and be in an environment that was under constant surveillance by the faculty. Considering that this was a renowned private school, I had to come to terms with the fact that this was the best I could get here.

Although my school years were eventful and fun, the style in which majority of the teachers taught the students did little to contribute to personal development. Each class consisted of endless lectures. Barely any room was left for interactive debates. Things got slightly better in A Levels.

However, the instruction method that was commonly adopted by the teachers in both O and A levels was the revision of past papers from the previous ten years. All students were expected to purchase past solved papers and learn the style with which the questions had been answered. Those who could master the technique would easily land with an A and A*. Those who could not get hold of the grading style and wrote from their own learning of the subject would never score a decent grade.

The reason my university in Turkey and the one I attended recently in Japan have been of a greater value is their willingness to improve from their mistakes. Whenever the semester ends, students are handed out teacher evaluation surveys to rate the course and the instructor.

There was however only a handful of teachers that genuinely stimulated the interest of the students through their engaging approach in teaching while the rest continued to haunt us before the final examinations came up.

After my A levels, I moved to Istanbul, Turkey for my undergraduate studies. Because I was not going to attend university in Pakistan, I would usually ask my friends -- studying locally -- about their experiences on campus and in class. The one thing I always compared was how majority of my friends studying in good, reputable universities in Islamabad had to conform to a strict dress code and interact with the opposite sex at a certain distance or else pay a fine.

It would be unfair to generalise that all higher education institutions in Pakistan have these types of rules but it is startling that majority of those in a city like Islamabad do. The Pakistani education system, up until the university level does very little to focus on developing individuals in ways that will help them discover their true potential, skills, attributes and personal strengths. The fact that these schools, colleges, and universities continue to keep a check on a minor thing like the dress code of every student leaves very little room for confidence in the education system itself.

Disregarding individual choices also demeans the spirit of learning. If conversations between students, and the personal choice of who to interact with are continuously monitored by the management, there isn’t much a student can learn when it comes to personal growth and development.

Comparing my teachers in Islamabad with my instructors in Istanbul, I realised the latter were also more freethinking and open minded, encouraging all sorts of questions and doubts from students. Majority of my classes in Istanbul too, were lecture based, the teachers still left no effort to converse with students that were hesitant to speak up. Because there was absolutely no control over the dress code of students and other such rules put into practice, I was lucky I didn’t have those issues to worry about.

The international office of my Bilgi University in Turkey facilitated me in getting a seat in an exchange programme with Sophia University in Tokyo. I recently came back from a semester in Tokyo where I spent four months as an exchange student. I was so impressed by the responsiveness of the international office in Tokyo that I couldn’t help but observe a striking difference between the university management in Tokyo and the one in Istanbul.

While the instructors in Istanbul have always been helpful and understanding, the remaining administration staff has relatively been less cooperative towards foreign students. Japanese people, on the other hand are very friendly and their welcoming nature is representative of how they are as a community. When it came to my university education in Japan, there was also a greater emphasis on classroom debates and discourses, with students always expected to actively participate. The professors regularly thought out new tasks and activities where every student would get the chance to voice his/her opinion.

This was quite tough for students who were timid and not as familiar with English but it did eventually build a friendlier and livelier atmosphere in the classroom. When students are listened to, conversed with, and have had their preferences incorporated into the process of being educated, only then do they feel respected. In a Japanese literature course I was attending, the instructor usually did a screening of a movie or documentary.

Viewing a motion picture was in itself a rousing factor to never be absent. The instructor would then ask every student to articulate what he/she found interesting in the screening. The reason this technique was effectively integrated was due to the fewer number of students in class. Consequently, everyone got the opportunity to speak in the two hours of classroom time. The professor spent less time lecturing and more time providing the floor to the students to talk amongst each other. This prompted heated discussions. It was the first time I sat in an interactive class where students spoke more than the instructor did.

I also felt lucky to study from a teacher who is a renowned Japanese professional pantomime performer. His exuberant and energetic communicative skills reflected his enthusiasm towards the subject. Learning about dramatic arts in Japan from a theatre artist made it all the more fascinating for international students like I, who knew little about the Japanese theatrical art forms. Because he had been performing for forty years, he would act out little performances during the lectures and demonstrate mime. Now I have developed a keen interest in Japanese drama and literature simply because of the professors that taught me this semester.

These four months in Tokyo truly shaped my perceptions of the Japanese education system. From teachers to students, everyone thoroughly enjoyed reading, learning, and communicating with one another. Most of the students studying in Pakistan from primary school up to high school and university dislike attending classes largely because they feel their personal opinions and viewpoints are irrelevant.

If these institutions continue to focus on rules and regulations that have absolutely nothing to do with educating oneself, students will continue to pull themselves away from learning what is taught in class.

The reason my university in Turkey and the one I attended recently in Japan have been of a greater value is their willingness to improve from their mistakes. Whenever the semester ends, students are handed out teacher evaluation surveys to rate the course and the instructor. Small steps like these to improve the teaching quality are important in bringing a larger change.

The spirit of learning