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Friday, 1 April 2011

Let students explore for themselves.

By Muhammad Ilyas Khan.

If you happen to go inside a secondary school classroom ask the students to write a short essay on ‘My favourite personality’. Check the answers and most of them would have written that their favourite personality is the Quaid-e-Azam, or the Prophet (PBUH). They would have enumerated all the great qualities and virtues that these great men had. Ask them about the real meaning and worth of those qualities because of which they have praised these personalities and very little do they know. Then try to make the students write on the topic ‘ My favourite book’. Almost all the students would write that their favourite book is the Holy Quran. And then they would have reproduced whatever has been written to them by the teacher or has been memorized from a guidebook. Ask the students a question: have you read, understood and enjoyed the Holy Quran? And the answer: ‘NO’, Obviously! ‘But if you have not read, understood, or enjoyed a book , how can you say that that is your favourite book? And the answer from the students: ‘Sir the essay has been written to us by our teacher.’ Or, ‘we have learnt the essay from an essays book.’ What does this tell us? : That our teachers do not train students to come with their own ideas, in their own words, which should be the real purpose of creative writing in schools, but to memorize things written to them to be reproduced by them in the exams to get through them.
Now do another thing: Ask students in a secondary school to write an essay on ‘My favourite teacher’. The answers you get will be the exact copies of each other. The essays written by all students would begin like this: ‘My favourite teacher is Mr.Ahamd. He is a perfect gentleman. He is,………………..’ And lo and behold, Mr.Ahmad is the favourite teacher of each and every student in the whole class. This may be another story that Mr.Ahamd, some metaphysical being, actually known to no student but to the teacher only who has narrated this essay on ‘My favourite teacher’ to the class. Students have done one thing only: they have learnt the essay word to word by heart. And that is what they have reproduced on the paper. Actually they will reproduce the same essay whenever they are asked about their favourite teacher for the rest of their life. So no use of brain, no brainstorming, no thinking, nothing. Blind follow and memorization of facts without understanding run supreme here.
It is a normal routine in our schools that as the examinations come closer, students start asking their teachers about the ‘ most important’ topics and questions, likely to be asked in the papers. Language teachers are usually asked about the essays, letters, applications and stories that are ‘important’ i.e. likely to come in the exam papers. Usually most teachers are ‘kind enough’ and ‘pragmatic enough’ to tell some most ‘important’ essays, letters, stories, applications etc, to students. Teachers in schools, especially in private ones’ do this as they have to show good results. Students thus consider those teachers more generous and helpful, who tell them about those ‘ important topics’ to be asked in the papers. Keeping in line with this tradition one of my students asked me to tell him about the ‘important’ essays, letter, applications etc. This is one of the occasions on which I get irritated when students ask me such things. I repeatedly keep on telling them that these things come in the category of creative writing that are not to be memorized but be thought about, organized, created and then put to paper. Some of the students would urge you by telling you that a particular teacher has told his students about the ‘important’ questions. I told that student and the whole class that the purpose of these essays, letters, stories etc. that are included in the paper is to urge students to think for themselves and come up with their own ideas. The purpose is also to check the organizational and analytical skills of students and to know their hold on vocabulary and spellings etc. So this helps them to think and use their brain. To my this argument, the reply of the student was: ‘ Sir, if we start thinking during the paper, the time allotted for solving the paper will come to an end and we would not be able to complete our paper!’ This was an apt reply, a true picture of the way our examination and evaluation process goes. An examination, which does not compel students to think but to fill pages of papers with what, they have memorized by rote. Consequently a student is rewarded, who is good at memorizing, and who writes the ideas of others in the words of others and is considered a learned scholar for all this. The more competent a student is on this account i.e. learning by rote (without understanding), the better are his chances of getting good grades.
Some days ago I tried an experiment with a few ‘ intelligent’ students. I gave them a test in a few essays already know to them and which were written in a book of essays. Most of them got high marks as they had excellently memorized the essays word by word and reproduced them in the test. Then I did another thing. I asked a few comprehension questions about the essay they had written and no one could come up with satisfactory answers. I went further with the experiment. I gave them a topic from day to day life. Instead of writing on the ‘Quaid-e- Azam’, I asked them to write on their friend. And as was expected, no one could write even a few coherent sentences. How is it that a student can write a high quality essay on the ‘ Quaid-e- Azam’, as a ‘favourite personality’, with all the language niceties and grammatical accuracies but fails to write on his own friend, well known to him.
The point is that examinations are flawed, testing not the real knowledge and creative abilities but rote learning and memorizing capabilities of students. More than that as examinations shape the course of education in schools and education is meant to prepare students for examinations. This means examinations need to be revamped to bring about qualitative change in the instruction process in the schools.
Here another interesting phenomenon comes to mind. As is the case with other subjects, Pakistan Studies is taught in no better way. Students are not even made to go through the textbooks. Teachers provide them with readymade ‘notes’, with questions and answers. The only task a student has at hand is to take photocopies of ‘notes’ and learn them by heart. There are no discussions, no arguments or counter arguments in the classrooms, about the historical and constitutional issues and their implications. Ask a student to narrate Jinnah’s ‘ Fourteen Points’, ‘ which are all based on constitutional matters and complexities’, and he starts narrating from point 1 up to point 14th without a pause. Now ask him ‘ what is a constitution?’ and he does not know. Ask him what is a constituent assembly and he does not know. Ask him what is the function of a minister and he does not know. Ask him what is law and he does not know. Ask him what is autonomy? And he does not know. Ask him what is legislature. And he does not know. One wonders what is the point in teaching students in schools, ‘Jinnah’s Fourteen Points’, in all the technical and constitutional language, that is beyond the comprehension of students even at the college and university level! Why not tell them about the ‘Fourteen Points’ in simple language, to help them understand the worth of his points. This approach will not only be of interest but also of worth for the young students.
And now an interesting anecdote. A young boy wanted to learn the art of swimming in a river. He went to a master swimmer to get training from him. The master would daily take the boy to the riverside. He would make the boy stand on the bank of the river. Then the master would himself jump into the water and start swimming, urging the boy to closely examine his moves. The boy would want to jump into the water to practically do as the master did. But the master would not allow him this dangerous thing to do. He insisted that the boy should look at him and learn the art of swimming from the bank. He was afraid that if the boy jumped into the water, he would immediately drown. The practice went on for a long time and in this way the master told all the techniques of swimming to the boy. One day the master was absent and the boy went to the river alone and jumped into it. Do we know what happened? We should know: he got drowned in no time. Why? Because he was never allowed by the master to learn how to swim practically. Can we compare this to the way we teach in our schools? If yes what can be the result? And what should be done? And the saying goes: ‘ Students should sink and swim on their own’.

Writer’s email: ilyasjans@yahoo.com

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