Discussion of innovation in higher education in Pakistan has become stale and myopic. It is focused on just a handful of areas, with little emphasis on out-of-the-box thinking. Unfortunately, it has also been limited only to research and development with not even lip service being paid to teaching. Yet, the very definition of education in any form requires an act of transmission of knowledge, usually through an active teaching and learning process. The value of education and educational endeavours in Pakistan has never been particularly high. The discussion on good practices in teaching has unfortunately remained focused on primary, secondary and occasionally post-secondary education. The political rhetoric on improving Pakistan’s capacity in science and technology has lacked a fundamental discussion on improving the quality of teaching at our higher education institutions. This, of course, has a feedback effect. We do not emphasise innovation in teaching in our higher education and as a result, few professors take the time out to learn innovative strategies in conveying their message and creating a sense of wonder, inquiry and pursuit of knowledge among our students.
Recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time with faculty from a reputable Pakistani engineering university. The discussion, first over coffee and then over dinner, turned to curriculum innovation and then teaching. Both the faculty members, despite being involved in teaching at this institution for over half a decade, had no input in setting the curriculum or had even thought about bringing innovative tools to their classrooms. Their target, set by their department head, was to give a certain number of quizzes on certain days, a fixed number of exams and in the end they had to finish all the chapters in the assigned book. There was little or no innovation in teaching, curriculum or pedagogy and little was done in terms of teaching quality assessment. Perhaps, as junior or mid-career faculty, they were still in the learning phase of teaching. Yet, what was problematic was that there was no incentive to be innovative in the delivery of the material in the classroom. Any discussion of innovation in teaching, as I found out, was met with scepticism from senior faculty and department administrators. Out-of-the-box styles were aggressively discouraged. While I can understand the necessity of conforming to certain guidelines, I am baffled and disappointed by active pressures to conform to teaching practices that are neither conducive to learning, nor are they creating innovative scholars.
Unfortunately, the experience of these two colleagues is neither unique nor limited to engineering institutions alone. In the higher education sector, we do not engage in innovative tools of pedagogy. For us, teaching a class is synonymous to finishing the curriculum, irrespective of how many students fully understand and appreciate the teaching and the material. Ongoing evaluations and assessments are rare and students, even in their written comments, are reluctant to criticise poor teaching. I am not advocating unnecessary or unfair criticism of teaching. I am simply arguing that we need to emphasise mechanisms that maximise student learning.
In the absence of a clear policy on teaching innovation, I recommend a four-pronged strategy for improving the quality of teaching at our higher education institutions. The first one being to simply celebrate good teaching through awards and recognition at the department, university, regional and national level. We need to give incentives to teachers to improve their quality and create a sense of wonder, inquiry and pursuit of knowledge in our students. Secondly, we need to give small grants to departments to create tutorials and mechanisms for teachers to learn new approaches, to incorporate best practices and implement innovative strategies in the classroom.
Third, the HEC and other national bodies need to create courses, seminars and national symposia on higher education teaching and teacher training workshops. While there is some activity at the primary and secondary level, little is being done at the higher education level. Finally, universities and departments need to take a serious look at their course evaluation forms and need to tailor them to get maximum amount of data that can give insights into student learning and teaching performance. This, along with other means, should give the departments a sense of the quality of teaching and necessary steps to improve them.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 4th, 2012.