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Friday, 1 April 2011

Distinguishing between slow and quick learners

By Muhammad Ilyas Khan

IF one has studied in a Pakistani government school then one would definitely be familiar with the story of the race between the tortoise and the hare. In fact, given the system, it probably must have been learnt by heart many times over. It’s moral is that slow and steady wins the race.

If one is steady, no matter how much slow he is, he is going to win in the end. Let us compare the hare to that student who is very sharp (the quick learner) and the tortoise to the one who is not so sharp (the slow learner). Does it make any sense to expect the same performance from two students who are entirely different from each other on a number of counts: intelligence, aptitude, attitude, socio-economic background, physical, mental and psychological?

On closer examination one sees that our education system does not seem to discriminate or differentiate between students on the basis of anything and this includes intelligence, achievement and ability.

To do this efficiently we have developed a schooling system where students are taught in the same way. They are expected to show the same performance at the end of the year by going through an examination process and after successfully going through the exams they are promoted to the next grade. In our schools, students are admitted to a particular class mainly keeping in view their chronological age. They are then taught textbooks prepared for that particular age group. It is expected that on the basis of their chronological age students will be able to go through the course content prepared for the class in the time prescribed, which is usually one academic year. This is done without taking into consideration the fact that students radically differ from each other on many counts. How and why do we treat our students who are otherwise completely different from each other in almost the same way?

Course of studies

The course of studies for a particular class right from class one to matric consists of a number of compulsory subjects. With regard for their abilities, intelligence, aptitude, or likes and dislikes students are made to learn the course content (mostly by rote). No matter how much a particular student abhors a particular subject, unless he has passed that subject, he cannot move to next class — despite excellent performance in other subjects. This means that in many cases precious time may be wasted on an endeavour which is of little interest to the student.

Sometimes it happens that a student repeatedly fails in one or more of those ‘compulsory’ subjects and has to drop out of the school as a result. But who cares if a life is ruined because of this rule of passing all subjects? This nuisance of the ‘compulsory’ subject not only affects the slow learner but can also adversely impact the academic progress of quick leaners.

Teaching methods

Another area where we treat our students in the same way without any distinction is in teaching methodology. Generally in our classrooms one-way traffic goes on. The teacher usually acts as if he has all the knowledge in the world and he tries to pour that knowledge into the ‘empty’ heads of the students by lecturing them and giving them prepared notes.

The teacher treats all the students the same way without trying to adjust his teaching to the different level of understanding of the students. Inevitably, the result is severe boredom for most students. The primary task for such teachers is to finish the course in time and ‘prepare’ the students for exams.


The evaluation system is a reflection of our education system. What kind of feeling does the word examination evoke for a student in Pakistan? Complete horror, unpredictability and the fact that it is more like lucky draw where intelligence or hard work do not play much of a role. The most brilliant student can fail and the biggest dullard can come out a winner. You may be the best student in world, a real hard worker, a thorough genius but all this will not save you failure in the exam.

The exams mostly take place at the end of the year and more often than not their purpose is not to judge the real competence or genuine educational accomplishment of the student but to promote those who can best reproduce what they have learnt in class and to fail those who are unable to do that. It seems as if the whole system of education revolves around exams. Students comes to school to prepare for exams, teachers teach (provides notes and tips) them to help pass the exams — and each and every stakeholder has only one thing in mind: how to do well in the exams. In order to be real and comprehensive evaluation must be frequent and a continuous ongoing process. This unfortunately is not the case here. Students are annually examined and this will now change in classes IX and X to one exam at the end of two years. This kind of system will test even the most brilliant of students who will be under considerable stress to do well in this one-time exam.

Also, a student who can accomplish his course in say five months has to wait for twelve months in order to be promoted to the next class. On the other hand, another student who cannot complete the course even in twelve months but may do so in fifteen will probably be held back and spend 24 months in the same class. His nine months will be wasted, and why? Because the system evaluates his academic performance annually.

Why should we keep on counting academic progress by the number of years a student has spent in a particular course of studies? Why not adjust our system?

One way might be to discard the annual system of evaluation and promotion. The curriculum could instead be divided in months. One realistic way to do this would be to divide the course into units of study; the duration of each unit being a maximum three months. A student who goes through a particular unit successfully should move to the next one. A student who fails in the final unit should repeat only that unit, not after waste a whole year.

People need to ask our education policy-makers the logic of making a student repeat a whole year when he may have failed only one or two compulsory subjects. The kind of three-monthly system suggested above is also good for students because it will reduce their burden by dividing the course into more manageable study units.

A school that adopts such a curriculum will have more flexibility in terms of adjusting itself to the needs of students. Another aspect which needs to be addressed is to make the school environment more student-friendly and this can be done by doing away with the ‘compulsory subject’ phenomenon. Often many students drop out because they keep on failing a particular compulsory subject.

For instance mathematics is taught as a compulsory subject from class I to class matric. It is the cause of dropping out of many otherwise talented students. No one can deny the importance of this subject but is it that important that thousands of students be sacrificed for it? It can be a compulsory subject but at least the condition that it passed for promotion to the next class could be dropped. Another point to note here is that the maths textbook used by arts and science students is exactly the same, and this too makes little sense. In most other countries, they would have different textbooks with the one for the science students obviously containing more challenging and relevant content. n

The writer teaches at the Institute of Education and Research, University of Peshawar. Email: ilyasjans@yahoo.com

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