How not to miss the opportunity

The debate on Single National Curriculum needs to focus on exploring best medium of instruction, especially in the initial grades

The introduction of a Single National Curriculum (SNC) in Pakistan has generated a heated debate recently. The stated purpose of the government in introducing the new system is to reduce the inequalities in the access to the educational system, to promote social cohesion and national integration, and encourage upward social mobility for the graduates of all streams of education.

The detractors of the new system see in the new development a sinister design to spawn militancy by mainstreaming the madrassa system. The critics believe that the new system will reinforce dogma while paying little attention to the cultivation of scientific attitude. An extreme view is that the real scientific attitude and formal religion are contradictions in terms.

Though the popular media has highlighted the difference of opinion on the new system, there has been relatively little understanding of the contents of the new system.

The information available so far suggests that the changes in Islamiat (Grade 1-5) relate to the addition of competencies, the standards, and student learning objectives (SLOs). There is a focus on active learning, compulsory teaching of the Holy Quran, and 200 ahadith from Grades 1 to 12, hifz of certain surahs, and 40 ahadith from Grades 1-8, besides the cultivation of social values, consistent with Islam, to tackle the challenges unique to modern times.

The change in the teaching of English is being hailed, with some justification, as a new tipping point. The focus of teaching English (Grade 1-5) in the new system will be to teach English as a language rather than a subject. There will also be a focus on the communicative aspects of the language, such as listening and speaking. Development of interactive and collaborative pedagogical strategies and more inclusive content promoting gender equality and diversity of cultures will be the other new factors.

Science will be taught as part of general knowledge from Grade 1 to 3, the other component of the general knowledge being the social studies. The science in the first three grades will focus on the fostering of lifelong learning through the development of inquiry and independent learning skills, life skills including child protection and cultivation of positive attitudes for the holistic development of students.

The focus of the new system in teaching general science from Grade 4 to 5 will be on realigning the contents with global practices. Some other changes relate to the addition of technology-based content, sensitising the students about the environment, the promotion of inquiry-based learning, integration of information and communications technology (ICT) and science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics (STEAM). STEAM aims to help students enhance their critical thinking skills and recognise the intersection of art, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Does the new curriculum include elements that should scare us? Conversely, does the new system have the potential to bring about a transformation?

Let us consider Islamiat first. Seeing social behaviour as a function of the contents of religious education at the school and college level is a gross oversimplification. In Islamic tradition, Abdullah Ibn Ubayy is considered the worst enemy of Islam because he was a hypocrite. He spent a significant part of his life in close proximity with the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him), prayed in the same mosque, and listened to and publicly endorsed the teachings of Islam. Asiya, the wife of the Quranic character of Pharaoh, was considered one of the best women of all times, even though she spent most of her life in the company of Pharaoh, who was notorious for his unrivalled opposition to the prophetic mission of Moses (peace be upon him). The point is that the educational content, though necessary for character building, is not a sufficient condition.

As regards science, there is a focus in the new system on the development of inquiry and independent learning skills. Does this mean that students will learn science using problem-solving methods?

In our context, seeing the militancy in parts of Pakistan as a result of madrassa education and ignoring the geostrategic dynamics of the region and role of powerful stakeholders leads to erroneous inferences.

There is no doubt that the attitude of individuals responds to formal education. However, formal education is not the only determinant of a person’s attitude. An individual learns social values and accumulates knowledge from a variety of sources such as home, family, and community. It is the quality of socioeconomic, political, and judicial institutions of the society that defines the typical behaviour of an average individual. The political power equation, the distribution of the resources, freedom of speech, security of life and property, and public perceptions of the state institutions —- all combine in a complicated way to shape the typical social behaviour.

Even if the course content portrays truth as a desirable moral value, it would be challenging to promote truth in the lives of the people when the truth is muzzled in the broad daylight. The values of respect for diversity are difficult to inculcate in a public used to seeing victimization of the individuals based on their beliefs and speaking unpalatable truths. How can an inclusive worldview, accommodating diversity, be cultivated when the venom is routinely spewed from the pulpit against other sects and other religions, and the culture of political debate has given way to jingoism?

As regards science, there is a focus in the new system on the development of inquiry and independent learning skills. Does this mean that students will learn science using problem-solving methods? Currently, the biggest problem in the teaching and learning of science, and other subjects for that matter, is that the content is crammed to get good grades in the examination. The way things stand now, a sound theoretical understanding of scientific concepts and their application to real-life problems militate against the goal of getting good grades in the examination. Besides some honourable exceptions, no school has adequate laboratories needed to enhance mastery of science subject matter, develop scientific reasoning abilities, understand the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work, and to develop practical skills. The change will require putting one’s money where one’s mouth is.

Is the government willing to raise the educational budgets, some of the lowest even among the developing countries?

The focus in teaching of English in the new system will be on teaching English as a language rather than a subject. It is heartening to expect that there would be a focus on the communicative aspect of the teaching of English in the schools, a component largely disregarded in the previous educational policies. But far weightier questions are at stake than the change in the teaching methodology.

There is no explicit appreciation of the unpalatable fact that English remains a marker of social division and a tool for exclusion from access to cherished jobs in Pakistan. There is a widespread public perception that proficiency in English is the decisive factor in passing the written civil services examinations, and a good English accent is a decisive factor in passing the viva voce examinations.

Seen from this context, language acquires a role that is above and beyond the academic issue. One more practical question in this regard is how to attract brilliant individuals with “excellent English proficiency” for primary level teaching, given the way teaching at lower levels is negatively stereotyped.

What is missing in the debate on SNC? The debate on SNC needs to focus on exploring the best mediums for instruction especially in the initial grades given our limited linguistic capital, anticipating cataclysmic changes that may be brought about by the artificial intelligence and training students accordingly, improving the standard of education to develop qualities like innovation and entrepreneurship, which is in sharp contrast with the single-minded pursuit of government job as the end in itself, developing problem-solving teaching approaches, and ensuring the capacity building of the teachers.

(Dr. Rafi Amir-ud-Din is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics at COMSATS University Islamabad, Lahore Campus)

How not to miss the opportunity