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Early education

PAKISTAN has some 100 million people who are illiterate; of these about 24m are children. There are at least 28m children in public and private schools today. What these children are learning is another matter; poor education stems from low public-sector spending, shaky infrastructure, dearth of qualified teachers, and above all, a lack of understanding of what education actually entails.

Educational and neurological research indicates that the first five years of life, the foundation years, are crucial to the process of learning, and must be treated with care and creativity to channel the potential of young individuals embarking upon the intricate and exciting paths of knowledge. The authoritarian system of instruction that is followed in Pakistan by teachers as well as parents is reflected in below-par educational attainment levels in the country, and often leads to a disengagement of students and the process of learning.

In the public sector, the quality of education largely depends on the qualifications and commitment of individual teachers. While absenteeism is rife, especially in the rural areas, there are other impediments to teaching, such as poor quality education materials including biased historical and ideological interpretation of information, factual errors and grammatical and spelling mistakes in textbooks. Rote learning is mandated and corporal punishment frequently meted out, the last triggering a large percentage of dropouts. In addition, there is the confusion of English- and Urdu-medium instruction while multilingual learning is relegated to the back seat despite its advantages.

A child-centred approach values children’s insights.

In most of the private sector the medium of instruction is English, which usually defines social class and economic privilege. Here too, learning is teacher-centred, with the teacher deciding what the children will learn, and the latter having only a passive role. The system leans on rote learning, obedience, compliance and conventionality rather than analysis and creativity. Parent-teacher meetings are of little practical value, as the parents are neither quite literate nor cognisant of Early Childhood Education requirements, and usually acquiesce to the prevalent teaching and assessment methodologies offered to them.

In a child-centred education system, the theory and practice of teaching are of crucial importance. Constructive learning processes and painstaking research-based teaching methodologies are developed to encourage unique ways of learning and thinking. The objective is to increase the child’s capacity to learn rather than just taking him through the educational curriculum.

The emphasis of pedagogy is on individual learning which allows each learner to develop a unique perspective of interpreting information that is given out. It acknowledges the complexity of each learner with his different personal, ethnic, cultural, family and social identities, and seeks to utilise this diverse knowledge in a framework of cognitive and experiential learning.

In England, the pedagogical practice of scaffolding is followed with teachers helping students only when they need it, in a step by step manner. In Germany, the Montessori approach is popular, which inculcates independent problem-solving through play-based learning. Education is based on a mix of innovative child-centred and staff-initiated practices, and balance between literacy, social and emotional behaviour, physical development and life skills.

For example, with early numeracy, a pedagogical practice might be to encourage counting the different objects in the classroom or food ingredients in a recipe to facilitate attention and memory.

The use of educational aids such as jigsaw puzzles for conceptualising space, shapes and design, tape recorders for phonetics and pronunciation, and music and dance are highly effective in enhancing child development and learning. Innov­ative approaches are being continuously introduced with startling results.

A Japanese preschool experimented with garden settings and found them most congenial for embedding concepts of time, space and mathematics. Last year, Finland stopped the use of cursive handwriting, replacing it with print writing to facilitate learning keyboard skills as part of a global move towards digital communication. However controversial these moves may be, they are still creative ways of imparting education.

Children want to be respected and counted. They want their views to be heard rationally, want to be involved in decision-making processes, and informed of their rights. A child-centred approach recognises that children’s insights are as important as the teacher’s in creating different perspectives of knowledge.

However, this approach has to be supported by legislation, rigorous benchmarks for teachers’ qualifications and competencies, training in innovating teaching methods, high staff-child ratios, and systems of monitoring the content of materials, quality of teaching and assessment procedures. Extensive reforms are needed in Pakistan to replace the dismal level of preschool and primary education and to create multilingual, innovative, inclusive, gender- and disability-sensitive learning environments for all children.

The writer is a former federal secretary.

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