Reforming school education

December 26, 2021

We can begin by creating playful and engaging learning ecosystems

Reforming school education

As I sit to write this piece, we are trying to convince my nephew to take an off day from school. He has been complaining lately that he never gets to have off on school days. But today he insists on going despite inclement weather in a smog-ridden Lahore. Today is a ‘crazy hair day’ at school and he has a chess class.

Understandably, one thing he doesn’t like about school is the brief recess everyday that ends ‘very quickly’. He has announced that he cannot skip the school today as it is going to be a fun-filled play day. I think one can say there are two types of learning spaces: boring or uninspiring and engaging and inspiring.

Most of our learning spaces are boring and uninspiring. In our context, when one comes across an engaging learning space one tends to remember it. A few months ago, I had a chance to visit a government school adopted by The Citizen Foundation. The school is not far from the scenic Dhan Gali in Azad Jammu and Kashmir.

The TCF uses a rigorous assessment centre to hire principals. It is a full-day activity. As evaluation continued, I kept hearing some excited voices and giggles from the classroom next to us. During the break in assessment activities, I couldn’t help it and requested to sit in the class.

This kindergarten class had fifteen children. Their teacher was face painting butterflies while asking them to recognise the alphabets they had learnt that day. Some of the children were having lunch. Others ran around excitedly to the windows to see the seasonal migrants from the Neelum Valley arriving in the area. They were fascinated by the clip-clop of horses and clanking of utensils that they could hear as the caravan passed by their school.

Their teacher asked them to imitate the sounds and actions of their favourite animals. This was followed by those giggles. Asma Sahar, the area manager for Rawalpindi, says that the TCF has now scaled up student development activities to ensure student-centred learning.

Activities like Khair Maqdam (meet-and-greet session with students), Mera Time, Aghaaz and Jaiza are conducted daily and help build a pleasant relationship between students and teachers. The focus is on creating a learning space that ensures the well-being and happiness of learners.

Another learning space employs the creative power of storytelling, performing arts, experiential learning and simple conversations is Harsukh in Lahore. This school is a labour of love created by former chief justice of Pakistan, Jawad S Khawaja, his family and friends. It has a non-disciplinarian environment where everyone believes that learning is not a one-way process and that it happens best in familiar languages. No wonder students at Harsukh enjoy their school hours.

While I have witnessed some oases of hope in our education system the overall situation is grim. The last two years were an unprecedented time in education. In 2021, schools have remained open for a hundred and twenty-five days only. We have a whopping number of out-of-school children. Even those who are going to school experience learning poverty.

The current crises that mar our education system also provide unique opportunities to educators, researchers, parents and policymakers to envision equitable systems that respond to the challenges and needs of the 21st Century.

In today’s connected world, children need skills beyond literacy and numeracy to navigate the world around them and make them lifelong learners. These skills include but are not limited to collaboration, effective communication, critical thinking, creative innovation and confidence.

These skills are crucial for navigating our lives in an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable world. If we are to catch up with the learning losses, we need unprecedented and creative changes in the education systems and governance.

In order to address the inequalities plaguing our education system, we need to create nurturing learning environments which allow all students to feel valued. For this purpose, we need radical shifts in our understanding of what constitutes success. By creating meaningful and joyful collaborative learning ecosystems we can not only improve the academic outcomes but also promote socio-emotional learning and wellbeing of our children.

The enormous challenges that the world faces today can only be addressed by individuals who are engaged, emphatic, rooted and aware of their environment. We owe it to our children to provide them learning ecosystems that nurture the best in them and make them feel secure.

It is the need of the hour to build a social movement where concerned citizens galvanise to deliberate upon and craft a shared vision for creative learning spaces. We need to create comfortable, secure and conducive learning environments where our children get to converse freely while engaging in carefully-curated playful activities which can help them explore and engage meaningfully with their communities as well.

Recent researches show that guided play can spark children’s imagination while improving their physical, cognitive and emotional health. There is evidence that children learn best when education is active, engaging, socially interactive and meaningful.

Leaders in public as well as private sector education need to prioritise play-based learning. New and creative ways of learning and evaluating must be explored, implemented and scaled at wider levels. We can not only improve the academic outcomes by creating meaningful and joyful collaborative learning ecosystems but also promote socio-emotional learning and well-being of our children.

The writer is a    teaching fellow at the   Department of   Governance and   Global Studies at ITU. She can be contacted at @malyhazs

Reforming school education