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Friday, 1 April 2011

A way out of the silence

By Muhammad Ilyas Khan

This is with reference to the article ‘Breaking the culture of silence in class’, written by Mohammed Faiq and published on April 24. The writer is correct in his assertion that classrooms are excessively silent in our schools. The teacher is predominantly the only person in the class who absolutely controls everything going on in the class, while the students remain inactive, silent and indifferent. It is the teacher who steers the train, while the students play the role of silent, unconcerned, irrelevant travellers.

Teaching and learning thus become one-way traffic, flowing from the teacher’s side towards the students. This phenomenon leads to a role for the teacher, which requires unconditional submission from students, and places the teacher in the position of dictator. Traditionally, in our society a lot of respect is associated with the person of a teacher and it is regarded as highly disrespectful if a student does not agree or shows dissent with what the teacher says or does. Anything coming from a teacher, no matter how much against reason or truth is to be obeyed.

This gives the teacher the impression that he or she is right all the time, which leads most teachers to think that they know everything, and that they are the repository and fountainhead of all knowledge and learning. It also makes them think that students are empty pails with no brains of their own who must be filled with knowledge and information.

Thus education moves far away from the mutually cooperative endeavour or exploration of knowledge that it is supposed to be. The result is that the teacher thinks it appropriate that the class remain silent so that he or she gets the students’ maximum attention.

However, the assumption that the behaviour of the teacher is the only factor or even the most important factor causing such a situation to materialize might well seem like an oversimplification. Some pertinent questions that can be asked in this context would be: Why does a teacher behave like a dictator? Why has he or she been given such an authoritative position in our education system? Or, why are students forced to remain passive listeners?

A slight investigation of the situation would lead us to observe that a number of factors other than the teacher’s behaviour cause students to become passive recipients of learning. There is no doubt that, as Mr Faiq says, “silence kills creativity and hinders the interest of the learners” and “therefore, teaching should be based on interactions, discussions, dialogues and cooperative work”. But all these fine things are taught to nearly all teachers in their training programmes and when the study for their B.Ed. or M.Ed. degree.

However, as soon as the teacher joins a school after getting training, he or she starts using the traditional mode of teaching, throwing away most of the knowledge gained during the training.

Then there is the problem of class size. As we all know, in most government schools classes are overcrowded. Average class size can be anything between 70 and 90 students and some classes have over a hundred students. In such a situation, how can a teacher be expected to “productively engage” his or students? Individual attention obviously cannot be given to students in such large classes and discipline also becomes a problem. The result is that if the teacher tries to pay individual attention or allows students to talk and engage in free discussion, he would find himself in a situation resembling pretty much a fish market.

The best possible course for a teacher in such a situation is to keep the class quiet by using coercive methods. This would seem necessary, at least in the mind of the teacher, in order to make the students listen and to bring about some order and discipline to the class.

So, something clearly needs to be done about reducing the number of students in a class because that will reduce chances of teachers becoming dictators. This means more space in schools and this requires more financial resources for the improvement of the physical infrastructure.

Activity-based teaching needs classrooms to be well equipped and laboratories and libraries provided with all other facilities. Unfortunately this is not the case with the majority of schools in Pakisstan for reasons such as lack of resources or financial mismanagement and corruption.

The other factor that contributes to many classrooms being silent is the poor quality of textbooks. Textbooks used by most students in Pakistan are not very challenging for either teachers or students. Teachers teach them in the traditional monotonous way and students remain silent and sit quietly listening to what the teacher is doing (usually reading right from the text). An improvement in the quality of textbooks would be quite helpful in raising the level of interest and participation in classrooms.

The examination and evaluation system, which is predominantly theoretical in nature and which measures only the rote learning skills of the students, also contributes to the phenomenon of silent classes. There is no room for evaluating what has been taught through activity-based assessment or via an application of the acquired knowledge and skills learnt by a student. The examination system places a premium on passive evaluation, hence the ‘silence’ in our classes.

The behaviour of the parents and the environment students have in their homes also add to the problem. Students in government schools mostly come from the financially and socially backward strata of society. In many cases the parents are uneducated or less educated and do not know the damaging consequences of suppressing their children, which they do readily. Such parents would even persuade teachers to physically punish their child if he/she does some mischief.

On the one hand this gives licence to the teacher to suppress the child by any means, and on the other deprives the student of any courage to show dissent or question the authority of the teacher, even when the teacher uses overly coercive methods. This means parents need to be educated in ways how to treat their children. This is possible only by launching campaigns in the print and electronic media to create awareness among the illiterate and less-educated parents about the rights and social and psychological needs of their children.

These are only some of the factors contributing to the harmful trend of silence in many Pakistani classrooms.

It has to be said that this problem is to found mostly in government schools and is almost non-existent in the elite private schools. That is the reason why children from the elite schools are the most active and cheerful, followed by those who study in second-tier private schools (found in smaller towns or cities, or in middle-income neighbourhoods) and then the students in government schools who are the most silent, scared and lack confidence and initiative.

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

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