‘Improve textbooks and abolish exams in primary education’

Speakers call for a change in policies and condemn emphasis of memorisation over understanding.

Photo Ayesha Mir/Taha Anis February 21, 2014
A child skims through a book at one of the book stalls at the Children’s Literature Festival. PHOTO: AYESHA MIR/EXPRESS


The literature festival moved its focus from teachers to children on Friday but the speakers insisted on driving home the same issues they raised a day earlier - prevent rote-learning as soon as possible.

Activist Baela Raza Jamil came on stage only to introduce the panel - Oxford University Press Pakistan director Ameena Saiyid, educationists Prof Anjum Paul, Nargis Sultana and Zubeida Mustafa and textbook  committee board member Bernadette Dean, who was moderating in the absence of Aziz Kabani. They were gathered there to discuss the issues with curriculum and textbooks and to propose any solutions. The first one to speak was Saiyid and she was quick to criticise the ‘rote-culture’ being promoted in schools. Students are encouraged to memorise textbooks rather than learn from them, she said.

Dean then started speaking - clearly more comfortable as a speaker than as a moderator. She lamented the fact that teachers and even principals don’t read the curriculum and rather use the textbooks unquestioningly. She also criticised the examination system for promoting rote-learning. “The examination system is the tail that wags the dog. Everyone competes with the neighbour’s kid and wants their child to get more marks than him. All they care about is the final bottom line.”

Nepali Shanta Dixit reads aloud a book titled ‘A Chair for my Mother’ during her session ‘Book Based Activities’ as captivated school children listen (Below). PHOTOS: AYESHA MIR/EXPRESS

Mustafa then continued with the theme of criticising rote-learning and the exam-driven education system. “Exams should be abolished till a certain level,” she suggested. “Nowadays the exam is not only of the students but also of their mothers - we often hear phrases such as ‘aj kal baray masroof hain, bachon ke imtihaan horahay hain’.” She also suggested teachers recommend additional textbooks to students so that they are able to get more than one viewpoint.

It was Sultana’s turn to speak now and she wasted no time in underscoring the shambolic state of education in Sindh, claiming that recent surveys have revealed ‘depressing’ results and that education has regressed over the years. Echoing the previous speakers, she also criticised rote-learning. “The goal should be to create sustainable knowledge via creative, critical thinking rather than seeing who can get the highest marks.”

When final speaker Paul turned on his mic, the large stack of sheets in front of him made it clear that he had a long speech planned. “The flow of education from curriculum to textbook to teacher to student is essential,” he felt. However, unlike the previous speakers, he blamed those making the textbooks rather than the system itself, citing example upon example where textbooks are ambiguous and even contradictory.

“The contradiction in what they are taught at an earlier age and to what they are taught in higher education causes confusion among students.” He felt that textbooks are going against the curriculum and even the constitution by promoting hate between different sects and religion, even implying that the country’s history is being distorted in the name of education.

The solutions

As Paul shuffled through page after page of his thorough research, showing no signs of relenting, Dean was forced to cut him off and ask the panel to suggest solutions to the idea. Since Paul’s mic was already on and he clearly wanted another go at it, he was given the chance to speak first. “There should be consensus when curriculum and textbooks are made,” he said, being uncharacteristically precise.

Saiyid suggested the use of multiple textbooks to teach one subject, Sultana wanted the promotion of critical thinking and Zubeida felt that the answer lies with the teachers.

All speakers spoke out against rote-learning so many times that it felt like that was precisely what they themselves were doing. The problems had been highlighted and their solutions suggested. However, when answering an audience member’s question, Dean hit the nail on the head: “We are not policy makers.” All an exercise in futility then.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 22nd, 2014.


Ali | 7 years ago | Reply

The entire education system in at least Sindh is producing mediocre students and future leaders. The parents are willing partners.

If our students and next generation is capable, most of our so called teachers would be out of jobs. And parents would not be able to use their authority.

Muhammad Jibran | 7 years ago | Reply

Assalaam O Alaikum

There should be no examination at least up to the 5th grade or class. children should be given the inside knowledge about things without giving them the fear of memorizing. Exam will only develop the habit of "learning by heart" and they will take no interest in understanding.

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